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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Economics of the Heather - Peat Making


Before railroad transportation brought coal (and its price) within the reach of the average Highlander he depended upon peat for his supply of fuel. Peat is obtained from bogs or mosses, in which for numberless generations have decayed those plants that live in cool climates and moist soils. Chalmers, in his "Caledonia," published in 18o7, says: "It will scarcely be credited that many bleak moors which now disfigure the face of the country, and produce only barren heath, were formerly clothed with woods that furnished useful timber and excellent pasturage; yet is the fact clearly proved by the positive evidence of record."

In his admirable work, "The Scenery of Scotland Viewed in Connection with Its Physical Geology," Sir Archibald Geikie says: "It is a common opinion that the peat mosses of Scotland are of a comparatively modern dateŚnot older indeed than the Roman invasion, because 'all the coins, axes, arms and other utensils found in them are Roman.' But these relics are better understood now than they formerly were; and though in some cases their Roman date may be beyond doubt, they are admitted to belong generally to the earlier time, known to the antiquary as the Bronze Period." Sir Archibald adds: "There can be little doubt that peat-bogs would begin to accumulate as soon as aquatic vegetation commenced to grow in the hollows from which the ice and snow of the Glacial Period had retired. The lower part of many of our mosses probably date back to that ancient time when the vegetation of the country was still Arctic in character, and consisted largely of dwarf willows and birches, though the higher portions may belong to much more recent periods, when the flora had become that of a temperate climate." The eminent geologist believes that "it may not be too much to hope that from Scottish peat mosses further relics may yet be obtained of the animals that preceded, or were contemporary with, the earliest human population of the countryŚthe mammoth, rhinoceros, reindeer, musk-ox, bear, Irish elk, the progenitors of our present races of cattle, and other denizens of forest and glade." Sir Archibald corroborates the statement of Chalmers before quoted. He says: "That some mosses in Scotland have sprung up after the destruction of forests which once grew there, is shown by the trunks and branches of trees which are found among the lower parts of the peat. It was indeed the destruction of forests that gave rise to such mosses." Several agencies are explained as causes which have contributed to the formation of peat mosses, among them that "man armed with axe and hatchet may come and fell oak and beech and pine, taking, it may be, little or none of the wood away, but leaving it there to rot, and to gather around and cover it, a mantle of peat-forming plants.

"So long as the conditions of growth remain favorable for the marshy vegetation, peat continues to be found, and the bogs become gradually thicker. But where these conditions change in such measure as to kill off the peat producing mosses, the peat ceases to accumulate. Its surface as it dries becomes a fit soil for other plants, notably for heather, which extends completely over it and sends its roots far down into the black spongy substance. The matted roots of the heath form an tipper fibrous layer of peat. In the end, firs and other trees may take root upon the tract."

It is a custom among gardeners in localities where Heather abounds to skin off the heath with a sharp spade to get the fibrous soil in which the plants were growing. For this the Heather on upland or dry land is always chosen, never from mucky or mossy ground. In thickness the soil runs from one to three inches. It is not rich, but it is a solid network of fiber and as fresh and sweet as soil can possibly be. or as the elements can season it. It never gets waterlogged or sour. Orchids grow well in such a soil. and some rhododendrons, particularly the arboreum and Himalayan, simply revel in it. For the latter it is better to add some brown sod loam or rotted couch grass, some rotted leaf mould and old cow manure that has been thrown up rough and thin and frozen solid all winter.

The preparation of peat for fuel begins in the early part of June. The bogs are generally parcelled out by the proprietors to the tenants nearest the peat mosses, and are for the most part free of rent, the only expense then being the labor of cutting, drying and carriage. Six cartloads of peat are understood to last as long as a ton of coal.

The method of digging is as follows: With a peculiarly shaped spade a man cuts the peats and throws them to the edge of the bog, where a woman receives them and places them on a wheelbarrow, another woman wheeling away the load and spreading out the peat carefully on some elevation to be sun dried and hardened.

Peat digging is hard work; but like the time of harvesting cereal and other crops in Scotland, it is much enjoyed by the workers. Good nature prevails on every hand, and often the mysteries of rustic courtship here first exchanged "ends in hochmagandy some ither day."

Scotch farmers and gardeners cut what are termed Heather divots for covering potato and turnip pits in winter. These divots are clean and warm, and at the same time less air-tight than grass sods, and with drain tiles enough stuck like chimneys into the pits for ventilation there is no danger of the crops sweating and rotting. As cold weather sets in earth is piled over the sods. In laying these they are put on like slates or shingles, Heather side down, and thus are water-tight without being air-tight. The most dangerous time with stored roots, or fruits, is the first month or six weeks; those who store lots of potatoes, carrots, beets, or apples, know this; and for this period Heather sods make a most excellent storage pit, giving good ventilation and protection from rain and frost.

Good Heather sods are used in some places to cover byre and stable roofs, and not infrequently workmen's cottages.

Peats were largely used in olden times as fuel in distilleries in Scotland. The famous Ferntosh whiskey owed its celebrity to the peaty flavor which characterized it. This flavor was secured from the smoke of the peat with which the malt, of which the whiskey was made, was dried. This smoky flavor was considered one of the marks of the liquor being genuine.

Martin, speaking of Skye, says: "The natives are very much disposed to observe the influence of the moon on human bodies, and for that cause they never dig their peats but in the decrease; for they observe that if they are cut in the increase they continue still moist and never burn clear, nor are they without smoak, but the contrary is daily observed of peats cut in the decrease."

A fiery peat was sent round by the Borderers to alarm in times of danger, as the fiery cross was by the Highlanders.


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