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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Carrying Peat

Carrying Peat

THE supply of fuel in a northern country of variable climate, is an object of primary solicitude to the inhabitants. In the north and west parts of Scotland the only material in general use for the domestic hearth is turf or peat, called in the Highlands foid and mom. It is necessary to describe so well known a natural feature as a moss or bog, and the manner of its formation from the marshy deposit of vegetable substances, accumulating for ages. Such a tract is sometimes of wide extent, and although in many cases shallow, in others the depth is found astonishingly great. One at the foot of the Grampian Mountains in Aberdeenshire was sounded by an auger of forty feet without meeting other soil!

Mosses are often an unsightly blemish on the fair fields of a proprietor, and are frequently brought under tillage and rendered excellent soil by agricultural skill. This is accomplished sometimes by cutting up the surface, which is burned and the ashes scattered around; at other times, judicious irrigation speedily transforms the dusky heath into a verdant field; and, in the case of the great Blair Drummond Moss in Perth-shire, the turf being cut deeply out, it was, by an ingenious contrivance, carried, away by water and floated into the river Forth. Where the fuel is plentiful, a moss may be brought into cultivation without hardship to the people, and should it be wanted in future, the peat will be again found under the surface soil.

The destruction of the Caledonian forest, which covered the Highlands, and the progress of improvement has denuded the country of its ancient wood, and where coal is wanting, mosses afford a supply, as if by the order of Providence, of an article of the first necessity, for which no substitute is to be found.

In some parts where peat is valuable, the several farms have certain allotments, or ‘peat banks,’ specified in the tack or lease; but great liberality is generally shown in this matter, the poorer tenantry being by most landowners allowed to supply themselves with as much as they require during the year. Some proprietors have, indeed, restricted this practice, of immemorial observance, at which the people, very reasonably, grumble, as an interference with their ancient rights.

The peat—harvest, to assume an expression, takes place in the months of summer, and the cutting or ‘casting’ begins in May, the operation being performed with an implement called Torrisgian, by which the turf is cut into pieces of the form of a brick, but thinner and some inches longer. The surface being taken off, the torrisgian is applied, and the spade part being furnished with a sharp projection at right angles, cuts the mom into the shape described. This is done within a certain breadth, the workman passing alternately from side to side, and the operation is continued to a suitable depth, the pieces being detached with rapidity and thrown to the bank, where a person dextrously catches them; and when there are no wheelbarrows, and plenty of hands, the peats are passed from one to another, spread out to harden, and then set on end by threes and fours to dry. If the weather is propitious and the people diligent, they are then removed home and ‘stacked,’ or built up in an oblong form beside the house, like a small hut, and protected from wet by a covering of the upper part of the moss. They are often, however, left in this state on the muir, and portions carried home when required for use. The primitive stack was conical, and hence called Cruach mhoine, as descriptive of its form.

The poorer people have their ‘firing’ cut and taken home for them by their friendly neighbours, and there is often seen a spirit of cheerful co—operation, such as a Socialist might envy. A certain farmer wishes to have the whole quantity of fuel which he requires cut up at once, he therefore intimates his desire, when all the adjacent tenants turn out, both men and women, and the work is speedily accomplished—generally in one day. This affords a scene of great animation, for casks of whiskey and ale, bread, cheese, fish, and mutton are provided in cheering abundance, and now-a-days the female portion of the labourers are provided with their valued beverage, the heart—healing tea. This is a mutual service rendered to each other with great delight, and is particularly remarkable in the county of Sutherland.

Peat-fuel is burned on the hearth, and considerable skill is said to be necessary in its right management. It makes a cheerful fire, throwing out great heat with a smell which pervades the whole house, but is not disagreeable, and its effects are said to be less injurious than those of coal. The ashes are carefully preserved and are a useful manure, especially ‘when mixed with sea-weed or other substances.

The illustration represents two Cailleagan carrying home a portion of their winter comfort, from the Maol a Cruadh, in Lochâber, by a path where it is evident neither horse nor cart could be used. The principal figure was sketched from a Glenco girl, named Caorag rua’; both are in the usual costume of Highland peasants, and the basket, the Scottish creel, is called Cliabh. The open work is for the convenience of lifting it, and reeving the rope by which it is carried.

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