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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XX - Peat

A paper read at a meeting of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club in 1908.

Having been honoured by a request from the Secretary of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club to write a paper, I rather reluctantly agreed, doubting my capability of producing with ray pen anything sufficiently interesting to make it worth listening to; and now that I have written on “ Peat," I feel as one who is not an authority on the subject, but rather as one in search of knowledge. Still, I hope that I may be the feeble means of rousing someone else more capable than myself to take up and go fully into the subject on which I write. I have often wondered why so very much energy has been expended in writing and theorising on the fundamental gneiss and the Torridon red, whereas no one seems to take any notice of the thick black layer which usually covers both these ancient rocks in this part of the country.

The American tourists profess to be always interested in what they amusingly term the elegant ruins of the old country." Now, though my peat is undoubtedly a ruin, and a very old one, I fear I cannot exactly lay claim to its being very elegant (being certainly more useful than ornamental), but I do think it deserves to be classed among the most interesting natural phenomena of our land. Not only is the actual peat itself interesting, but still more interesting are the many objects found preserved in it. What excitement there is when in Egypt or at Pompeii there are found grains of wheat in a mummy, or well-preserved figs or walnuts are taken from under twenty feet of volcanic ash ! Why should I, in my humble way, not be quite as much elated when, from the bottom of one of my bogs, I take out handfuls of hazel-nuts as perfect as the day they dropped off the trees; or, still more wonderful, when I find the peat full of countless green beetle wings, still glittering in their pristine metallic lustre, which may have been buried in these black, airtight silos before Pompeii was thought of?

To mark the manner in which the climate of our earth has changed at different periods must always be an interesting subject to the student of Nature, ancient or modern. I cannot help thinking that, if the lower strata of some of our very deepest peat-bogs were carefully examined, with the help of the microscope, etc., the botanist and entomologist would derive information which would give us some approximate idea of their age, and prove that a somewhat different vegetation covered the earth when the peat began to form, and that our country was then the abode of plants and insects (if not of still higher forms of animal life) which are either very rare or quite extinct with us now.

One bird has become extinct even in my day—viz., the great auk; and what were indigenous plants are becoming extinct from various causes, chiefly, I fancy, climate. I know as a fact that, in my grandfather’s time, the woods of this country were full of Epipactis ensifolia, a lovely white orchidaceous plant, which is so rare now that I have only twice in my lifetime seen one here, though I have found them in abundance in the woods of the Pyrenees. Why has it died out ? Surely it is that the climate has changed, and that it liked the hot summers of the last century, when my grandfather regularly feasted at Gairloch on ripe strawberries and cherries on the King’s birthday, the 4th of June; whereas now, if he were alive, and still thought strawberries and cherries necessary for the proper keeping of the festival, he would require to shift the day to the 4th of July at least.

The green beetle wings in the peat appear to be those of the rose-beetle, which is now rather a rare insect with us, but which, judging by their debris in the peat, must have swarmed at one time, like the locusts in Egypt in the days of the plagues. Nowadays one comes across a few of them only in sunny places facing the south, but these remains have been found in dark, dank hollows, looking due north. Perhaps in the good old beetle days the climate was so hot that they chose the shade in preference.

Now as to when the peat began to form. It is evidently a post-glacial deposit, because, when out deer-stalking, I notice beds of it lying on the top of ice-polished slabs of gneiss. Geologists can give us no idea of the age of the rocks, though they can tell us that some rocks are young in comparison to others. I wonder whether they can make any guess at the date when the snow and glaciers began to recede uphill from high-water mark? To look at some of the ground in the Torridon and Gairloch deer-forests, one would say that the final disappearance of the glaciers from some of their high corries could not be such a very old story, as in some places neither peat nor even plants have as yet managed to cover the slabs of glaciated rock, which have still nothing on them but carried stones and boulders of every shape and size, just as they were dropped on the slabs when the ice departed. One cannot help wondering what the climate was like when the ice began to disappear; if it was like the climate of Switzerland in the present day—hot and dry in summer, and cold and dry in winter—it would not encourage a growth of peat. If, on the contrary, it was cool and wet, it would encourage a growth of the sphagnum mosses, which I look on as the main creators of peat.

If the peat commenced to grow immediately on the departure of the ice, it would be most likely that the low grounds were then covered with Arctic plants, such as Azalea procumbens, Betula nana, Saxifraga oppositifolia, which our present climate has banished to the highest tops. Now, how interesting it would be if, when microscopically examined, traces of the Azalea, for instance, with its hard, twisted roots and stems, were found at the bottom of the peat-bogs at the sea-level. Last year I found quantities of yellow seeds at the base of a nine-foot cutting in the solid peat. So I sent some of them, all washed and clean, to the late Professor Dickson of Edinburgh. He showed them to my friend Mr. Lindsay, the curator of the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, and said he had come to the conclusion that some hoax had been played upon me, and that the seeds were modern and not ancient. He was then just starting on a tour to Norway, and on his return, sad to say, Professor Dickson died, and I never heard any more of my seeds. But I determined not to give up my interest in .them, so the other day I began looking for the seeds again, and found them in quantities in the lowest part of the peat, where it rested on the subsoil. I had other bogs examined, and there they were also found among the compressed brown sphagnum below a great depth of solid black peat. So I sent them, this time unwashed, to my friend Mr. Lindsay, who in his reply said that at first he was in doubt as to whether they were whin or broom seeds, but on comparing them with modern seeds of both these shrubs, he had come to the conclusion that they were whin seeds. Notwithstanding my having perfect faith in Mr. Lindsay (as a botanist), I cannot take in the idea that these seeds are whin. Neither the whin nor the broom is a native'plant here. One hundred years ago the only broom plants in the district were a few sown round the garden of my far-back predecessors in this place—the Mackenzies of Lochend of that day— and the first whins that ever grew anywhere near here were produced from seed sown by a certain Rev. Mr. Macrae, a minister on the Poolewe glebe, and some sown also by a member of the Letterewe family at Udrigil. It is certain it was not an indigenous plant here in modern times,whatever it might have been in the beetle days, and there can be no doubt that the shrubs or plants which produced these seeds lived contemporaneously with the beetles.

We now find hazel, birch, alder, and willow in the most perfect state at the bottom of the bogs, with the silvery bark on the former kinds as perfect as when they were growing, but no one has found the gnarled, twisted stems of the whin or broom in any bog in this country. A most intelligent man, who has taken a very lively interest in these seeds, has put forward the theory that they may have been the seeds of the buck or bog bean which grew at one time on the bottom of shallow lochs which have since filled up; but Mr. Lindsay is not of this opinion.

There is, I think, an impression abroad that peat is a very modern growth and is quickly formed. I think this idea is quite erroneous. That it is very modern compared with our rocks is certain, but, still, I hold to the belief that our peat is a very old formation, though still growing slowly. Can anyone tell when was the Bronze Age up here? We found a perfect bronze spear-head in one of the peat-bogs, pretty near the surface, with a deer's antler lying close to it; and, to show what a preservative peat is, part of the wooden shaft of the spear was still to the fore when the spear-head was found. Now, in the days of the primitive man who owned this spear this peat-bog must have been very much what it is now, otherwise the spear would not have been so near the surface.

There was also a very valuable find of bronze antiquities in this neighbourhood a few years ago. On going to examine the place, I found that the peat was not three feet deep, showing that it had not grown much since the day when the owner had buried his treasures, as it would not be likely that he would have hidden them in a place having less than a couple of feet of peat at least. Close to my house there is a bog in a hollow, enclosed all round with a rim of rock, and on trying to drain it we found it impossible to do so without cutting the rock. We probed the peat and found it fourteen feet thick.

Usually the trees found under the peat have their roots fixed in the subsoil and their stumps are close to the bottom; but this is not always the case, for near the surface of this bog we found several immense stumps, and, on attempting to count the rings on one of the roots which we sawed off, we arrived at the conclusion that the tree was about four hundred years old when it ceased to live. Now, it is about four hundred years since my ancestors came from Kintail and took possession of Gairloch by a coup de main, and we know that at that time (and probably long before then) these shores had a resident population. It is therefore unlikely that these trees would have been allowed to remain standing so close to the seashore at the head of Loch Ewe for very long after the place became inhabited. Supposing these trees, then, to have been dead some five hundred years, and that they were four hundred years old when destroyed, that takes us nearly one thousand years back. Query, then how old is the lower layer of peat in the bog which lies fourteen feet below the stumps?

I have heard of a bog at Kenlochewe which was drained and improved, and in it were two distinct sets of fir roots, one above the other, with a considerable layer of peat between them. Nearly all the bog stumps in this country have marks of fire on them and charcoal about them. Now, it would seem that in this case two successive forests sprung up, grew to maturity, and were destroyed, and that between each crop of fir there had been a sufficient interregnum for the peat to form and to cover up and preserve each set of roots. It would be what the lawyers would call “ a nice question ” as to how many centuries the remains of the two forests and the layers of peat represent.

One must not, however, judge altogether of the age of peat by its depth. The best peat I have ever seen for burning purposes was only one foot in depth below the top sod, and had grown on blue clay, so that, as we cut the fuel, the lowest end of each peat had the clay attached to it, and turned into red bricks in the fire. These peats were nearly equal to coal, and were evidently like the Irishman's pig, very little and very old, which is much more of a merit in peat than in pigs.

I might go rambling on with my peat stories—about peat at the bottom of lochs, and submarine peat-bogs which I have seen at low spring-tides, which, I am ashamed to say, I have never thoroughly examined, and which must, at least, have the merit of being really very old; but instead of commencing anew I will stop.

Since writing the above I have been in the Lews, and I have seen there peat such as I never imagined could be found anywhere in Great Britain. On the mainland of Ross-shire it is uncommon to find peat six or eight feet deep, but between Skigersta and North Tolsta the peat for miles is from sixteen to twenty-six feet in depth.

Can any of my readers help me to fathom some of the many mysteries that lie at the bottom of our peat-bogs and lochs, which have always interested me so much? What puzzles me perhaps most of all are the stems of birch and hazel which I find six and eight feet below the surface, with the bark (especially of the former) as smooth and glistening as if the trees had been cut only the previous day; indeed, the bark of the bog birches is generally much whiter than that of the more or less stunted modern birches of this west coast, which is a purple-grey tint and quite different from the white stems of the birches along the shores of Loch Ness—in fact, they are as snowy white as the bark of those that grow to-day in Sweden and Russia!

I quite well know what most people will say—viz., that the peat is a great preservative, and that, as in the case of ensilage in a silo, decomposition has been arrested by the exclusion of atmospheric air. But I would first of all ask my readers how the birch-trees got into the bottom of these bogs. I suppose they would answer that peat grows, and that it grew round these birches and hazels, and thus preserved them, quite forgetting that peat will not grow except where it is wet, and that neither birch nor hazel will grow if the ground is at all wet. They also have, perhaps, very little idea of the delicacy of the thin, white, outer skin of the birch bark. Perhaps they imagine that if they cut down a birch or hazel tree, and laid it on the top of a peat-bog, it would gradually sink down of its own weight, or that the peat would grow up round it, and that thus the silvery bark would be preserved; but I dare say most people have also very little idea of the slowness of the growth of peat, and I may mention that this white outer skin of birch bark is just like silver paper, and would not remain attached to the stem more than a very few months, and the birch branch or stem laid on the top of the bog would turn into pulp and disappear long before the peat could grow over it to preserve it.

It might be argued that, supposing a birch-wood grew at the very foot of a mountain of, say, 2,000 to 3,000 feet high, and that the mountain was covered most of the way up with a deep bed of peat, and that, owing to an earthquake or some other inexplicable cause, the peat on the hillside began sliding down like a black avalanche and overwhelmed the birch-wood, then one would certainly quite understand the white bark on the-birches being preserved. But, unfortunately, this theory is impossible, as deep peat does not form on steep mountains in a sufficient quantity to cause a landslide; and besides, where I came across the white-stemmed birches in the bogs there are no hills high enough or near enough for peat or anything else to have slipped down and covered these thousands of acres of flat moor.

Then, as regards the remains of forests at the bottom of lochs, I happen to own a great many lochs and tarns, and when boating on them, on a calm day with a clear sky, the tree-stumps can be seen side by side, just as they grew before these lochs existed. Now, how were these lochs created to the ruin of thousands of acres of forest? It would be most interesting to examine some of the deeper lochs, with an electric light appliance, to see if there are remains of forests in them as well as in the shallower ones. I dare say some people will imagine that the roots have got washed into the lochs in great floods; well, this might have happened so far as logs or branches are concerned, but the stumps I refer to are all firmly rooted in the bottom, each one just where the original grain of Pinus sylvestris seed fell, germinated, and grew up.


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