The Peat We Cut
I was 8 years old when we moved from built up England to rural Scotland; specifically, a crofting house in the far North, surrounded by bog. I can so easily recall the days spent at the peat bank near our home; the sense of adventure, the ache in the hip flexors from stepping over hillocks, the grubby hands. It seems to take up whole summers in my memory, and yet I know that isn’t true.
For many crofting communities in Scotland, a traditional part of the crofting agreement (which is a system of commercial land tenure) was the allotment of a peat bank, where the peatland was allocated for cutting. This was to provide families with the necessary fuel for cooking, smoking, and heating. In modern times, the cut peat is used to heat homes during the Winter; in many rural houses there is no gas or electric heating, and often no central heating either. Like us, though, many traditional crofts have moved away from peat and onto other sources of fuel, like wood or coal.
After the 1886 Crofters Act, which introduced fair rent, tenure stability, and free sale of improvements, crofts had the right to cut peat, gather seaweed, and access common grazing land (the latter was put into law later, in 1891) among other subsistence rights, some of which were unique to the communities. This still stands today, and even though we owned rather than rented the house and its land, we had access to the common peat bank to cut fuel for our open fire, which was a time- and labour- intensive process that my father gave up on a few Summers later. After our second chimney fire, dad called it quits and switched to a wood burning stove instead, probably viewing the cost of it and the wood fuel an easy trade in the face of so much physical labour.
I can’t say that I blame him: we spent the occasional long day under blue skies and clouds of midges, and it was hard work to place the heavy, wet slabs on the heather to dry under the sun, returning to flip them and then somehow cart them across the moor and down the road to our house. I remember the glistening look of those slabs, freshly cut, and each time I have a particularly rich and dark chocolate fudge cake I think of them.
This was before the days any one of us thought about the implications of taking peat, or the slow creep of the cut peat banks expanding across the landscape. I don’t even recall seeing that much wildlife, so preoccupied with my task as I was. Even later, when we had stopped cutting, we would go there to play. I would take the two dogs to fetch fist sized peat crumbs, delighting in how they bounded down into the cut banks and back again. Luckily, that particular peatland was not overly wet (although I know now how important that is, so perhaps that is not so lucky), so there were no pond systems for the dogs to disturb, nor do I ever remember seeing ground nesting birds fly off in a panic (thankfully).
My relationship with peat changed upon graduation from University, when I was invited to interview for a residential volunteer post at Forsinard Flows, which was just over an hour from my house. It was a good deal for me, freshly graduated with no idea of what to do next, and yet I would have no idea of just how much I would learn about the landscape that seems so pivotal in my Scotland-spent youth.
Peatlands are fascinating landscapes, and their role in tackling climate change is now being realised by people and governments alike. Being such carbon-rich landscapes, we must keep them in a good condition (which often means waterlogged) so that this carbon does not escape and contribute to our emissions, and the peat can continue to be created – thus taking in and storing the immense amounts of carbon we are emitting through the burning of fossil fuels and changing land-use. Currently, the 80% of the UK’s peatlands are degraded in some way. This is estimated to be released 4% of the UK’s annual emissions [source: CEH]
But does that mean we should forbid any traditional, domestic cutting of peat? I don’t think so. Whenever I look back on my start with peatlands, it’s not with guilt or shame that we impacted on these vulnerable but important landscapes. I think there should be a place for traditional relationships to continue without guilt at a small scale for a while yet – at least for as long as the government allow larger scale abuses of the landscapes to happen! Rather, I am glad I had that experience of working with the land, connecting to the roots of the community I had moved to and building up my engagement with nature and understanding for ways in which humans can live in balance with it. We did not take any more than we needed, and the deal always came with some expected stewardship of the land – especially as the crofting agreement in Scottish law goes both ways; a croft must be put towards ‘purposeful use’ such as growing or rearing food, or planting trees. We may not cut the peat anymore, but we still carry out our end of the bargain by managing the land with nature in mind.
Nowadays it has been years since anyone has cut those banks – evidenced by the fact that it is impossible to access from the road, with the shrub that has built up. Even if that could be traversed, I don’t think it would be easy to remember or even see how to get to the peat banks until you were upon them, one foot in the air and finding no ground where you expected. But the experience I had on them is, I think, one of the reasons I fight so much for nature and against climate change – and I hope other rural young people get to do the same.