A hard day's work at the peat bank

The beginning of May is a good time of year to cut peat, so taking advantage of the good weather we had at the long bank holiday weekend, my family and I set out to the peat banks. I couldn’t very well not do it: All winter I had been bragging to Johnnie, the Orkney College janitor, that I would do it.

He looked as if he doubted my strength. However, he went on to explain how his father used to do it when he was little. “You need the right tools,” he explained. “A tuskar and a luggy.”

I was familiar with these tools only as museum pieces. Out at Corrigall Farm Museum my friend Neil had already shown me them both. And being interested in language, I had also come across the tuskar on a number of occasions being hailed as a good example of a surviving Norn word. It comes from Old Norse torfskeri, meaning literally a peat cutter. The luggy, on the other hand, does not have a Norn name. It is named for the projecting steps for the foot, which make it look like it has ears (lugs). The word “lug” for “ear”, though, is interesting too. In Norwegian, the word “lugg” means the forelock of your hair. Could these two have anything in common, I asked myself. So I went to the Dictionary of the Scottish Language, which was able to tell me that the Scottish word “lug” started out as a slang word for ear. It also reckons that the Scottish word was probably of Scandinavian origin, and that the link with hair is brought about by the original sense of “something that can be pulled or laid hold of, an appendage.” That made sense to me.

Satisfied with my linguistic discoveries so far, we set out to Flotta where my husband’s family has peat rights. There is still quite a lot of unexploited peat banks left in Flotta, unlike many other areas of Orkney were peat was starting to run out in the days when peat cutting was at its most intense. Alexander Fenton records that peat was becoming a scarce resource in South Ronaldsay and Burray by 1841. Luckily for the South Isles folk, though, many of them got peat rights in Flotta because all these lands belonged to the Earl of Zetland. Eday was making money by selling peat to other islands. Sandwick got peat from Harray. Unfortunate North Ronaldsay, on the other hand, was according to Fenton “in general worse off, for the bulk of the population could scarcely hope to pay for either peat or coal.”

On our expedition to re-create this particular part of Orkney’s social heritage, and gain some winter fuel at the same time, we were now nearly ready to start cutting, but we didn’t have a tuskar or luggy. We couldn’t very well take the tuskar from the Flotta heritage centre. So we ended up taking spades. One of them my father-in-law, who cuts peat now and then, had modified into a kind of tuskar by adding a bit at right angles to the blade. That is because the idea of the tuskar is that it not only cuts along one line like a spade when you stick it right down. At the same time it also cuts at right angles to that line, as if you were using two spades at the same time, and you end up with neat peat rectangles. This saves a lot of work. The luggy was, again according to Fenton, for clearing the upper bank and for cutting shallow peat.

But since we didn’t have either, we just had to do with the modified spade. “My grandfather would not have approved of this!” interjected Phyllis, our peat cutting expert for the day. “He would at least have sharpened the tools before he set out!” True enough, it was hard work to begin with. “You need to flay the bank first,” said my father-in-law. Consulting Fenton again I read that flaying was indeed “the first operation in preparing a peat bank, when the cutting began in April. This was done with a hack-spade, moor-spade, or flaighter, with a broad blade about 8 in. (20 cm) across and a stout, straight handle about 4 ft (1.2 m) long.”

My father-in-law decided to cheat. He whipped out a modern strimmer, to which he attached a metal blade. My 4-year-old son now piped up, showing clearly that he has spent too much time lately with his archaeologist father. Looking at the metal blade on the strimmer, he asked “Is this made of flint, daddy?” Flint or not, it was certainly effective for shaving the heather off, to make the bank easier to “flay” in the end. The flayed pieces my father-in-law advised us to lay at the bottom of the old peat bank where we were standing. He didn’t give a reason other than saying that this is what is done. But Fenton explained that covering the bottom of the bank allows it to regenerate.

Flaying done, we could finally start cutting. This was thankfully not has hard as it looked, although I would probably have been a lot more tired if I had had to keep at it for a whole day. Clumsy big squares started coming off the modified spade, and we threw them up on top of the un-cut bank to dry. This is women’s and children’s work, really, if you go by the old way. But I insisted that I was a man, wanting to do the cutting, and so did the 4-year-old.

“What if we find treasure! A gold torque!” my archaeologist man exclaimed. This made me think of a Chrissie Costie story (“The Paet Bank”) where the characters find a “Norseman’s bank”: “The tusker hit on sometheen, Willie aesed aroond ‘id thinkan hid wis a muckle boulder, bit hid wasna that ither. ... Hid was a hide indeed, an’ hid hid been carefully sewn taegither, bit when Willie tried tae lift hid hid breuk, an’ oot spilled a shooer o’ gold coins, an’ horn tumblers a’ beautifully banded wae silver, and silver bangles an’ rings an’ buckles, an’ wan lovely candlestick.” – Next time, perhaps?

In the old days, when folk were out in the peat hill, and went on all day, their meals consisted of “milk-gruel” for breakfast, “reestid mutton” for dinner and “perhaps a bowl of brose made of oatmeal and fat skimmed off the broth. Usually meat was kept for supper” – again according to Fenton. In Flotta, however, there was apparently a different tradition (within living memory) for eating hen and duff, both on the same plate and tasting very good together.

“This peat is far too foggy,” my father-in-law assessed. By “foggy” he meant that it was too rough, containing too many fibres. “Foggy” is apparently a general Scottish word for something mossy, or something covered with moss or lichen, according to the Dictionary of the Scottish Language. In addition to describing mossy, fibrous peat, it also appears in a number of other combinations, of which my favourites are: Foggie-bee, foggie-bummer, foggie-bummie or foggie-toddler: the wild or carder bee; foggie bread: thick, soft, crumbly oatcakes; and last but not least foggie diddler: a carpet slipper - from its soft, fluffy appearance. Peat should ideally not be too foggy, but black and soft – “almost like butter,” my husband said. “I mind I put me finger in it when I was peedie.” This made Phyllis remember how she used to write in the peat bank as a child. Hopefully my children will also remember this beautiful day in the peat hill and perhaps think of the little house that they built out of dry peats that someone had left from last year.

We will be back in a couple of weeks to “raise” them: Set them up like little card houses with four peat rectangles in a square and one on top. (Johnnie showed me it using books.) And after that, when they are nice and dry on both sides, we will have to collect them and build a (very small) peat stack at home.

It is a luxury for us to be able to go and enjoy peat cutting just for fun, just for an outing. I have read a lot of Orkney and Shetland literature lately and developed a somewhat romantic view of the old days when toonships went to the peat hill together and all helped each other until each family had their winter fuel safely home, either by pony, kishie or boat. We may call it “heritage”. But for people before us – and actually not that long ago – it was of course pure necessity. As my grandmother-in-law reminded me when she said of peat cutting (and it was she who did the cutting): “Hid is gey tiresome wark!”

That brought me down to Earth.