In his book Into The Peatlands, Robin A. Crawford explores the peatlands of the Outer Hebrides over the course of the year, explaining how they have come to be and examining how peat has been used from the Bronze Age onwards. In describing the seasonal processes of cutting, drying, stacking, storing and burning he reveals one of the key rhythms of island life, but his study goes well beyond this to include many other aspects, including the wildlife and folklore associated with these lonely, watery places.
Ahead of his event at Stanfords on Wednesday 12th September, we asked Robin to describe different kinds of journeying, maps and travel out onto the moors of the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides:
What is it like to leave the crofts and townships of the extreme north-west coast of Lewis and head into the moor, as islanders have done each spring for time out of mind? On an early May morning the usual mainland geographies are reversed as the eastern sun rises behind the mountains of the western Highlands far away over the flat calm of the Minch. The single-track, metalled roads with passing places are left behind as you swing open iron-barred gates or cross over cattle grids – a precursor of the bog, a pit lined with water under a half-solid surface – into the common grazing lands and penetrate deeper into the moor. To left and right brown lines of banks of freshly cut peat contour the land cartographically.
1. Moor road, Skigersta, Lewis
The vehicle tracks start to thin as more off-tracks lead to numerous peat banks and your route becomes less clearly defined; as it progresses deep into the moor, it becomes more difficult, as an outsider, to navigate. Not so for locals. The previous day, sitting round the lunch table at the Ness community centre, I ask if any of the women could show me on my OS map a good road to take out to the moor.
Oh, what laughter.
‘What would we be doing with a map?’ I am told. ‘We’ve been going to the peats since we were girls, seventy years ago and more. We couldn’t show you it on a map, no . . . but I could tell you whose bank is next to whose and the names of the people who cut each bank, and probably their father’s and grandfather’s names too.’
There follows a great discussion between the three women, first in English and then in Gaelic, with much animation and good-hearted agreement and disagreement.
2. Lines of landscape: prints at the foot of the peatbank
Strata of tiny decaying sphagnum mosses have, at the rate of a milimetre per year, been building this half land/half water since the last ice age. Mary and John are cutting peat to a depth of two metres, when this was living moss Ptolemy was mapping these Ebudae Insulae (Hebrides). How the landscape appears to a person working in it is very different to how it is perceived by a visitor travelling through it. To a peat-cutter, the horizon is only the top of the bank, the journey’s end reaching the beer bottles placed that morning at its head – important is achieving the quantity of peat slabs needing cut to heat your home for the year, rather than miles travelled.
For the uninitiated, not only does the very nature of moorland mean that topographically it is difficult to distinguish one part from another, but a lack of rocks and trees leaves few distinguishing landmarks. Which track is the main track and which leads to someone’s peat bank? There is a path marked on the Ordnance Survey map, but is that path the ‘path’ it means – or is it that path? It is then that you realise the utter imprecision of the language used to describe that symbol in the key: two straight, black parallel lines (sometimes dotted) which means ‘other road, drive or track, fenced and unfenced’.
If you know these routes because they have, for generation upon generation in this transhumance culture, been part of your family’s history, there’s no need for a map showing rathad nam banachagan – ‘the road of the cattle-herds/milkers’, the route to the shieling. Animals may not read maps, but a sheep will have innis and astar – a natural instinct to return to the area of moor where they spent their first summer. In the burns, the salmon run that have unguided navigated back from across the huge distances of the Atlantic; overhead, the returning African swallows.
On the bog it’s slightly more confusing, especially when the weather sets in, or at night.
3. Aithinne- peat torch
For seeing in the dark, people would use a bog wood peat torch – aithinne in Gaelic – which gave a good light and could be used for showing the way, or to fish for salmon and trout out on the moor at night. White pebbles of ancient Lewisian gneiss rock glinting with mica are dropped into lochans, reflecting the torch and moonlight and attracting fish. Traditional knowledge is passed down through the strata of years. So are stories in this oral, bardic society. Out on the moor night-time fishermen exchange tales of a still frightening figure. Halfway between reality and story lurks Mac an t-Sronaich. He is a mysterious bogey-man who was outlawed on the wild Lewis Moors. Little is known about him. Some say he was a serial killer called Alexander Stronach from near Garve on the mainland who took refuge on the moors of Lewis in the early nineteenth century. It is said that for years he preyed on people, sheep and cattle, murdering and killing, becoming a figure of fear. Yet no court records exist to confirm any stories. Real or imagined, the threat of Mac an t-Sronaich has haunted many a child and adult over the years. Countless tales about him have been passed down through the generations. There is hardly a cave or ruined shieling on the moors from Uig to Ness and Tolsta which is not said to have housed him. One such cave where he was supposed to have hidden can even today inspire fear – I just about jumped out of my skin when the bulging devil-eyes of a black-faced sheep suddenly appeared out of the darkness.
It is said that Mac an t-Sronaich was eventually captured and taken to Inverness for trial and after the passing of the death sentence was asked if he had any regrets, to which he replied: ‘I regret drowning a child and not murdering a minister.’
The human ability to make fire confuses other creatures. Late inthe evening, under the clear electric light, the night outside a simple black, I mark my travels across the moor on a map and empathise with a moth’s bewildered journeying across the window pane.
4. Rannoch brindled beauty moth (male)
But for humans a lack of sunlight aids confusion; when the fog sets in, especially common in these wet lands, anyone can get disorientated.
The classic staple of fairy and cautionary tales is a child lost in the wild. Mrs Campbell of Barra recounted this story in 1974 from her girlhood:
As a child she often used to go out to the moor for peats. With the peats being heavy and her being wee, she had to rest frequently on the way home. On one occasion fog came over while she rested and she lost her way. She was found by an old couple, who emptied the peat from her bag then abandoned her. After wandering around for many hours she eventually found her own way home.
Who were the old couple? Why did they empty her bag?
Would they not help a child home?
In 1867 four-year-old Alasdair MacDonald was not so lucky. Deciding to follow his mother with her creel on her back out to the peats, he lost his way and drowned in Loch Shiabhat.
5. Bog map: a family tree of peaty moor waters from watershed to brackish Atlantic at Mealbost Borve, Lewis
High politics shattered the familial bonds that bound the people of these lands. Abandoned by those who owed them a duty of care they were ‘cleared’, blinded by injustice, to unknown lands. On days where the fog is down and the ghostly sweeping beam of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse highlights the nothingness and its foghorn boom reverberates like a footstep on the quagmire moor, the peat smoke from the few remaining crofts hangs heavy, close. But on a clear day with a brisk wind you fancy that the peat smoke can reach all the way to America, twitching the genetic Scots noses of emigrant communities in Nova Scotia, South Carolina and into the West and beyond.
Into the Peatlands is published on 6th September. Pre-order here.
Join us at Stanfords on 12th September as Robin A.Crawford takes us on a journey to the Outer Hebrides and Into the Peatlands. Tickets £4 (redeemable against the cost of Into the Peatlands: A Journey through the Moorland Year by Robin A.Crawford.Includes a glass of wine / soft drink).