Cutting The Peats


The month of May is often a pleasant one here in the Outer Hebrides, the days grow longer and, for once, sunshine abounds. So, with a little good weather after a long winter, many of us take the opportunity to undertake the old island tradition of ‘cutting the peats.’
 
For those who don’t know, peat is the dark, heavy, organic matter which makes up much of the island's moorland. Lying just beneath the heather and moss, this dense substrate is born from partially decayed vegetation and can run to twenty feet in depth in some places (although rarely in Harris!)
 
The whisky lovers out there will be no strangers to the stuff but for us Hearachs, peat is first and foremost a natural fuel, and we harvest it every year to burn in our fires come the colder months. With the days dry and a little warmth in the air, May is a good time to break out the tairsgear (peat iron) and begin the process.



Once upon a time, whole villages would turn out to attend to the task, but times change and less people do it these days. It’s extremely hard work and helping hands are always good to have. With a few friends and family gathered, the first job is usually to remove the top layer of vegetations (In Gaelic: am barr fhad), peeling it away so that a strip of soft peat is exposed.
 
Next comes the cutting, using the peat iron which has a long wooden handle with an angled blade on one end. The sharp edge of the peat iron swiftly slices through the soft peat in a downward movement and, with a backward pull of the main handle, a rectangular block of peat is released and caught by awaiting hands.
 
This block is then thrown to one side to dry in the sun and the cutting is repeated. Eventually, enough peat is gathered, and it will take a good few weeks for the wet blocks to dry out. Once dried, a tractor trailer will be filled with the peats to transport them home, usually in late summer.



The dried peat is stored in a large peat stack or cruach and often great skill and pride is taken to build a beautiful construction with these organic ‘bricks’. Such stacks sometime use a pretty herringbone pattern and will be designed to keep the peats dry and stable through rain and storms.
 
Come the winter, all this hard work will be rewarded with warmth. The peat will burn throughout the coldest season and fill the air with a wonderful aroma as the smoke billows from village chimneys across the island. It’s an evocative smell and something we will seek to capture in our forthcoming first dram, ‘The Hearach’.

Join us next week as we reveal more about the connection between this age-old island tradition and our first single malt whisky…

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