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The Peat Cutters
Posted on: 25th May, 2018
Last Saturday was World Whisky Day, so three of our distillers made for the moors to mark the occasion by “cutting peats” in the way islanders have done here for generations.
Whisky lovers of the world will know just how important the humble fàd is to the making of a good dram. But for those of you who may be in the dark about the dark stuff, here’s a little primer on the power of peat...
Just below a surface of sphagnum moss and heather, the barren moors of the islands hold a hidden secret. In these wet and waterlogged lands, dead plants decompose very slowly, often over thousands of years.
The result is a dense, damp organic material which is thick and heavy enough to be sliced into slabs by a special hand-tool know in Scottish Gaelic as a Tairsgear.
With a long handle and iron blade, this simple device is used to cut block after block of wet peat from deep banks of moorland, levering them into the awaiting hands of the cutter's assistant with a deft backward pull.
Working to a steady rhythm, the cutter cuts while their partner catches and throws the fàds onto the top of the bank where it is left to dry in the better weather and warmer winds of the coming summer.
It’s labourious, back-breaking work but with good company, plenty of tea and some hearty sandwiches the day can fly by. And hard workers will be rewarded with plenty of free fuel for their home fires come winter.
But for the distiller, peat serves another, more spiritual purpose as they burn it to dry the malted barley used to make their whisky. The wonderful smell from the smoke is imparted to the grain, which in turn passes to the spirit and eventually brings that legendary aroma of peat fire to the final dram.
We made a great day of it ourselves at 'Cleite Mhòr', an area of South Harris where peat has been cut for generations. Kenny, Domhnall and Norman Ian worked tirelessly, making good headway while the weather held. Their energetic children also helped make light of the difficult work!
The fruits of their labours will be used for a very special expression of The Hearach single malt whisky and we’ll be following the progress of this exciting project in more stories later this year.
Meantime, it was a bottle of Highland Park from our fellow distillers in Orkney which toasted the end of the first step in this new journey, as we fondly remembered the many Hearaich peat-cutters who had once toiled in the same way long before us.