On the Islands May is considered the month for peat cutting. Although it is often possible to cut earlier if those peats cut in April do not dry enough to be set vertical and instead receive a lot of rain while lying flat then they will be the poorer for it. So when fine weather arrived in mid-April I put the tarasgeir to soak and head out to my banks above Traigh Ghearadha.
The east facing cut already looked dry and as I started the de-turfing I could feel the spade slice into a sod far less saturated than normal. This is the worst and heaviest part of cutting ask any local, and although it reveals the fresh peat beneath it adds nothing to the actual peat stack for burning. I have made many mistakes over a dozen years of cutting and number one is not to have attempted a too wider strip only to discover that space to throw the cut peat onto becomes a real problem. I usually stick to between six or seven wide as most of the bank is three cuts deep with a short forth level section. Traditionally the harvest of peat is a collective activity; family, neighbours, children young and old alike would lend a hand to the work that would provide fuel for the hearth about which their lives revolved. Only one during my years of cutting was that team work there although often there have been friends visiting who are more than happy to help out or simply sample the experience. It is in any event a two person job with one cutting while the other throws. This usually meant that the men cut while the women did the more strenuous job of throwing. You may say typical for the men to get the easy part but in my experience women are simple better at this job having a lower centre of gravity. An Amazonian of a woman was much admired in times past but today the lack of physical exercise does little for the figure of men or women.
Having removed a section of sod that is placed down in the gap left by the previous year I set myself a maximum limit of cutting no more than 300 peats at any one time which in turn meant counting as I cut and also keep a running total. From previous years this should run out at around 2000 peats to complete the cut. Within the first week I was a good third of the way down and with a strong drying easterly was able to set up the first batch, which in turn created more throwing space. By the end of the second week I was on the homeward stretch. I normally get visitors in May and June and can count on their help but this year it looked like I would achieve a solo cut and be done and dusted well before their arrival.
Last year I was the only one cutting from New Tolsta and it looks like being the same this year. From the track beyond “The Bridge to Nowhere” people walk their dogs and occasionally they will look seaward to see me labouring 100 yards below, but never do they venture closer. On occasions I have heard it said “Oh that must be wonderful to get free fuel. There is nothing free about it simply a back breaking slog that only old fools like me still persist in doing. I have often thought that a notice up in the Stornoway hostel promoting a peat cutting experience in exchange for board and lodging might be interesting but I fear there would be very few if any takers.