Sunday, July 22, 2018


It’s been a record breaking year on so many front and many experienced peat cutters say they’ve never known a year so dry. Back at the beginning of May while others were sweating it out jogging along the track from the bridge to nowhere I was hard at work at my peat banks. De-turfing is perhaps the most detested job as there is nothing to show for the effort but once the top layer of peat is revealed I get a genuine sense of excitement for the work that is to follow. The first cut with the tairsgeir (peat iron)     and the season starts. Count up to 30 as I cut, then I stop and throw that batch. The process is repeated ten times and then I’m done for the day. Anymore and I risk getting into serious trouble with my back. Throwing is a real art and when done correctly with skill so that each peat fly throw the air several meters to land perfectly alongside its neighbour takes years of practice that I don’t have. Most of the time I have to double handle in order to get the first cut thrown well out and afford room for the next two or sometimes three layers. After two hours I’ve had enough and return to continue another less strenuous form of creative work in the calm of my studio.
After two weeks of lying flat the cut peat should be ready to lift and set up on edge. There many methods to achieve this but I prefer the herringbone form with a roof capping which allows the maximum expose surface to both sun and wind as the drying continues. This year I was lifting after just a few days and within six weeks most were ready to bring home. So it was time to call on Murry with his tractor already fitted with the double wheels and a large peat stack piled high outside the back of his house. All fit for Monday evening so get a team together. George, Donald, Norman, Mats and myself should be fine. Murry was already parked up at the banks and loading as we arrived and everyone stepped easily into the rhythm of work.
 There is something very special about working as a team that I think everyone can recognise and so the conversation and banter flow easily. With the first tailor full Murry heads back up across rough ground that’s a fine test of our skill in building a load. As we wait there is time to chat, reminisce and catch up on village news and as the chill of the evening breeze starts to bite the tractor returns and it all hands for the second load. This time it’s topped off with a few bags of caorans (smaller pieces of the best black but crumbling peat). Job done and back at the house the fruits of all that labour lie awaiting to be neatly stacked. I’ve changed the position this year having chopped up and removed a pile of old timber from the back I now have room for a slightly more sheltered placement.
 I plan to incorporate the bags of caorans into the centre of the stack so returned to the moor with my van and the wheelbarrow. Having wheeled up 20 bags there now remains only a further 16 but they will have to wait as my back has finally stopped me in my tracks and is demanding rest.

Monday, July 9, 2018


I have with age become a creature of habit at least for the start of each day. There is something very reassuring and comforting in a routine whereby I can break my fast without having to put my brain in gear at this early hour. Like millions of others I fill the kettle and turn it on without a moment’s thought as to where the power is coming from to make it boil. Then I step outside to greet the day which in recent weeks has been glorious and walking across the gravel I pluck a sprig of fresh mint to throw in the pot of green tea. Back inside I open the corner cupboard door and remove a late 18th century blue and white transfer printed bowl and from the hook below a heavy Irish potato print mug. Tea and muesli gets me through to mid-morning but today my mind went back to that blue painted corner cupboard door and the story behind it.
This door like most of the objects in my house has history. It came into my possession some thirty odd years ago when I purchased a small 18th century full standing pine corner cupboard painted in drab brown. From the start it seemed to me that the door was not original and on carefully scraping away several layers of paint from the body of the cupboard the original blue colour was revealed. However the door showed no trace of blue and proved to be a later addition. The cupboard was sold on with a handsome profit while the door was consigned to my wood store along with other scraps that I was sure would one day come in handy.
When in 1912 I moved to Brittany there was some serious sorting out but somehow the door still with its original glass survived the skip and moved with me. For several years it remained stacked away with lumps of heavy Breton chestnut and oak until the day I decided to construct a cold frame to bring on seedlings; the door would, face down make an ideal lid. Over the next few years it withstood the elements reasonably well but the paint became flaked under a baking sun and the damp had penetrated the animal glued joints and puttied glazing. I decided its days where over and so dismantled it and retrieved the glass. Once again it was placed back in the wood store but this time tied up with string in a flat pack condition and there it remained for ten years.
It has always surprised me that in our square cornered homes there are so few corners that will take a corner cupboard and the kitchen here in New Tolsta is no exception with three of the corners being taken up by doors and the forth has the hot and cold water pipes running down on the surface of the V lining boards. However there was enough room to build a cupboard and perhaps the old flat packed door would prove useful. I retrieved it from the wood store and even managed to find the six original panes of glass. That summer in Scotland I reassembled it and built it into the kitchen giving it that coat of blue paint it had always lacked. The most extra ordinary thing, after a chequered history of almost 200 years is that it still retained its original lock and key. Eat your heart out IKEA.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Moorland trudging from Tolsta to Muirneag.

During my moorland tramping west of New Tolsta the distant silhouette of Muirneag has for the most part been simply a directional guide looming on the horizon. One day I’ll head out there, one day. Well today was that day as the skies clouded over and a gentle breeze picked up which meant I would neither get over heated or troubled by horse flies or midges. The first part of the walk was over familiar ground as shortly after 8.30 I crossed the road and joined the track leading up to Loch Diridean. At the end my goal sat far off 248m above sea level and only four little squares away on the Ordnance Survey map that is 4 kilometre as the crow flies. There are those who would be thinking quad bike but for me that’s way too noisy and my back wouldn’t stand the shaking up, so trudging it is, one foot in front of the other. I took a direct line across the divide of upper and lower Loch na Cloich and noted a distinct drop in water levels since my last time here.
 Even more rocks protruding from the water and here I stopped for water and a slice of homemade ginger and walnut flap jack. Like the carrot dangling before the donkey I find promising myself something to eat when I reach certain points does help and the next would be on reaching the summit. The middle section of the walk across A’ Chleith Mhor is about 2 kilometres and as I tend to look down as Muirneag seems still depressingly far off.
 And there I almost trod on it is the large vivid green caterpillar of The Emperor moth way out in the middle of the moor. I would have expected it more likely to be on willow or birch but my book tells me it does live on heather and at low levels it shows less tendency to melanise so less black than green. Later it will spin a pear shaped brown silk cocoon in which the large violet-brown pupa will lay dormant for two or more winters before the moth finally emerges.
Now at the foot of Muirneag and with a last look up I start the slow climb resisting the temptation to lift my gaze further than a few yards in front. One foot in front of the other and slowly the world beyond the great moor opens up to the south as far as Skye. Slight moisture on the air but nothing that will bring rain as I plod onwards and upwards.
 And there it is the rounded summit with its trig point surrounded by a circle of rocks and I’ve made it. As I make the slow circuit from the hills of Harris up the west coast to the Butt, eastward to the mainland and south back down to Stornoway I feel the joy of elevation. Being alone and accompanied only by a stiff breeze I have the eye of the eagle. If I could simple unfold those wings and glide high over the conceal Celtic mythological Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-Young. A land very different than that before me now. One reason for climbing so high was to see the Isle of Lewis before any more wind turbines arrive, raw as nature intended. Up here even the heather grows in a miniaturised form but Muirneag has been violated like so many other remote places throughout the world by the quad bike and just below the trig point the fragile vegetative surface has been churned up to expose sun bleached rocks. There must be an easier route to the summit from the west since I saw no evidence of bike tracks as I climbed the east slope. 
At 65 years old I find it sad that those who are often younger and more physically able than myself choose the motor driven group ascent. I told nobody where I was heading and left no messages, no insurance, simply know my limits and trust in luck. The journey back would at least start with a downhill section but as I descended to 120 metres above sea level all points of reference had gone, now I must simply keep Muirneag at my back and trust the rising ground to bring the North Tolsta turbine into view. Keeping this 30 degrees to my right would lead me home. Insect life is plentiful out here and while the small heath butterfly makes its uncertain airborne progress so I trudge on. I would never normally attempt this walk with such light footwear but my trainers have remained dry as the moor is baked to a crisp with no rain for two months. Around the reduced lochs and lochans the undercut blanket peat shrinks and crumbles away in great slabs and the sphagnum mossy hollows once lush green have dried a crisp sun-bleached ochre.

 Long-leaved Sundews flower in profusion lending a crimson sparkle to the purple of bell heather against the soft opaque green of lichen. This is the land of tweed and as I crunch my way back to my studio I wonder just how long the round trip will have been. As usual I discover that all this has not taken as long as I thought, just four and a half hours and so my sights are now set on the Heritage trail up the coast to Ness.