The Peat Spade

The right tool for the job

Having experimented with cutting peat last month, I’ve managed to dry some peats out to such an extent that they are now burnable. Perhaps they are still a little damper than they should be and produced a little steam when they went on the fire, but the smell of the smoke was so pleasant that I decided that this peat cutting business is a job that I need to look into in more detail.

It seems to have been so long since people cut peat in southern Scotland that the few simple tools of the trade have become as rare as hens’ teeth. Over the past twenty years, the few specialised items required to cut peat have vanished, and while I saw peat spades for sale in the crofter’s co-op when I used to work in Stornoway, the idea that such equipment should be on sale south of the central belt now seems bizarre and archaic. Thank God, then, for eBay. Within a week, I had my hands on a peat spade from the Isle of Man – not a worm-riddled antique destined for the lintel of a “rustic” pub, but a functional tool used to cut blocks of peat.

I took it up the hill the same evening I got it, and took great relish in slicing off some long rectangular slivers of peat from my refurbished hagg. It is clearly the way to work, and while it felt worryingly flimsy, I think I’ll soon pick up the technique so that I’m using it properly and not stressing the weak points.

My work for the Heather Trust frequently puts me in at the deep end when it comes to the popular issues surrounding peatland and carbon sequestration – I know lots of people who would probably cry if they heard that I was cutting peat to burn, but I counter their worries with the idea that humans have been burning peat for thousands and thousands of years, and until very recently, some Irish power stations were being run exclusively on the stuff. For me, it’s partly an interesting and old fashioned piece of Galloway culture and, more importantly, it’s a great (and totally free) way of turning my spare time into a lovely warm house.

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