In the Outer Hebrides, a MacPhee Tutorial in Cutting the Peat

DSC_0841You either love the smell of a peat fire or you don’t. For many in Scotland (and Ireland as well), the sweet, rich, earthy scent of a peat fire means home. And thanks to Donald MacPhee of Benbecula, I learned that peat is more than just a heating source—it often represents a powerful connection to the land and family heritage.

Donald is a crofter on the Isle of Benbecula in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles. Benbecula lies between the islands of North Uist and South Uist, connected by road causeways. The name Benbecula comes from the Scottish Gaelic Beinn nam Faoghla meaning “Mountain of the Fords.” A crofter is a person who occupies and works a small landholding known as a croft, which is usually no bigger than 20 acres. The system of land ownership is unique to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Nunton House Hostel

Nunton House Hostel

With his wife Catherine and their family, Donald runs the Ceann na Pairc Guest House as well as the Nunton House Hostel, which is set within part of the former 18th century home of the Clan Chief of the MacDonald’s of Clan Ranald. Nunton House is of significant historical interest—it’s one of the oldest buildings on Benbecula and in 1746 sheltered Prince Charles Edward Stewart after his failed coup to regain Scotland’s throne.  After the defeat of his Jacobite Army at Culloden, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” as he was known, got dressed as Betty Burke, Flora MacDonald’s maid, before escaping over the sea to Skye.

Donald’s heritage includes being one in a long line of the Clan Ranald who has cut peat from moorland that have been in his family for at least 11 generations. He agreed to give me and my friend Gilbert Summers a tutorial on this long-standing tradition. We met Donald on a stretch of the moor about seven miles from Ceann na Pairc Guest House, at Petersport on the east side of Benbecula.

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We followed Donald across the soggy field for about thirty feet, reaching a muddy rivulet below a small embankment about three feet high. Catherine had lent me a pair of “wellies,” rubber water-proof boots designed by the Duke of Wellington in the early 19th century. They certainly were a far better match for the spongy surface of the peat bog than my sneakers.

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Under a top layer of grassy mosses, the face of the embankment was a rich brown color–this was the peat, an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter that is unique to natural areas called peatlands or mires. After being dried, peat can be used as fuel.

Donald pointed to a mound of the cut peat that lay off to the side that was about seven feet wide and five feet high and said it was enough to provide heat for a home for a year.

As Donald climbed up to the higher ground, he explained that the lower area we had just walked across, about the size of a football field, had been cut out over the course of a century by his forebearers, providing heat for many generations of his family.

Donald then enlisted Gilbert to demonstrate the process of cutting the peat. The first phase is removing with a sharp spade the top layer of earth in which the grass and vegetation is embedded, a part of the process known as “turfing” the bog. The sod is tossed down to the lower level that had been previously cut away to eventually–over thousands of years–form new bog. Once the bog is turfed it is then cleaned.

DSC_0755webThe next stage is a two-person operation, with one person standing on the highest level and inserting the “tairsgeir” (peat-knife) into the peat to slice off a slab at the bottom of the bed, which is where the “hot” peat is that yields the most heat when burned. The person slicing “flicks” each slab to the other person below who grabs it and throws it off to one side. The person doing the tossing follows a systematic pattern, with the first piece of peat thrown about seven feet away and then subsequent pieces thrown inward. This creates stacks which are later gathered.

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Donald then said, “Okay, Meg, your turn!”

DSC_0814webNot known for my sense of balance or motor coordination skills, I had a moment of panic, thinking I was sure to take a big digger and fall flat on my arse in the muddy peat if I tried to climb up the embankment. Not wanting Donald to think I was a wimp, I gamely chirped “Sure!” and began squishing my way toward the trench. I pleasantly surprised myself by managing to not only take the higher ground but do a passable job of slicing and flicking the peat, after having watched Donald and Gilbert. Nonetheless, it was hard work and it wasn’t long before I was tired.

Soon enough, the row that had been demarcated for removal was done.  Donald said “Now I just need to tidy up” and meticulously scraped the top of the peat bed to even it out.

I expressed curiosity about why he bothered to do that.

“The older generation had pride in the appearance of the bog, and a badly cut bog would be mocked,” Donald said.

He explained that while today interest in using peat as a heating source is being resurrected due to fuel prices, back in the day, everyone cut their peat. Each person in the far flung community knew which fields belonged to whom and attention was paid to how people cared for what was theirs.

DSC_0770webDonald said he probably first cut peat when he was about 12 years old, doing it with his father. He said his dad loved being out on the bog and often dug peat for those who couldnt harvest their own, such as the elderly. Donald said his father once worked the bog for 43 days in a row. Now, 83, he stopped the work when he was about 60–it is strenuous.

I asked Donald if he ever sold his peat.

“No, that would be wrong,” he said emphatically, looking at me with a baffled expression on his face that told me he thought the idea was incomprehensible. I didn’t ask him to explain, feeling that I thought perhaps I actually understood. While the land in the Outer Hebrides is poor for farming, people nonetheless value it both as a resource and for what it represents–autonomy, independence, and a hard-won legacy, as well as the basis for a tight-knit community.

Donald explained that the particular patch of bog we were in was his father’s great-uncle’s land and, pointing out across the heather, said that his family owned about 12 acres.

“Let me show you my great uncle’s croft” he said and began walking toward the horizon.

Gilbert and I tramped after him and at the far side of the big field, we reached the banks of the loch. Donald pointed a short distance up the shoreline to the stone remnants of a dwelling, a sight common in the Highlands and islands.

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Donald said that while his family’s roots here reach far back, with the crofting system, no one actually “owns” the land. He explained that he and his fellow crofters are but stewards of it in perpetuity, with the only requirement being that it is somehow actively used. As the late afternoon sunlight sparkled on the water and birds whose songs I didn’t recognize called to one another, it was easy to see why they felt such a bond to the ancient landscape.

DSC_0840webDonald said that his grandfather came into possession of the property in Nunton after World War I, in one of many “land raids.” Veterans had been promised land in exchange for their valiant service and when the government was slow to make good, Donald’s grandfather and others took to the fields and staked their territory as their own. Donald said the factor, South Uist Estate, and the law got involved. The matter was resolved when Nunton Farm was split into eight separate crofts. Three of the crofts received part of the original Clan Ranald family home, Nunton House.

Donald inherited part of the house, the original MacPhee family home, in 2010 from his auntie. When the opportunity arose in 2011 he was able to purchase another section of the house. After extensive renovations, in 2012 part of the house opened as Nunton House Hostel.

I asked how long his family had been in the area and Donald shared a sing-song rhyme that his father had been taught as a child, comprised of the first names of the men in the family going back ten generations. Starting with Donald’s son the list now goes: Alasdair, son of Donald, son of Alex, son of Donald, son of Archie, son of Calum, son of Archie, son of Francis, son of Neil, son of Archie, son of Francis.

Gilbert observed that Donald’s recitation was evidence that the long oral tradition of story-telling in the Western Isles is alive and well in Benbecula.

DSC_0833webDonald said both he and Catherine grew up in Benbecula, adding that the MacPhee’s were originally from Colonsay and were the book-keepers to Clan Ranald.

“That’s why we have managed to hang on to our land,” he said with a laugh.

He said Catherine is a MacDonald; her family were originally from Torlum, another township on Benbecula.

“I also have MacDonalds on my side of the family, from South Lochboisdale on the neighbouring island of South Uist,” Donald said. “They were known as famous storytellers.”

Coming from a long line of storytellers myself, I have an appreciation for the gift. It was a privilege to hear Donald bring his family history alive out in the primeval peat bogs and I hope to have done it justice.

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5 thoughts on “In the Outer Hebrides, a MacPhee Tutorial in Cutting the Peat”

  1. Wonderful account, Meg. I love it when you start out with a sense impression like the smell of the burning peat. I’ve always wondered about how peat is harvested, and you’ve answered my questions.

  2. As the other person actually there when the lesson was give, I’d just like to say that I thought Meg was (potentially) an excellent peat cutter – much better than me, a native but Lowland Scot. I think it must be something in Meg’s Irish genes. It did make me think about ‘folk memories’ or simply the way that Meg did seem to instinctively know how to do it properly. Anyway, I was impressed!

  3. You have an inspiring curiosity, Meg. Thanks for explaining this (to me) foreign and ancient craft of harvesting peat.

  4. I found this fascinating! My paternal grandmother was a MacPhee from Prince Edward Island. Her forebears were also from Outer Hebrides. How I would love to visit one day.

  5. My mother in law Theresa McKenna Milne went to Benbecula in 1959 and stayed with the MacPhees who were her relatives and the wee Mary MacPhee as they calked her came to stay at the ranch in Wyoming In Benbecular I believe she was a housekeeper for some priests that has been a long while ago

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