Published: 12 August 2014
Shetland in summer (2) - peats
In the past the people in almost every house in the rural areas of Shetland - and many in Lerwick and the bigger villages too - kept warm, cooked and got hot water by burning peat which was cut from the hillsides during the spring and summer. Nowadays fewer people 'work' peat so the hill is quieter but I have taken some photos this year.
A lot of what was going on in a household could be gauged by neigbours from the smoke coming from the chimney. A smoking chimney in the early morning meant someone was up and about. Later in the day it might indicate that the fire had been stoked up for cooking.
Getting a year's supply of peat takes a long time. First the peat bank has to be 'cleaned' - made ready for casting. This is best done when the ground is damp so it is often done in April. The top layer of heather and roots has to be taken off to expose the peat. A 'tushker' is used to cut the peats and if more than one person is working, they can cast at two levels and speak at the same time, making it a less tedious job - in my family this was always done by men. The next step is to 'raise' the peats to expose the damp side to the wind and sun - usually the women and children did this, the more the merrrier. Sometimes the peats have to be turned and put into bigger lumps; this is especially necessary if the weather has been very wet. Once all the peats are dry they need to be taken home - everyone helped with this. Sometimes they are bagged - plastic animal feed bags are ideal and much easier than the hessian bags we used in my childhood - and sometimes they are thrown straight into a trailer. Once home they are usually stored indoors but in the past they were often built into a 'stack' where the big peats are used to cover and keep dry the smaller peats. Generally the aim is to get peats home no later than the end of July.
I designed Peat Hill waistcoat for Jamieson & Smith which used undyed yarn which reminds me of the colours of the peat hill.
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Shetland is the most northerly group of Scottish islands. Apart from mainland Scotland, the other near neighbours are Norway to the east and the Faroe Islands to the north west.