Sometimes in the past the issue with transportation was not the distance from peat bank to home but the nature of the terrain between the two. It was not uncommon for the peats to be carried by creel on the backs of the women and children to a point where larger transport, whether it be horse and cart formerly, or latterly lorry, could complete the journey home. In Gaelic this is called ag aiseag– ‘ferrying’, suggestive of the watery condition of the bog/land. Some of the most iconic pictures of peat are Victorian photographs of multi-tasking women knitting whilst carrying a creel of peat on their backs. Such is the strength of this image that the very outline of Scotland has been likened to a woman with a creel on her back. This is a caricature image a friend of my great, great, great grandfather uses in a poem addressed to him from his homeland in 1854 where “Auld Granny Scotlan’, happit in her plaid,” is delighted to hear that he raises a toast to her every St.Andrew’s night from over the sea and thus recipricates:
“Neist frae her pocket, sure enough, she drew,/A braw tin flask o’ guid auld mountain dew…”
The actuality was that rather than a hip flask in a pocket a real creel bearer would be wearing a cota, a loose knitted skirt that was rolled up at the back to form a soft pad called a dronnag to help take the weight of the peats and to prevent the woven basketwork digging into or rubbing the base of her back. An iris, the woven hair or bent grass supporting breast band, that helped bear the load, could be ornately pleated or decorated and as such was a status symbol even though it bound the carrier to her heavy load. These woven ropes were vital to distributing the weight of the peats without damaging the bearer’s back, the harsh reality being that anyone with a musculoskeletal injury was a drag and a hinderance to the success of an intimate and interdependent family or community group. Donald MacDonald suggests that necessity of life on a Lewis croft called for all the family to be able to carry a load:
“Strong, sturdy, broad-backed women who could also help to push the boats up the beaches were appreciated.”
‘Lewis, A History of the Island’, Edinburgh, 1978 p75.
Yet for all the marvellously skilled stacking where the volume of peat outside the creel is equal to that inside it, back at the roadside or home at the croft it could often seem that such a small load of peat was a very little amount of fuel for the effort put into transporting it off the moor.