Looking down on the north Lewis moors from 36,000 feet all is cartographically still but for the white line of the waves breaking along the mile and a half of sandy beach at Tolsta. It is, after all, the Sabbath. But under the peat the godless, bituminous oils are moving. Having retreated before the winter’s chill they have joined that secret, underground blossoming- invisible beneath the unchanging sphagnum, the season-less lichens- that heralds spring. Previously beasts over-wintered in the byre end of blackhouses would be stirring, eager for the summer pasturing on the moor; women and children anticipating the happier, more relaxed, man-free days at the shieling. Men too are keen to be out of the house. The recent dry mid-April weather has drawn them from their firesides. Easter has passed and in two weeks the Mayday weekend will herald the traditional start of the peat cutting.
When I send Mary a photo taken from the plane (their croft is at the top left) she tells me that John has been out on the moor turfing two peat banks in preparation. “Turfing” involves removing the top, living six inches of the peat bank at about shoulder height and replacing it on the moor to regrow at foot level. The exposed peat is then ready to be cut. Here are some pictures of John turfing a bank.
Using an ordinary garden spade he cuts the turfs down to the level of the dense peat, this not only preserves any living vegetation- still vital pasturage for his sheep to graze- but would produce smoky, less heat-giving fuel. John then “cleans” the top of the bank ready for cutting, the slabs of cut peat have to be dense and relatively angular so that they are robust enough to be thrown, dried, transported and stacked before being used. When he comes to cut the bank John will be standing on the newly cut turfs pressing the living roots firmly into the moor again.