The definition of peat is “organic soil that has more than 60 percent organic matter and exceeds 50cm in depth.” Here in the Outer Hebrides the depth of the peat can reach up to twenty feet. Peat originally formed here following the last ice age and consisted of the remains of dense woodland found here around 7000 years ago. The peat here today was actually formed between 4000 and 2800 years ago.
Digging peat has always been a community event with men, women and children – young and old coming together to help out. The process used to involve carrying loaded baskets between the moors and the houses, but tractors and other more modern methods have made the job easier.
Peat is still used as a source of fuel in the Hebrides and each individual peat has to be cut by hand. To gain access to the peat beds, the top layer of turf must first be removed. Once this has been taken off, the peat bed is visible.
Using a peat iron or “tairsgear” (the Gaelic name for the tool) slices of peat are dug in rows out of the bed. This tool allows the peat to be cut, lifted and thrown in one movement making the process faster than just using a spade. Once the peat has been dug out, it is spread to dry often in small stacks of a few peats to allow the air to circulate round the slices.
After a few days, the peats are turned to let the other sides dry as well and a few weeks later, they are virtually dry. Next the peats are divided up and each house is given a winter allocation. Once the peats have been transported home work begins building a peat stack. This is constructed in a way that is strong, wind resistant and keeps the largest possible amount of peats dry. The largest peats are arranged on the outside of the stack and the inside is filled with the smaller and more fragile peats.
Although many people still use the traditional methods, a new way of gathering peat is beginning to be used. This method uses a machine that is towed behind a tractor and extracts peat from under the ground without disturbing the surface. This method cuts out the difficult and time consuming process of digging by hand.
When it was originally built, Tigh na Boireach was heated by two open peat fires. Unfortunately due to insurance restrictions, we are unable to recreate this feature.