Ask any ex-pat Hebridean to name something that reminds them of home, and the smell of peat is likely to be near the top of the list. It evokes the Outer Hebrides in the same way as the click-clack of a Hattersley loom weaving Harris Tweed. While modern alternatives reduce the use of this traditional fuel, and make its collection less vital, the characteristic stacks of peat which dot the landscape in the summer show that it remains an important part of the economic balance of crofting and the gatherings which take place to bring the peat in off the moors before winter arrives, show that it remains an important part of island life.  There remains a sense of security when your peat is safely dried and stacked ready for winter.

The peat that covers much of the islands today arrived between 3000 and 4000 years ago, and reaches thickness of 20ft.  While technically free to those who have the right to cut it, the labour involved in cutting and collecting the peat is not to be under-estimated.  Althought it may look somewhat random, the cutting of the peat is highly organised.  Only small elements of the moor are allocated for cutting, and each property has its own “allotted” peat bank, usually with a generations-old Gaelic name.  The best banks have the deepest profiles, as this produces the densest and blackest peat with the highest carbon content which means it burns hotter and longer. Collecting the peat may take a group several hours, so it is common for several families to work together to ease the workload.

The first stage, of peat-cutting is the most physical part, to husk away at the top layer of the sedge marsh, which in Gaelic is “am barr fhad”, so the soft peat is ready to be cut. The soft peat is cut into slices and laid across the moor using a tool is called a “tairsgear”.  This has a long wooden handle with an angled blade on the end, a foot or so in length that both cuts and turns the peat. The peat are then left to dry out for up to 2 weeks. Then lifted into small "houses" to dry the other side. Once dry, the peat  is taken back to to the croft to be used. This is ususally a job for all the family and neighbours and friends will help, with a guaranteed big feed at the end of the day!

They are stacked in a specific way, which reflects the area and the family but are typically curved on each end and tapered to a point about 2 metres high.  The design of finished “cruach”, as a peat-stack is known in Gaelic, Is both highly functional (to keep the peat dry) and a work of art!