Our life on Auskerry relies heavily on our supply of peat to keep our stove burning in order to provide us with hot water and a house warm enough to survive the long, dark nights of an Orcadian winter.
We cut the peat out of the ground with an ‘L’ shaped, long handled knife known as a ‘tuskar’, in the exact same manner as you would if you were cutting turf with a spade. The top turf is stripped off and left aside for use later.
Once cut, the individual peats are laid out flat on the ground to allow the topside to dry in the sun (that is if we get any!) and form a ‘skin’. Raw peat is very dense and heavy: dry peats are half the size but still relatively heavy.
Once the topside is dry, the peats are ‘raised’ by leaning them against each other to build ‘houses’. Depending on the weather, the peat can be left to dry for several weeks.
Owing to its old age, you can find all sorts of interesting things while cutting peat, including silver birch, twigs, stones and even beetles! In the words of the poet George Mackay Brown, it’s like cutting “leaves from the book of time”.
In August, when the peat is finally ready to take home, even more backache-inducing work ensues. We load the trailer attached to our 1950s Massey Fergusson tractor with as much as it can handle and pull it up the hill to the house. This is where it is built into a stack formation, very much like a wide dry-stone dyke. The peat continues to dry and shrink in this long rectangular shaped stack until it is ready to burn. Like coal, the deeper the peat is cut, the better quality, and consequentially, the hotter the fuel will be!
Peat is the perfect fuel: it burns silently with an intense heat; it does not spit as a wood fire does; and it is also completely clean to handle.