Children growing up on a small farm used to be expected to help in a variety of ways. Every autumn I rejoice that I don't have to 'hint' tatties and I'm even happier that I will never again help with the threshing or carry water to the kye. There are, however, some aspects of farm life that I do get nostalgic for and chief among these is the peat-cutting day.
Luckily for us children, cutting a year's supply of peats was regarded as men's work so for once the family couldn't be drafted in as free labour. Our peat bank was one of the biggest in the hill, about six feet high and almost one hundred yards long and needed at least four, and preferably six, men to cut it. The regulars all through my childhood were Freddie Muir from Cuminess, Jackie Thomson and John Mainland. We all had neighbouring banks high on the hills between Stenness and Orphir, with marvellous views over the Flow and Hoy Sound.
Peat-cutting day started very early, with the peat stove being lit before six-thirty, to make breakfast for any of the men who wanted to sit down to boiled duck eggs, scones and bannocks before setting out to get to the hill for about eight o'clock. It was important to get the day off to a good, prompt start so when the family on a farm in the parish of Stromness all slept in, they used petrol to speed up the fire-lighting. Fortunately, no-one was hurt but the men arrived for their breakfast to find the stove in pieces and the mantelpiece blown off the wall.
After breakfast, the men climbed into the cart, alongside the tuskers, forks, home-brew, lemonade, primus stove and the all-important wooden crate, usually used to send eggs to the packing station. The crate had been carefully packed the night before, to see the men through a day in the hill. It contained rolls, bread, pancakes, bannocks, oven scones, plain biscuits, cheese, cold beef, jam, milk, tea, at least three boxes of home-baking, a dumpling and a packet of sweet biscuits, just in case. This always came back unopened. You have to remember I am talking of the days before freezers, so this all had to be baked in the three or four days before the cutting.
My father had flayed the bank a day or two earlier, cutting off the heather in a strip about eighteen inches wide and the men got straight to work in pairs; one using the tusker to cut about six peats parallel to the bank and his partner "taking out" with a fork - catching the peats as they fell from the tusker and stacking them upright. Our bank was high enough to cut four layers of peats - the top two layers were stacked on the top of the bank and the other two, the black bottom peat that would dry to give the hottest fire, were laid below the bank.
Lunch was taken very early, as there was a lot of eating to fit in. When I was old enough, the peat-cutting was fixed for a day in my block release from exams, so that I could take charge of the catering, leaving the men free to keep cutting. We dined in style, as a small wooden hen-house had been taken up to the hill, tied down well and furnished with a table and benches. Before my time, a small heap of peats would be left covered in the hill, to make a fire to boil the kettle for the following year but we had a primus stove, which I approached very gingerly, having heard the story of my Uncle Bill losing his eyebrows at a peat-cutting, when he burst the primus by over-vigorous pumping.
Primus stoves had to be treated with caution. At one peat cutting, Freddie Muir told the story of my grand-uncle Albert's chapter of accidents. Albert needed a new primus but rather than buy one for his peat-cutting, he decided to just borrow one from a neighbour. When he tried to light the stove in the hill, he somehow managed to set fire to it and watched as the solder melted and it fell into pieces. He then built a fire beside the peat bank and stuck a fork into the bank to hang the kettle from. He misjudged this as well and set light to the handle of the fork. The crowning touch of an expensive day was when Freddie jumped into the cart to go home, not realising that the sack he landed on was on top of the kettle, and flattened it.
Luckily, another of Albert's peat-cuttings only resulted in damage to the hill. My uncle Walter and Jewitt Knight worked as servant-men for Albert and were cutting peats during the war. They hit a rock and, after a fair bit of poking and banging, they unearthed a shell, which they casually tossed aside as a dud. When they got home, they happened to mention this to some of the soldiers who manned the searchlight site next to the farm. They passed the word on and a bomb disposal team turned up, insisting that Walter and Jewitt show them the shell. The experts took a good look and then built a shelter of sandbags, which Walter and Jewitt thought was a lot of fuss about nothing. When the shell was detonated and they saw the size of the resultant hole in the hillside, they went rather quiet.
After the men went back to work, I'd put the lids on the boxes and spread some peats. This was hard physical work, as wet peats are heavy and there was a lot of walking to and fro, as twelve peats had to be laid out in each row. It was satisfyingly visible work, as you looked back at the rows of shiny black peat paving the bank but I preferred a turn at cutting, which was fun when you only did it for a short time.
Tea-time, a repeat of lunchtime, came around about 3 o'clock and then there was another hour of cutting and spreading before climbing back into the cart, to head home for dinner. On peat-cutting day, my mother didn't have the chance to relax after several days of intensive baking; she had the dinner to cook. The men arrived home sometime after five to a three-course dinner of soup, two roast hens and trifle. Traditionally, the meal should have ended with a dumpling but Mum felt that was possibly overdoing it.
The men would have been content, and possibly a little relieved, to have eaten rather less; Jackie Thomson observed that it wasn't the work of cutting several peat banks within a few weeks that almost did for him, it was the eating. However, as far the wives were concerned, standards had to be maintained.
For us children, it was almost as good as Christmas. We'd listen eagerly for the sound of the tractor coming down the hill road and sometimes run up and meet it, to get a bouncy ride down again. When the cart arrived, the box was lifted down and we were given free rein with the contents. We dined contentedly on cake and lemonade.
When the price of oil rises again, Dad and I could offer peat-cutting classes to the college but prospective students should perhaps think twice. Sometime ago, it was announced that Kirkwall residents had a right to a peat bank. One couple told their neighbours they were going to take advantage of this, as the price of coal was far too high. However, they returned from only one evening in the hill saying that they would never cut peats again, even if coal should cost as much for a hundredweight as it presently cost for a ton.
Of course, the cutting was only the beginning of a month of work in the peats; spreading, raising and carting. Raising was a tedious business, leaning three peats together to give the underside a chance to dry but it wasn't as bad as carting. Walking interminably to-and-fro, heaving scratchy peat into the cart as the dust blows in your eyes makes a very long Saturday afternoon.
Most of the spreading and raising was done by the women, while their husbands got on with other spring work. While the men drove to the bank and were fed lavishly, their wives walked briskly up the hill, spread or raised all day, pausing to eat a sandwich, and then headed back down in time to make the tea.
The above article appeared in Living Orkney in April 2009
Peat cutting was never considered a woman's job but the oot-taking always was, with just the hands. Forks had never been considered. In those days I never seemed to get tired. I have taken out peats all day after walking to the hill, about three-quarters of an hour, then walked back, milked the kye and gone to a dance. The spreading, raising, rooing [stacking the dry peat, ready to be carted or wheeled] and mostly the wheeling was done by women and is mostly still done by women except the wheeling.
I never remember peats being carried in caisies [big baskets made of straw] but where the peat moss was not too far from the house it was sometimes done. A neighbour always used to wheel his peats home in his wheelbarrow. One time, the day after the Dounby Market, he was heard complaining that he would have to go and get his wheelbarrow mended as the wheel would not keep straight on the road. No doubt the following day the wheel would have been better behaved, as his own head would have been clearer
One memory I have is that when I was young (c 1910) we would be awakened in the early morning by the sound of horses going to the hill for peats about twenty or so in a line. Now it is mostly tractors that are seen in the hill but these, in my memory, do not make the same musical sound.