When the north Highlands were fuelled by peat

The fourth of a five-part series in which Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, looks at how energy developments – and the people who earn a living from them – fit in with the unique landscapes being promoted through the North Coast 500 touring route

JULY 2016 was the hottest month recorded globally since records began, according to data published by NASA. Parts of the Middle East had daytime temperatures over 50C, which for those of us from the cool, damp north almost beggars belief. For folk travelling around the NC500 this summer it was certainly cool and damp, with the NASA temperature maps showing a cold blue blob over the North Atlantic, demonstrating that climate change driven by increases in CO2 affects differing parts of the globe in quite different ways. While some sweltered in the desert, and Louisiana flooded as the Mississippi broke its banks, households in the north were lighting open fires and stoves to keep the Highland summer damp and chill at bay. People burn wood, coal and sometimes blocks of peat. Visitors often remark on the distinctive aroma of peat fires that you can smell in crofting townships across the north and west, the heavy blue-grey smoke drifting in damp still evenings.

Peat pretty much fuelled the north Highlands for most of the past two thousand years, providing heat for cooking, metalworking and lime production and warming buildings from the meanest cottar’s hut to Dunrobin Castle itself. These days, while the use of peat as a fuel is marginal, the vast peat mosses, the thousands of square kilometres of blanket bog, “the Flow Country”, are now playing an important role in Scotland’s efforts to mitigate CO2-induced global warming.

Peat bogs and mires are one of the defining landscape features of Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross. Peat itself is the accumulation of partially decayed vegetation (heather, moss, grass) built up over thousands of years in the dampness of peat bogs and mires. Peat occurs in damp conditions, with water preventing the flow of oxygen from the atmosphere, slowing rates of decomposition. Blanket bog, the landscape companion of the NC500 traveller, occurs where the average rainfall is higher than the average evaporation, leaving a damp landscape where peat forms at the rate of 1mm a year, growing to form deep bogs of wet, dark, decayed vegetable matter. Peat has played a critical and now almost forgotten role in the human history of the north Highlands.

Just about halfway around the NC500, on the flank of a modest hill, is a peat bank where my family has been cutting fuel for over 50 years. We don’t cut much these days, just putting in a few hours here and there on nice spring days, so the bank now grows slowly. Its position, however, is classic north coast, with a gleaming sea loch to the north, fringed by crofting townships and overshadowed to the west by dramatic mountains. South are the broad deserted straths of central Sutherland, under skies that are almost otherworldly in their vastness. Beyond them are the miles and miles of Flow Country blanket bog.

It’s a good bank, on a slight slope, naturally draining and deep, two cuts deep. When you flay the top turf of heather and moss, and carefully set it down on the floor of last year’s scar (to start the process of peat formation all over again), the first cut of the tusker (or peat spade) gives you a light, slightly fibrous peat, good for catching a fire, and for bright yellow flames.

But it’s the second cut that’s the real prize. You lift a dark, dense, solid peat, exposing glacial clay and ancient bedrock that has not seen the light of day for three or four thousand years. When dried after a few months of Sutherland sun and wind, you get a dense fuel, of the deepest and darkest blue, that burns almost as hot and smokeless as the best Welsh steam coal.

In the nearly treeless north Highlands, peat was almost the only fuel available until quite recent times.

The effort required to cut it, dry it and transport it home was quite intensive, requiring weeks of work in the spring to cut and lay out for drying, days spent turning and stacking the peats, then the effort of carrying them home. If you look at crofting townships carefully you can often see a distinct but overgrown path leading from the houses up the hill to the historic peat bank. People, especially women and children, would make daily trips of several miles to collect a basket of peats for the household fires.

The availability of tractors and lorries in the interwar years did a lot to reduce this human effort, but it is important to remember that a lot of families cooked and baked on peat-fired stoves until the 1970s. In fact as late as 1964 my family moved into a brand new house, with a gleaming new peat-fired Rayburn providing all the cooking and hot water. In a curious gender role reversal my dad would stop by the bank on the way home from work and put a bag or two of peats in the back of the car for the next day’s cooking needs.

Of course there is one Highlands and Islands product that literally could not exist without peat: malt whisky, whose distinctive flavour is underpinned by the peat smoke used to dry the malted barley. Distilleries are common on the eastern flank of the NC500, from Inverness to Wick, with a strong cluster in Easter Ross. A proper tour from Glen Ord in Muir of Ord, through Dalmore, Teaninich, the grain plant at Invergordon, Glenmorangie, Balblair, Clynelish and Pulteney, to the north’s newest at Wolfburn just outside Thurso, would probably take as long as a complete trip round the whole NC500. Peat was used traditionally to heat the whisky stills, but its smoky flavour comes from its use in drying the sprouting barely, which is then fermented to start the whole process.

Very few distilleries produce their own malt these days, preferring to buy differing “strengths” of peated, malted barley from one of the specialist producers. By a strange coincidence one of the north’s larger malting plants lies just at the start of the NC500 route in Inverness. Visitors waiting at the Kessock Bridge lights often head north or west through a faint fug of peat fumes as the whisky industry’s key raw ingredient is prepared.

With such a huge potential resource, it is no surprise that there have been a number of attempts to industrialise the use of peat, both as a fuel and as a chemical feedstock. There was an experimental peat-fired power station at Altnabreac in Caithness in the ’50s (using a modified jet engine!) and historically peat has been extracted at large scale for use in biomass plants, and for creating activated charcoal for medical use. Countries such as Finland, Russia and Ireland have quite extensive peat extraction industries. This type of use is declining, however, with the realisation that peat, and peat bogs, are actually more valuable left in situ, as healthy peatlands have a very important role in fixing atmospheric carbon, i.e. being a “carbon sink”, supporting freshwater quality, and have a major role in being the home for specialised bog plants, birds and other wildlife.

The 1980s saw quite extensive tracts of the Flow Country developed for large-scale forestry – in retrospect probably not one of the cleverest land-use decisions of the 20th century. Deep peatlands are not the best place for commercial planting, producing indifferent timber and severely damaging the peatlands themselves. Paradoxically, peat bogs that are in a poor state through ill-considered drainage and erosion are in fact significant carbon (and methane) emitters, so a major programme of restoration work is under way at locations across the north. Once ditches are filled and roads blocked, allowing water levels to rise within the mire, it’s remarkable how quickly the bogs recover and grow, enabling the dramatic landscape of the NC500 to play a quiet yet important role in combating global warming.

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