Peat, sometimes known as turf, is an accumulation of decayed vegetation and is unique to natural areas known as peatlands, bogs, mires, mosses, moors or muskegs. It is acidic and forms in wetland conditions where water logging slows the rate of decomposition by obstructing the flow of oxygen from the atmosphere. Only specific plants can grow in these conditions and although many species of decayed plants can be found in peat, sphagnum moss is by far the most common. The development of peat is a very slow process taking a year to form one millimetre. Most modern peat bogs are thousands of years old and peat banks are often in excess of five feet deep and sometimes as much as twenty feet in parts of the Western Isles. There is evidence that peat was being used to make fire around 1,000BC. Bodies buried in peat bogs are well preserved by the tanning properties of the acidic water.
Us southerners are most familiar with peat either through using it in garden compost or when selecting a whisky of which there are scores of different brands, some tasting strongly of peat. On Islay there are nine distilleries, and another nearby on Jura. Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin in the south of Islay all have heavily peated flavours. It is not the water used that purveys this taste but the length of time the grains of barley are exposed to peat smoke during the 30 hour drying process. Laphroaig is exposed for 18.
In parts of Ireland and Scotland, particularly on the Islands, peat is still used very much for its traditional purpose as fuel for cooking and heating. In Ireland peat is used to partially run three power stations. Rights to cut peats from an allocated peat bank on the moor are traditionally attached to crofts and some older houses. Access is part of a crofters’ tenancy agreement, and generations have exercised this right. Although the fuel is free harvesting it is intensively physical, back breaking work and it is customary for families to help eachother out. Cutting peats begins in late spring. The top covering of plant growth is peeled back to reveal the thick layer of peat. A special type of long handled spade or peat iron is used to cut rectangular slabs, known as fads, about a foot long, six inches wide and three inches thick. Local blacksmiths often made these spades, known also as tairsgeirs, which have been handed down through generations. It is usually a two person job with one cutting and the other throwing the heavy wet peats up on top of the ground to one side. There it is left to dry for a few weeks. To dry further the peats are often stood on end and built into piles resembling houses of cards, known as rudhan, allowing air to circulate. When thoroughly dried the peats are transported back home and stacked close to the house in a large pile, often in the shape of an upturned boat.