Sourcing Peat in Auchindrain

One of the only sources of comfort for the tenants of Auchindrain during the long, wet winter months was their fire, stoked with peats and kept burning all day and night. Historically Auchindrain has had two peat banks or diggings used for peat cutting, one to the north and one to the south. Until recently we’ve not known the location of either, but luckily for us the south area has been memorialized in the Ordnance Survey Name Book compiled between 1868 and 1878. This book recorded the Gaelic names given to areas of the map, and used local knowledge to confirm their spelling. Auchindrain’s very own Malcolm Munro, from the ‘Stoner’ line of Munros in house D, was one of the locals who confirmed an area as Lon a’ Chlachain, or Meadow of the Village. This area was so called because it was where the tenants of Auchindrain cut their peats, but the area seems to have fallen out of favour shortly after being recorded. By the 1900s the diggings to the north were more favoured and were used by our last tenant Eddie MacCallum. This area is about a mile away from the Township and up a steep hill, along what Eddie remembered as ‘a long dreich road’, still known today as “the peat road”.

 

Auchindrain’s peat banks shown on a modern map. These were so well used that the 1871 Ordinance Survey Map (left) shows footpaths leading to both. Caption

 

Cutting and carting peats from the diggings to the north back to the Township was a big job, and started in Spring, taking advantage of the better weather. First, the turf would be removed with a rutting spade, before the peat was cut with a right-angled spade known in Gaelic as a toisgian and in Scots as a tusker. The right-angle shaped blade of this tool is the same across the whole of the Highlands and Islands but only within Argyll was the end of a cow’s horn attached to the very top of the handle.  This was to protect the top of the handle from damage, splitting or wear, and the user from getting skelfs (splinters). Within our collection we have our very own toisgian that was found on site when Auchindrain became a museum. Once cut into blocks, the peats would be laid out to dry, and turned with a hand rake to ensure both sides got the sun. They were then turned on their ends and formed in to ‘wee stooks’ of 6 or so to continue drying.

 

The Ordnance Survey Name Book for Argyll, created between 1868 and 1878.

 

 

Once dried, the peats needed to be taken from the cutting diggings down to the Township. This was done with a ‘peat slipe’, a kind of wooden sledge with wooden runners. Unfortunately, we don’t have one of these in our collection, but ‘Young Eddie” MacCallum, the son of the last tenant, has given us an idea of what they would have looked like. Handmade at Auchindrain, some also had ‘wee sides on top… like a wee pen’ to keep the peats in, and would have been attached to a single horse by chains connecting to the collar. Eddie MacCallum recalled that within one day he could collect 7 loads of peats; two before breakfast, three before dinner (lunch) and two more in the afternoon. He went on to say that each family needed around 85 loads for their yearly supply, so imagine slogging up and down a hill 7 times a day for 12 days! That’s a lot of labour, but an essential part of the Township’s activities.

 

Auchindrain’s toisgian, and a peat slipe, based on a drawing by ‘young’ Eddie MacCallum.

 

 

Each house had it’s own peat store - for the MacCallums the peats were stacked at the end of the byre and carried into the house as needed, with a basket. We believe that the tenants stopped using peat as their main source of fuel around 1900 to 1910, as Eddie remembers the practice stopping when he was at school. From then onwards the MacCallum family would head to Furnace Pier, picking up coal from the incoming puffers using a horse and cart. But peats were still dug to the north from time to time, as both “Young Eddie” and his friend and workmate Willie Weir remember the peat diggings well, probably with a mild sense of dread. Indeed, thinking back to the 1950s, Willie has talked of the time when he came down the steep hill to the township too fast, the horse slipped and fell, and he had to go and get help from Eddir MacCallum.