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Away to the peats

by Jon Dunn -

Nobody needs telling that this has been the strangest of springs, one unlike any other in living memory. I’m sure I’m not alone in drawing some comfort from the natural world outside my window – seeing the first birds returning to Shetland from their winter quarters hundreds of miles to the south has been a timely reminder that life goes on, and endures.

The past weeks have seen the hills of Shetland smouldering with spring birdsong. The first sparks came from the skylarks – a joyous, thrilling cascade of song spilling one morning from the sky, the birds themselves lost high above me in the blue. In their wake came the anxious fluting of oystercatchers, the bubbling, towering song-flights of curlews, and the cheerful song of meadow pipits. The first marsh marigolds are painting damp places with bold strokes of golden flowers, and down at the shore I’ve heard the whistling squabble of young otters.

Nature in Shetland is spectacular at the best of times and, in the worst of times, it’s both a source of welcome joy and reassuringly dependable. Those first signs of spring have been mirrored by human activity here in the islands – as the ground dries around the crofts in the wake of a wet winter, old tractors have spluttered into life and fresh, warm soil has been turned and planted for a harvest at summer’s end.

My home sits on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the sea. To the west a narrow road threads a meandering path down the island, linking the handful of crofts here with the rest of Whalsay. The fields around us have their first flush of fresh, green grass, and are dotted with new-born lambs and their watchful mothers – the past weeks have been good for the lambing, with a spell of mostly settled, dry and warm weather.

Beyond the fields, and stretching for a long mile before the next scatter of houses, lies the hill. Home to many of those returning birds, and a great deal more life besides. Here and there the rolling flanks of heather and sphagnum are broken by the caesura of peat banks – short black lines, like Morse code written over the landscape. Those peat banks have a story to tell.

For centuries the people of Shetland have gone to the peats every spring. On some islands here the peat lies metres deep, blanketing the landscape in a saturated, dense black mass of former life, the compressed and condensed memory of countless years of boggy plants. For Shetland folk, it has been a vital source of fuel to warm their homes and cook their food. Life was unthinkable without it – the people of the Out Skerries used to come to Whalsay, an open sea crossing of several miles, to cast, or cut, their peats in years gone by.

Nowadays, our homes here are mostly heated with electricity or oil. Having a stack of dried peats is no longer a matter of life or death during the long months of winter, but the old habits endure – walk through Lerwick on a still winter evening and the faint tang of peat smoke will still touch you as you climb through the lanes.

Those peats are cast in the early spring, glossy wet slabs of promise carved from a bank that, in most cases, will have been used by a family for generations. The tools they’re cast with, tushkars, remain unchanged too – long handled spades with feathered blades, the use of which in skilled hands is an art-form in itself, a manual poetry with a cadence all its own.

The tools they’re cast with, tushkars, remain unchanged too – long handled spades with feathered blades, the use of which in skilled hands is an art-form in itself, a manual poetry with a cadence all its own.

Before the casting can take place, the growing heather is carefully removed and laid on top of the bare peat exposed the previous year, where it will continue to grow for years to come. The ground in front of the bank gradually slopes upwards, testament to the ongoing deposit of peat in the wake of the small tithe taken by the hand of man.

The cast peats are stacked in a neat wall, with small pockets of open air between each. Once they have dried enough, they’re raised, rearranged into neat structures like Neolithic dolmens, exposing larger areas of each peat to the seasoning effect of wind and sun. Eventually they will be dry enough to bag up and bring home.

Sometimes the peat banks reveal secrets that tell us a little of our past. Polished felsite stone knives, as marbled and patterned as wild bird eggs, lost by some long gone Neolithic ancestor; scraps of centuries-old cloth; the twisted, gnarled bolls of the small, tough trees that once covered the islands; and darker secrets besides…

On 12th May 1951, men casting peats at Gunnister uncovered the remains of a man long dead. Much of his clothing and possessions were incredibly preserved – his purse being the earliest known example of Fair Isle patterned knitting. The coins in that purse, and the style of his clothing, date his death to around 1700, but of the cause of his death we can be less certain – we know only that some fatal misfortune befell him one day in the depths of the north Shetland Mainland.

If the peat banks occasionally yield mysteries or surprises, they can be relied upon every year to deliver natural wonders. Arctic skua, whimbrel, golden plover and dunlins nest in their sheltered leas, and red-throated divers haunt the lochans scattered across the hill.

Look closely and one might be fortunate to find lesser twayblades, an unassuming orchid, a hidden treasure. Later in the summer, bog asphodel provides saffron starbursts, cross-leaved heath nodding lilac counterpoints, heath spotted orchids abound, and tormentil will stud patches of glaucous lichen like scattered citrines. Drifts of white, fluffy bog cotton will soften the landscape, and dark plum-toned crowberries will provide food for a host of hungry birds. The peat banks are surrounded by life and, at this point in the year, they hold welcome promise for us all.

About Jon Dunn

Jon Dunn is a natural history writer, photographer and experienced wildlife tour leader based in Shetland, but with strong links in mainland Europe and North America that see him travelling widely in search of memorable wildlife encounters.
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