Thursday, 18 July 2013

Peat Cutting on Middlemoss, near Langholm.

John Armstrong
John Armstrong has worked as a herd on the hills near Langholm for 46 years. Part of his wage for this work is the use of a peat hag on Middlemoss which lies to the east of Langholm on the road to Newcastleton. In May 2012 John spoke to Mairi Telford Jammeh about his work as a herd and about peat cutting and gathering. Here a brief account is given drawing on John’s words which can be heard at our Study website.
There is variety, as well as understandable commonality, in the form of spades used to cut peat across Europe (see Gailey and Fenton, eds, The Spade, Belfast, 1970). The spade used by John Armstrong is similar in form to that identified by Fenton as an 'ordinary pattern' type found in South-West Scotland (see Gailey and Fenton, 1970, 188). John Armstrong identifies the spade shown as a 'tusker' This lacks a heal or footrest which indicates that the peat being cut is soft enough that it can be cut-through simply by thrusting the spade into the peat without the need for additional force from the legs. The most noticeable aspect of the spade is the lug the on the right-hand side of the blade. This enables the peats to be cut with a clean edge which helps keep the divots or peats whole without fraying at the edges.
The process is begun by removing the surface layer of the peat moss on which the sphagnum, grasses and other plants are growing. The removed turf is then retained to be placed on top of the land left bare by removal of the peats. This process minimises loss of pasture which is eaten by the sheep which are hefted to the land on Middlemoss.
Once the top layer has been removed, the peats are cut by thrusting the tusker to a depth of approximately 2.5 feet/75 centimetres. The peats are caught by a helper who casts the peats or divots onto the moss to begin the process of drying.
The two layers removed in the process of harvesting peat in this way are clearly evident. Here the surface layer with the living plant material is seen above the much deeper layer of peat which has been removed for fuel.
The cut peats are then set-out to dry. After a few days drying a skin forms which makes handling of the peats easier. 

The method employed by Mr Armstrong to dry the peats is to place one over the other so as to allow for movement of air around the peats to enhance drying.



Hag: a soft marshy hollow piece of ground in a moor, e.g. where channels have been made by water or where peats have been cut (DSL,

Hefted: the process by which sheep become familiar with and continue to frequent pasture, the attachment of sheep to a particular pasture (DSL,

Herd: a keeper of a herd; a herdsman, a cattleherd or shepherd (DSL,

Tusker: a  spade  with a feathered or flanged blade capable of making a right-angled cut and used to slice out peats with a vertical thrust from the top of a peat bank (DSL,

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Sources in Local History

The Sources in Local History series was created by Professor Alexander Fenton, former head of the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, and founding director of the European Ethnological Research Centre. His aim was to publish and promote research into the diaries, account books, letters, journals and other ‘ego-documents’ of individuals from all walks of life, but in particular ‘those holding lowlier positions in the world – in other words, the great majority’. Six volumes were published between 1994 and 1997 making available a range of original documents from the diary of an Orkney farmer, 1766-76, to that of a Dundee millwright, 1864-65.

Such documents are a rich source of information for local historians and ethnologists – they not only allow the voice of the private individual to be heard, but also offer information about everyday life not often found in other historical records.

This series is being re-launched as a digital resource and will form an important part of the EERC’s Dumfries and Galloway: A Regional Ethnology project. A selection of full texts and extracts will be made available on the Study website, providing valuable insights into domestic and family life, diet, socialising and leisure activities, prices and commodities, personal religious and political views, working patterns and conditions, seasonal rhythms and tasks, the development of local trade, the impact of the state and national events on local society, dialect and customs, and more.

To achieve this, the EERC is encouraging members of the public to get involved in this side of the Study. Volunteers will have the opportunity to participate in all stages of the collecting and writing process, including identifying relevant documents, researching their provenance, transcribing them, annotating them, and writing introductory essays. They will be welcome to work on a document individually or as part of a team, and to select which aspects of the process interest them most. The documents can be of any length, and so participation can be tailored to suit whatever time the volunteer has available. A transcription of a single letter containing interesting material, for example, will be as welcome as the full transcription of a diary or account book. For sources that are too extensive to transcribe in their entirety or only parts of which contain evidence relevant to the Study, a selection of extracts can be made.

If you would like to get involved, or have any questions, please contact us at: