Friday, February 14, 2014


The main source of fuel for people living in Badbea, and in fact all of Caithness, was readily available peat. Peat is decomposed vegetation often derived from sphagnum moss, growing in water logged land or peat banks formed several thousand years ago. Dry peat burns long and hot giving out really good heat and some light.
Peat at Badbea
Even today a peat bank is a familiar sight in many parts of Caithness.
Freshly cut peat at Dunnet in Caithness in 2011
Peat cutting was back breaking hard work and involved most members of the community in the summer months of May and June.  If the men were away fishing then the job of cutting and bringing home the peats fell to the women. 
Peat cutting in Orkney. Source Am Baile Facebook

The cutter, using a special tool with a long handle and an angled blade, first stripped the top layer of moor away, then cut neat slices of peat from the face of the bog.

Long handled peat spade at Mary Ann's cottage, Dunnet.

The block of peat was thrown to another person (often a woman) who laid it on the moor or stacked it on end to dry where it was left for a few weeks. 

 Carrying Home the Peat: McIan
There was not even a cart in Badbea according to John Badbea, so when sufficiently dry, the peats would have been taken home on the backs of the women in creels (baskets).  Creels were fastened across the shoulders and chests with a strap leaving the hands free to do other tasks such as knitting while they walked.
At the croft the peats were built into a stack – the design sometimes following local custom. The peat still needed to be left longer to dry before it burned hot and bright.

The one exception to the peats being carried home in creels was for John Badbea, the much loved leader of the Badbea community, who suffered severe health problems as a result of him having had Rheumatic Fever as a child. 

Alexander Gunn describes the occasion:

Another great day with us was the day ‘John Badbea’ got his peats carried home. On such occasions there came horses from Braemore and Houstry to lead worthy John's peats to the stance where the peat stack stood, a little above the house. There was not a road or track by which carts could be used, and the peats were therefore carried in a sort of hamper called "crubags" on each side. It was a sort of four- square thing, about 2 feet 6 inches long, perhaps 2 feet deep, and about 18 inches wide. It was open at both ends, and was slung by a piece of rope fixed to a sort of rude saddletree set on the back of the horse which carried one of these "crubags" on each side. It is surprising what quantity of peats could be packed into a couple of these. There might be 30 or 40 horses engaged in leading the peats on these occasions. Three or four, even six horses were tied to each other's tails, and one person leading them. To us it was a real post of honour to be leading these horses between the stacks and the hill, when those who brought the horses were employed in building the peat stack, or loading the horses at the hill. In this way all the good man's peats were carried to the stance and built up ready for the winter in one day, and all was done gratuitously both the labour of men and horses being given free of charge.

Fetching peats. Source Fraser Darling

Peat fire in the centre of the
 room at Newtonmore

A glowing peat fire at Mary Ann's Cottage, Dunnet.

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