Sometimes, I think we all speak separate languages with our words. Even something as simple as ‘I love you’ can mean so many different things. Maternal love, sibling love, deep friendship, love for a parent or other relative, loving someone for who they are or being in love.
So, when the first woman from Shawbost that I met in a care centre as I moved to the island, (Granny Annie) told me ‘I carried the peats home in a creel made by the basket maker’ (Domhnall MacArthur), what did that mean? I had no experience of it.
I told my neighbour that I would do this and he said that he had grown up with Domhnall as his neighbour. He informed me that I couldn’t do the walk without knitting a sock. All local women were always knitting a sock. I had never knitted a sock. My first attempt was a hilarious, twisted affair, where I managed to join the rib upside down and knit to the end of the rib in an infinity loop. A sad day for knitting.
The peats we cut in May were dry enough to bring home, so, in exchange for baking (as is often the Shawbost way – although brothers with a tractor used to charge £6 a load to bring peats home in this village), a lovely neighbour brought ours and other neighbours’ peats back on his tractor trailer (pictured). He left me a creel full to walk back.
I started to build a cruach/peat stack. I managed to herringbone the first two layers but I quickly discovered that it is a skill that I do not possess, akin to building a dry stone wall. The peats dry a bit wobbly (probably because of our lack of skill at neat cutting and a little because the ground they are laid out on to dry is tufty with rough grass and not exactly flat). There is immense skill in building a neatly herringboned cruach because it is essential to have a good eye for the pieces to choose to interlock neatly. I did make a small stack on two pallets, about a fortnight’s worth, but it is back breaking work and I needed a rest half way through! That was just for two weeks. Imagine the size of a stack to last the winter!!
Dawn Susan made me a creel, which is a thing of beauty and which smells divine. She also wove me a gorgeous strap. I was ready to do the walk.
At the peat bank, we had had some rain and the ground was very boggy. I had to avoid filling the creel over-full, as was the way, because I was literally sinking deeper into the bog with each additional peat. I stopped filling it as it was just under the top. ‘There’s a skill to over filling a peat creel’, nodded a lady from Tolsta, recently, at a session with Dawn Susan. Yes there is. There’s more skill than I have to carry an over full creel, too!
And I set off walking. Up hill was easier than down hill, because leaning forward distributes the weight better. And then I reached the river. Wow. I find these wobbly stepping stones a challenge unladen. My centre of gravity was so altered that I was not confident in getting across dry, still in possession of the peats and with unbroken ankles. But somehow, with a lot of hesitation, I did it.
The other side of the river, I had realised exactly why I was advised to make a pad for my lower back to keep the creel off it. It is completely essential because the hard willow does dig in exactly where the creel touches at the base of your spine. I grabbed a jumper and tied it around my waist, tucking it up to double up. Perfect. ‘ I made a pad with old clothes’ a woman from Tolsta told me.
It’s a pretty steep uphill trek back to the road after the river. Breathlessly, I made it back to the road. It was a lot easier on the road. I wondered how long the road had been there. ‘I helped to build the road at Shawbost with my neighbours’, Granny Annie told me, ‘with buckets and shovels’. Wow. So all this hard labour without a road and to actually have to build the road?! Walking this load across the machair would have been so much harder, and I am told that a special kind of partial sock was often knitted, to protect the feet, while still giving the freedom to feel the earth under them. So almost barefoot, on boggy moorland, with a much heavier creel than I had, I was starting to understand how I wasn’t getting a true picture of the scale of effort and labour involved.
The walk along the road was fine. The strap was wonderful and very well designed to distribute the weight as comfortably as possible. Dawn told me of women who had been rope-burned, using a rope, bleeding and blistered by the end of it. Why would women do this? Perhaps because they were helping someone out, unprepared? Or because they hadn’t had opportunity to make a strap? Or was it about resilience? Do we get to a point of not caring enough to protect ourselves from discomfort?
I managed the rib section of a sock on my walk, untwisted this time!
On arriving home, the peats looked adequate for one day. One day. How many days in a winter?? How many loads needed to be brought back for about eight months??? Little wonder there are so many images of women carrying peats, they must have been doing it for weeks and weeks. And I also realised that a peat stove/fire needs a lot of tending, so these epic peat walks needed to be done between tending the fire. Stoke fire, be certain of it…Go! Walk fast to the peat bank and back as fast as possible, stoke fire again. While looking after a toddler or baby, in some cases!
So I think that although this experience was tiny in the grand scheme of peat carrying, and I did realise that as I fantasised about a hot shower half way across the moor, it did make me think about the issues that I hadn’t considered before. Walking the peats home doesn’t mean one walk. It means hundreds of walks. I do know how a creel and strap feels on a body now and what a difference a road makes.
Women of the Hebrides, I salute you!