Winters can be very long here on the isle of Lewis, they are not always frosty and snow covered but can be very wet and wild. Our first couple of winters here on the island sure have been. We soon learned that the high winds would carry off anything that wasn’t tied down, from planters to our old yellow fibreglass kayak, which usually takes two of us to lift, that sailed two fields over and was surrounded by curious sheep when we spotted it the next morning. Each spring is eagerly watched for, first the willows will start to bud, then the primroses begin to bloom, but the sure sign that spring has come at last; comes with the cuckoo, its calls throughout the glen herald the calmer weather. People start to appear, folks you might not have seen since New Year are out and about in their gardens or checking on their sheep, awaiting the first lambs. The days start to get a little longer; it’s no longer dark by 4pm and its then that my mind turns to the coming task of digging the peats.
We were given a peat bank the first year we moved out here. A neighbour took us out onto the moor and pointed out a low heather covered hummock, half cut away to reveal the black crusty peat beneath. It looked just like all the other peat banks, there were dozens of them up on the high moors, but this one was special, this one was ours, this one could keep our house warm all winter, heat our water and provide cooking fuel in the ancient kitchen range which was the heart of our home. Now all we had to do was come up here, cut and dry the peat then haul it home and stack it ready for winter use! Everyone warned me how hard it would be, how my back would hut, how the midges would bite, how it wasn’t worth the effort. They shuck their heads when I went up evening after evening after evening with my spade and cut and stacked the peat, what they didn’t know was how much I looked forward to it. You see I come from a busy town in England where finding a quiet corner with just minimal noise and people can be difficult, so a whole moor to my self was wonderful, beautiful, sheer heaven! Although it was not silent, far from it, at first all I could hear was my own huffing and puffing as I staggered about in the mud, but after a while other sounds crept into my consciousness. The high ‘peeping’ song of the golden plover nesting on the moors caught my attention first, I spent ages trying decipher which direction the plaintive sounds were coming from; then I noticed that when a raven flew over head making honking sounds as it went you could hear its wing beats, yes that’s how quiet it was. The funniest sounds where the squeaks of the sheep pulling up and eating the reeds which grew in tussocks, they’d bury their heads in the reeds, chomp on the bases and pull, their teeth squeaking on the tough shiny green stalks as they tried to up root them. But my favourite sound, the one that kept me on the moor and stopped my in my tracked was the skylarks. I cant begin to describe their song to you, it truly is only something you can experience for your selves, all I know is that for some digging the peats really is about the hard work, but for me the digging is just a reason to get me up onto the moors so that I can stand and listen.