COP26: Robin Crawford on Scotland’s peatlands

  10 Nov '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

In Into the Peatlands, Robin Crawford explores the peatlands over the course of the year, explaining how they have come to be and examining how peat has been used from the Bronze Age onwards. Widening his gaze to other peatlands in the country, he also reflects on the historical and cultural importance that peat has played, and continues to play – it is still used for fuel in many rural areas and plays an essential role in whisky-making – in the story of Scotland. In this extract, Robin examines the changing relationship between people and the peatlands over time.

Extract from Into The Peatlands by Robin Crawford

The draining of Scotland’s bogs and mosses in the 19th Century did not go unchallenged.

“A couplet showing traditional knowledge which has a scientific basis of bog formation begins a letter written in 1865 to the local newspaper protesting about the planned draining of Lochar Moss in Dumfries for agricultural land:

First a wood, then a sea,
Now a moss, and aye will be!

As a whilom ‘moss-cheeper’ – as you smart town gamins were wont to term me . . . you must allow me to enter my protest against this threatened iconoclastic desecration – the reclamation of Lochar Moss . . . In the event of a catastrophe so lamentable as the cultivation of the Moss, what would become of the adders, the wild-ducks, the ‘whaups’ [Scots: curlew], the stank-hens [Scots: moorhen], the ‘ Lang-necket herons,’ the hares, ‘rats and mice, and such small deer,’ the indigenous denizens of the Moss?
Look at the valuable additions to our history . . . which are disentombed from the moss every year – flint, celts, Roman weapons . . .

To the writer, the Moss is not just a place that connects him to his ancestors, he and the people who live by it are so interwoven with its nature that they themselves are known by the townies of Dumfries as ‘moss-cheepers’ – meadow pipits and reed buntings – or ‘Green Johns’. He uses religious words such as ‘desecration’ to describe the threatened cultivation. 

“Yet the very mention of Lochar Moss awakes a train of old and dear recollections. Though ‘the place which knew us once knows us no longer,’ yet it still occupies a niche in the temple of memory and the mind, many a time and oft, goes back to the days ‘when my old hat was new’ . . .”

The Moss is a storehouse of memories, a place of innocence where its strange and different nature precluded its intrusion; a place treasured by children for play ‒ where adults, when they intruded, did so briefly – bird hunters and berry gatherers in the youth of the world.

Our Lochar correspondent mentions some of the mammals to be found on the Moss – hares, rats, mice and other ‘small deer’. Also to be found grazing its rich surface would be geese and wildfowl, fallow and red deer, wild sheep and goats, and probably cattle too. Remains of all have been found preserved in Scotland’s peaty bogs. 

As human hunters and gatherers began to turn more and more to settled agriculture in the Neolithic period about 6,000 years ago, the relationship with the bogs, moors and mosses began to change. The move was not a sudden one – the human is a walking creature and, like the seasons, we traverse the globe, moving from place to place, environment to environment, as best meets our needs at the time. 

Today we are still restless creatures, our footprints measured in carbon.

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