Perhaps nothing evokes the magical lure of the Highlands better than simply mentioning a peat fire. Not so long ago, within the last seventy years in fact, it was still common for families and neighbors to gather together as winters' darkness descended upon the land to work in community. With the enchanting smell of the peat fire with its unique bluish grey smoke hanging heavy in the air and they would weave or waulking wool, twisting heather into sturdy thatching rope, in Gaelic gaid, sharing stories immemorial or song perhaps accompanied by accordion or penny whistle (bagpipes being entirely too loud for playing indoors in small spaces). The peat fire was, and continues to be, an integral part of the Highland existence.
With the absence of coal and the destruction of the Caledonian forest, which covered the Highlands, it is almost by Divine order that peat, in Gaelic moine, should provide the only material of general use for heating. While both are fossil fuels and are burned on the hearth peat, in contrast to coal, burns down fast offering great heat and is said to be less injurious than the use of coal. It has further benefit when its carefully tended ashes are mixed with kelp or manures to enrich garden soil.
In communities throughout the Highlands crofters still have the right to cut and collect peat, though generally only enough for their personal use for the season. Deeply brown-black in colour it is known to be quite shallow and, at the foot of the Grampian Mountains in Aberdeenshire as much as forty feet (as sounded by auger) before meeting another soil type.
The cutting or 'casting' of the peat begins in May allowing plenty of time for summer's sun and winds to dry out the peat briquettes. Before the peat can be cut from the bog, an instrument called a cabar-lar is used to clear away all surface growth. Then using a specially-shaped peat-cutting spade called a torr-sgian the turf is cut into pieces of the form of a brick. The torr-sgian enables the peat to be cut, lifted and thrown in a single practiced movement, where they are caught and passed from one person to another, spread out to harden, and then set on end by threes and fours to dry. When removed they are 'stacked' like a small hut beside the house, and protected from wet by a covering of the upper part of the moss. The primitive stack was conical, and hence called Cruach mhoine, as descriptive of its form.
Until the development of the road system in 18th century the pattern of settlement was closely related to river valleys and coastal areas, where rivers and lochs often provided an easier means of transport than overland. As a result, domestic peat-cutting has led to many exciting archaeological discoveries. Peat bogs had considerable ritual significance in prehistoric times for Bronze and Iron Age people considered them to be home to (or at least associated with) nature gods or spirits. Surprisingly common finds such as wooden containers of bog butter, a hard yellow substance that seems to be some form of animal fat. It appears to have been buried deliberately, either to preserve it or as an offering to the gods. Such offerings, or votive deposits, can take many forms, special importance being placed upon 'wet' places by prehistoric religions. Valuable and prestigious items such as jewellery, weapons and tools made of bronze (copper alloy) were deliberately thrown into rivers, lochs and marshes.