John Armstrong speaks about Peat Cutting

John Armstrong

John Armstrong


John Armstrong, 72 years of age, interviewed by  Mairi Telfrod Jammeh at the peat hags on Middlemoss on the Langholm to Newcastleton Road.

John worked as a herd (shepherd) for 46 years.

  • Interviewed: 24 May 2012.
  • Ref: DG3/3/1/2.
  • Photo: Mairi Telford Jammeh.
  • © European Ethnological Research Centre, 2013.

This interview was conducted at a peat cutting so the sounds of the outdoors can be heard in the background.

See the Study Blog for a post with more detail and photographs on the process of peat cutting.

JA: We’re stittin on Middlemoss Rig where there’s always been a peat area because … and Middlemoss is the farm and in the middle of the farm was the moss – a square mile or there aboots.

MTJ: And it’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? It’s, it’s such a beautiful May day today and your peats are a laid oot here getting well dried.

JA: They sit here for aboot a fortnight before they start to dry. That wis because of the cauld wet weather and then this week you’ve got the heatwave comin and the peats – it’s just what they’ve been waitin for.

MTJ: How long have you been cutting peat here?

JA: Forty-six year.

MTJ: And how, how did you manage to get a peat hag? Did ye …

JA: It came wi the job.

MTJ: It came wi the job.

JA: Uhu. When ah came ah wis herdin an to run ah awlays cast peats at Middlemoss.

MTJ: Uhu.

Mairi and John then went on to discuss how he goes about cutting the peat.

JA: So next year we’ll take a rutter, square a sod, an we’d two and a half feet by ten inches maybe, cut the sod that shape and use a flachter [a spade without a lug or ‘wing’] to cut underneath that sod, turn it over. That gangs into where you’ve cast the peats from last year, [MTJ: Right] replaces the turf so it’s, it grows for the sheep for next year. [MTJ: Oh right, OK.] And eh, and yince …

MTJ: So your basically takin the top [AJ: Tae clear the …] like maybe four or five inches off the top?

JA: Roughly, dependin on the thickness o sphagnum which is growin, aye. [MTJ: Right.] And then you get the casting spade in your chucker oot and, eh start tae cast them, spread them flat, cover the area. And eh, till the weather’s good enough tae skin them, put a dry skin on the top so that ye can handle them, set them, fit them like, eh, one across the other.

MTJ: And how is the tool that you use – the spade, the casting spade – is it the same as you’ve always used?

JA: There are different patterns, but, eh, basically the spade that eh’ve been usin with a lug is, eh … Normal they’re really except for the heal and brewster – the tusker which ye use from the side. It can be used by yin man. But the castin spade, ye can have a right lug or a left lug dependin which side o the bank. Yer best castin backwards uphill because, if ye … the spade-man works wi his back doonhill, the chucker-oot was an even worse job on the back, he’s bendin this extra twenty degrees so they’re sufferin even mair. That’s why ye have the right lug and the left lugs so that they were always yin lug uphill.

Mairi then asked John why he continued to cut the peat.

JA: Ah jist dae it fir the fun of it.

MTJ: [Laughs] And the hard work!

JA: Aye it is, it’s good fir the back. When you’ve been workin wi peats it’s easier to get doon tae clip a sheep because yer back’s intae shape.

MTJ: Is it really? Does it keep you supple?

JA: Aye like ah dae others, ye dae a lot o bendin an it … Yer just getting good at castin the peats when your finished.

MTJ: And what dae ye enjoy aboot it?

JA: Sittin at the fire in the winter. [laughter]