Moladh na Mòine : In Praise of Peat

Not so long ago, there was one behind every house in every village in the Western Isles: a peat-stack. The store of fuel harvested from the moor; cut, lifted, dried, shifted, collected and eventually stacked, often with superb craftsmanship and precision. They are rarer now, but can still be seen in the Islands.

But the last place you might expect to find one would be in an art gallery.

Wrong. The new exhibition in An Lanntair, Stornoway, which opens on the 31st August has a full peat-stack, 15 feet long and 8 feet in height, as its centrepiece. It is an affectionate, personal and startlingly up-front and up-close evocation of the culture and lifestyle that peat-cutting imposed and what it meant to Islanders.

An Lanntair Director Roddy Murray said “The original idea came from one of our most acute and creative cultural commentators, Finlay Macleod. Way back, he suggested to the Tate that if Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII – more popularly known as the Pile of Bricks – could be art, then surely so was a peat-stack. The response from Tate was that they would do it – if the peat-stack was built by an artist.”

Presumably if an artist built it, it became by definition, art. If it was seen as art to begin with, then the builder by default was an artist. That might be confusing.

Mr Murray continued “It is slightly provocative but it is certainly more than a joke. It emphasises the point that putting objects within the context of a gallery changes and challenges the way we look at them. We evaluate and scrutinise things in a different way and to different standards.”

Peat-cutting is embedded in the culture of the Gaidhealtachd. Artist and moorland archaeologist Anne Campbell has compiled a glossary of Gaelic terms about the peat-bank and the process. Still expanding it presently lists about 80 different terms.

The exhibition also contains a beautifully printed selection of archive images generously contributed by Local History Societies and – to cap it all – a vintage tractor.

In a way, as the title suggests, it is also a memorial to a way of life, when entire summers were dedicated to cutting peats and mutually helping village neighbours in what was possibly the ultimate communal activity. It was hard work but brought its own rewards, not just in a warm hearth, but in warm hearts and deep kinship.