Into the Peatlands: A Journey Through the Moorland Year

Robin A. Crawford

Birlinn, £12.99

Review by Nick Major

Rannoch Moor must be one of the scariest places in Scotland. In Robert

Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Davey Balfour almost meets his death

fleeing across this trackless expanse of bogs and lochans. As Robert

McFarlane has pointed out, this is partly why it has a ‘reputation for

hostility’. Robin Crawford, in this new book on peatlands, describes

Rannoch’s ‘predominant colours’ as ‘those of the dead: the withered

straw of the Racomitrium grass; the brown of the heather; the

grey-white of the crottal- and lichen-covered glacial granite

boulders.’ It is no coincidence that Crawford follows his chapter on

Rannoch with one called The Supernatural Moor. In Scottish folk

stories, moorlands are eerie liminal places, home to faeries, bog

people and will-o’-the-wisps, the sort of tricksters who lead the

gullible to their doom.

Peatlands also have a more life-preserving and practical role in

Scottish culture. Pay a visit to Ness on the Isle of Lewis in

midsummer and you might see huge herringbone structures of peat in

residents’ back gardens. Crawford takes this as evidence that ‘the

ways first established in the ancient transhumance culture are still

being practised in the twenty-first century.’ This crofting culture

saw families divide their time between winter on the croft and summer

out on the moorland, where their cattle and sheep would pasture whilst

the children would dance gaily around the shielings.

Crawford is a romantic who idealises the crofting life of old. It

takes him a good one hundred pages to admit its brutal reality. In the

winter, crofters often lived cheek by jowl with their cows in

blackhouses. These small stone structures were heated with a central

fire. Peat is a notoriously smoky fuel, hence its use in whisky

production. ‘Living in smoke-filled accommodation shared with

livestock and no running water saw high infant mortality, many mothers

dying in childbirth, or fatalities from TB, whooping cough, scarlet

fever and measles.’ Oh, for a return to the old ways!

In all seriousness, this is one of many flaws in Crawford’s book. Into

the Peatlands is arranged around the four seasons, but this only works

when Crawford is writing about the traditional practise of cutting,

drying and burning peat. He has to fit his other, loosely-related

topics around this, which makes for a more haphazard structure. Also,

one senses that Crawford knows there is only so much that can be

written about peat.

Perhaps that’s why there’s a long arduous section on ‘transporting the

peats’ or a paragraph on a notorious crime of passion that has only a

tenuous relation to peat: the poor victim only happened to be standing

next to a peat stack when she was shot. With this in mind, it is odd

that Crawford should neglect to mention Seamus Heaney. Any book on

bogs that includes an extract from a DEFRA report but nothing from

Heaney’s pen is not going to win many prizes.

All this is not to say Crawford’s principal subject is mundane. If it

was, 13 per cent of Scotland’s landmass would have to described as

incalculably boring. On the contrary, one of peat’s many fascinating

qualities is its capacity for preserving whatever is sucked into its

morass. The Tollund Man, a fellow from the 4th Century BC, was found

perfectly mummified in a Danish bog in 1950. (Heaney, by the way,

wrote a poem about him). As Crawford points out, peatlands are natural

time capsules. Scientists can use the preserved flora and fauna to

recreate models of the landscape going back 10,000 years.

Nuggets of information like this, and Crawford’s unbounded

enthusiasm, prevent Into the Peatlands from becoming tedious. There

are also some lucid sections on how lowland moors were subject to

erasure with the advances of industrial agriculture. One of the more

uplifting stories here concerns Advocate and philosopher Lord Kames.

In the aftermath of the failed Jacobite uprising, Kames offered

displaced Highland clansmen land on Blairdrummond Moss, near Stirling.

Giving the Highlanders permission to clear peatland and establish

agricultural production allowed them ‘entry into mainstream European

civic society, even if it was at the very bottom – and he did so on

what were better terms than they had previously enjoyed, even in their

clan lands.’ In chapters like this, Crawford conveys a vital truth:

that a sophisticated knowledge of peatlands is crucial if we are to

understand the complex relationship between people and place.

On the whole, however, this book is a wayward attempt to tackle a

difficult subject. There is also a predominance of sloppy writing:

countless examples of fudged sentences, inconsistencies of style, and

platitudes about Scotland. Take this, where Crawford discusses the

declivities between the Highlander and Lowlander. ‘The “Lowlander” can

be Scot, Roman, Viking or Englander, but suppression of the Highlander

is always the aim. It is naïve to think that this no longer goes on

today, sometimes consciously, but mostly unthinkingly. We Scots are

children of a fractured history, victims of bullying who can ourselves

bully those even gentler than ourselves.” Putting the prose to one

side, surely Scotland has moved on from this kind of useless


The publisher, Birlinn, has for a long time been producing beautifully

designed books full of nuanced and intelligent writing. Into the

Peatlands has the design. It is elegant and contains some fine

illustrations, but the writing falters too often. This is a shame,

especially as one senses there is a truly excellent book here, waiting

to emerge from within its own pages.