10.5.4 Peat

The peat resources of the Highlands are huge; the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland alone holds the largest reserves of blanket bog peat in Europe. As outlined in previous chapters, peat formation began from an early time and continued through the medieval period in some places. Elite households consumed huge quantities of peat prior to the availability of coal. Domestic use was widespread, however, and some peat deposits were worked out by the 18th century. Tracks to peat diggings may be traced and evidence for the impact of peat extraction for village settlements may be seen in a number of locations, for instance above Helmsdale. Domestic peat digging still occurs today albeit on a much reduced scale.

Industrial scale peat extraction began in some places, particularly Caithness, with the demand for garden potting soils. The extraction is often a threat to local archaeology, as is conifer planting on peatlands, particularly as there are often hidden sites covered by the peat. Increasingly peat extraction is a concern for global warming, given the carbon storing properties of peat (Lindsay et al 1988; Marsden and Ebmeier 2012; Sybenga 2020). This is one area where archaeologists can work with environmentalists to safeguard built and natural heritage.

The industrial extraction of peat using a sixteen-ton disc ditcher, 1955. © Hulton Getty. Licensor: www.scran.ac.uk

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