Tag Archives: peat fire

Seaweed fuelled fires!

I have been experimenting with local fuels, here in the Orkney Islands where trees are rare.

The obvious potential fuels include: Driftwood, peat, grass, animal dung, heather and seaweeds. Land sources of scrap wood are not discussed here.

Driftwood used to be plentiful with lots of shipwrecked sailing ships and the abundant native woods of the Americas floating over on the North Atlantic Drift. Nowadays we get plastics washed up on the shore.

Sporadic bits of wood can be found, especially in bays, but this is mostly fast burning pallets and rarely bits of boats. These can supplement and slow down the burn but are insufficient for a winter supply.

Animal dung is not easy to collect and dry for domestic use, so I’ll leave that for methane digesters.

Peat is effectively made up of dead but not rotted heather, grass and sphagnum mosses. When dried this has been a a major fuel in Scotland and Ireland, in the absence of wood (for the poorer folks).

Spagnum moss is protected, it’s environment being endangered.

Grass is hard to collect in large enough quantities, burns with an acrid smell and has to be tied into faggots to slow down the burn. Faggots are bundles of small fuel made up usually by poor people who were forced to scavenge on the woodland floors owned by their overlords.

Heather goes up like rocket fuel, giving a hot and rapid flame with a lot of sizzling and a beautiful smell. But it too is now scarce and it’s environment needed for wildlife habitat.

Seaweeds are often very wet. The thick Kelp used to be dried by being draped over stone walls until it had dried in wind and sun (like peat) and was much reduced in size and weight. If gathered at the right time of year, large quantities can be harvested from the strand line when sun dried and reasonably crisp.

Wrack seaweeds cover the inter-tidal zone here beside our house and are the main weed of the strandline, useful for improving soil fertility. When dry they burn well too.

When a few days of dry weather follow a storm it is possible to fork good quantities of relatively light seaweed up to the house, where it needs to be stored dry. The wracks don’t really shrink much, just forming near black tangles of crispy weed. (Tang or Tangles are the local names for the traditional kelp fuel).

Most precious find on the shore forage is white coils of birch bark, rich in oil and traditional fire lighting magic. The fewer the trees, the less there is of this great material. Reforest folks, please.

What are most other people burning to heat their houses and cook food? Imported coal, oil, gas and electricity dominate, with imported peat and wood also on the market. Some electricity is generated locally on the islands, so this is the bulk local fuel, coming from wind and wave / tide.

How to best use these meagre local fuels? They all burn differently, with their own characteristics, flame colours and smells (lovely).

On a bed of dry wrack set a tiny piece of birch bark and lay over this bundles of dry heather tops. Add to this the thicker stems of the heather. Around this place the blocks of peat, with smaller pieces on top of the heather so that as it burns this collapses slowly, avoiding it bridging.

More seaweed can be added above the peat, to help weigh down and also dry it in preparation for burning.

A lot of ash is produced, so keep a good airflow.

Oh, I should point out, the smells of these fires are wonderful, with peat, seaweed and wood being very distinctive. Imagine walking home in the dark, being guided by the familiar smell of your own hearth, different from your neighbours.




Exploring Shetland by Bod

I have just returned from exploring the Shetland Islands – the most northerly place in Britain, over 60 degrees latitude. Watched puffins (early August) and lots of seals. Slept in the doorway of a Bod each night, caught the overnight ferry from Kirkwall and flew back from Sumburgh in a twin engine Saab. Rented a car for 3 days from Star rental, which worked well, except the car had an unpleasant smell I attributed to cleaning chemicals and the new upholstery. My nasal passages were much happier when freed of this noxious asault, to enjoy the salty air, the peat fire, the smoked salmon and seaweeds.

Cooked fresh scallops in garlic butter with a dusting of paprika, followed by reestit mutton and tatties. Ate mouthfulls of alfalfa, fruits and veggies. Made scambled eggs and then toasted wholegrain bread with a fork, holding it close to the orange embers of the peat fire. Toasted in under 10 seconds. Smothered in unsalted butter. I didn’t eat this myself – it was for my guests!

The Bod was too hot to sleep in – thanks to the peat fire in the stove (the only source of cooking heat, except an electric kettle. So, I slep in the porch, in a sleeping bag, with the door open. Fine until 3.30 when the birds all woke up and bugled me awake. Another night was very calm so the midgies were biting and I closed the door to all but a whisper of cool air.

The “Bod at Skeld, best described as a cross between a bothy and a hostel, or camping barn, is a mix of modern and ancient, of electrical appliances and basic simplicity. Bods are clean and cared for, provide only mattresses (wafer thin too) on wooden bunk beds, and some like this one have electric showers, lighting and a kitchen, indoor toilets and a black stove. At £8 per person, a night (plus a £1 for electricity and £5 for a bag of peat, which lasted 2 nights continous use) they are a good alternative to b&B or self catering. The only youth hostel, being in the town of Lerwick, is functional but lacks character. Self catering is charged by the week, so is too expensive. B&Bs do not provide places to cook, and it can be tiring eating out and not having control over your diet.

For more info go to Shetland’s Bods run by Sheltand Amenity Trust (branch of the Sheltand Islands Council).

Highlights were the puffins, seals and the rugged coastline, the wonderful hospitality and good weather, making walking to Staneydale a delight with a picnic of smoked salmon, oatcakes and cheeses. Looked at Mousa broch, Clickimin broch, croft museum, Scatness, Jarlshof, Lerwick, Sumburgh Head and lots of Atlantic Ocean and North Sea water! See Doug Houton for some pictures.

Slept ok on the ferry from Kirkwall (Orkney) but the noise of the engine and thrusters took some getting used to. Never the less, it was mighty convenient to have a shower in my cabin and get breakfast before leaving the ferry at 9am. The only downside was being woken at 6.30 am to be told, by a loud announcement, that breakfast was now being served – a totally unnecessary disturbance that wakes everyone! This is followed at 7.30 am by the announcement that we have docked, and a number of other messages for the car drivers (who have to leave and remove their cars – at least they are allowed back on board for breakfast). So, not enough rest for this wicked person. Please will Northlink Ferries cease this practice of waking everyone to promote breakfast sales and let us tired drivers sleep one more delightful hour of cosy dreams? Please.

26/8/08 Here is a blog i just read, about a 6 day tour of Orkney & Shetland, which you might find interesting. Everyone in tourism should read and analyse this fascinating insight into a visitors experience.