A Galloway Peat Moss

William Stewart MacGeorge, A Galloway Peat Moss, 1888​, oil on canvas laid on panel, 81.20 x 134.60 cm, National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery

Galloway contains some 20% of Scotland’s entire peat landscape, part of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere.[1] But in the nineteenth century, as this picture shows, its peatbanks (‘mosses’) were cut, not conserved, for turfs that were dried for winter fuel.

Damp, rich browns and softer greeny-greys – the colours of spring, the turf-cutting time – weave a delicate and subtle tonal harmony. MacGeorge, a native of Kirkcudbright, had studied under Charles Verlat at the Antwerp art academy, and would thus have known the close-toned paintings of traditional rural labour by the Dutch ‘Hague School’ artist.[2] And whilst the grey-bearded cutter, balancing a turf on his spade, recalls the pose of the urban road-diggers in Ford Madox Brown’s Pre-Raphaelite painting Work,[3] he has none of their heroic theatricality. Instead, he anchors a tightly-knit unity of people and place. Just as the soft pinks, blues, greys and browns of the workers’ clothes link with the colours of the peat, so he looks solicitously to his younger colleague pausing from his labours, who in turn gazes over to the girl drinking milk, and her companion absorbed in reverie, a reminder perhaps of the themes of longing and memory in the Border Ballads that MacGeorge also illustrated.[4] The glance of the girl pushing the barrow, meanwhile, re-launches this circle of mutual dependence.

These are not people broken by their toil, but a family or community, at one with the rhythms of weather and season. Unlike the meditative girl in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Harvesting, MacGeorge’s dreamer is not exhausted.[5] Instead there is an almost sacramental quality to the actions of cutting and transporting the peat, and the rest that follows the work. The airy sky, meanwhile, reflected in the silvery dyke at the left, adds a sense of breadth and hope. Here, implicitly, is a better world; an antidote to nineteenth-century Glasgow, whose industrial magnates, as if seeking to salve their consciences, were often the eager purchasers of paintings by McGeorge and his ‘Glasgow Boy’ colleagues.[6]

Peat bogs offer a treasure trove of information about past climate change; they accumulate and expand where there is a regular supply of rainwater, trapping carbon within their peats. When the peat dries, it releases the trapped carbon back into the atmosphere. The main threats come from forestry, agriculture, burning, over-grazing, peat extraction and drainage. Peatlands and wetlands cover around 10% of global land-surface and contain about a 1/3 of all the organic carbon on the planet. However, 36% of wetlands and 52% of peatlands global are considered degraded, which means they are releasing carbon. Globally, peatlands contribute about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector. The UK contains about 15% of all the peatlands in Europe and about 13% of all the blanket bogs in the world. If we loose just 5% of our UK peatlands this would release carbon equivalent to one year’s worth of UK greenhouse gases from anthropogenic sources. More carbon in the atmosphere causes an increase in global temperatures, encouraging a drier, warmer and more unpredictable climate and further decomposition of peatlands. 

Lowland peats such as the ones represented in the Galloway Peat Moss picture are some of the most carbon-rich ecosystems in the UK. They are now major carbon sources (so releasing carbon) rather than sinks (not storing enough carbon) and amongst the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the UK for the land use sector. They are received relatively little policy attention and measures to reduce greenhouse gases through re-wetting programmes and restoration are at fairly early stages and there is a lack of reliable data on the carbon and greenhouse balance of UK lowland peatlands, which are likely to be major sources of UK greenhouse gases7. Lowland peats under intensive agriculture (such as in reclaimed landscapes) are probably the UK’s largest land use derived source of carbon emissions but there is currently little reliable information on the extent of the peatlands that are frequently buried beneath agricultural soils8.

Clare A.P. Willsdon and Nicki J. Whitehouse

Hand cut peat stack drying. Sluggan Bog, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo: Nicki Whitehouse

An oral recollection of traditional peat-cutting by Mrs. Marion Montgomery in DASG is available at 36.16 of https://dasg.ac.uk/audio/view/s/crc/m%C3%B2ine/GU_Mrs_Marion_Montgomery

[1] See https://www.gsabiosphere.org.uk/ and https://www.dgwgo.com/out-and-about-in-dg/peatland-connections-plumbing-the-depths-of-a-galloway-bog/ (accessed 20.8.21).

[2] See https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/5104/galloway-peat-moss (accessed 20.8.21).

[3] Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1863, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

[4] These are also often associated with peatland in modern Gaelic poems such as ‘When I was young’ by Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, at https://booksfromscotland.com/2021/01/favourite-gaelic-poems/ (example kindly provided by Moira Piazzoli).

[5] Harvesting (1878), Musée d’Orsay, Paris, one of the key paintings of nineteenth-century academic Naturalism, was much feted internationally by the 1880s; for discussion of its iconography, see Marnin Young, ‘The Motionless Look of a Painting: Jules Bastien-Lepage, Les Foins, and the End of Realism’, Art History, February 2014, pp. 38-67, DOI 10.1111/1467- 8 3 65.120 61. 

[6] MacGeorge was a friend of the Glasgow Boy E.A. Hornel, a fellow-native of Kirkcudbright, and later adopted Hornel’s bright palette (evident in The Druids, referenced in No. X).

[7] [8]