Crawford makes the simple rhythms of cutting, stacking and burning peat sound deeply, spiritually satisfying.
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, specially as one senses there is a truly excellent book here, waiting to emerge from within its own pages.
As a poet, journalist, teacher and Hebridean, Murray’s raptures are muted and he has a genuine, respectful interest in other people’s lives. Most of The Dark Stuff is based on interviews and conversations with moor-dwellers and historians. Moor history tends to be either sad or horrific: some of the bloodiest battles were fought on moors; deserters and non-conformists fled to them, prisons and lunatic asylums were built on their barrenness. Peat-blades slice into the skeletons of sheep and the mutilated bodies of prehistoric criminals... These bracingly dismal examples of moorland poetry are one of the delights of this lyrical ramble. A metropolitan reader might find them infectiously depressing, but Murray relishes the heartwarming spectacle of desolation... Murray, too, is ‘tempted’ to ‘preach the gospel of peat conservation’, but he is also sympathetic to islanders who resent official interference with their peat-cutting traditions, knowing all the while that, one day, the peat will run out, as it already has on the Aran Islands, St Kilda and Tiree.