Home Customs Turf Gathering

Turf Gathering

by Ber Weyde

As in many other parts of the British isles, a considerable proportion of the ‘waste’ lands of the Isle of Man consists of turf-bogs or moanies(1) as they are called in our dialect.

Broadly speaking, the moanies are extensive areas of a saturated, spongy formation of partly decayed plants, chiefly mosses. Typical examples may be seen along the mountain roads in the neighbourhood of Snaefell and, in the lowlands, in the neighbourhood of the Lezayre and Ballaugh Curraghs.

The uppermost layer of these moanies is generally of a lighter colour and of a less compact composition, but the more decayed turf is usually found within a foot or two of the surface and may continue for many feet in depth, often containing a great variety of fossil flora. The most striking of these are the tree-stools known as darrags(2), or bog oak, remnants of ancient tree growth bearing witness to the great age of many of the deposits and the different climatic conditions existing during their formation.

A clear division can be made between ‘mountain’ and ‘lowland’ turf – the former being more fibrous, the latter more ‘oily’ and soft. In the Isle of Man the variation in the nature of the deposits caused variation in the technique of gathering turf.


The most skilful and arduous part of the preparation of turf for use as fuel was the cutting of the rectangular blocks, each about fifteen inches long, six inches broad and three inches deep (though size was known to vary from place to place).

The Manx Museum possesses a dozen examples of the faayl. The double faayl had a flat, chisel-edged iron blade with a knife-like ‘feather’ between three and four and a half inches long, projecting at right angles from the right side of the blade. The single faayl was similar, but lacked the ‘feather’. The blade is from five to eight and a half inches in width and about five to ten inches in depth, excluding the ‘socket’ formed by beating the upper portion of the blade round the flat expanded end of the wooden handle, which is from three to four and a half feet in length. The cross-piece, gripped by the right hand, is sometimes in the same plane as the iron blade, sometimes at right angles to it (like the feather) and in one end of the cross-piece there may be a hollow for containing grease for rubbing on the grip to prevent blistering of the hand.

So far as we can ascertain, all the faaylyn in the Museum were made by Manx blacksmiths more than 60 years ago. During the Great War, when turf-cutting was temporarily revived, a number of spades were made for and used by those interned in the Island camps, but the smiths no longer knew how to make them and an old faayl had to be obtained to serve as a pattern.


“On the First of May, or as soon after as weather would permit, the people of Kirk Lonan parish used to go up on Mullagh Ouyr and Snaefell to cut turf to last them for another year. Cutting before the First of May was not allowed, chiefly to give the moors a chance of drying out after winter. The men from each farm would go up with their stiff-carts, spades and provisions for the day – and a great day it was, though it had no special name or customs to distinguish it. Often the women and children would come too, for ‘spreading’ if the weather was fit.

The great thing was to set off early in the morning, for there was always a rush to get the pick of the ground. There were no special rights of ownership, though it may have been different long ago, and although men from a certain parish usually cut in the same region year after year, it seemed to be more a matter of convenience rather than of rights. The Kirk Maughold ones would cut on Slieau Lhane or high up on Snaefell – and because of the steepness of their ‘roads’ they used sleds in place of stiff-carts – while the Kirk Conchan ones would cut at Dreem Crammag or on Snaefell as they would take the notion. Latterly people would cut any place, according to what suited them.

The first thing after reaching the bank, or ‘lag‘ (3) as it was generally called, was to clean it to get to the clean turf. A single faayl, or a fleeing spade(4) would be used to ‘flee’ the sods off the tops of the bank for a distance of fifteen to twenty yards and two to four yards back from the face of the lag. The surface sods would be set aside till the end of the cutting, when they would be placed at the bottom of the lag where the turf had been cut away, so that it would grow again. If a depth of water collected in the lag, a drain would be cut to carry it away. The vertical face of the bank would also require to be ‘pealed’ as frost and weather took the good out of the face of the turf since the last year’s cutting.

The blocks of turf were then cut vertically, the cutter standing on the edge of the bank and using the double faayl for the purpose. For the first cut the faayl would be reversed and the man would make a jive down the face of the bank with the feather pointing inwards, severing the left side of the first block. Next with the faayl held in the normal position (the feather pointing outwards), a single downward thrust was sufficient to sever the back and right side of the block. Then, drawing up the faayl very slightly, a sharp jig backwards on the ‘crosh‘(5) was enough to jerk out the turf block into the hands of the man waiting below in the lag.

When a full row of turfs had been cut a second and third would be removed until the whole of the cleaned area to between three and six feet deep had been cut and spread on the bank to dry. A good cutter would be able to take out fifteen loads a day, and generally five people were employed: one man to ‘flee’, one man to cut, two men in the lag with a pair of hand-barrows(6) to draw away the turfs to the bank where they were spread flat to dry in the sun and wind. This was usually a woman’s job, but the men of the party took turns at relieving one another at cutting and drawing away. The bigger farms worked independently of the rest, having sufficient hands for the job, but the smaller ones would help each other.

The work of cutting and spreading would continue for two or three days (and three, or even four, successive layers might be cut), until what would make forty good loads on the stiff-carts had been gathered. With care this quantity would do for a year’s full supply, but only if the turf fires were supplemented with gorse ‘bons‘, both dried and green. One could burn a whole load in a week if not careful, particularly in preparing food for the animals.

Provided that the weather was favourable, dry and sunny, the spread of turfs would be turned within a week from the cutting, to allow the other face to dry out, and then raised in groups of three leaning towards each other, tent-like, so that the wind could get round them. At the soonest it would be a full week before they could be brought home in the carts and carefully built into stacks in the haggard or farm-street against a dry-built stone wall which would afford ventilation. The stack was thatched with ling, and with rushes on the very top, and roped down.

If there was frost after the cutting the face of the turf spoiled – it would not burn with a glow, but only singe away. If it rained the turfs would have to be left out, perhaps for months, until they were dry. If the turf was wet when stacked it would never dry, and sometimes – owing to bad weather – the turf harvest would be a total loss.’

Mr H Rogers jnr has recorded the following similar description supplied to him by Mr WF Christian of Sulby. This also relates to turf-cutting on Snaefell, Mr Christian having lived at Lhergy Rhenny at the time referred to:

‘Before cutting the first block, the feather was run down the face of the turf, then the spade would be turned round and the first block cut. After this the cutting continued to the right side as the feather is on this side.

As the turf was cut it was removed by another man from the face and passed along a chain of people, as many as thirteen persons being employed on this. At the end of the chain it was laid flat on the ground and allowed to dry for about three days. When the skin formed it was turned over and allowed to skin on the other side. When a skin was formed on the other side they were stood up in groups of three blocks until dry. When dry they were carted down and built into stacks against a stone wall where a current of air could reach them through the wall. The stacks were thatched with gorse up to the slope and the top thatched with rush. The gorse might be used for lighting the fire.’

A vivid impression of the importance of the annual gathering for the cutting of the turf may be obtained from Canon Quine’s novel of Manx country life in the mid-nineteenth century:

‘It was the time immemorial usage of the Island that on the mountain turbaries the turf should be cut in the month of May, and that the turbaries should be open for three days only. In those three precious days was cut the fuel for the year. To be first on the ground meant the choice of the best cuttings, and long before dawn the whole country was up and away to be on the spot by sunrise. It was a jollification of hard work and of feasting – a bivouac on the brown mountain waste of hundreds of country carts and thousands of folk, fires blazing, kettles steaming, frying pans hissing, round bottomed pots bubbling, universal hailings, greetings, laugher, courtings – for women, girls and children are all there by prerogative right. The weather being invariably fine at that season, the folk from the distant northern plains camp all night on the mountainside, each family with a cartload of bedding, and a sailcloth rigged over the carts. These night campers are the envied of all. The song is sung and the tales told with pipes and stone jars of ale around the fires; and the old men are to the fore recounting the doings that went on in past days.


The partly drained area of ancient lakes known as the Ballaugh and Lezare Curraghs lying between the northern escarpment of the highlands and the lesser elevation of the Ayres, was for centuries past an important area for the supply or turf – and indeed timber also, for darraghs were not infrequently used for roofing, lintels and the like.

In Ballaugh Curraghs alone, two quite distinct methods are obtained. At Ballacain (Ballaugh), for example, the single faayl was used in a somewhat similar manner to the way in which the double faayl was used on the mountains, but also to cut large blocks about eight inches square and up to three feet in depth. These were passed by hand along a chain of men in the lag out on to the bank, where they were spread by women. Each man wore a whole sheep-skin on his breast, fastened with a piece of cord around the neck. The turf rested in the clasped hands and against the smooth side of the sheep-skin, of which the woolly side was inwards.

The first operation was to clean off the green scrah from the surface for sixty yards along the bank and two yards back from the face; then the soil (humus) would be flayed off and all set aside to be replaced after the cutting. In the Curragh it was allowed to dig two turfs deep, but some would dig three layers and then it was many years before the turf would form again.

Messrs RT and TE Keig, from whom we have the information relating to their old farm of Ballacain, say that the feather-spade (i.e. double faayl) was too slow for the Curragh – it was a mountain spade. Again, as to the quantity which would be cut in one day, it all depended on the ‘faayleyragh’ (cutter) whether he was quick or slow.

There was a certain amount of difficulty and even danger in cutting in the Curragh, for sometimes the weight of water would break through the bank or force up through the floor of the lag, which would then become flooded. Cutting could afterwards be carried on a few yards away, provided the bank was left as a dam against the water. This bank was known as the ‘saras‘.

When the cutting was finished, the ‘crumbs’ or broken fragments of turf would be saved and mixed with water almost to the point of fluidity and spread out flat with a spade, then with the edge of the spade the surface would be marked in rectangles. These marks widened into deep racks in drying out so that the blocks could be separated easily.

But at the neighbouring farm of Ballamona, Ballaugh, and at many other places in the Curragh, we are told that it was impossible to cut good squares and after the semi-liquid turf was dug, it was tramped out with horses and kneaded into round cakes ‘like bonnags‘, which were then left to dry out in the usual way. The kneading process was performed by women who wore men’s trousers ‘to keep themselves tidy‘. It is constantly referred to as ‘baking‘ the turf, but this means kneading and mixing and has no connection with heating.

In other parts of the Curragh, the women were employed to tramp the soft turf with their bare feet in order to squeeze out the water, prior to making the round blocks.

(1) – From Manx ‘moain’ = peat, turf, a bog. The correct form is moanee, with pl. moaneeyn. Foid = a turf, a peat-clod.

(2) – Darrag = oak tree; but the tree stumps are by no means always of oak.

(3) – lag is Gaelic for ‘a hollow’

(4) – A fleeing spade was similar to the single faayl bu the blade had a slight ‘lift’ noticeable in profile. Its normal use was cutting ‘scrahs’ for thatch roofs, and probably in old times it would be used for ridging potato fields, in much the same way as the ‘Kerry’ spade.

(5) – Mr Stowell was familiar with the cross (cross-piece of the handle) placed at right angles to the plane of the blade. ‘The crosh was long in the front to jig out the turf, five inches forward and three inches behind.’ We have one instance (fig. 1d of a double faayl with the crosh in the same plane as the blade. In two examples in the Museum (fig. 1 a and 1e) it is symetrically placed, not longer in front than behind. Only fig. 1b, fits Mr Stowell’s description exactly.

(6) – Kelly’s dictionary gives ‘sleod-laue’ i.e. hand-sled – which corresponds to the original meaning of the English ‘barrow’, a stretcher-like frame for carrying a load.

(source: The Journal of the Manx Museum Vol. IV, March 1939, No.58; turf photograph header http://irishfirelogs.com/peat)


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