Prose: 'Peat Mind' – Dark Mountain Volume 22

Leonie Charlton

Peat Mind



'Soil is the dark forever where we go after death, earth to earth and ashes to ashes: where our existence ends. It is also where we come from, creatures of earth and fed by it, our brief lives poised between two long eternities of soil.'

– Jay Griffiths

Dwelling on Earth



May 2022 – The roe buck


My friend Ron and I are talking about the complexities of nature restoration, of attempting to regain and maintain balance in natural systems that we as humans are intrinsic parts of, how when you pull one thread you see the whole knotted body of interconnection vibrate. Nothing in nature stands alone, nuance creates a mesmerising mire. We’ve just been for a walk on the peat bog in Argyll that my father has been rewetting. This evening Ron and I are full of the place: the way the dropping sun had blazed on the cotton grass in flower, how the earth had swelled and quivered underfoot.

    I slam on the brakes; a deer is lying on the road ahead, clearly alive, and probably only just hit. I see the upright antlers of a roe buck. Hazards blinking in the last light I drag him to the side of the road. Adrenaline stops me from feeling his antlers tear my shirt and cut my chest. When I get home I won’t know which is his blood and which is mine. Ron has a small penknife but neither of us feel confident about being able to kill him cleanly. I ought to, but I forget everything I’ve learnt as the buck looks at me, beautiful even in his brokenness, his warmth trembling under my hands.



May 2014 – Eight years earlier on Rannoch Moor


Today we’re on the move, Shuna and I, and our horses, George and Shamva. They are big horses, both young and inexperienced – they will learn a lot on this trip. After months of preparation and planning we’ve finally set off on our 130-mile ride from Taynuilt, on the west coast, to Newtonmore in the Cairngorms. Loch Etive, saturated in sunshine, curves 26 miles from the sea to the head of the loch where we’ll camp tonight. I can see the twin peaks of the Shepherds of Etive and the bealach between them that we’ll pass through tomorrow, and from there drop down into Glencoe. Faint in the distance lies the skyline that marks Rannoch Moor. All being well we’ll be there in three days’ time.

    It could be an adder day. It could be a lizard day. It’s that hot.


The next morning we’re climbing from sea level in Glen Etive up towards the bealach. It’s very steep, mountain goat steep. We’re all tired – Glen Etive midges are notoriously savage and there was no escaping them last night. It’s eerie up here in the mist and the water chants over boulders in the burn below. Jet black slugs are underfoot, incongruous amongst the subtle shades of stone and last years’ grasses. A raven croaks overhead, its primary feathers snip the air making a papery noise. The hard path melts away into some boggy ground, we sink in places but I’m fresh enough to enjoy the thrill and focus of finding a way through.

    We reach firm ground again and pause. The raven grazes us with another croak.

    ‘If I saw a familiar face waiting at the top, I would cry with relief.’ Shuna’s voice hangs threadbare in the high air, unfamiliar; normally her words come out smooth and rounded, nourished by pauses, her accent giving a west coast sheen to everything she says. Her face is damp and pale, I want to stop and take care of her. I also know we have to keep moving. 'Do you want to go in front for a while?’ I ask.

    She looks at me bleakly. ‘I’m scared.’

    ‘What are you scared of?’

    She tries to laugh but it snags in her throat. ‘I’m scared of the peat bogs.’

    I’m aware of the four of us, balancing here on the hillside. I try not to look down and not to look up, this isn’t a place for stopping. ‘Are you okay to keep going?’ Shuna nods.

    We reach the cairn at the top of the bealach. It’s bitterly cold up here, chilling mist blows across us in waves. ‘We did it, Shuna!’ The tiniest smile flits across her face.


By mid-afternoon the next day we have reached an abandoned house in a glen that is full of absence, there aren’t even any sheep. I can hear Shuna moving about inside the house. She’s buoyant and recovered, and now it’s my turn to feel bleak. This is how it seems to work. A heron flies past, angling his eye at the horses and me. 

We walk on for hours down this silent glen. It's overcast and the horses are still damp from the morning when water ran in rivulets off their bellies, and their eyelashes hung full with raindrops. In the evening we come out onto a new hydro track and George strides out, cheered by the firm ground. He's alert to something coming from the west, then I hear it, the jaunty three-time beat of a train. Within seconds it curves around the hillside above us, its bright whistle startling three black grouse which leave trails of rapid wingbeats in the air.

    That night we stay at Corrour Station House. We eat Rannoch Moor venison and feel tipsy on red wine and relief. We believe the next day will be short and easy. From his firelit territory the rough-coated dog cocks one wolfy eye at us. We go to sleep with only the hum of a generator slurring the silence.


The next morning the distant ruins of a cottage entice us off the track. Soon we find ourselves in a bog, and pathless, despite what the map says. On this particular day I feel confident. I scan the ground, zoom in, open all my senses. Quickly I am in a hyper-aware state: the air above the peat shimmers and a glow lights a route that we follow. I feel strongly that we’re receiving help from other beings – whether that’s the ground itself, or past people, or perhaps faeries – it is as if some other mindedness is guiding us back to the track.

    We stop for lunch at a large derelict house. Red feathers glint on the ground amongst the pale hewn stones. I pick one up and slip it into Georgeʼs bridle where it flutters like a mothʼs wing near his eye. I drop the rope so he can graze and fish out a can of smoked mussels and some oatcakes from the saddle bags. There are bird-kills everywhere: all grouse-red, the same colour as my horse. I feel uneasy. Oil mixes with peat on my fingers. George flings his head up and both horses stare at a point just beyond the outer wall of the ruin, their bodies rigid. I snatch up the dragging rope and hear Shuna’s voice, coarse with urgency, ‘I donʼt know what’s worrying them but we have to get the horses out of here.’ 

    I climb onto a stone and George holds still just long enough for me to get my foot in the stirrup and we’re off, dropping oatcakes in our disarray. It’s all far too fast. George, in front, hesitates at a blackened ditch. We move a step to the left and he leaps. His back end sinks into peat. Shuna asks Shamva to jump but worry tangles his legs and the whole of his bulk sinks now. Shuna scrambles off and I see the peat up to Shamva’s tail, and lengths of his white mane spread out like flotsam across the treacly surface. He grunts, then lurches: once, twice, three times. The bog swells around him and his long limbs come out one at a time. He staggers on his knees, stands dripping black slime, trembling like a newborn foal.

    And Shuna, I see her wipe her hand across her forehead, streaking the splashes of peat with bright red.

    ‘You’re bleeding,’ I say.

    ‘I’m okay. Does Shamva look okay?’ she asks. I nod. As I turn away from her the giggles bubble up from deep in my stomach, shaking my shoulders. Giggles that always surface, inappropriately, after a shock. Through brimming eyes, I notice something fluttering at George’s head. I lean forwards and pull the grouse feather out, let the air take it.

    Finally, far from that place we stand still. Peaty tide marks have dried on Shuna’s cheeks. Back from where weʼve come is a line of spindly trees on the skyline. Movement shivers down the line – antlers then, not branches.


Early morning on Day Five and Shuna is quiet. She is untangling the ‘fairy swings’ in Shamva’s mane.

    ‘I’ve been slain on the moor,’ she says simply.


Day Six and Shuna nods in the direction of the yellow bin at the roadside. GRIT is written in bold black letters across its lid. 

    ‘It looks like a coffin,’ she says, ‘a bright yellow coffin.’ I turn to look at her. ‘And I like it.’ I smile as we cross under the A9 and ride into the heart of the Cairngorms.

    Late that evening we watch a pair of red-throated divers on a hill lochan, their reflections moved only by feeding trout. It seems to me, in this lull, in this half-light, that we’ve both shed some deadweight back there on Rannoch Moor. Tomorrow, on the seventh day, there’ll be a lightness in our steps as we ride down to Newtonmore.


May 2022  – Return to Rannoch Moor


We have recced this path with horses foremost in mind, but today when Shuna and I and two horses get to where the track turns soft, yet manageable, my own body turns to water; it tells me that I am nothing but story. I try to police my thoughts for the sake of my horse George beside me, but images come flooding back. In May 2017 I bogged my Highland pony Ross in very wet ground in the Outer Hebrides. Thanks to Shuna’s presence of mind we got him out. We were physically unharmed, but we were all scarred. There was no shimmer showing the route that day, no faeries or friendly spirits, just deep, dark peat hags. I’ve written about that experience – I thought I’d done the work, I thought I’d done enough.

    I want to move on. I want to shift the story waterlogged in my body. I really thought I was ready to move through the fear. But here I am, wobbly-kneed, blurry eyed – my mind and body a mire I cannot anchor in. There was that other story we’d heard recently, of a horse found in the peat still with its saddle on, up there on Rannoch Moor. So many unanswered questions: was it a skeleton when it was found? Was it a riding saddle or a deer saddle? Was it put out of its misery or had it escaped its people and died alone, slowly drowning in a peat bog? 

We don’t know, but the peat surely knows. And now that story and its many possibilities are swilling around in my head, and my body and mind have turned to jelly.

    ‘Shuna, I just can’t do it,’ I say, finally.

    On the way back towards Spean Bridge, I say that I am grieving, grieving the time when I could step toward, when I could see a path appearing in front of me, when the shimmer was greater than the fear, when there was at least a possibility of faeries.

    ‘You haven’t lost anything,’ says Shuna. ‘You’ve gained experience, you’ve gained wisdom and knowledge. You listened to your intuition back there, that’s a big gain.’

    Her words soothe me, and the four of us are happy to be heading back the way we came with the cold wind now at our backs. Maybe, finally, I have learned not to push through. Some lessons are hard and may need a spiral of repetition; change can be excruciatingly slow. Have I finally learned that there are times when it’s okay to leave the peat be?


May 2022 – The keel bone


Dad walks fast with intention, Ron and I follow. We are heading to the peat bog. Dad owns 100 hectares of the Moss of Achnacree – a 300-hectare area of raised peat bog that has been ‘growing’ here in Argyll, between Loch Etive and the sea, since the glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago. Dad has been busy for the last few years on an ambitious peat bog restoration project. Peatland makes up just three percent of the Earth’s surface, but stores twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests; it is now well understood that peatland has carbon storage superpowers, and a degraded peat bog can release a lot of carbon back into the atmosphere. Peat is also a super soil – it helps nourish plants – and its value as an additive to garden soil continues to place peat bogs under threat the world over. 

The Moss of Achnacree has a rich human history, peats having been cut by hand for centuries for home hearths; ditches dug to provide work for soldiers returning from World War I. Then there is the domestic animal grazing; a small flock of my brother’s Hebridean sheep move ahead of us, their rich browns perfectly matching the wood of the heather.

    Along the edge of the bog runs a burn that at some point had been straightened into a wide drainage ditch. As we wade through the water, Dad explains that he’s in the process of ‘rewinding’ it – putting in curves where pools will form, slowing the flow, creating fish-friendly habitat. Sea trout run up here in summer to spawn – they are precious, their numbers in steep decline.

    Across the burn we step up onto the peat bog and into another world of sphagnum mosses, glinting pools, bursts of flowering bog cotton.

    ‘Look, teal,’ says Dad as two ducks take flight. ‘That pond wasn’t there a couple of years ago, the teal are breeding here now… and over there is where the accident happened.’ As part of the peat bog rewetting process, Dad was advised to cut down the birch trees as too many can dry the bog out. These were then used to dam the existing drainage ditches. The day of the accident there had been a communication mishap and my brother – working the chainsaw – had watched in horror as Dad stepped under a falling tree. Tom had called me while waiting for the helicopter, in tears and shock, ‘I thought I’d killed Dad – he dropped like a deer with a neck shot.’

    It turned out our father had fractured five vertebrae in his neck and back. It’s nothing short of miraculous that he is here now, stepping between pools.

    ‘Do you love the bog?’ I ask him. Dad has been sharing a lot of facts, now I am digging for the feelings.

    ‘I love the bog’, he says. The intensity in his voice stops me in my tracks. Dad rarely uses the word love.

Half an hour later we follow him back down off the bog and recross the burn onto an area of cattle grazing.

‘Curlew were claiming territory over there in March,’ he points to an island of peat rising from the heath. ‘But it has all gone silent. This is the first year the curlew haven’t nested here since I bought the farm. Before my time, they say there were so many curlew here that their calls would keep people awake.

    ‘Let me show you something,’ he continues. ‘It’s over here somewhere, ah, look!’ Dad is pointing to the ground, to feathers and bones scattered amongst silverweed and grasses. ‘This curlew was killed last year.’ He bends down and picks up a bone. ‘It was a peregrine falcon strike, look, you can see the bite marks through the keel bone, only a peregrine does that.’ He holds the jagged edge of the bone up to the light for us to see. ‘I am very sad about the curlew.’ 


May 2022 – The cut


I meditate to let the sediment of story settle. It drops in weighty layers. Wood-memoried, pollen-saturated, sphagnum- and heather- and myrtle-made. Stories – both fright-shaped and love-bound – flow in breaths of water, soft and fluid as moss.

    The antler cut across my chest is healing, but it still burns.

    The meditation lets me sink into peat soil, dig my toes into its density, find purchase in the depths. The stillness allows hope for the curlew to come back, hope that when the time comes and the Moss of Achnacree is under the sea – as it surely will be – that there will still be octopuses in the world that may turn the colour of peat when startled, that may make their home beneath erratic boulders that have been held for millennia in the bog, boulders now loosening in the sea.

    For now, the Moss of Achnacree is salt-free. It is rewetting, filling, growing, breathing. The sea trout when they run up this summer will find a friendlier habitat. There is still a chance that the curlew may come back, and there are still horses in the hills, in our psyches, who teach us to respect the soil, be mindful of depths we might sink to if we don’t take care.

    There are still horses and blazing cotton grass to help us tune in to peat-mind, to all that its depth and darkness keeps safe, to all that its depth and darkness holds to the light.