Welcome to an art-environment workshop on a Galloway peatbog!


Tuesday 25 June, 2019
10.30 am to 15.30 pm

Meeting point: Corsock Hall, Corsock Village, Dumfries & Galloway, DG7 3DN
From here we will car-share to Knowetops Lochs, a Scottish Wildlife Trust Reserve.

Peatlands are a defining feature of Galloway, where they are often known as ‘mosses’ or ‘flowes’. This workshop is about different ways of getting to know these landscapes. It will be led by Kate Foster (environmental artist) and Dr. Emily Taylor (peatland scientist) and we invite you to join us in our respective ways of exploring peatlands. If you are interested in the ecology of peatland restoration and how artists and other creative practitioners can work with this, this workshop is for you. You might want to use the workshop to develop your own theme.

This is the first in a series of workshops to be developed by Peatland Connections, a forthcoming programme of ecological restoration and communication supported by the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership. Emily is project manager for peatland restoration at the Crichton Carbon Centre and a member of the Scottish Peatland Action team. Kate’s project Peat Cultures contributes to this as part of the Galloway Glens programme.

Structure of workshop

10.30 Tea and coffee at Corsock Hall for introductions to the day

11.30 Leave for Knowetops Loch

12 – 2.30 Collectively take a peat core sample

Please bring a picnic lunch

Further investigations, as weather permits

You may want to join the workshop leaders to look closely at the plants growing on the moss via their respective methods, or use this time for your own investigation. There is also an option of contributing practically to the restoration process.

2.30 Return to Corsock Hall for a review of the day, with hot drinks and cake.

3.30 End.

Important information

Places are free but limited.

In preparation, please think about why you are interested coming to the workshop and how you personally would want to get to know this wetland better. The section below – Themes of the Workshop –  draws out some possible connections.

Remember to dress for the weather and wear waterproof footwear.

Please bring your own picnic lunch.

Note the following access restrictions. A network of unsurfaced paths and boardwalks are maintained to provide access across Knowetops Lochs reserve. Please stay on the footpaths. Further information here.

Parking by Knowetops Loch is limited.

With participants’ permission, we would like to document some activities of this workshop. This would contribute to publicity material for Peatland Connections and also Kate Foster’s research project (outlined below).


Please contact Kate Foster to confirm your place, or with any queries.


Themes of the Workshop

Peatlands have long been disregarded, but land managers are becoming increasingly aware that restoring peatland can contribute local benefits as well as help create a more resilient future in this era of climate emergency. Ecologists have shown that they offer a vitally important natural process of carbon sequestration and also are very important for wildlife and the way water flows through a landscape. We can think about the ‘squelch factor’ and how to tell if a peatland is in good condition.

Photograph of Silver Flowe, Kate Foster, 2018

Peatlands are fascinating places in themselves – wild places growing over millennia as bog-mosses create carbon-rich layers of peat from air and rainwater.  The Peat Cultures project began with the idea that there are many ways of being knowledgeable about peatlands. Perhaps you may think about mosses and flows in terms of their Gaelic or Scots place-names? Or are you interested in bog archaeology, or medicinal and edible plants? You may be a bird-watcher, or your focus might be landscape photography or painting. Makers and designers also may use peatland products, or find inspiration from mosses and flows. Historically, peat has been dug for fuel using traditional methods; in some areas it is milled industrially. Landscapers and ground-workers have their own vocabulary and methods to describe their work.  Environmental scientists use survey methods and a specific terminology to describe peat formation and the different processes at play in wetlands. For a walker, a mountain-biker or hill-runner, the chances are that peatlands are part of your life. We may be aware of mosses tacitly, as a squelchy surface to negotiate – or as a topic of poetry, of creative writing, and of natural histories.

A peat core offers an environmental archive reaching down to the boulder clay deposited when the last glaciers melted. What can be done with this peat core? It is a scientific tool that can also prompt us to imagine a wetland landscape as layers of its former self.

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Taking a peat core on Kirkconnel Flow with Dr. Lauren Parry, 2016

How else can we get to know peatlands better? How can we look attentively, see what processes are at work, and make new connections? How can we also relate to a sense of peatlands strangeness?

You are welcome to join the workshop leaders as they explain their respective methods of looking closely at the plants that make up the living layer of moss. As part of a Masters of Research programme at Edinburgh College of Art, Kate has focused on the scope of drawing to complement Emily’s botanical survey methods. How might we become sensitive to ‘habitat’ as an action space, and think of landscape as ‘overlain living arrangements’ of many different species?

You are also welcome to take this time for your own investigation. Please keep equipment simple, given field conditions and limited time.

Any queries, just get it touch.

If you would like to try Kate’s field-drawing method, please ask for a pack.

Contact: katefoster@meansealevel.net

Further information

Crichton Carbon Centre

Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership

Kate Foster’s drawing research blog



Peat Cultures at New Networks for Nature, November 2018


This presentation was given at New Networks for Nature Conference on 17 November, 2018. Please note image credit and collaboration details on the slides.

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I’m an independent environmental artist working on a project called Peat Cultures to contribute to a peatland restoration programme in SW Scotland. Things began last summer at the end of the drought, with a workshop to Silver Flowe – a remote raised bog in Galloway that now is within a forestry plantation. This was my suggestion for a ‘postcard from a bog’.

Silver Flowe is described as ‘One of the least interrupted and undisturbed mire systems in Europe’. It is a reference point for restoration work in the area.

This presentation is about working with peat as a material. I will say something about discovering the strange properties of bogs and also mention some earlier explorations of haunting and atmospheric presences of moorlands.

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The slide above shows more of the activities on Silver Flowe, including this panorama by another workshop participant. We heard a reading from a Victorian romantic novel about this supposedly bleak and dismal place which is now valued as a Ramsar site, an international designation. We learnt how deep the bog is (see bottom left, the probe stretching into the sky). You need to look close-up to identify bog moss – this sphagnum clump had responded to an earlier fire by growing several heads (shown in my drawing). There was also the tantalising possibility of stepping accidentally into a peat pipe and disappearing into the mire system (bottom right).

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Sphagnum does not just live in the bog, but is the bog! Bog moss creates conditions for its own growth, and helps generate a mosaic landscape on a wide scale. Sadly it is now rare to find an undisturbed transition from moorland to native woodland – or to hear the call of waders in summer, that was a quintessential sound of peatland.

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Bog moss has a tremendous capacity to absorb water, explaining its various traditional uses. If you drop a dry strand in water you can see its cells fill, as people could do at a group exhibition (called Submerge) that took place in Dumfries during the Paris Climate talks. The flood-prone River Nith burst its banks in the town centre that same week; it was a timely moment to talk about the absorbent qualities of mosses!

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This slide shows some sketches made in anticipation of a peat core workshop, using information supplied by the research scientist who gave a demonstration. It’s a tidied-up version of my studio wall. Peat gives a timescale to think with, as moss successively replaces itself. A pollen record is one way a peatbog creates an environmental archive – expressed poetically by Seumas Heaney.

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Walking over the bog, we felt it quake – experiencing how the living mossy layer is like a cap over a lens of water. The peat was 6 metres deep, which represents 6 000 years of growth. It’s texture changed as we neared the bottom of the bog – reaching the boulder clay deposited when the last glaciers melted.

This was the first day of a Borderlands network meeting that I co-ordinated, a series of gatherings prompted by New Networks. The next day we went – with the peat core – to Dumfries town centre for a series of talks on Wetlands and Questions of Scale.

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These two maps – from SNH and the IUCN – show peatland’s extent. In Scotland, Galloway bog mentioned here are in the deep purple bit in the south west. The world map shows that peat is also concentrated in SE Asia which is preoccupying, because this is where most of the world’s palm oil comes from.

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Many agencies, including those who drew up the maps, are now focussing on peatland restoration. These are extracts from presentations at a very busy IUCN Peatland Programme conference last month. They emphasise the value of restored peatland, using the frame of ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ offered.

My concern might be, rather, less tangible, intrinsic values, that can be forgotten or ignored.

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As this quote says, current restoration is a reverse of public policy. On the ground, considerable expertise is developing to block drains that were dug in earlier decades.

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Despite this public and voluntary effort, peat is still extracted as a commodity, including for horticulture. This site in Midlothian is on the same peatbog as an SSSI and an atmospheric research facility. Continued extraction until 2042 was recently approved – this is on quite a different scale to traditional peat cutting.

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Peatland’s role in storing carbon is a strong motive for restoration. The restoration of South Dee is led by Emily Taylor of the Crichton Carbon Centre. The team are very committed to working with different local stakeholders, generating local understanding, and tailoring land use to small scale variation in landscape.

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I am one of now many artists whose work concerns peat and peatland restoration. My project aims include profiling existing community culture skills and knowledge, as well developing new artwork during the restoration. The programme is to include an event with another Landscape Partnership presenting and reflecting on art practice.

As the artist Helmut Lemke suggested, the question “why not collaborate?” (rather than why collaborate) should be a guide to practice.

These are anticipatory sketches – altered pamphlets – as I prepare for fieldwork.

So far, I have described efforts to restore peatland’s expansive, fluid and living properties, and suggested some tangible ways of perceiving them.

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I will now describe earlier steps on a path to moorlands and peatland. Firstly, Disposition, in 2003, was one of a series of projects which drew out the unique history of zoological specimens. The University of Glasgow Museum label, attached to the skin of this female hen harrier, noted it had been killed in the 1920s in Reay Forest, a large shooting estate now belonging to the Duke of Westminster and formerly the Duke of Sutherland.

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With this label as a guide, I travelled with the dead bird and retraced her journey past Macpherson’s former taxidermy shop in Inverness, where the bird had been turned into an ornithological study specimen and placed on a stick.

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Going further north to the estate village of Achfary, I went to the point on the map called Reay Forest and found this spruce plantation – territory which would be useless to hen harriers who are ground nesting birds. I was fortunate to meet an estate ‘ghillie’ whose father was head gamekeeper in the 1920s. He was sure that if it had been his father who shot the bird, he would have known about it: there would have been a financial bounty. So what happened? Most likely, he thought, the bird was in passage, and had been shot by a ‘gun’ – a gentleman guest. When the Gun discovered how much taxidermy cost, he must have abandoned his idea of a mounted bird and left his kill in Macphersons taxidermy shop on his way south. From there, the bird was purchased for the new University of Glasgow museum.

Back in the museum, I exhibited this photo.

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The bird herself lay on a swatch of Westminster Tweed generously donated by the estate factor. Tweed was, apocryphally, created as a local disguise for the hunting fraternity; you can see what a good camouflage it is for the female specimen. This rather spectral bird held me in a tight grip and her afterlife also inspired work by cultural geographers Merle Patchett and Hayden Lorimer, coining the phrase “hollow eyed harrier”.

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This next project (see above) was called Flux Chamber, involving a biogeochemist – Susan Waldron – who is keen for people to learn to see carbon landscapes, and an environmental scholar, David Borthwick. We piloted a guide to help people see carbon ‘in flow and in flux’ between its reservoirs of air, water, and soil when you walk along a peaty upland river. As David wrote:

carbon moves

at a variable rate of exchange

it is stock and commodity

it is hard asset and liquid currency

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This page reflects on carbon’s integral part in life – a caddisfly larva as:

a tiny sequestration sealed for instar

– pupation for take off.

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I now will reflect on how we have ‘ghost hectares’ – how in the west we consume product of tropical peatlands which are cleared to plant trees for palm oil and pulp. I worked on the Submerge exhibition with Nadiah Rosli, then a Malaysian postgraduate student, who wanted to communicate the impact of illegal burning of tropical forest in Indonesia. The satellite image shows a smoke haze of pollution right across the continent in 2015. Nadiah described her relief to arrive in Scotland – to see blue skies and to breathe deeply. She conveyed a sense of what being part of Generation Haze meant, by showing  social media images from her friends and family, experiencing painfully polluted toxic air. Even birdsong stopped. Yet this grotesque new annual season is now normalised. How should we proceed with this awareness?

NNN kf FINAL.020Given wetlands changing reputation and fortune, it is a challenge to see current, and former wetlands, as places of both life and death. To quote ecocritic Rod Giblett, the challenge is to be ‘To be poetic, but not romanticist, and ecological, but not mechanistic.’

Dutch peat cultures

This blogpost is compiled by Kate Foster, incorporating information from Dr. Roy van Beek (Home Turf Project, Wageningen University) and Martin Versteeg (Scheepsvaart Museum in Amsterdam).

This is an introduction to Dutch peat cultures with suggestions of places to visit.

As mentioned in the last post, a Dutch workforce introduced a system of drains and rows to Southern Scotland, using new kinds of hand tools. This industrialised approach was a response to rising demand for peat in Scotland, including as litter for horses working in the cities. André Berry (a speaker from Natural England) described this at Annan Museum, in his overview of the long history of peat use in Britain and the changing technologies of peat extraction.

I was intrigued by this Dutch reference. I often visit the Netherlands but have never been introduced to its peat cultures. I have much to learn! Extensive raised bogs developed across the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in the Holocene, just as they did in Scotland.

Earlier this month I was pleased to meet members of the Home Turf Project – a new interdisciplinary project at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.  This five-year project will offer ‘an integrated approach to the long-term development, cultural connections and heritage management of Dutch raised bogs.’ Dr. Roy van Beek is leading different studies on how bog landscapes can be followed through time, and how these patterns relate to human activity, focusing on the ‘upland’ parts of eastern Netherlands and neighbouring countries.

“The large majority of Dutch bogs (over 90%) has already disappeared due to peat-cutting and reclamations, and the remainder is under major threat from climate change, agriculture, desiccation and pollution. Therefore we aim to design proactive strategies for the sustainable management of bog-related cultural remains.”

Ref: http://www.boglandscapes.eu/project.html (Accessed 19.7.2018)

Historically, there were two main Dutch peat cutting areas. In the northeast,  hoogveen, or “high peat” (similar to rasied bog or mire) was extracted. In the western and cetnral areas the Dutch also cut laagveen – or “low peat” – which lay under the water level. This could be called fen in English. In Dutch this kind of land is known as the veenweidegebied.

My ideas for a future Peat Cultures tour of the eastern “high peat” grew with the help of the Home Turf team. Furthermore, Martin Versteeg (librarian at the Scheepsvaart Museum in Amsterdam), kindly provided information about the maritime history of “low peat” extraction in the west of the country.

The Dutch word for peat is veen, and many place-names bear witness to its historic presence.

The Bourtangerveen was an extensive area straddling the north-eastern Dutch province of Drenthe and Lower Saxony in Germany. It was originally perhaps 3000 km square; now 140 km2 have been restored to form a trans-boundary nature reserve called the Bargerveen.  Restored landscape can also be seen at a reserve at Fochteloerveen (of interest to birders too). You can also see peatlands in the Belgian Hautes Fagnes . The Veenpark museum features historical methods of peat extraction.

Peat was used for fuel and construction. Extraction has stopped in the Netherlands but memories and traces of peat digging and peat culture survive. When I started asking about peat, in-laws and friends told various stories. One grandfather had to travel away from home to dig peat for a wage when the farm income was low. Other family members had been involved in the trade in peat. The poverty, and also the radical politics surrounding peat-digging in the nineteenth century, was remembered. This is shown in a recent musical inspired by a book by Suzanna Jansen based on her family history; the title translates as ‘Pauper’s Paradise’ and is set in a Benevolent Society colony (that later served as a prison).

To travel further back in time, the Drenthe museum in Assen has a collection of prehistoric artefacts as well as bog-bodies, of whom the Yde Girl is the most famous. The Emsland Moor Museum in Germany is another place for peatland historians to visit.

Laagveen was extracted by being dredged, until the invention of mechanical peat cutters.

Image of mechanical peat cutter courtesy of Martin Versteeg / Vinkeveen Museum

The following quote shows that even with the new machines, much labour went into extracting low peat:


 “These machines cut large quantities of peat along the logger using a sort of cage with a sharp bottom end that was pushed a few meters deep into the peat and hoisted, full of peat, and dumped into the ship where it was mixed with water to swallow. Subsequently, it was poured onto the layers through the drain pipe between mounted partitions. There the peat slice was dried and then crushed by peat-workers with flat wooden shoes and sticks for both hands to prevent falling into the peat, then cut and put on piles to dry further. The low peat had a fixed size of about 150x60x60 mm.
The dried peat pieces were transported into a ship with the aid of wicker baskets and transported to the buyers; peat was called brown gold at that time, similar to the current oil.”

Martin Versteeg, Scheepsvaart Museum, Amsterdam.

The last peat cutter will in due course be redisplayed at Veenmuseum Vinkeveen (the museum is currently relocating). The image below, from the 1740s, shows the older dredging technique.

Photo credit: Martin Versteeg, of a painting by  J.G. Philips,  1741, Vinkeveen Museum.

The turf was transported by boat which, according to the image below, could also be an arduous process.

Photo credit: Martin Versteeg, of an image in Scheepsvaartmuseum Sneek.

Maritime history for the peat industry can be found at the Scheepvaartmuseum Sneek in the northern province of Friesland. In Amsterdam you can walk by boats moored next to the Scheepsvaartmuseum several of which were involved in transporting peat.

Photo of the bows of the klipperaak “Anna” moored in Amsterdam and built in 1911, used mainly to transport peat from Zwartsluis and Kampen.
Photo of the stevenaak “Maria” moored in Amsterdam and built in 1879 and used in the Zwolle area to transport mainly peat between 1925 and 1958.

You can also access the resource of www.maritiemdigitaal.nl.

And how have contemporary artists responded? One project took place in 2003; an international group of artists were commissioned to respond to the Dutch peat landscape, with the project PeatPolis documented here.

André Berry also made the point that as we look at the landscape now, it is hard to conceive just how expansive peatlands were prior to industrialised reclamation and extraction. Learning about some of the techniques used is one way to help imagine what has been removed from the landscape.

I am solely responsible for any inadvertent errors in this blogpost; please feel welcome to leave a comment or contact me by email.

Kate Foster  art@meansealevel.net








Eco/art/scot/land blogpost: Engaging with peatland restoration – Embedded Art practices within Landscape Partnerships

Eco/art/scot/land is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. The website has recently published an article by Kerry Morrison and myself (Kate Foster) inviting people to ‘watch this space’ for our involvement in restoration work on blanket peatland and raised bogs. This work will be carried out by three Landscape Partnerships in Southern Scotland and Northern England that have been recently funded by the Heritage Lottery Landscape Partnership Fund. Collaborative contacts between the project officers and project artists were launched with a ‘Great Peat Meet’ in Galloway in November 2017. The article gives details of the art projects’ background and proposed activities.

Here is a link to the blogpost: ecoartnetscotland.net article


Image source: http://www.gallowayglens.org/2017/11/