The Blue Peter Peatbank

28 07 2009

In the mid 1970’s the BBC decided to increase their output of regional programmes for children. The BBC Charter set out a requirement to include the whole of the country in some shape or form, taking account of local regional issues that might be of interest to children.

But what to do to keep kids in the Hebrides ‘involved’? On the back of the success of the Blue Peter Garden, Biddy Baxter the Editor of Blue Peter was keen to explore similar features which could provide long term sustainability and keep the wee maws engaged..

After extensive research (finding a copy of the Stornoway Gazette left on a tube train and seeing a feature about ‘The Most Fashionable Peatstacks of 1973’) the powers at be commissioned a series about the ‘Blue Peter Peatbank’. This was felt to be sufficient to appeal to minority audiences, as well as tick the ‘regional requirement’ box and perhaps provide a few hours of vaguely interesting tv.

The plan was to film regular features from a real peatbank, showing the way it transformed throughout the course of a year, and how peat played an important role in island life.

John Noakes, Peter Purves and Lesley Judd would fly up to Stornoway every so often and would be filmed doing things like turfing, cutting and taking the peats home. Local children would be invited along to help out with the peat cutting and to talk about their pet sheep.

The BBC carried out a number of screen tests on various peatbanks to try and get the most photogenic. After several weeks of tramping over the moors, a small peatbank was chosen at the back of New Valley on the outskirts of Stornoway. This peatbank featured picturesque heather, artistic bogs and a better class of clegs.

The BBC sent John Noakes down to the Crofters Store on Island Road to open a tab and to purchase a tarasgeir and a creel. Two local worthies were chosen to play the ‘Percy Thrower’ role, to provide expert advice on how to cut peat and to stack them neatly. ‘Bogie’ was chosen due to his authentic traditional dress sense (turned down wellies, torn boiler suit and tweed jacket with a half bottle hanging out of the pocket) and his dexterous skill at throwing whilst under the influence of strong drink. His contemporary, ‘Old King Cole’ was chosen for his unique Gaelic burr (which was only later discovered to be English sweary words).

The Blue Peter Peatbank feature ran for less than a year due to complaints from many parents that their children were picking up naughty words from the ‘scary peatmen’ but also from the  political fallout from a long running courtcase involving John Noakes’ dog Shep and several instances of sheep worrying. It was also discoovered that the kids from Laxdale School, who featured regularly in Blue Peter, were being ruthlessly exploited by the BBC who were using them as slave labour to farm vast quantities of peat to power the BBC boilers in Broadcasting House.

The Discovery of the New (and Old) World

21 07 2009

It’s well known that the Vikings have a cast iron claim to have discovered the New World around 1000AD- a good few hundred years before yon Christopher Columbus cove. But it’s a little known fact that Leif Erikson actually set off for the far side of the Atlantic from Lewis. Eric the Red, Leif’s father had been banished from his Sandwick homelands for over claiming his sheep subsidy and had already fled west to discover Greenland in 985AD (mistakenly thinking that it was Ullapool- he was always getting port and starboard mixed up). Some years later, Leif was sent back to Lewis by his old man to stock up on blackpuddings.  However, on his return journey with a longship full of marags, Leif decided to keep on rowing as far west as he could to see where he would end up.

At the same time as Leif was heading west, an intrepid party of Mi’kmaq Indians were setting sail from their homelands in present day Nova Scotia. They were aiming to see how far east they could get before falling off the edge of the world. Under the leadership of their chief Padd’ehh-W’aq, the Native Americans set out in a large raft made out of dug-out Spruce trees.

With friendly waves, the two bands of explorers took their leaves and set out for their respective destinations, buoyed with the knowledge that there was dry land waiting them at either side of the Atlantic and not sudden drops into space.

As fortune would have it, at exactly the same time, some two weeks later, Leif set foot in Newfoundland and Padd’ehh-W’aq set foot in Uig on the Isle of Lewis.The Lewis Vikings made the Mi’kmaq very welcome after hearing that they had passed Leif in mid Atlantic. The Native Americans were showered with gifts of marags and chess pieces by the Vikings and in return the Mi’kmaq gave presents of tweed patterns and a really good recipe for guga.

Before leaving to return to the America’s, the Mi’kmaq chief presented the local Church of Odin with an ornate carved bone amulet depicting the two Atlantic crossings. This notable occasion passed into common folklore as ‘Mi’kmaq Padd’ehh-W’aq Gave A God A Bone’

Roman Stornoway – Part Two of Many

16 07 2009

(Hadrian’s Bridge)

One of the most notable features of Roman Stornoway (or Stordinium) was the bridge crossing the Bayhead River allowing access to Governor Calumigula’s mansion in what are now known as the Castle Grounds.

A natural crossing point, where the Bayhead River enters the harbour, the site was perfect for the erection of a small wooden bridge. The work was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who at this point (AD 120) was attempting greater and greater engineering projects to demonstrate Roman superiority and strength. He started small. ‘Hadrian’s Ditch’ had been completed in the fortified town of Tolstachaoalus in AD 117 along with ‘Hadrian’s Crazy Paving’, and these were followed in quick succession by ‘Hadrian’s Hanging Basket’ (AD 118), ‘Hadrian’s Wooden Decking’ (AD 119) and, near Stordinium, ‘Hadrian’s Well’ (AD 120) – which can still be seen out near Craggan’s Corner.

Desperate to break out of the domestic garden project rut, he attempted his grandest vision yet: A wooden bridge spanning all 25 feet of the width of the Bayhead River. The work was undertaken by a team of young men who congregated regularly at a nearby sports & recreation area- the Sarcalogos Congressus Pubes, a modern incarnation of which has recently been reconstructed on the same site.

The work took several months. It could easily have been done in a weekend if the work team hadn’t spent most of their time skiving off drinking quattuor flos from Cathus Dhallus’ shop and eating gallina suppers from local hostelries and daring each other to walk along the nearby pipework. However, the bridge was finally finished. A local beat combo even composed a song entitled “Sarcalogos Congressus Pubes” in memory of the young men’s efforts. The song was incredibly successful, sparking a dance craze where revelers would form the letters S.C.P. above their heads with their arms and it remains the best known of classical latin poems by Villa Populus.