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Morton Schools Project – Sciences (ages 11–14)

We suggest that these activities would be most suitable for pupils aged 11–14, but please feel free to explore all the articles in this series.

The photographs in this article are part of the Margaret Fay Shaw Collection, and were taken between 1929–38 in the Western Isles of Scotland. They show people harvesting, collecting and carrying peat, and the peat being stacked and stored on the land. In this series of activities, we’ll be using these images of peat to think about changing attitudes and practices regarding energy use and sustainability in Scotland.

In 2019, the Scottish government introduced landmark legislation in which they committed to ‘evidence-based action’ to ensure that Scotland achieves ‘net zero’ by 2045. Net zero means that the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions would be equal to or less than the emissions the UK removed from the environment. This is slightly ahead of the 2050 target agreed by the British government, which was also enshrined in legislation last year. In this set of activities, we’ll be thinking more about this decision and its implications for energy use and sustainability in Scotland.

The times suggested beside each activity are intended to be a guideline; you’re welcome to spend as much time on each activity as you like.

Black and white photo of two women at a spinning wheel with a large peat stack in the background.
A large peat stack is visible behind these two women on Uibhist a Deas (South Uist). Peat stacks were a part of the environment of the islands in the 1930s (© National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

Activity 1

(5–15 minutes)

Using online resources, books, and your own knowledge, write definitions for the following words and phrases:

  • Fossil fuels
  • Greenhouse gasses
  • Renewable energy
  • Non-renewable energy
  • The carbon cycle

Activity 2

(15–30 minutes)

Peat is a fossil fuel which forms a substantial part of the landscape of northern Europe, particularly across Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia. Using online resources, books and your own knowledge, draw a diagram explaining how peat is created. Refer to the formation of other fossil fuels, such as natural gas, oil and coal to help you.

Once you have completed your diagram, write a short explanation of the carbon cycle, considering how fossil fuels sit in this process.

Black and white photograph of men cutting peat in a landscape.
Seonaidh Caimbeul (Seonaidh Campbell), Dòmhnall MacRath (Donald MacRae) and Aonghais Bhig (Angus Ruadh Campbell) cutting peat on Uibhist a Deas (South Uist) (©National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

Activity 3

(5–15 minutes)

Using online resources, books and your own knowledge, write definitions for the following words and phrases:

  • Carbon neutral
  • Carbon capture
  • Carbon stores
  • Peat regeneration

Activity 4

(15–30 minutes)

Why is it important for the Scottish government to set targets relating to net zero? Using online resources, books and your own knowledge write down a list of ways in which greenhouse gasses (such as carbon dioxide) affect the environment. For each answer, include an example of how this will specifically affect Scotland. Think about:

  • People
  • Landscapes
  • Wildlife

If you’d like to take this further, you could look at news sources to find specific examples of the ways in which these changes have already begun to have an effect. In each case, remember to be critical of the information you’re reading. As you read, consider the following questions:

  • Is this a trusted news source?
  • Is this news source biased?
  • How does the article use scientific data to support its claims and arguments?
Black and white photograph of two mean cutting peat in a landscape.
Dòmhnall MacRath (Donald MacRae) and a man cutting peat on Uibhist a Deas (South Uist). The man on the right holds a treisgeir, or peat cutter (© National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

Activity 5

(30–60+ minutes)

Imagine that you have been asked to provide information to a panel of Scottish Ministers and MSPs regarding the role of peat in Scotland’s plans to achieve net zero by 2045. Pick one of the following research questions:

  • Should energy generated from burning peat be a part of Scotland’s future as a net zero society? If yes, how does it compare to other potential energy sources? If not, what energy sources would be good alternatives?
  • Highland and island communities in Scotland have traditionally relied on peat as a fuel and energy source. What energy sources do you think could replace them for Scotland to become a net zero society by 2045?
  • While it’s less commonly burnt in private homes and residences, Scottish peat is still harvested and sold for a number of purposes. Research some of these purposes to find out how peat is used in the 21st century. Once you have done this, consider this question: how and why should the Scottish government reduce the peat harvesting industry?
  • How could peat restoration help the Scottish government to reach net zero?

Once you have chosen a question and carried out some research, present your findings in one of these three ways. If you’re able to contact your friends and classmates remotely, you could also consider splitting up the subject areas to create a collaborative presentation:

  • Create a poster summarising you arguments.
  • Write a speech to be delivered to the panel.
  • Create a video of you presenting your arguments to the panel. You could also create a Powerpoint presentation to help support your case.

If you’d like to learn more about the importance of peat to a sustainable Scotland, you could use online resources and books to answer the following questions. Again, if you’re able to contact your friends and classmates remotely, you could also consider splitting up the subject areas to create a collaborative presentation:

  • How do peat bogs assist with water management?
  • What wildlife is dependent on peat bogs?
  • How do peat bogs help us to learn about historic landscapes, animals and people? [Warning: research into this topic may lead you to images of and information regarding the natural preservation of human remains. If this is something you would prefer not to see, then please choose a different research question.]

We’d love to see what you come up with! Feel free to send them to us at @NTSCollections on Twitter or @nationaltrustforscotland on Instagram