Movement Heritage

As a Movement Director based in Scotland, my physical and mental journeys within our wild landscapes are the catalyst for my creative practice. Fuelled by long distance bikepacking, wild camping and, sometimes, the luxury of a bothy, these journeys through – and with – landscape teach me more about my story of movement and how I actually want and need to move.

Cycling creates a steady rhythmical pace, pedal after pedal – moving forward, adapting to the landscape. The momentum through effort physically warms my body. My focus shifts. I really see and breathe in the landscape. The perfect speed of the bike, unwinding mentally – the vast space, sounds and elements. 

I have everything I need on my bike – tent, sleeping kit, food, wood in the winter – and I feel strength in this home I carry with me. The endurance of cycling longer distances also changes my perspective on my body. 

Photo: Roddy MacLellan  

Being professionally trained in dance, I used to focus on the physical pressure of performance. I was made hyper aware of my body in front of a mirror from a very young age, in an overly critical way. Expectations were set on how my body should be performing and moving. 

During my first long distance journey on my bike, cycling the length of the Outer Hebrides, I discovered how my own movement should feel. I had been so disconnected from my body, but now, pedalling mile after mile, I found the strength of effort – of movement. 

There is sometimes a preconception with the word dance. It can shut people out with the potentially commercial lens shone on it and it creates an expectation of how people think I should or can move. 

Movement, however, is a more relatable word. We are all movers and read stories of movement every day through body language. This is the way we interpret the majority of our interactions, feelings and intentions. It doesn’t shut anyone out. Anyone who has a body is a mover – move the way you move. 

As a Movement Director, the focus of my work is no longer on choreographed performance, but on the ways in which movement – body language – is a form of conversation and expression. 

On the Outer Hebrides that summer, I was introduced to the warmth of the community, and of course, the landscapes. These have naturally drawn me back to the islands again and again, where  friendships and creative collaborations have begun to form. Through this exposure to community and landscape, I also began to recognise that movement – both creative and cultural – is everywhere. 

There are many communities in Scotland whose daily motions, cultures and traditions are interconnected with their landscapes, and I’ve become drawn to the combined impacts of environment, space and what we hold in our bodies.

Photo: Ana Norrie-Toch

Further journeys through the Outer Hebrides followed, and on returning to the Isle of Lewis in the summer of 2023, my friend, Jon, asked if I would like to come out to the moor to cut peat.

I had seen the stacks, cruach mhonach, by my side as I cycled the roads of Uist, Harris and Lewis, but I’d never really thought about them. From a distance I even thought they were weirdly placed tents at the side of the road, as these stacks were covered in tarp. 

One week later, learning how to cut peat was blowing my mind. 

The rhythm –

transfer weight
muscle memory

The flow state –


The movement.

Photos: Ana Norrie-Toch

Peat cutting is a natural choreography between people, tools and the landscape. Through my own experiences of dance and collaborative movement, I could see clear parallels. 

This enthusiasm grew into my Artist Residency supported by The Work Room, Glasgow. I began my research in collaboration with the community on the Isle of Lewis in the summer months of 2023. 

This included weeks of peat cutting with the community, seasonally timed to be present at each stage of the process, as well as archival research, documenting through video, interviews and collaborative discussion with the local community. 

Photo: Ana Norrie-Toch

Peat cutting is an all-encompassing, circular tradition . . . perhaps even holistic. The knowledge of the season and the weather is vital, and last summer, Lewis sat under blue skies and soaring sea eagles. I couldn’t believe our luck. 

Of course, each is to their own judgement on when it’s best to cut. But, regardless of when you do it, you want to cut and have the sun and wind dry your peats, to harden the outer layer to become waterproof, before the rain or the biting frost comes. Hearing ‘Have you cut your peats?’ was  frequent in conversation with the community. Timing is everything.

Returning to the peats with different members of the community, I recognised that peat cutting goes far beyond simply having fuel to heat your home.

The impact of this annual event is hugely social. Previously, there would be a day for a day. Whole families would cut each other’s peat banks, with no exchange of money. This was an event, looked forward to by the community – with peat bank picnics and peat fires for pots of tea on the moor. I’d been told that tea always tasted best at the peats. It really does.

Rows of peat banks are lined by pairs of people, one cutting with the tool, tairsgeir, and one throwing the cut peat, a’ sadadh. The precise body placement and alignment to tairsgeir, lined up to make the cut into the bank, placing and pushing the heel of the foot on the tairsgeir into the peat to just the right depth. Cutting through this thick, butter-like texture, tilting the tairsgeir allows the cut peat to be passed into the hands of the throwing partner. The strength and momentum to throw, peat after peat. Inhale on the deep lowering of the body to reach for the peat, exhale on the throw. An ebb and flow that builds this partnering rhythm.

Photos: Ana Norrie-Toch

In this partnership of shared labour, I found another parallel: the ease of conversation. Just as I experience some of the truest and most open conversations whilst cycling outdoors (the great leveller), there is a similarity in this vast moorland with peat cutting. This is where, through the shifting of partners, families and friends throughout the community during this day for a day exchange, you are consistently communicating with your community. You are connected to everyone in this open space and flow state of movement.

All this said, it is hard work. This was brought up to me numerous times by a few in the community, in not so fond memories of Saturdays as young school boys woken up at 5am to head out for the day on the peats. But, the conversation seemed to always come back to some kind of love in the effort and the circular meaning within this tradition and connection to community, so that when the next generations grow up, they’ll be able to head out to the moor, too. 

During my residency, I had the privilege of learning and experiencing the following stages of the peat cutting process on Jon’s previously-cut peat bank. The terms below are described in Rathad an Isein – The Bird’s Road, A Lewis Moorland Glossary, edited by Anne Campbell and contributors Finlay Macleod, Donald Morrison and Catriona Campbell.

* Make sure to enlarge to fullscreen using the navigation bar beneath the image!

I see peat cutting as Movement Heritage. Physical artistry, skill and bond that has shaped the land and community over time, continuing now because of the physical movement that has been passed through generations.

At the start of my residency, I was apprehensive about how members of the community were going to receive the way I see their tradition. However, relief and the realisation of how natural this collaboration was going to be came from trusting this universal language of movement. This exchange felt natural. 

While sitting by the peat bank or in the homes of the community on Lewis, drinking tea, most people couldn’t help but get up and physically show me, in their own way, their experience of peat cutting, their bodies always moving, like choreography, arms and hands carving through space to reach that same rhythm that once guided their ancestors along this same bank of moor. I sat with my cup of tea, smiling at the movement heritage in their body.

I was happy to speak with younger families beginning to head out to the moor. Returning to the banks of their parents and grandparents, learning this tradition and keeping it present on the island. Remaining in touch with the moor and that vital understanding of when to cut as a part of a traditional crofting life, this movement heritage has maintained its way in muscle memory of the island and holds its place in the rhythm of the seasons on Lewis.

Photo: Ana Norrie-Toch

Moving forward, I am currently in the process of creating a collaborative film – a movement archive, with and for the people of Lewis – sharing the story of land and community, as it is now through the perspective of movement.

As I continue to journey into landscapes and speak with others impacted by their individual landscape experience, I see how creatively interlinked they are. The way a climber moves, for example, distributing energy, weight and breath, resembles a movement choreography. It is absolute creativity in physically adapting to the environment and elemental factors. 

I am filled with enthusiasm to explore movement stories through that inclusive movement perspective – and I would love to see yours.

Photos: Ana Norrie-Toch

A huge thank you for the continued support from the community on The Isle of Lewis, The Work Room, Glasgow, Museum Nan Eilean, Stornoway, Tina at Grinneabhat, South Bragar, Rob and Alex at Scottish Mountaineering Press, The School of Scottish Studies Archives, Edinburgh.

Anne Campbell for your support and book of wonder.

Special thank you to Jon and Fes for first taking me to the peats – I will never tire of our Peatenders comedy sketches on the moor. 

Sources: Anne Campbell. Rathad an Isein/The Bird’s Road: A Lewis moorland glossary. FARAM, 2013.

Creator’s biography

Ana Norrie-Toch is a Movement Director, Artist and Choreographer based in Edinburgh.

Integral to her creative practice is the influence of body and the journeys within Scotland’s wild landscapes. Within this inclusive space, Ana discovers and researches movement stories of the communities across Scotland – most recently in her Artist Residency: Physical Connections to Landscape through Peat Cutting on the Isle of Lewis, supported by The Work Room.

Ana also works as a Coordinator for the Volunteers and Prison Project at The Bike Station, where the impact of the bike on her life drives her to engage people to be part of the cycling and outdoors community – be that on or off the bike.

Instagram: @movementbyana_