The Frisian Peat Course
On the track of peat bosses, peat cutters and -skippers
The Frisian Peat Course is throughout the world a unique historical course. It’s an extensive system of canals with sluices and bridges in the southeast of the province of Friesland (Netherlands), excavated between 1630 and 1830 for the transport of peat. Peat, dried bog, represented until 1900, when coal was coming on, an important fuel in The Netherlands.
The so-called associates, the cooperating peat bosses, handled the extraction of peat in the vast Frisian low and high moor all around Heerenveen, Gorredijk and Appelscha. The most important – and also most widely known – waterway they excavated is the Opsterlandse Compagnonsvaart (Opsterlandse Associates Course): from Gorredijk up to Appelscha at the Drenthe border, 34 km. Also the partly canalised river Tjonger, flowing from Oosterwolde in westerly direction to Schoterzijl and Kuinre to the former Zuiderzee, constituted and constitutes a part of the Peat Couse. Subsequently smaller unlocking channels were developed, Dutch “wijken” (make ways), Frisian “wiken”.
Sailing and cycling
Thanks to the Foundation De Nije Kompanjons of Friesland, cruisers can follow the ancient track of the peat skippers on waterways, wijken and small rivers, all the way up to Drenthe and Overijssel. If you want to lose yourself in the turbulent and contrasty past, the world of moor and peat, you are welcome in the peat museums of Nij Beets, Gorredijk or Heerenveen. Golden hint: Take your bicycles on board or rent them in one of the villages along the course. Every meaningful place of interest is within cycling or walking distance from the course.
The lords of the moor
You may also enjoy the beauty of the very diversified nature along the Peat Course, which originated at the peat producing areas. The peat bosses left those areas behind as wasteland. Pay a visit for example to ‘De Frije Wiken’ (The Free Wiken), a scenic area with grasslands and fourteen villages, east of Heerenveen. Well-known rural centres are Nieuwe- and Oudehorne and Jubbega.
Characteristic for this elongated area is the partly filled up and today not navigable Schoterlandsche Compagnonsvaart between Heerenveen and Hoornsterzwaag with its numerous side channels, wijken or wiken. The name of the main waterway indicates that the digging of it was initiated by the “lords of the moor.” In 1551 they began, united in the Schoterlandsche Veencompagnie (Moor Company), the digging of the Heerensloot and the Schoterlandsche Compagnonsvaart. An insignificant spot (called “vlecke” in Frisian) became a large prosperous town, thanks to the organized extraction of peat: Heerenveen.
Country of people without hours
It lân fan it folk sûnder oeren, as the Frisians call the area of ‘De Frije Wiken’, east of Heerenveen. In English: The country of the people without hours. In those former times, the peat diggers didn’t have the slightest idea of time. They couldn’t afford watches and the church bells were way out of sight. They worked from 12 up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, suffering miserable work- and housing conditions. They earned a very mere pittance and were forced to purchase their goods in the shops of the peat bosses or to get sloshed in the pubs.
The dreadful situation of the peat diggers and their large families, composed a perfect breeding ground for rebellion and support of the Dutch socialism, founded by Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846-1919). As an ‘apostle of the workers, the minister and freethinker acquired thousands of followers in the Frisian moors. The uproar died down in the course of the years and prosperity came. Now a serene restfulness reigns in the deserted peat moors, such as De Deelen, and in the surrounding woods, heath- and grasslands, criss-crossed by numerous canals and waterways. Time seems to stand still.