Remembering the ‘tattie holidays’

Tattie howking was a way of life for many in October in Scotland. PIC: Contributed.
Tattie howking was a way of life for many in October in Scotland. PIC: Contributed.
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Freezing mornings, sore hands and muddy sandwiches were all part of life in the fields during the tattie holidays.

For decades, pupils across parts of Scotland provided a vital workforce to farmers during the annual potato harvest.

The tattie holidays brought hundreds of children - and adults - into the fields in parts of Scotland for the harvest. PIC: Contributed.

The tattie holidays brought hundreds of children - and adults - into the fields in parts of Scotland for the harvest. PIC: Contributed.

It was backbreaking work but the little brown wages envelope at the end of the week made it worthwhile - as did getting to spend the day with your pals in the fresh air.

READ MORE: 100 years at the Scottish berries

Long days at the tatties usually started at 7am when a trailer or minibus picked up squads of workers from collection points across towns and villages.

After being dropped in the field, dreels would be split up among the “howkers” depending on their size and experience.

Taking a well-earned rest at the tatties. PIC: Contributed.

Taking a well-earned rest at the tatties. PIC: Contributed.

READ MORE: When the Clyde Valley was once the fruit basket of Scotland

A tractor-drawn spinner would first dig out the tatties and scatter them across the surface.

The howkers would then get to work, gathering up the vegetables in baskets - often laundry baskets - for weighing with the shift usually finishing around 4pm.

In the 1980s, a good hand picker could usually earn around £10 a day with the best worker gathering in around two tonnes of tatties on every shift.

Tattie picking was common until the mid 80s when machines arrived in the field to do the job. PIC: Contributed.

Tattie picking was common until the mid 80s when machines arrived in the field to do the job. PIC: Contributed.

Hard work was made easier by the camaraderie, from the songs sung on the journeys to and from the fields to pack lunches shared by chums.

Sometimes farmers would hand out cups of soup to the workers - and some remember fires being lit to roast tatties.

The tattie holidays began in the 1930s when parents would take their children out of school to help with the harvest. Workers from Ireland had boosted the harvest workforce for decades before.

Schools granted exemptions from class for those children whose parents livelihoods depended on the work but the holidays became increasingly contentious given many pupils would just not show up for class during the harvest.

Forfar Academy was the first secondary school in the country to observe a tattie holiday for all with the rector complaining in 1935 that it was “adversely impacting” pupil studies.

He wanted to scrap the holiday and exempt children from class only under the most pressing of conditions but his plea was refused.

The Provost said: “The country pupil will stay away whether you grant them exemptions of not and I do not blame them if their fathers livelihoods depends on them.”

Tattie holidays later became the norm in other areas. Schools in Alyth shut for the harvest from 1939. Dunfermline pupils joined them in 1940.

But not all parents were happy with school closures.

In Kincardine, parents protested “vigorously” against the three-week shutdown when only 16 per cent of pupils were aged over 13 and allowed to help in the fields.

Nevertheless, around 49,000 pupils took part in the Scottish harvest in 1949.

The issue was raised in the House of Commons in November 1955 by Mr C Thorton Kemsley, MP for North Angus and Mearns.

He wanted schools boards to be able to return to setting potato holidays in accordance with local harvests after a 1947 Act set out a national approach to setting school breaks.

“It cannot be expected that the potatoes will be ready to be gathered at the same time in Midlothian are they are in Kincardine and Angus,” he said.

Tattie holidays were ultimately for the “good of the children,” the MP added.

He told MPs: “After the potato holidays the children come back with new wellington boots and mackintoshes, better shod and better clad to face the winter than if there had not been that additional money going in every home.”

That same year, Dundee education chiefs dropped the tattie holiday claiming it was having a “serious affect” on children’s education.

By then, 3,000 pupils from the city went tattie picking with 72 buses used to transport the workers.

Tattie pickers were generally phased out in the mid to late 1980s as machines appeared in the fields.

They could collect around 200 tonnes a day - leaving even the best howkers surplus to requirements.

The pickers may have long cleared from the fields but in October, in some parts of Scotland at least, the Tattie Holidays will always remain.