I had every intention of firing off a cheery piece to enhance my excitement of our upcoming two weeks break from school known as the October Holidays. Whilst some folk (my husband) still refers to this time of year as the “Tattie Howking”, (‘Tattie’ being potato and ‘Howking’ being to dig up from the ground…i.e. Potato Harvest) and I can see on my daily commute fields of rich green leaves becoming acres of freshly turned soil over night, I nursed the mistaken notion of a happy harvest bounty commemorated in this quaint idiom. Yeah, not so much. Apparently the history of potatoes is just not terribly fun any way you slice it – get it?!
For a quick recap of how the potato come to Europe at all, we need to return to 1532 to the region of Peru/Bolivia in South America with the not-so-welcome arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in search of gold. There is evidence that the potato had been in cultivation in this region for about 3,000 – 7,000 years and may have grown wild for as long as 13,000 years ago. In Jeff Chapman’s, “The Impact of the Potato: The Story of History’s Most Important Vegetable”, he cites Dr. Hector Flores for the extensive use of the potato in Pre-Inca cultures in the Peruvian Andes as well as its representation in Nazca and Chimu pottery.
The Incas had developed a system of dehydrating and mashing the “batata”, (which is actually a sweet potato but the Spanish mis-pronounced it and attached the new word to what we now know as “potato”) into something called chunu. This substance could be stored for up to 10 years and was a welcome insurance against crop failures. The Spanish begrudgingly began to use potatoes as basic rations on their ships, and by 1570 a few Spanish farmers began to cultivate them on a small-scale.
From Spain, the potato made a modest expansion throughout neighbouring European countries for the next two hundred years, but was considered fodder for animals and sustenance for the starving. Even peasants refused this new addition that had arrived from a heathen civilization and suspected it to be linked with witchcraft. This attitude changed for three reasons; by the end 18th century potatoes were often the only crop left after the marauding armies of the various wars had plundered the landscape for grain crops, vineyards and livestock, then there was the growing realisation that the tuber was not harmful but beneficial to health, and finally because of active public relation campaigns from the aristocracy of countries from the USA to Britain, France and even Russia. Active PR efforts included Thomas Jefferson serving potatoes in the White House to Louis XVI sporting a potato flower in his buttonhole, to Marie Antoinette wearing the potato blossom in her hair, and even Catherine the Great and subsequently Tsar Nicolas I enforcing the cultivation of potatoes through edicts, all were trying to elevate the status of the very practical potato.
This top down adoption was motivated for the simple reason that the potato could produce more food using much less land than traditional grains, and was high in nutrients and could help protect against the routine famines that had plagued Europe for so long. So at the dawn of the 19th century, after several centuries of faffing about, the humble potato was gaining in use and statue throughout Europe. From there it help fuel huge population booms and even in part the Industrial Revolution by providing more people with food from a fraction of the land that was once needed to do the job.
In Ireland however, the potato was embraced more completely than by any culture since the Incas. While in other European countries it was finally recognised as an important food, in Ireland it was often the only food. A diet of milk and potatoes can (if need be) provide all the essential nutrients to maintain health, reproduction and decrease infant mortality. By 1840 almost half of the population of Ireland was entirely dependent on the potato which had now narrowed to just one or two high-yielding varieties.
The same blight that caused the Great Famine in Ireland hit Scotland at the same time. Scotland, particularly in the highlands, had begun growing potatoes in earnest after the chieftain of Clanranald returned from a trip to Ireland in 1743. The region had already sustained other famines of the 1690s and 1780, but in what is now known in Scotland as the Highland Potato Famine, saw the emigration of 1.7 million people leaving Scotland between 1846-52. Although hit badly, the potato crops in Scotland did start to recover from 1857 onwards and whilst decimated the economies of Scotland rebounded more quickly than those of their Irish counterparts, in part because of the slightly cooler climes which helped keep the fungus that caused the blight at bay.
Enter the “Tattie Howkers”, the name given to the Irish who would travel to Scotland to help bring in the potato harvest for cash in the wake of the Potato Famines. For the next 90 or so years this would be how the majority of spuds made it from field to shop up until WWII. This was back-breaking work and was often performed by children from the age of 8 years onwards. In the fields from dawn to dusk in the October weather of Scotland – bbbbrrrrrr!
The digger would unearth the potatoes and the Tattie Howkers would walk behind to gather the harvest and load it into the barrels. In addition to the hourly pay you could usually take home as much as you could carry from the fields. Now this remained the general practice of essentially migrant labour up until the 1940s and the arrival of the war. Since one of the most beneficial things about potatoes were that not only could children plant, harvest and even cook potatoes…maybe then it should be children whose job it fell to sustain the harvest.
Here are a few clips from that era to get the children of Britain out there to bring in the spuds, which apparently rot if left in the ground too long. These came with all sorts of severe copyright threats, so I apologise that I can only provide the links to the videos. Do check them out they are a hoot. The first is an animation aimed at Scottish children (tam ‘o shanter, sporran and all) to get them motivated for the job.
This next one seems to be for Glasgow in particular – Don’t worry if you can’t understand what they are saying, you get the basic idea.
This last one is aimed at the larger British population and is a bit easier to understand.
Another serious public relations campaign for the essential potato harvest. This was the new status quo from the war really up until the 1980s, when a combination of very hearty Scots teenagers and some new migrant labourers from Eastern European countries completed the task. My husband still speaks enviously of some friends of his that took part in his youth. You could make enough cold hard cash in that two-week period to buy yourself your own TV for your bedroom – a luxury above all else at the time! Of course all of this labour has now been replaced by machines that can do the work with a fraction of the time and effort.
So, For the next two weeks as I lounge around in my dressing gown until noon, I will give my own quiet homage to not only the worldly and nutritious potato, but also to generations of workers, mainly children, who harvested the crops and to this day allow me a pre-scheduled fortnight off in October. Many thanks!