Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Going to the tatties

The seventh instalment of my People's Friend serial A Time to Reap, set in a Highland farming community in 1963, will be published this week (available 17 August 16). 

To give readers of this blog some related bonus material I first of all asked my cousin David Allison, who farmed in that era, to describe how haystacks were made – which he did here in a post that garnered a huge number of views (it was especially popular in Russia).

In this second guest post, find out from farming historian Dr Heather Holmes about 'Going to the tatties':

For many children in rural Scotland ‘going to the tatties’ was a right of passage. If you ask former tattie pickers, gatherers, or howkers about their experiences they will usually get quite animated: ‘Oh, it was backbreaking work!’ or ‘It was a great laugh; we had a great time!’ They will tell you about the highs and lows of the work. Their memories are as clear as if they had only just been at the work. 

Children played an important role in harvesting the potato crop until well through the twentieth century. They gathered potatoes which had been uncovered from the drills in which they grew by machines such as the spinner digger or elevator digger. Their filled baskets of potatoes were emptied into carts or trailers, or tattie boxes by the farm staff.

Their work was organised by ‘stents’, marked out by a twig or stick. Each child, or a pair, was given a stent. A stent was a section of the length of the field, divided equally by the number of children employed. Where there was only a small squad, stents were longer. They could be tiresome to pick or gather before the digger came back down the field to dig the next drill.  If you got a longer stent than your neighbour you knew about it! They could cause disagreements and fall-outs!

In some parts of the country, such as Fife, Perthshire, and Angus, children (and women) were the main source of casual labour to gather the potato crop. As they were locally employed, farmers depended on the local school population of young teenagers, though some were younger. In these, and other districts, from the 1870s schools closed their doors from a week to as long as a month in October to let the children participate in the work. Had they remained open, they would have been empty and the attendance officer chasing the children out of the fields. And the farmers would have been none too pleased either!

Where smaller numbers were employed, another system was used. From 1901 tattie exemptions were used to allow individual children to be released from school for the work; the school remained in session during the time of ‘the tatties’.  Some school boards attached conditions to them, such as near-perfect school attendance for the rest of the year or economic need, with the family requiring the income from the work. Many a Christmas present, boots and coats were paid for by work at the tatties. So too were a few treats.

While tattie exemptions continued to be used until 1962, tattie holidays became an institutionalised custom, with the term ‘tattie holiday’ being used long after children were no longer employed, replaced by mechanical harvesters. The term became synonymous with going to the tatties. For many children it was the first experience of paid-employment. It really was a rite of passage!  

(Photos taken at Blair Mains, Culross, Fife, in October 1990. © Heather Holmes)

For more about the potato harvest, see Heather Holmes: “As good as a holiday”: Potato harvesting in the Lothians from 1870 to the present

And see also:


  1. I served my time on the tattie fields in the 1960s. Yes it was back-aching, and if you were unlucky enough to pick up a rotten potato...yuk! One of the rewards was you were unofficially allowed to take home a 'boiling' of potatoes - that was when you filled your 'piece' bag with potatoes after the last break in the afternoon. I remember my first pay and getting a ten bob note for the first time in my life.
    Heather Holmes was very helpful to me too when I was researching for a piece of writing. I have a copy of the book you've highlighted, and another one of Heather's. I'm really enjoying the serial Kate.

  2. Happy memories, Anne. I remember what riches a ten bob note seemed! Thanks, re serial. Last instalment out tomorrow.