By Martin Gleeson
By the beginning of the 1900s nearly all the migrant workers who arrived in the lowland counties of Scotland for the potato harvest had come from Achill Island and Belmullet in Co. Mayo and the islands off Co. Donegal. A smaller number came from Leitrim, Cavan and Longford.
Starting at the very end of May or the beginning of June, many Irish people spent the six months of the summer and autumn picking potatoes.
The huge fields of the Scottish Lowlands can yield as much as 20 tons of potatoes to the acre.
In Ireland, agents called gaffers, acting for the potato picking merchants, hired workers. Men, women and youths as young as 13, very often from the one family, were taken on for the picking season. A senior woman was often added to act as cook. Organised in groups of thirty called ‘squads’, they were transported in cattle lorries.
Many sailed from Larne to Stranraer. They were then taken to the farms where they worked for three or four weeks. When that potato crop was harvested, they would then be moved to another farm. They rarely met the farm owners.
The gaffers, Irishmen, tried to get the tattie hokers to get the job done as quickly as possible and for this reason they were not very popular.
Before mechanisation, forks were used to dig the potatoes. Later mechanical diggers were used to uproot the potatoes and spread them on the soil.
The tattie hokers’ job was to gather up the potatoes from the muddy ground, put them in baskets and bring them to where they were sorted and cleaned. This meant they were constantly bending down doing this mucky work in all weathers.
In later years, two or three workers stood by a conveyor belt and shaker, taking out the potatoes that were too big or too small. These they were fed into bags and were now ready for the market.
When farmers began to use tractors and potato harvester, the tattie hoker era came to an end. Surprisingly, this was not until the late 1970s.