To record the life of Irish tattie hokers in Scotland is to chronicle

determination, exploitation and deprivation

Oh, the far twatie fields are calling in the springs

Where a Scotch laird hollers down the files,

An a madman moans about the children o' the kings,

That are starvin' on the magic o' the isles.

THIS verse captures the flavour of a folklife which Anne O'Dowd has

carved into permanent socio-historical form in her magisterial work on

the Irish harvesters and potato pickers, who for so long were a

prominent and often colourful feature of Scottish rural life.

According to Dr O'Dowd, the vast majority of Irish migratory labourers

between 1835-1915 found work in either Scotland or England -- the

movement to Scotland being predominantly from Ulster counties but also

from parts of Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Longford.

She traces the trails of the first workers back to Napoleonic Wars:

reapers visiting Roxburgh, Berwick and the Lothians for the early

harvest, travelling north west as the harvest ripened in Stirling, along

the Forth valley, the southern borders of Fife to the Carse of Gowrie in


''In the early years of the nineteenth century the usual procedure was

to assemble at 4am or 5am on market squares such as Glasgow Cross or

Edinburgh's Grassmarket,'' she explains. ''Kelso was also an important

hiring town.

'' 'Feeing' '' fairs were held at various periods during the year in

practically every county in Scotland and certainly Irish workers

attended some of these during their stay in Scotland.

''By carrying a bundle of spare clothing the migrants signalled their

availability for work. Sometimes the bundle was wrapped in a red

handkerchief and other times the clothes were simply wrapped in a square

piece of cloth tied at the four corners.

''The workers often carried their tools of trade with them. The

reaping hooks and scythes were covered with sugan ropes or strips of

canvas and corks were stuck on the tips of the scythes and the hay pikes

and forks to prevent accidents and lessen the chances of the tools being

used as dangerous weapons.

''It was quite common for the potato diggers to tie their bundles to

their spades, or loys and they were instantly recognised as unemployed

workers as soon as they arrived in the town on market or fair days.

''The emblem carried by those advertising that they were available for

hiring was usually either a stick or a straw. The stick was sometimes

described as a white rod, ie a peeled sally and willow rod. The straw

was either sewn to some item of clothing, chewed in the mouth or held in

the hand.

''At most of the hiring fairs once the bargain was agreed it was

sealed with a money-token -- a form of luck money known as either

'earls' or 'earnest'. The amount varied from about a shilling to half a

crown and as much as five or even 10 shillings over the years.''

Dr O'Dowd reckons that by the 1860s Irish tattie hokers were ousting

native workers from the Scottish potato fields. ''By the beginning of

this century nearly all the tattie hokers arriving each year to work at

the potato harvest in Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Dunbarton, Perth and Fife

came from Achill Island and Belmullet in Mayo and the Donegal islands.

''The Donegalmen especially were travelling as farm labourers doing

turnip thinning, hay-making, corn-harvesting and potato lifting in West

Lothian, Peeblesshire, Selkirkshire, Roxburgh, Berwick and Galloway.

By 1905 there were still thousands of them making the annual journey

and their earnings, which formed part of the household income of Achill

and Donegal islanders until the 1950s.''

The potato squads from Donegal and Mayo started the season at the end

of May or early June and would finish in late November. Disembarking at

west-coast ports such as Stranraer,

Greenock, or Glasgow's Broomielaw, they began the early potato harvest

in Ayrshire and Wigtownshire, continuing north and east to Bute,

Renfrewshire, and Dunbarton, on northwards and eastwards through the

Lothians to end the main crop harvest season in Fife and Perthshire.

The gaffer system was especially used in employing squads of potato

diggers to work at the harvest in Scotland. The merchants who bought the

crops from the farmers wrote in advance to the gaffers in Donegal and

Mayo asking them to organise the gangs for a particular date.

''Neither the merchants nor the farmers had any contact with the

workers themselves and both their wages and conditions of work were

organised by the gaffer,'' Dr O'Dowd says. ''Items such as blankets,

fuel and light had to be provided by the merchants.''

The most common housing arrangements for the tattie hokers was the

bothy system under which both males and females were accommodated in

makeshift and often uncomfortable barracks on the farm. Bothies were

usually cleaned-out cow byres or empty storehouses.

The Donegal writer, Patrick MacGill, graphically describes how bad

conditions were in a bothy in Rothesay, which smelt of cow-dung but

which afforded a vault for a fire for cooking food and drying sodden


''One blanket apiece was supplied to us by the potato merchant, and by

sleeping two in a bed the extra blanket was made to serve the purpose of

a sheet. We managed to make ourselves comfortable by sewing bags

together in the form of a coverlet and placing the makeshift quilts over

our bodies . . .

''But the life was brutal, and almost unfit for animals. One night

when we were asleep in a barn the rain came through the roof and flooded

the earthen floor to a depth of several inches. Our beds being wet

through, we had to rise and stand for the remainder of the night

knee-deep in the cold water. When morning came we went out to work in

the wet fields. Once when living in a pigsty we were bothered by rats.''

The bad conditions were investigated in the 1912 Royal Commission of

Housing which issued a report five years later, but whose

recommendations were virtually ignored by the farmers and merchants. The

investigation found no problems in the communal sleeping quarters,

judging the conduct of the Irish male and female workers to be

''exemplary'' and their standards of morality high.

To force improvements the workers in 1918 staged a strike and refused

to travel to Scotland until the potato merchants met their demands.

Peader O'Donnell, the Donegal-born writer and social agitator, soon

realised that the workers themselves were not organised well. Credit for

small improvements made in later years was due to Joe Duncan of the

Scottish Farm Servant Workers' Union.

The most famous disaster was the bothy-fire in Kirkintilloch in 1937

in which 11 Irish men and boys died. The public outrage at this disaster

forced the British and Irish governments to seek improvements for the

Irish seasonal migrant workers.

Men and women from Ballina and Mulrany, Co Mayo, still worked as

tattie hokers in the 1980s, but their conditions and pay are much

improved compared to a century ago. That change is best summed up by

James Fulton jun., a Glasgow potato merchant, who described his farm

bothy as ''the Butlins of bothies''.