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The PLANTING and cultivation of POTATOES: an insight into a Scottish, early 1900s perspective

Planting potatoes on the west coast of Scotland circa 1905 from an unprovenanced postcard. The man is using a “caschrom” or foot plough to cultivate the row as the woman sets the potato seed. The latter looks as if the tubers have been cut to grow more than one plant.

Since the early 1800s, Scotland has had a reputation for growing potatoes. Apart from providing a staple food for the population, it had a reputation for providing “Scotch Seed” for across the United Kingdom. Prior to the First World War, and after, there were endless varieties with imaginative names including: Arran Chief, Ajax, British Queen, Abundance, Farmers Glory, Joanie Deans, Maincrop, Sharpe’s Victor, Thane of Fife, Up-To-Date, Pioneers, Warriors, Mayfield Blossoms, Duke of York, &c.

Into the 1800s, the principal way of cultivating potatoes on a farm, was to draw out “Drills” or “Ridges” in well cultivated land with a double mouldboard “drill” or “ridging” plough. Subsequently, potato seed was either planted or “set” in the ridge troughs, before the initial ridges were split with the same plough, creating a new ridge over the seed.

“Drill” or ridging plough made by Robert Begg & Son at their Dalry implement works, Ayrshire, Scotland. The anchor looking fitting is a marker that scratches the adjacent cultivated ground, indicating the line of the next drill to be drawn out. The marker is flipped to the relevant side dependent on the direction of working. This plough weighed 210 Lbs or 96 Kg.

Above: Drawing out “drills” or ridges with a “drill plough”, Scotland circa 1900. 

Following the initial drawing out of the drills, planting the seed would follow.  Principally this was a manual task, often carried out by local women and children.  Sacks of seed potatoes were brought to the field by horse and cart, and distributed through the field where the planters could replenish their baskets or other receptacles in readiness for “setting out” at the required space … often considered a boot’s length.

Before the First World War, in 1906 there was a notable Scottish effort to mechanise planting.  As shown, this was the ‘Richmond’s Patent Potato Planter’ invented by Mr. Richmond of Fife, by whom manufacture was granted to Wallace & Sons of Glasgow. In the ‘St. Andrew’s Citizen’ newspaper of November 17th, 1906, it stated: “It is claimed that with a lad and a horse it can plant from 7 to 8 acres a day – the work of 7 to 8 people.”  By 1915, potato planters became more desirable, and the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland held a potato planter trial of six machines.  Two of those were the Wallace ‘Richmond’ models.  A two-row planter priced at £15 15s, and a one-row planter with a fertiliser attachment at £15. There is an example of this rare two-row machine at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Scotland. Horse drawn with the mechanism driven by the “cage wheels”, endless chains with cups, picked up seed potatoes from the hoppers, and fed them down the cast iron pipes to the bottom of the drills.  After that, the drills had to be split with a drill plough to cover them over.

The Richmond Patent two-row potato planter made by John Wallace & Sons of Glasgow at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore.

In the foreground of the right-hand Highland Folk Museum image is a pair of “saddle harrows”. Once the potatoes were planted and covered, cultivation was carried out to control weed growth when the potato plants started to grow. For the bottom of the “drill” rows, the cultivation was carried out using a light, one-horse, adjustable width drill hoe or cultivator. However, for the tops of the moulded drill’s, this was done with saddle harrows before the potato tops grew too much.

Saddle drill harrows in use just as the crop is starting to emerge at the top of the drills.

Possibly splitting the drills after planting, Scotland circa 1920s.  However, sometimes after weed control cultivation, the drills were reformed using a lighter drill or “baulking” plough.

At the start of this article, I refer to the names of some of the potato varieties

that were readily available in Scotland. To indicate the wide range of varieties, the

following is an informative postcard which lists some of the Scottish seed varieties

that were available in 1937 from seed growers Dobbie & Co., Edinburgh. These

could have been sent to any part of the United Kingdom, or indeed further afield, in

hessian (“burlap” in North America) sacks which usually and proudly incorporated

the legend “Scottish Seed Potatoes.”

Finally, considering the card, started me thinking about the varieties of

potatoes that meant something to me. As a boy in the 1950s in Ireland, the potatoes

or “spuds” we liked had a cooked texture we termed “floury”. The principal varieties

we as a family preferred were “Skerry” and “British Queens”. Boiled in their “jackets”

(skins), they would break open to reveal that tasty floury texture to which would be

added a good “knob” of real butter. In the later 60s, now in Cambridgeshire, England

where the best “taters” came out of the peat Fenlands, it was the “King Edwards” we

preferred. I have memories of my mother sending me to buy “half a stone” or 7

pounds weight of “Edwards”. They boiled well but also made great roast potatoes.

Of course, as the years progressed, the varieties changed, and the “Maris Piper”

became an all-round favourite. When I first worked in the Scottish Highlands in the

1980s, to me the local “King Edwards” were not a patch on the Fenland ones. To me

it was the soil and climate that made such a difference, but I had a new liking for the

Scottish “Kerr’s Pink” variety. On returning to Scotland and the Highland Folk

Museum in the late 1990s where I was responsible for growing up to an acre of

“tatties”, it was back to “British Queens”, “Kerr’s Pink” and “King Edwards” as

favourites although alongside others such as “Duke of York”, “Redskins”, “Bute

Blues”, “Shetland Black”, and the salad variety “Pink Fir Apple”. These days, I will

confess to a personal liking for the very successful commercial variety called

“Rooster” from the Scottish suppliers Albert Bartlett, established in 1948. Are you as

fussy as I am about your “spuds”, “taters”, “tatties” or whatever you call them?

Maybe I am just a partially stereotypical Irishman!

REFERENCE: ‘The Begg Plough, Illustrated Catalogue of Ploughs and Field Implements’, date 19--. Robert Begg & Son, Implement Works, Dalry, Ayrshire, Scotland.

Text prepared by: Bob Powell, Kingussie, Scotland. May 2024.


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