Migrant & seasonal workers

Heather Holmes

After 1945, migrant and seasonal workers formed an important though gradually diminishing part of the agricultural labour force in East Lothian. They assisted in a range of cultivation and harvesting activities, especially the latter, for a number of labour-intensive crops, most notably vegetables, grain, and potatoes; the potato crop required a large workforce even until recently. Many of the workers were employed in coastal parishes and low-lying parts of the county, especially where the potato and vegetable crops were extensively grown. In most inland and upland parishes, fewer were employed.

Many groups of workers were employed by farmers, labour contractors and potato merchants to engage in this seasonal work. An important aspect of the labour force, were Irish migratory seasonal workers recruited from north-eastern and western counties of Ireland, who spent a few days, to a few weeks, to many months on East Lothian farms. These included ‘Donegal workers’ – males who undertook general agricultural work – and the ‘tattie howkers’ or ‘Achill workers’ – squads of between 20 and 30 teenagers and young adults who harvested the potato crop throughout its harvesting season from mid June to November. Many workers were not migratory, but were drawn from the resident population in East Lothian; women from farms, together with those from villages and towns (such as mining communities including Wallyford and Tranent), were widely engaged as a source of labour. Children of school age (13 or 14 years upwards) did not widely participate in these activities, and the county, unlike others such as Angus or Perthshire, was not renowned as an important area for their employment. During the second world war and the years immediately following it, workers were specially organised under government schemes, all of which were operated in East Lothian. Until the late 1940s these included European Voluntary Workers, Prisoners of War, Polish Corps, and soldiers.

Irish girls, Harelaw tattie squad (Gordon Collection)

Work at seasonal employment had an impact on the lives of workers in a range of ways. It was part of their annual cycle. For example, from 1945 until 1960, the potato harvest featured as an annual part of the school year, as children were granted exemption from school attendance to assist with the harvesting of the potato crop. For women workers, the potato harvest gave them a break from their household routines, and one that ‘was as good as a holiday’ to them.

The employment conditions experienced by the workers combined traditional practices, statutes and regulations made by government departments. Traditions included the giving of harvest food (for certain seasonal tasks), and drink (water and oatmeal for the hay and grain harvests and tea for the potato harvest), and perquisites such as the ‘boiling’ for the potato harvest. Employment conditions were sometimes criticised and individuals and organisations attempted to improve them. The dislike of the employment of children at a range of agricultural activities, especially the potato harvest, ensured that for many years their employment conditions were strictly monitored and enforced by the Scottish Education Department and East Lothian Education Committee. After 1947, when farmers, potato merchants and labour contractors applied to schools for their supplies of children, they had to agree that they would provide conditions that would safeguard their welfare. Additionally, in the late 1950s supervisors were appointed to inspect such conditions.

As in the early twentieth century, the housing given to the Irish migratory potato workers in temporary accommodation on the farms on which they were employed, was not always seen to be sufficient or satisfactory, though its standards were regulated by local authority byelaws and supervised by the Local Authority Sanitary Department. In the early 1960s, the Sanitary Department took steps to improve the workers’ general housing standards, and persuaded farmers and potato merchants to install modern facilities such as water closets and electric lighting. In 1964 it suggested that the County Council should revise its existing byelaws, which dated from 1938. When these were revised under Section 171 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1966, and came into operation on 1st January 1970, they substantially improved housing standards. However, in the summer of 1971 the accommodation and conditions given to the potato workers received intense attention in the media in Scotland and Ireland. As a result, further efforts were made to improve housing standards.

The period from 1945 to 2000 witnessed many changes in the employment of the seasonal and migratory workers. Changes in agricultural practices, crop production and mechanisation each had an impact, though the latter had an especially important role to play. After the war the grain harvest was the first major agricultural crop to be harvested. By the 1950s and 1960s the increased use of the combine harvester had significantly reduced labour requirements for the grain harvest. The mechanisation of the potato harvest took place at a much slower rate. Although mechanical harvesters were utilised in increasing numbers during the early 1960s, mechanical harvesting did not become widespread until stone and clod separation became widely adopted in the 1980s.

Social and economic influences also had an impact. These included broader social changes, including the increased employment of women in full-time and part-time employment; the increase in the standard of living (and reduced need to earn money from seasonal work); and changing perceptions of the work. For the Irish migratory potato workers, the tightening up of the byelaws that regulated their housing conditions reduced the number of premises that were available to be used for accommodating them, and thus the number of squads that could be employed.

The character of the seasonal and migrant workers also changed after 1945. Especially from the 1950s onwards, the number of females engaged in many seasonal harvesting activities declined, and the employment of males, some of whom were unemployed, increased. By the 1960s some of the Irish potato workers were no longer recruited from the smallholder class of farmers in the west of Ireland; workers were not always drawn from the traditional recruiting counties of the west of Ireland; squad members included an increasing number of children too young to be employed. From the early 1970s onwards, social problems started to emerge and squads had to be assisted by the Social Services and the Catholic Church. Irish workers also started to settle in East Lothian, and Irish potato squads started to comprise workers who had settled in the county, rather than being recruited from the west of Ireland.

The employment of different groups of workers did not decline at the same rate even for one seasonal task, such as the potato harvest. For that occupation, the number of children employed under the Education (Exemptions) (Scotland) Act, 1947, gradually declined during the second half of the 1950s, when the Secretary of State for Scotland deliberately reduced the number of exemptions granted throughout Scotland. In East Lothian in 1960, the last year they were granted in that county, only 100 children were released from school. The employment of Donegal workers declined rapidly in the late 1940s, though the migration of ‘Achill workers’ continued until the mid 1980s; their numbers fell rapidly during the late 1960s and early 1970s. (In 1961 for example, this last group comprised some 350 workers who undertook harvesting on at least 17 farms in the county; a decade later they were accommodated at nine farms.) Local women were employed in increasing numbers in the 1950s and 1960s, though their numbers had decreased by the 1980s.

Although seasonal and migratory workers no longer play such an important role in East Lothian agriculture, some workers in this former group are still employed. They include squads of women organised by gaffers or labour contractors who are employed to harvest a range of vegetable crops and grade potatoes. As agriculture has become a specialised industry, some tasks, such as roguing potatoes or grain drying, are undertaken by workers who have a specialist background; these include agricultural students.

Further reading & references

  • Holmes, Heather, “As good as a holiday” Potato Harvesting in the Lothians, 1870 to 1995, 2000, Tuckwell Press, East Linton