” Tattie Hoakers”

Being a newcomer to around these parts, there are times when traditions that are perhaps engrained for other people, are simply invisible. A word can intrigue where for a local  it is simply what it is, and intrinsically understood. 

Covid brings challenges but also opportunities. I had set myself a task of recording some of the towns and villages  of the coastal area of Ayrshire with my camera, but that is now a Tier 3 area and we are Tier 2 so never the twain should meet . For now. So I set my sights more locally in my closest town, Stranraer. 

Stranraer’s history is long and intriguing. 

It was at one point Gaelic speaking. The name is a possible derivation from “An t-Sròn Reamhar.” To my untutored eye there seems to be a bit of a question mark over whether the English is derived from the Scottish or Irish Gaelic. With the last part of this referring to fat or thick in the Scottish version probably with an eye to the geography it has been thought of as “ The Fat Nose “or the “ Broad Headland .“ Equally with Stran referring to a burn and the Irish Gaelic “ Ramhar” referring to “ swarming “ it could mean “ Burn Swarming with fish .” ( Which at one point it certainly was.) 

Possibly your choice of derivation reflects the size of your nose? 

In 1307 two of the De Brus brothers supported by Reginald de Crawford and Malcom McQuillan brought 18 galleys and 1,000 men to Loch Ryan. The purpose was to press Robert 1st’s claims in Annandale and Carrick. It didn’t go so well . Something of an understatement! They were met by a force supportive of Edward 1st, only 2 galleys escaped and the leaders were captured. The Brus brothers and Crawford were executed and McQuillan’s head was sent as a present to Edward 1st . There is no record of what he did with it, perhaps he collected them? 

These days support for Westminster in the South of Scotland is rather more civilised and restricted to returning Unionist MPs. For now. 

But it isn’t the first time that history has repeated itself. 

One of my photographic subjects is a pub . On the side is a sign taken from its history, it provides the advice that they serve excellent food ( they do ) and lodging . The latter adds :- 

“Gentlemen advised to carry firearms  – No more than 3 to a bed. No tinkers, Drifters or Tattie Hoakers “ 

But being from “ down south” I could guess at but didn’t know for sure what a “Tattie Hoaker”  was . 

So I did  some research . For this is I am grateful to the website of the inishtrahull Journal (https://www.inishtrahullinitiative.com/inishtrahull-journal ) who were reflecting on the work and migration  patterns of people from  their area. 

Until 2011 Stranraer was the key port for people coming to Scotland  from Ireland, the port then moved  to Cairnryan  with disastrous financial consequences for the Town that we still feel these days . For 150 years, ferry traffic was central to the economy of the Town. Its architecture reflects different periods of Victorian influence much of which is now fading and in some cases,  literally,  collapsing . 

A significant portion of the ferry traffic was through what the Journal refers to as “ a small army” of Irish workers who came to take in the early potato crop. They came from Mayo, the Donegal Islands, Leitrim, Cavan and Longford and laboured in; Ayrshire ,Perth,  Fife and beyond . Often they would come over in squads of 30, some extended family groups, usually from very small communities and often accompanied by a senior woman who served as their cook. They included men women and children, some as young as 12 and 13. 

Concerns about their living conditions  were heard as early as the 1890s with people being housed in the most squalid of circumstances . Crowded into barns or cattle sheds where the evidence of the cattle’s very recent turn out into the field was only too evident . Sometimes they shared the byres with the animals. Poor food, no  running water,  no toilet facilities. One Doctor commented “ I had never myself seen human beings lodged so utterly indefensibly as regards to hygiene and human decency. “ 

Cynical hypocrisy is of course historically universal but it is  a genre that the Victorians unabashedly excelled within . Apart from disease, which naturally was the fault of the workers, “ the moral welfare” of the workers was of concern as was the possibility of a perceived moral deficiency leaking into the population of their hosts . I remember seeing the vilification of Irish workers in a journal relating to Wigtown in the 1900s and wondered what vitriolic focus of that unexpurgated racism, was . 

One outcome is that workers were often locked into their accommodation at night . Two terrible fires in 1922 killed a mix of nine  migrant workers and settled Irish labourers and in Killintilloch in 1937,  10 young men and boys were burned to death in a similar incident . The women and girls had been put into another building. Coming  from a very close community can you imagine their distress as their men folk were being burned to death and they could do nothing about it ? 

Of course these days we are far too civilised than stoop to demonise migrant workers whose chosen labour we eschew yet benefit from………Eastern European pickers and Chinese cockle pickers  perhaps might beg to differ. 

Their living  circumstances might be more sanitary.  Those who supported Brexit for other  reasons would passionately disassociate themselves from the views of extremists  but  the latter provide uncomfortable evidence  that bigotry,  like cynical hypocrisy,  is more a hardy perennial than a freak  aberration .  

So Tattie Hoakers are Potato hawkers or pickers and I have learned something . 

But in so small a lesson is also every aspect of the human condition. Joy, hope, despair, exploitation, and a dangerous sense of “ otherness ” that mutates and transfers itself  through the generations . 

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4 replies »

  1. There’s always a story…..

    Years ago – how many of my stories start that way? – I had a short-term contract as part of a team indexing 18th and 19th Century Marriage Bonds, in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

    What we found was… that ……it was often hard to work out what the names of the people and places were, though we had some Welsh speakers in our team. This was because – the people writing down the details, were often English. They wrote down what they heard, phonetically. Didn’t bother to look into it any deeper, maybe get the local Minister to ‘translate’ for them.
    The Government official, was often English, with little interest in the Welsh language, possibly found it to be a nuisance. So, they simply wrote down what they heard – with, I would say, also an English interpretation of those sounds – how words are written down, usually reflects how they are heard – whether they are being heard by someone who is familiar with them – or not.
    I’m not sure if I’ve said what I mean to say there – words are trixy things, all round.

    Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and it gave us a devil a job, to work out that those people’s names were, and where they came from.

    With some of the more in-comprehensible ones, I, as a total English speaker, would read out what it looked like to me, then, the Welsh speakers would have a go at interpreting how those sounds might have originated.

    Just an example of where the people in charge, have little care for the people in their charge.

    Another interesting article, Steve – and reminded me of my Dad’s days as an itinerant farm worker in the 1930’s. He and his brother, Uncle Anthony, would come over from County Sligo, to England, seasonally – possibly as ‘Tattie Hoakers’ ( I get that word, with a slight variation – hoiking – for example – “go and hoik us up some carrots” ” Hoik up yer trousers – yer arse is showing.”).

    They lived out doors mostly, sometimes were allowed to sleep in barns. They ate anything they could get – so he taught me a lot about what’s edible and what isn’t, in the natural world. They also ate hedgehogs! He told me how to cook them, but never did so, at home!
    He still liked to make some foul smelling stews. The farm-wife would sometimes let them have the giblets from the fowl she was cooking, and they would make giblet soup – the smell of that beggars belief! And he objected to my curries!

    Memories Steve – thanks for the memories!

  2. Thanks Bernie, as always I appreciate your comments . Glad that it touched upon your story and your comments really extend what this is all about Steve

    • And thank you, Steve.
      I’d never written down that memory about Dad and Uncle Anthony before. Now, I’ve sent it to the younger generation of the family, so they’ll know something of what Grandad and Uncle Anthony did at that time in their lives.

      It’s a direct link to what they might see as long-gone history!

      When my generation passes from this life, those kind of memories could be lost, especially as families are so dispersed these days, and the old ones aren’t there to tell the tales.
      People trace their family histories through the Internet, but the Internet wouldn’t know about the hedgehogs, or the giblet soup!

  3. I live in Ayrshire but am well familiar with Stranraer and their distinctive pronunciation of words. In Ayrshire the tattie pickers were I believe usually called “howkers” but in Stranraer definitely “hoakers”, I can hear the accent just in that one word!

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