SHETLANDERS of old were great seafarers and explorers and must have been familiar with the idea of bringing home wild plants from foreign parts for the folks back home.
Many an old croft in Shetland boasts a stand of tussock grass, and mimulus and Magellan ragwort all spring to mind too, but there was one particular plant, originally brought back from America by Sir Walter Raleigh from his voyage of 1584, which was to make a real impact on the lives of islanders here, as it had in countless other places – the potato.
What comes to mind when you think about the potato? Imagine slicing one in half, what might you find? Red rings, blank white discs and purple stars are not the first things that spring to mind, but then there are tatties and tatties.
I got a mouthful from a chippy wife in Norfolk last year when I forgot to say “potatoes” when ordering my take-away. “Spuds” would have been acceptable or even “taters”, but “tatties” was a whole different ball game.
She claimed I was “tikin the piss”, and threatened not to serve me and glanced round at the other customers for reassurance. They all nodded at her and looked at me as if I was something the cat had brought in. I felt the sting of racism against all things Scots – a novelty for an English lass, but just played safe, rephrased my order and went out with the package. Coward! Just as well I didn’t ask for a “fish supper”.
When the names for the humble tuber are so diverse, it is hardly surprising that the differences between the varieties are equally mesmerising.
Coming from a small farm background, potatoes were a part of every year’s crop pattern. I remember being fascinated by the flowers: in some years they were white with dark orange centres, but in others they were purple, but still with orange centres.
They were almost identical to the woody nightshade flowers, the black berries of which mum had warned us repeatedly we were never to touch because they were poisonous. I found little green fruits on potato stems sometimes and was instructed never to touch them either, as they were poisonous too.
I was mystified, how could some bits of the potato plants be edible and good, while different parts of the same plant were deadly? Why were the flowers of the big potato plant the same kind as the flowers on the poisonous nightshade?
Dad said there were “different” potatoes. I wondered how could you get different potatoes. Potatoes were potatoes, but then I would notice that the ones in the bowl being washed for dinner were sometimes white and sometimes red. Over the years I grew more familiar with the different cultivated varieties and even grew a few, but always from seed bought in shops.
Shetland was a real shock to the system, however. The country shows revealed bewildering variations on the theme of “tatties”, as I was beginning to call them, and folk seemed to have been growing them for years and most had received them from friends or neighbours, not bought them in shops.
When asked what kind they were, all kinds of stories came forth. There were tatties handed down through families, some which came “fae Foula” others from Silwick, Unst, Nesting, the Ness. There were tatties with familiar variety names which looked nothing like the ones I knew. Something strange and fascinating was going on here.
A few weeks ago I found myself in a large byre, examining what amounted to nothing less than a major exhibition of tatties. There were tiny, wrinkled, baby pink ones, huge, ovoid, cream coloured ones the size and shape of small melons.
There were black, wrinkled, gnarled ones with unprintably vulgar names and deep, royal purple ones with silky, almost iridescent skin. There were long, thin ones which curved and long thin ones which kinked in the middle.
There were yellow ones with smooth skins and yellow ones with hollow eyes. There were creamy white ones with eyes which looked half shut and white ones with knobbly bits sticking out.
The labels on the boxes were amazing too; Shetland blue, Shetland black, Foula red, Foula kidney, Sefster wonder, Waas red, crooked kidney, Ness redskin, champion, bonnie, forty fold, a name which I dare not write, being a Maori word for part of the human anatomy, Buchan beauty, sarpo mara and orla. There were more familiar names too: field marshall, Edzell blue, rooster, Duke of York and pink fir apple.
The differences between the tubers was vast, but apparently, vaster than I realised. It didn’t end at the appearance, but went deep inside too. A few tubers were sliced open and what a revelation. Some had white flesh, others pink. One was entirely maroon coloured all the way through except for a thin white circle just under the skin.
There were dark purple fleshed ones and tatties with deep bluish-purple bands around the outer layer of the flesh. One had a kind of blurred, purplish black star-like pattern in the centre.
There was a box of one kind which, so I was told, had tubers that when boiled whole, could be rolled repeatedly between the hands, and then if broken open, the white cooked flesh would scatter down over the plate like coarse, hot meal. I had frequently heard elderly Shetland friends speak of “good mealy tatties” and my mother in law liked a “floury tattie”.
There were some that when cooked apparently made excellent “salad” tatties, revealing firm, waxy flesh which held its shape when cut, chopped and even diced for tattie salad. Some were great for chips. There were different flavours too and colour changes when cooked.
A story was attached to another box, labelled “forty fold” concerning a young Shetlander of long ago, returning to the isles. He found a handful of tatties lying on a quayside, down south. He pocketed them and set them on his parents’ croft when he got home. They apparently produced, when harvested in the autumn, 40 times the quantity planted.
Just how, over the years, there come to be such huge changes in the plants intrigues me, but it seems a pity not to capitalise on the situation and make a real meal of the special variations, appearances, flavours, textures and all.
Why should the tattie harvest be limited to certain commercially grown kinds? Surely the drift towards monoculture has been shown to be dangerous, by rendering the whole crop increasingly vulnerable to mass infection.
Alexander Fenton, in his marvellous book The Northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland, has a whole chapter on potatoes in the islands, which is well worth reading. It seems to have taken almost 200 years for Raleigh’s discovery to hit the Northern Isles, probably initially brought in by the gardening enthusiasts of the clergy or lairdly fraternity.
Several people in Shetland and Orkney have been trying to keep a range of the wealth of old varieties alive. Neat rows of labelled plants will be growing in special rigs next summer and I for one hope that they “persevere and dö weel”.
We will be having a go too. Our last attempt failed due to so called “fade proof” labels fading and no longer knowing which row had held which named tattie. This time we will paint wooden stakes with the names and hammer them in firmly beside each batch.
Jill Slee Blackadder