Sandy’s Garden ... The Tattie

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“The centrepiece of any good Burns’ Supper menu is the iconic haggis, or as the bard himself described it, the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race’.

“You can buy this from your local butcher, deli, supermarket or nearest Scottish store if you live overseas. Traditional accompaniments to the haggis are neeps and tatties or as they are more commonly known - turnip and potatoes. These are normally served mashed.” So saith the website of Travel Scotland. And Wikipedia declares: “A tattie is a plant that’s scientific name is Solanum tuberosum. The tattie plant growes weel in mony different pairts o the warld. The pairt o the tattie that fowk eats growes unner the grund. It for ordinar haes a broun or pink skin an is white or yellae on the ben-end.”

I am certain, gentle reader, that you already knew everything I have written so far. But here is a fact you probably didn’t know; the first recorded use of the word ‘tattie’ as a synonym for ‘potato’ is as recent as 1788, when Ebenezer Picken used it … spelled ‘tawtie’ … in a poem in his book Poems and Epistles, mostly in the Scottish Dialect, with a Glossary.

And something which I only discovered recently was that Ebenezer Picken spent five years in the Falkirk area. This extract is taken from Paisley Poets: With Brief Memoirs of Them, and Selections from Their Poetry, a compendium of biographies, published in 1889: “Ebenezer Picken was born in Wellmeadow Street, Paisley, in 1770. His father was a weaver by trade. … Ebenezer was an only son, and his father gave him a good education. After a course of study at the Grammar School, Paisley, he became a student in the University of Glasgow. … Picken did not follow out his original intention of joining the ministry, as he opened a school at Falkirk in 1791, when not more than twenty-one years of age. Soon afterwards, he married a daughter of the Rev. Mr. Belfrage, of the Burgher Church in that town. He did not remain long in Falkirk, but went to an endowed school at the village of Carron.”

About 1796 Ebenezer removed from Carron to Edinburgh, where he struggled to make ends meet as an unsuccessful manager, a poor businessman and an indifferent teacher before he died of consumption … a serious lung infection which we call ‘tuberculosis’ … in 1816. So the word ‘tattie’ was first recorded a mere eight years before the death of Robert Burns who, in all likelihood, spoke about the ‘potato,’ a word derived from the word batata which comes from the Taíno language spoken by one of the indigenous peoples of South America. This patata … as the word entered the Spanish language … reached Europe when the Italian seafaring explorer Cristoforo Colombo … whom we know better as Christopher Columbus … reached the Caribbean in 1492 and loaded some local batatas into his ship’s hold as food for the crew during their return journey to Spain. Uneaten tubers were planted there, where they thrived and where an English traveller described them as “the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets.”

These first European potatoes were actually what we call ‘sweet potatoes’. It was not until the 1560s that Spanish explorers found a white-fleshed tuber that the local Quechua people called papas; and it was 1586 before these reached England as ‘Virginia potatoes’ when Sir Frances Drake brought some home after visiting Virginia, although the potatoes had been taken on board earlier in the voyage in South America. Since Solanum tuberosum grows happily in the United Kingdom, the incorrect epithet ‘Virginia’ fell into disuse; and potatoes became a food staple in our islands, where they met the food needs of the fast-growing urban population of 19th century Britain - and were destined to enter the menu for Burns’ Suppers as tatties!