Our local schools are due to break up for their fortnight-long, half-term holidays, or "October break", this weekend. When I was a youngster that break was called the "tattie howking holidays" as that was when farmers hired schoolchildren to help gather in the potato harvest.

In those days squads of casual workers, that included schoolchildren, were picked up by tractor-drawn trailers, vans or buses at arranged collection points and taken to the potato fields. There they harvested the potatoes by hand working "stints" behind the tractor-drawn "tattie spinner". It dug the potatoes out of the rows or drills and scattered them on the surface to be gathered into wire baskets that were emptied into a trailer. It was truly back-breaking work, so the more hands the better.

My own October school break was spent gathering potatoes as part of a much smaller squad. In those days most livestock farms had a field of swedes, or neeps as we called them. They were an important part of the winter rations of both cattle and sheep. In among the drills of neeps there would be several drills of potatoes that were gathered by the farm staff, their wives and children. They were stored under a deep layer of straw in the "tattie shed" that had also been lined with straw bales to keep the frost out. They were then used during the winter by those of us living on the farm. Free tatties were a perk of the job for farm workers in those days.

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Fortunately gathering potatoes by hand is more-or-less a thing of the past and they are now harvested by monstrous machines capable of lifting more than two hundred tonnes a day. Compare that to the output of a good hand-picker who struggled to gather two tonnes.

This year's Scottish potato harvest has been frustrated by the wet weather that has left parts of some fields waterlogged. It is still early days and there has been no major damage to crops so far, but soggy ground conditions are now posing serious challenges in many areas.

While potatoes are still a major crop in Scotland, particularly seed potatoes that are widely exported, the area of neeps has declined dramatically. Neeps - like their close cousin oilseed rape, the crop with bright yellow flowers that produce small dark seeds that are crushed to extract cooking oil - are ideally suited to our Scottish climate. They grow well in our long summer days and our cooler temperatures mean they aren't attacked by disease-bearing pests, as happens down south.

Scotland's cattle used to winter on a diet of hay, straw and neeps supplemented with cereals. That was fine in the days when there was a large workforce, but as the number of workers declined so did the acreage of neeps. You see, neeps involved a lot of hard work, which began in May or June when the seedlings appeared.

Squads of folk ranging from the regular workforce to pensioners and casual workers were drafted in to weed and thin those young neeps with hoes. The squad would work their way up the drills in a diagonal line, with the most skilled in the lead and the slowest at the rear. The idea was to push out surplus neep plants with the hoe, leaving selected plants that were spaced a hoe-width apart. Then you hoed the weeds off the sides of the drill. Done properly in fine, dry weather you ended up with a weed-free field of regularly spaced neeps - but it was monotonous, back-breaking work.

Then the weeds between the drills had to be kept under control, usually with a tractor-drawn scarifier, but sometimes by hand if it was a wet summer. That was followed in October and November by the back-breaking task of pulling them out of the ground, and cutting off the shaws and roots with a special "shawing knife".

Shawing turnips with a heavy autumn dew on the leaves that had been turned white and hoary by a morning frost, left fingers and hands with incurable gegs - those nasty, painful cracks that develop when you work under such conditions.

The shaws were carted daily to be fed fresh to cattle, while the shawed neeps were later carted to be stored under straw, covered with soil to keep the frost out.

During the winter those neeps were put through a machine that chopped them into pieces, before being fed to cattle. The only good thing about neeps was that livestock loved and thrived on them - but they were hard work.