Growing Potatoes

During the rationing and food shortages of the First World War, potatoes became a very important food. Potatoes were not rationed and everyone was encouraged to grow their own in gardens or allotments. In 1916 the crop failed in Scotland and parts of England, encouraging breeders to search for disease resistant varieties and reminding everyone how important they were. Recipe book writer May Byron wrote: ‘In 1917, when we were practically potatoless, we realised how largely we depended upon that cheap and humble tuber’.

Members of the Glasgow Battalion, Women's Volunteer Reserve lifting potatoes on their plot of land. Taken around1915

Members of the Glasgow Battalion, Women’s Volunteer Reserve lifting potatoes on their plot of land, ca. 1915 (Imperial War Musuem Q 108001)

Potatoes were sieved, mashed or riced to bulk out recipes and save on flour – bread, pastry, biscuits and cake could all be made using potatoes. But at the same time butter and milk were in short supply so some favourite potato recipes were just not the same – imagine mash with no butter!

Breeding Potatoes

Following the Irish potato famine, potato breeders sought to find disease resistant potatoes. Two important potato breeders were working in Scotland during the First World War.

Archibald Findlay

1841 -1921, Auchtermuchty

Archibald Findlay bred the first blight resistant potato. Today over 70% of potato varieties are derived from Findlay’s British Queen and his Majestic potato was the most widely grown and consumed potato for more than 60 years – most modern varieties share its genes. Findlay claimed that 98% of potatoes fed to troops on the Front between 1914 and 1918 were either from his own breeding or derived from his varieties. He was also responsible for the most expensive potato ever – an Eldorado tuber which sold for £30 in 1904!

Donald Mckelvie                                                     

1867 – 1947, Isle of Arran

Mckelvie started breeding potatoes on Arran from 1907. He was awarded an OBE for his contribution to wartime food production. At the end of the First World War, Mckelvie named one of his potatoes Arran Victory in celebration. This is a brightly coloured blue-skinned potato which is popular with allotment holders today but Mckelvie received complaints from locals that the potatoes were difficult to see when dirty and potatoes were missed during hand-gathering!

This post has been put together using information kindly shared by John Marshall.

Soldiers of the Directorate of Agricultural Production tending potatoes near a communication trench in a support line. Bethune, 15 August 1918. You can see the trench lined with sandbags and men working in a field of potatoes behind it.

Soldiers of the Directorate of Agricultural Production tending potatoes near a communication trench in a support line. Bethune, 15 August 1918 (Imperial War Museum Q 9781)