FOR the majority of the year 41-year-old Emily Millichip works as a successful fashion and homeware designer in Edinburgh.

But every summer she takes a “holiday” from her business in order to spend nearly all of her waking hours working in fields of potatoes for over a month. She is a proud and dedicated tattie roguer. 

Tattie roguing involves walking through fields of potatoes and digging out both diseased plants and “rogues” – that is, the plants belonging to the wrong variety of potato.

So, it is that Millichip will find herself up to her eyeballs in a crop of King Edward searching for a rogue Rooster – an experience she has searched out every June for nearly 20 years.

“I had just graduated from Uni and I was stuck in a horrendous office job,” she told The National.

“My friend had done it the summer before and she told me ‘quit your job and come for the summer’. So, I did and I was immediately hooked.”

Potato fields are inspected twice over the growing season and those containing over a certain amount of diseased or rogue plants may fail inspection.

This means that they will be sold at a significant markdown as ware – ending up as crisps, chips or in supermarkets – rather than seed, which can be sold and planted the following year with the relative certainty that it will produce a good quality, high yield.

“There’s quite a range of different viruses that affect potatoes,” said Dr Philip Burgess, lead researcher and consultant at Scottish Potatoes.

“But the commonality between them is that they tend to be transmitted by aphids.

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“In Scotland – particularly up the east coast – we have fewer of these aphids than in other parts of the UK.

“That puts us at a climactic advantage and allows us to supply some of the world’s best quality seed potatoes – in Scotland and England but also globally.”

However, our climate doesn’t prevent all chance of disease. As such, roguers are needed to ensure that crops pass inspection at the highest grade possible.

“Parts of Scotland grow seed potatoes at the very highest grade. We’re talking about 0.1% of plants infected or in some cases even one infected plant can result in a downgrade.

“And so roguing, which is a very skilled job, really does add value. The countries which buy that seed – Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Thailand, Brazil and many other places – do so because they know the virus health of Scottish potatoes is amongst the highest in the world.”

Millichip works in a squad of around 20 people who rogue farms in East Lothian, the Borders and more recently in the north of England.

Their boss Graham Fleming – who works as a horologist and farm worker for the rest of the year – did his first season as a roguer in 2000.

He told The National that the job attracts such a wide range of people because it offers something completely different to their normal working life.

“The main thing is the contrast,” he said. “A lot of folk who work in offices, studios or workshops come into the fields to escape all that, including myself.

“We’ve had students, designers, care workers, mathematicians, musicians, artists, office workers and plenty more.

“But it’s a challenging job. We work sometimes 10 hours a day, every day, for a month.

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“Plus, we’re outside in all weathers during the Scottish summer so you need to be prepared: that means waterproof trousers and wellies when it’s wet and suncream and hats when it’s dry.”

While new roguers undergo a few days of training at specially grown plots at the SASA facility in Gogarbank, the majority of learning is done while on the job.

That could mean digging out liquified, rotting potatoes blighted with blackleg or lugging heavy bags full of rogues out of the crop until it’s clean.

It’s physically demanding work and yet, even after the wettest, most backbreaking years, people like Millichip return.

“It’s relentless and even though you definitely have to be physically fit I’d say that it’s really a game of mental stamina.

“Not everyone can spend 45 days in their own head walking through tattie fields.

“But it gives me the time and space to think. To be outdoors and see incredible views and become acutely aware of things like the weather.

"It grounds you in nature in a way that just doesn’t happen in urban life."