For almost 150 years until the late twentieth century French Onion Johnnies – or Ingan Johnnies, as
they were usually known north of the Border – were a familiar group of seasonal immigrant workers in
cities and towns throughout Scotland and indeed Britain. At the beginning of the twenty-first century
only one, so far as is known, is still at work in Scotland. He is Yves Rolland, based in Leith, and he
and the only other eight known surviving Johnnies (or seven and one Onion ‘Jenny’, Madame Anna Gourlet) who worked in Scotland at one time or another between the 1920s and the 1970s present in these pages their spoken recollections of their working lives.
As the only seasonal immigrant onion sellers in Britain, Onion Johnnies all came from a relatively small area of Brittany. The origins of the Johnnies and their oignons rosés or pink onions can be found in the decade or more after the Napoleonic Wars had ended in 1815 at Waterloo. Eugène Guyader refers to the first Johnnies setting out from Santec in 1828 to cross the Channel to sell onions in Britain, while Yves Rolland recalls his patron or boss at Leith telling him the traffic arose out of the rescue from drowning at Roscoff of British royal personages and the consequent grant of permission to local people to sell their onions on the other side of the Channel.
The Johnnies’ annual migration across the Channel to England, Wales and Scotland, took place regularly toward the end of July and in early August. With their strings and bunches festooned over the handlebars and rear wheels of their bicycles , the Onion Johnnies were instantly recognisable wherever they went in Scotland. This book provides, in their own words, a unique record of their lives and work.
Author: Ian MacDougall is Secretary and Research Worker of the Scottish Working People’s History Trust. He is well known for many such volumes of recollections, including several Flashbacks.