James Hunter (2019) Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter.

Professor James Hunter revisits a student historical dissertation to remind us that it wasn’t just Ireland that suffered from famine, after potato crops failed year after year in the late 1840s, but most of Europe suffered from the fungal spores of Phytophthora infestans. The poor people of the Scottish Highlands and Islands did not experience to the same scale as the Irish Holocaust, but many of the structural problems were the same.

The aristocracy—landed gentry—who owned the land, owned the people on the land. And what they termed ‘surplus population’ was pushed off the land to less arable ground with nothing to sell but their labour. Marxism begins its case studies here with surplus profit and the rentier class. Communities became wholly dependent on the potato to feed their families. And there was no cut off point. The potato blight continued to decimate crops in the 1850s. Unlike Ireland, a subjugated nation with a constant military presence, Scotland had soldiers but they were located mostly around Edinburgh and Glasgow. They had to be kitted and transported to the North of Scotland to deal with food riots.    

The Spectator, 6th February 1847, for example, reported

Food riots have been spreading in the North of Scotland to so great an extent that several parties of military have been dispatched from Edinburgh. In some parts of the country is described to be nearly in a state of insurrection.

James Kennedy, The Highland Crofter, best describes what it was to be poor and to be the property of an often absent landlord.

 Frae Kenmore to Ben More

The land is a’ the Marquis’s;

The mossy howes, the heathery knowe

An’ like bonnie park is his;

The bearded goats, the towsie stots,

An’ a’ the braxie carcasses;

Ilk crofter’s rent, ilk tinker’s tent,

An ilka collie’s bark is his;

The muir-cock’s craw, the piper’s blaw,

The ghillies hard day’s wark is his;

From Kenymore tae Ben More

The warld is a’ the Marquis’s.

The fish that swim, the birds that skim,

The fir, the ash, the birk is his;

The castle ha’ sae big and braw,

Yon diamond crusted dirk is his;

The roofless hame, a burning shame,

The factor’s dirty wark is his;

The poor folk vexed, the lawyer’s text,

Yon smirking legal shark is his;

From Kenmore to Ben More

The world is a’ the Marquis.

But near, mair near, God’s voice we hear

The dawn as weel’s the dark is his;

The poet’s dream, the patriot’s theme,

The fire that light the mirk is His

They clearly show God’s mills are slow

But sure, the handiwork is His;

And in His grace our hope we place,

Fair Freedom sheltering ark is His;

The men that toil should own the soil,

A note as clear as the lark is this;

Breadalbane’s land –the fair, the grand –

Will no’ be aye the Marquis’s.

Hunter uses a novelistic technique to hook the reader into what happened. An August day in 1847, three women walking from Nowtonmore to Kinlochlaggan in the Scottish Highlands. They spoke in Scots, but Gaelic was the language of the common people of Highlands and Islands. They did not know each other, but they had a kinship and mission. Their destination was Aredverike Lodge. Thousands of acres that came with the Lodge were let to the Marquis of Abercorn. He was friends with Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The land had been cleared of tenants for sheep. Sheep had been cleared for red deer. The three women hoped to appeal to Queen Victoria’s maternal sisterhood. David Sutherland aged 24, John Young 21, and John Main fishermen from the Moray coast had appeared in Scotland’s High Court on charges of mobbing, rioting and assault at the end of March 1847. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to seven years’ transportation. The women hoped for their husband and sons to be given a royal pardon, or that the Queen should intervene to reduce the severity of the punishment. Transportation to Australia was a life sentence, not just for the prisoner, but for his family.

In ‘A Winter of Starvation,’ George Pole visited Barra on 13th January 1847. He was a representative of the Crown and had experience working in Ireland. His experience of Barra was similar. ‘Nearly every scrap of arable land had been given over to potatoes.’

Climate and geography, limited the availability of land. Just as in Ireland, the poorest tenants in crofts had the poorest thinnest soil and paid the highest rents. Potatoes were a wonder crop. It gave enough carbohydrates and proteins to supply a body with nutrients. Deficiencies in fats and Vitamin A could be offset by buttermilk, for example. John Percival in his book about the Irish famine suggested a working man might eat 14lb (6.5kg) of potatoes every day. Highlander and Islanders were well known to be taller and in better health than city dwellers (hence their recruitment into the Glasgow police force, where they literally looked down on most people). Hunter makes the same point about the reliance on an unvarying diet with use of a joke. A school boy, when pushed by his schoolmaster to tell him what he ate with his potatoes, had thought about it for some time, and then crooned, ‘a spoon’.

Pole found evidence of starvation on Barra, the common signs of diarrhoea and typhus fever when he entered a house. Outside the houses shells from the beaches, picked over and eaten. The myth there would be cockles when there were no potatoes was quietly put to bed with the dead and dying. Sir Robert Peel had tried to offset famine in Ireland by helping set up a network of food stores. His successor at the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, favoured a laissez-faire approach of minimal state intervention in Ireland or the Highlands and Islands.

Neil M.Gunn in The Silver Darlings recounts what this meant in fictional terms.

‘The ground sloped down to a narrow flatness before it tumbled over a steep face of earth and broken rock to the sea-beach. All that primeval hill-side of heath and whin and moss was slowly being broken into strips of cultivated land by those who lived in little cabins of stone and turf dotted here and there with rounded backs like earth mounds… They had come from beyond the mountain which rose up behind them, from inland valleys and swelling pastures, where they and their people had lived from time immemorial. The landlord had driven them from those valleys and pastures, and burned their houses, and set them against the sea-shore to live if they could and, if not, to die.’

Many of the displaced lived locally. Men, women and children in Barra, for example, collected kelp, which produced a valuable alkali. The harvest sold by their lairds made them richer. They blocked emigration. When the industry collapsed in the 1820s with the introduction of a chemical substitute, these workers became a surplus population living in want. And like the Irish, demonised, regarded as lazy and workshy.  

Similarly, in the winter of severe frost and snow of 1846-47, family after family went hungry because the wood that made the new types of fishing boats had to be imported. The cost was too great. Despite living on the shore of the richest fishing grounds in the world, they starved. Those that had boats could not put to sea because of the weather. The demand for fish such as herring, which was salted and put into barrels for export, had also collapsed, with the abolition of slavery.  Lassez-faire.  

The laws of supply and demand dictate that when there is limited supply and high demand the price rises in step. The price of oats and grains such as barley shot up in value. Farmers were able to make windfall profits. Their response was to no longer sell oats and grains in small quantities, but to export their goods wholesale were a greater profit margin could be made. Super profit. It made economic sense.  

On Saturday, 30th January 1847, for example John Chisolm planned to 400 quarters or five tons of barley to Leith from Burghead aboard a cargo ship. But he wasn’t allowed to do so. Local people organised themselves to prevent the export of crops. Troops prevented insurrection in Ireland. In Scotland, the common people’s demands were often met through collective action and strength. Hunter notes the ringleaders were often shoemakers, talking cobblers. Women and children also played an active part. Oats and grains grown locally, stayed locally. Price wasn’t determined by market forces, but determined by notions of fairness and what the people could pay.

The conservative backlash around issues of property and law and order were the arrests of people like Sutherland, Young and Main. Sentencing was suitably severe—as a deterrent. But a passive population had become radicalized. And with mass insurrection in most of the Northern towns, mass starvation of men, women and children would have been exacerbated—as it was in Ireland, where local men raised crops to pay their rent to a factor and absent landlord and for them to be exported for windfall profits. He who pays the piper calls the tune, but not always is the tune to the rich men’s liking as it is now.  

Charles Egan (2017) Cold Is the Dawn

When people talk about literary merit, I wander away to the pub to have a pint. Since the pubs are closed, and I get smashed by a snifter of poitin, or indeed three pints, perhaps slightly more (when I’m watching Celtic) I’ll hang about. Literary merit is just a fancy way of asking if you liked the book. I don’t finish books I don’t like. Cold Is the Dawn is 427 pages. So you do the maths of how much I liked it.

If like me, you have a manuscript (or indeed manuscripts) lying about in various stages of distress then you note who publishes them. Cold Is The Dawn is published by SilverWood Books. I had a look at their business model. They help self-publishing authors publish. Something I’ve been thinking about. I know it’s not meant to be funny, but point 11 of Frequently Asked Questions: I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?

https://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/faq

You know when Oliver Hardy pokes Stan Laurel in the eye (you need to be a certain age to remember Laurel and Hardy) and stamps on his toe, then they accidentally bump heads with a knocking sound. And then they sing The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, by the trail of the lonesome pine, because it makes more sense than I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?   

I guess a book deal with SilverWood Books costs an author around £10 000. An Unbound Book costs much the same. That’s the market rate if you’ve got that kind of dosh. So Charles Egan invested his cash, put his money down as an investment in literary merit. What did he get for his money?

The cover of a group of miners (if that’s what they are) staring at the camera, with the superimposed image of an older man in a flat bunnet looking on—passable. The white font of white on black for the author’s name and the title of the novel stands out. The reader is told it’s ‘A novel of Irish Exile and the Great Irish Famine’.

The Irish Holocaust interests me, because I’m part Irish and I’m thinking of writing about it. The current population of Ireland is almost five million, with more citizens living in Dublin, than all of the other areas combined.  https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ireland-population/ If we go back to the 1960s the Irish population dipped under three million.

Ian Gibson writes in the foreword The Great Famine, Ireland’s Potato Famine 1845-51, that out of a population of around eight million people, about a million people died, and around another one-and-a-half million emigrated, but there were no exact figures, and this is likely to be an underestimate. Many of the poorest weren’t registered and included in official data. They did not live in Dublin and were wholly dependent on the potato crops.

Charles Egan’s way into carrying the weight of such history is by concentrating on Luke Ryan’s extended family and their fortune in the aftermath of the potato blight. County Mayo, where Michael and Eleanor, Luke’s mum and dad, have a farm and quarry was one of the hardest hit regions in Ireland.

This is home territory, for Luke’s wife Winnie and their son, Liam, before they sail across the Atlantic to join Luke in New York and later Pennsylvania, where the couple starve in the new world.

Luke’s younger brother, Pat, is the bridge to England. Irish farmworkers often made the journey across the water to help harvest crops in England and send money home to pay the rent to rapacious landowners. But Pat returns to Mayo to work compiling reports on the effects of the famine.  This allows the reader to travel with him as he charts the impact of ‘The Exterminator’, Mayo’s largest landlord, Lord Lucan as he cleared the land he owned of tenants.

In the Preface, Egan tells the reader of the Railway’s boom and bust.

‘Of the estimated two hundred thousand navvies working on the railway construction in 1847, one hundred thousand were without work by the middle of 1848. For labour contractors on the railways, many of them Irish, this was an excellent opportunity to exploit hungry Irish workers.’

Egan places his characters in the middle of this moral quagmire. Luke’s aged Uncle Murty Ryan (he’s around my age) works on the construction of the English railroads. But to begin with he works as a clerk. Murty Ryan’s eldest son Danny is a contractor, hiring and firing Irish labour, shipped in directly from the workhouse in Mayo. And shipped back home by Bradford and Liverpool workhouses when they were no longer needed. They regarded Irish people as a pestilence and a plagued nation. But relief efforts were a fraction of the sum spent on The Crimean War.

Egan makes use of news reports to add ballast to his fiction. London, Morning Chronicle in November 1848, for example, reported, as an opinion piece that might  have been written by a Nigel Farage of yesteryear.  ‘We say therefore that we grudge the immense sums which we appear likely that we have to pay this year to Irish Unions very much indeed, because we know that it will be thrown into a bottomless pit, and because we feel that money, thus wasted, would be better in removing them than feeding in idleness the people of Mayo—in getting rid of the burden, than in perpetuating it.’

Murty Ryan’s eldest son, Danny had established a foothold in the railway construction business, before he committed suicide. An Irish man he was an exploiter of his fellow man. Something Murty abhorred. When his youngest son steps into his elder brother’s shoes he proves even more ruthless. He pays them even less than Danny and charges them rent for shacks. He pays them in script that can only be exchanged in company shops. In other words, Murtybeg is a good businessman that exploits needy labour. In modern parlance, he creates jobs for his fellow countrymen.

A subplot involves Murtybeg being played off by Irene, who claimed to be his elder brother’s common-law wife, and therefore in control of the company they created. Murtybeg, being merely a paid employee. He gets an immediate rise in pay of three shillings a week, but his workload increases accordingly. Irish navvies working for the company make do with a shilling a week. Murtybeg is both exploiter and exploited by Irene, but he’s far above the Irish navvy class. He’s almost gentry.  Facing off against Irene to take control of the company Murtybeg seeks legal advice. It’s not Charles Dickens Jarndyce and Jarndyce, (a book I haven’t read) but the way in which it was resolved had me thinking of another novelist. Emile Zola’s La Terre had a woman raped and falling in love with her rapist, which in a different era tied up plot points.

Exploitation takes many forms. Egan’s novel runs on rails and touches on the horrific and short lives that many lived, with children under ten, for example, working in Bradford mills, or pushing coal trucks in the fictional town of Lackan in Pennsylvania, where Luke holes up with Winnie and their child. His novel spans the old world and the new industrial order. It touches on the historical events such as cholera epidemics, fever epidemics, typhus epidemics, repeal of The Corn Laws, the rise in trade union activity, and the search for universal suffrage. The Molly Maguires get a walk on part, as does the less secretive Hibernian associations that tried to the poor Irish, especially those landing in New York harbour and fresh off the boat for exploitation.

Much of the novel relies on conversations between characters to carry the narrative. And like many modern novels can read more like a screenplay. Egan’s problem is characterisation. Luke Ryan, for example, has two lives. One in New York and in Pennsylvania. His backstory about being a gaffer and hated, because he had the power of life and death during an earlier famine, and the rate-funded road-building programme is relevant and stands out. But I couldn’t pick Luke Ryan out in a police line-up. I don’t know what he looks like. His friends and companions, say six in each region are interchangeable doodles. Different clothes, same person. Similarly, major characters such as Pat, Murtybeg, or Murty also carry the weight of another six, sometimes more, minor characters that are also doodles. Egan in going for greater breadth of worlds has given his characters less depth.

Pat, for example, slaps the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s eugenic views were on par with ‘The Great Protector’ Oliver Cromwell, who was sure it pleased God that his troops had massacred 3000 men, women and children at Drogheda, with only a handful escaping.  Carlyle may have been in Mayo. Few would argue he needed slapped (add the moron’s moron Donald Trump and Nigel Farage to my list, fling in anyone that identifies as One-NationTory) but Carlyle seems smoke and air, and little of substance.  Where I  overwrite my characters, Egan underwrites.

Charles Egan has tapped into the Irish holocaust and the cultural heritage of The Great Famine at home and abroad. It did change the new worlds. Around 40 million Americans with Irish roots and the current President Joe Biden brings that message home. Capitalism in its rawest form and xenophobia combined. Somehow it seems a familiar tale of rich men and poor men, only one group dying of hunger, labour fodder for the new industrial age. I’m sure with global warming, the worst is yet to come.