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.