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.  

Darren McGarvey’s Class War, Episode 1, Identity Crisis, BBC Scotland, BBC iPlayer, presented by Darren McGarvey.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000s7hd/darren-mcgarveys-class-wars-series-1-1-identity-crisis

Darren McGarvey from Pollock admits he’s lucky, incredibly lucky. And he’s right to do so. He’s on a roll after Poverty Safari. The go-to man when the BBC, or any other media organisation, wants to signal that they’re doing the right thing. Giving the working class a voice. The equivalent of a black woman in the moron moron’s cabinet of his 45th American Presidency debacle. The alternative view. The Fool in Shakespearian plays, such as King Lear, who is allowed to speak truth to power. Invisible, but a place holder. Greta Thunberg addressing delegates at the United Nations, patted on the head, before they get back down to adult business of maintaining the status quo. Class War?

Not in my lifetime. Capitulation would be a better word. All the post-war gains since the second world war taken away. Marxism, is like liberalism or capitalism, difficult to summarise, but Marx argued that the point wasn’t to philosophise or interpret the world, ‘but to change it’.

The crudest formulations of class are clichéd.  If I working class man throw dice and keep throwing double sixes. Then the dice are taken to be loaded. The system flawed. He’s regarded as a crook. But if an upper class man throws six after six after six. Dice aren’t taken to be loaded. The capitalist system not flawed. When actors such as Darren pop-up they are pointed at as the exception to the rule-rule. They show how fair the system can be.  The end of history. The end of theory. The triumph of capitalism.

But clichés are also reservoirs of meaning. Darren flings out a few ideas and asks various characters—one of whom looks out of his face—what their thinking is on particular topics. ‘Buckfast’, for example, brought a satisfying chortle. Lower class, of course. But hey, it used to be a tonic wine, for middle-class folk.

I like the parody of class that features in The Frost Report: John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hhrwl

The first thing to be noted is height. The upper class with better diet and access to proteins lived longer. Literally, walk taller. Those that own the land, own the people on the land. Windfall profits of billons for our monarch who also owns large tranches of our offshore sea, where windfarms will be situated. If you need to work for money, you’re in the wrong game. Money for the richest one-percent makes money by investing capital. After reaching a certain mass it’s a no-lose gain. It’s in all of Belzac’s books. And try a bit of Jane Austen. I’m a fan of Emile Zola, although he has a tendency to assume the working class get more sex and are sexually active earlier. Maybe they are. I must have missed that bit.

  Darren gets pulled up about his posture. Watch any programme about long-lost families. You’ll find those that went abroad, including those transported to Australia, are taller, more muscular. Fish and cheap cuts of meat for the less well off at home. Starvation is back in fashion in Old Blighty. Food banks as a solution to hunger. In Shakespeare’s day people that got to around thirty-eight were the equivalent of our old age pensioners. Thirty-nine was ancient. Gladstonian liberals allowed for a pension for those aged over 65 in 1909. Less than a fraction of one-percent of the population was expected to live that long to collect it. We know now that is no longer the case and pension age has risen to over sixty-eight. But for the first time since records began the average age of British citizens has stopped increasing annually. It’s a class thing. A working class thing. Our babies die first and in greater numbers than their middle-class or upper class cohorts. A negative impact that carries on throughout life.  Like those infected with Covid-19 we’re dying off quicker and pulling down the average age of our general population.  

The second thing to be noted is dress. Darren plays that dressing up game too.  All of our characters wear hats. The upper class character wears a bowler. A marker of rank. Bowler hats were a useful tool in preventing directors, such as Stevens of Steven’s shipyard, knocking his head. His father would have worn a top hat. Workers in the yards didn’t wear hats. Their heads were thicker. They wore overalls.  

Winston Churchill wore a top hat to his public school. Accent speaks of breading. Churchill was regarded as a bit of a thicko. But he had the right kind of accent, Received Pronunciation. He famously barked at an opposition Labour MP to take his hands out of his pockets. And as a reflex action to the upper-class demands the MP complied.  Here a butler is brought in to give Darren the once over when he’s dressed as a toff. The butler demands he take his hands out of his pockets and pull his socks up. Ho-hum, bit of playing to the camera.

Then we have the big reveal. The butler reveals he’s one of us. He’s working class. But he worked harder than everybody else at learning to be a butler. He got up to bed earlier. Went to bed later. He’s using Thatcheristic language reiterated by George Osborne in his debate about ‘strivers versus shirkers’. The universality of a Dickensian appeal to an imagined past that never existed. One hand destroying the welfare state, and the other clapping NHS workers, before crashing the economy into Brexitland and calling it a triumph.

Darren does cricket. I’m working-class enough to hate it. Just a little reminder here, wasn’t that the Malcolm Rifkind that was caught selling access to our British Parliament for ready cash? Cash for questions?  Like the whisky priest in Father Ted I can’t help jumping out my chair and shouting ‘Tory Scum’, and for good reason. In a propaganda war they set out to destroy us, and largely succeeded.

Darren touches on it with the seeming contradiction of the ever-shrinking working class.   Two-thirds of the population at the end of the nineteen century to around a third today. A mix and matching of definitions of what is meant by the working class relating to income. Weberian definitions as opposed to Marxist definitions where those that need to sell their labour are authentic working class. The proletariat. Academics toyed with these ideas in the sixties, the embourgeoisement thesis. Luton car workers because they were so well-off were the new middle class. Yet, when interviewed they claimed still to be working class despite having enough money to be considered bourgeoisie. Ronnie Corbett instead of wearing a bunnet would wear a flat cap and vote Tory. Corbett’s working class character, ‘I know my place’. You hear that kinda crap all the time, rich folk have money and they must know how to manage it. The answer is simple. By claiming working class origins, the middle (or indeed, upper) class gain greater kudos for achieving what they have achieved. They’ve rolled more sixes in life because of their skill. Look how far I’ve come, narrative.

Funny, until you consider 170 million Americans voted for the moron’s moron, and ‘red wall’ constituencies in deindustrialised areas such as Yorkshire voted for the equivalent here and for Boris Johnson and Brexit. Racist, dog-whistle politics, triumph. Eugenics is back with a bang, but dressed up in the clothes of morality.

In short, follow the money and the stories of machismo. Boris Johnson shouting through a microphone about returning £165 million a week to the NHS, while pedalling the same old bullshit as the moron’s moron, the other side of the Atlantic, about making America great again.

Marxism follows the evidence. Going against the grain. Prejudices are so engrained they need to step back and look at them.

Gramsci’s view of popular culture. Class is ideology in action. Pattern recognition of narrative the stories we’ve been told again and again until they have substance. Truth is relative.

 Cul-de-sac of boring, often impenetrable theory to develop ideas of what is meant be class. Premises, methodology, perception.  Examining the ideas behind our assumptions. We better be quick talking about class before we all become middle class tomorrow.  

Darren examines the idea of marrying outside our class. It happens less often. Money becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands Remember 7:84, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil?   The history of Scotland in Brechtian theatre. How our sovereign wealth went to pay for Unemployment Benefit in Thatcher’s Britain in the mid-80s. Eighty-four percent of the land owned by seven percent of the population. We’d expect that figure to be a lot higher, now. And with green energy relying on having access to land, we can also expect those that hold the people to ransom, the capitalist and rentier class to become even richer. Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century documents this process. To be working class is to be powerless and treated as expendable scum. I’m not sure I learned anything here. But it’s a reminder of how far we’ve fallen. More of a hotchpot rant than a review. But this class stuff gets in my wick.

Climategate: Science of a Scandal, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, producer and director Steve O’Hagan.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000b8p2/climategate-science-of-a-scandal

Our ancestors believed that the sky was round and the earth was square, the sun and all the planets circled the earth. All these things were self-evident.

When emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of Cambridge were hacked in 2009 the theory that global warming was a hoax gained credence and the sky really was round and the earth square. Everything was up for grabs, including the truth.

  1. Since 1880 our planet has warmed to around 0.85 degrees
  2. 100 percent certainty doesn’t exist in science, but we can say this with between 95 percent to 99.99999999999 certainty that half the global warming is due to human activity, in particular our reliance on fossil fuels
  3. To stay below 2 degree and runaway global warming we have a ceiling of one trillion tonnes of carbon which we can afford to burn.
  4. But we’ve already burnt more than half that figure and are accelerating towards runaway global warming.

Scientists in The Climate Research Unit don’t use terms like runway global warming. They use more prosaic terms such as ‘dangerous levels’ of climate change. In other words we are facing an existential threat in the same category as nuclear annihilation and nuclear winter.

The Third World War has begun but before it heats up, the propaganda campaign takes place. Climategate was the epicentre of the propaganda war.

One of the most striking features of the programme was science isn’t about certainty but uncertainty. Validation comes from not one body but many. When CRU released the data they used to a team of global-warming sceptics, physicists from the University of California, Berkley—with a $150 000 grant from Charles Koch, one of the richest men in America, friend of the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse and prominent climate-change denier— who used a different methodology, but came up with the same figures as the CRU that should be the end point of the earth is square believers. But we know that didn’t happen.

This is an interesting case study in why that didn’t happen and trolls rule the world. David Attenborough, Seven World, One Planet, can tell us that a football-pitch sized piece of the Amazon forest disappears every seven seconds and this can be seen from space. Similarly, Jonathon Watts,  report Battle for The Amazon can make the analogy, ‘rainforests function as the heart of the world…sucking carbon dioxide out of the air’ converting it by photosynthesis ‘pushing 20 billion tonnes of water vapour into the atmosphere each day’ as part of the earth’s cooling system.

But for square earthers if we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. When we waken up in the morning take milk from the fridge and eat Cornflakes today is much like yesterday. The bomb hasn’t landed.

We’ve been here before. Thomas Malthus, for example, Essay on Population  (1798) argued that unless we showed ‘moral restraint’ population levels would increase at a greater level than we could feed ourselves. He factored in the horseman of the apocalypse, War, Famine and Epidemics, but even allowing for these levelling factors his argument, like that of David Attenborough, on land and sea, mass species extinction and a holocaust, remained self-evident.

Malthus hadn’t factored in Planet B, the increasing efficiency of food production and the rise of global capitalism. As a general rule those that own the land own the people on the land. Natives of the Amazonian forest, for example, are vulnerable because clearing the land of forest increases its value by 50-to-100-fold and they have no land deeds to say they own the land. Land-grabbers, logging, mining and farming combine in a toxic mix that leaves little room for sentiment.

Marxism like Malthusianism has been overtaken by events. Liberalism and Capitalism have established hegemonic influence as the only game in town.

Marx argued, ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness’.

In other words, the interests of the dominant class (the 1% to our 99%), land grabbers, logging, mining, industry, and farming conglomerates are reflected back to us in ideology.

Marx’s architectural metaphor makes this clear. The legal system, our ideology and politics is the ‘superstructure’ that rests on the ‘base’ of the economic structure and socioeconomic relations.

In crude terms, Marx describes morality, religion and philosophy, as ‘phantoms formed in the minds of men’.

When, for example, during the Highland clearances crofters were replaced by the more valuable monocrop of sheep, crofters had to sell their labour and learn to say ‘baa’ to survive. For their children this was a natural state, inseparable from their historical condition.

Marxism’s endpoint was when this false consciousness was shaken off. Climategate, the rise of the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse and Boris Johnston as the people’s czars show this is unlikely to happen soon.

Hannah Arendt, who fled Nazi Germany, argued ‘Things only become irreversible, when people start to think so’.

The dominant class, our 1%, since Climategate have opened up new fronts in the propaganda war. The nothing can be done argument has gained traction. Our eco-system rests on an economic system in which there are clear winners and losers. The Malthusian monopoly ‘on virtue’ has been co-opted by those that benefit most.

An archaic term, ‘running dogs of capitalism’ set loose to defend their rights and virtue. Marxism posited another scenario in which ‘contradictions of capitalism’ would be exposed and the workers would gain control of their workplace and the surplus value extracted from their labour.

Climategate shows there’s no Planet B and we burn through existing resources quicker than we can replace them leading to the increasing likelihood of extreme weather conditions and sea level rise. Bots and trolls rule the world. The contradictions of capitalism might just bring them down. But Malthus might just have got his timing wrong. Far more likely is tens of millions of refugees on the move. Wars and famine.  An Amazonian frog doesn’t jump out of a pot if the water is slowly heated.

 https://odonnellgrunting.wordpress.com/2019/04/19/climate-change-the-facts-bbc-1-bbc-iplayer-presented-by-sir-david-attenborough-produced-and-directed-by-serena-davies/