Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter

James Hunter

Birlinn, £20

Review by Rosemary Goring

A Victorian visitor to the parish of Morvern, in what was then Argyllshire, quizzed a young boy on his daily diet. What did he eat for breakfast? “Mashed potatoes.” At midday? “Mashed potatoes.” In the evening? “Mashed potatoes.” Was there anything else? The boy was initially perplexed by the question, then found the answer: “A spoon!”

In this anecdote, recounted by John MacLeod, the philanthropic kirk minister of the district, the troubles that the place was storing up for itself were abundantly plain. Nor was Morvern exceptional. Whether it was in Argyllshire or Moray, Aberdeenshire or Easter Ross, Caithness or Sutherland, the Outer Hebrides or Skye, by the 1840s many crofting and coastal communities were perilously reliant upon this one crop.

A government commission in 1843 was sent to determine the effectiveness of poor relief in the Highlands and Islands, the entire region reeling in the wake of the early waves of clearances. To the landowners’ eternal shame, these officials, found desperate want, long before what came to be called “the year potatoes went away”.

The island of Barra was especially miserable. One journalist commented that inhabitants were living “in hovels which a working man in England would consider unfit for the use of his pig”. Barra fishermen could no longer access the sea because of the cost of importing wood to make boats. As James Hunter writes in this gripping, heart-breaking account of the famine winter of 1847, “family after family in Barra, as in the West Highlands and Islands more generally, went hungry despite many of them having in plain view some of the richest fishing grounds in all the world.”

When rumours started of the terrible Irish famine, known as the Great Hunger or Gorta Mór, folk in villages and towns who barely remembered the taste of cheese or meat grew understandably edgy. Reports of the misery in places like Skibbereen, after a second year of a failed potato crop, spread fast. In 1845, this devastating fungal disease, transmitted by spores, reached Ireland from America, finding its way the following year to Scotland, and into Europe also. In Scotland, the summer of 1846 was a disaster, potatoes rotting in the ground, turning fields into vegetable graveyards. The stench from blackened shaws was a harbinger of the appallingly hungry months to come. By late autumn, Scottish communities in the north and west were in dire want, some families going days with nothing more to put in their stomachs than a sip of warm water. As one priest reported, by the time the most famished reached his door to ask for help, they “cannot speak to him for weakness”.

Hunter, who is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, opens his authoritative account of these, truly the worst of times, with a scene worthy of Walter Scott or Thomas Hardy. Three women are striding through the Highlands, in three days making the 75-mile journey from the Moray coast, hoping to speak to Queen Victoria at her magnificent holiday retreat, at Ardverikie Lodge, near Kinlochlaggan. Their names are Mary Jack, Isabella Main and Margaret Main. They are the mothers, aunt and wife of Daniel Sutherland, John Young and John Main, who have been sentenced to seven years’ transportation for their part in a riot at Burghead, near Elgin. Earlier in the year, a violent confrontation had broken out when locals tried to prevent the shipping of grain from the area, bound for Grangemouth and not themselves.

With their menfolk in custody in Millbank prison on the Thames, the women had come to beg Victoria to show clemency. Highly respectable figureheads, including politicians and clergymen, championed their cause. There was a widespread feeling, among those with a conscience, that on the night in question, when the mob turned nasty and the military and officials were overpowered, these otherwise respectable young men had acted out of desperation, not viciousness.

With the dramatic flourish of a novelist, Hunter leaves this scene in the air and returns to the events that led to the men’s arrest and imprisonment. Only in the final pages is their fate revealed, by which point one of the most disturbing, and untypical episodes in the country’s history, is over.

Taking a spiralling approach to this fateful year, Hunter treats each district in turn. This allows him to tease out the local circumstances that distinguished the situation in acquiescent Barra, for instance, from ferociously angry Easter Ross or Banffshire. This structure, though unavoidably repetitive, hammers home the gravity of what might easily have become a humanitarian disaster like Ireland’s. That it did not is in large part thanks to the Free Church of Scotland, which was swift to raise aid, and to dedicated politicians such as Robert Peel.

Other churches soon woke up to the situation, however, and in the central belt people gave generously. Queen Victoria donated £1000, but doubled it when she heard the Sultan of Turkey had given the same sum. It is a telling display of pride rather than compassion, for all her effusions about her love of the Highlands. As early as September 1846, Lord Henry Cockburn, in his Edinburgh New Town house, bemoaned the loss of his “beloved potatoes”, but knew he was lucky: “We are getting on the best we can with rice, Indian corn, macaroni and other substitutes; and we who can purchase these think ourselves vastly resigned and easily pleased when we joke over these novelties amidst our wines, old mutton, carpets, fires and every comfort. But Ireland and the Hebrides!”

Where help was not to be found, or at least not without considerable coercion, was from the majority of Scotland’s biggest landowners, notably the heartless skinflint Colonel John Gordon and the self-seeking Duke of Richmond. Nor was Wick’s MP, James Loch, of any use in the early months. The Duke of Sutherland’s right hand man, he, like many, thought the famine was the result of Highlanders’ innate idleness. The Scotsman’s correspondent, James Bruce, treated northerners as if he had stumbled on savages. The fact they spoke Gaelic, he wrote, showed them to be “morally and intellectually ... an inferior race to the Lowland Saxon”, and their wretchedness the result not of lack of food but their “moral degredation”.

Hunter’s pacily written history turns a telescope on the society and culture, and the economic and political predicament of these regions. The facts he produces, and the testimonies, from court records, newspapers, first-hand accounts, diaries and letters, make absorbing reading. Using the famine winter as his lynchpin, he creates a portrait of life for ordinary working folk in a country that was only slowly awakening to the vulnerability of its rural population.

Some of the brutal military response to riots, such as that at Burghead, or Pulteneytown in Wick, where soldiers were ordered to fire on the crowd, had its roots in fear of wider revolution. Hunter shows that there had indeed been a tub-thumping Chartist preacher touring the Highlands in 1840, who might have ignited ferment, yet did not. Instead, he argues convincingly that while there was an element of clever and calculated organisation in these seemingly spontaneous uprisings, there was no wider political agenda among rioters beyond the terror of starvation.

Insurrection tells only Scotland’s story, but it points towards Europe. Those at the lower end of the social scale, whose livelihoods were precarious, poised on the scales of supply and demand, inspired the most influential political document of the 19th century. Is it a coincidence that Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto was written in the same year as the potatoes went away? Its authors might not have foreseen the famine years, but they understood only too well the knife edge on which workers lived, at the mercy of those with money and power, who were determined to hold onto both. Insurrection takes that manifesto’s generalisations and theories and puts a face to them. They stare out from this book – thousands upon thousands of them – gaunt and helpless with hunger.