In 1972, while scouring the Scottish Record Office (now the National Records of Scotland) for my PhD research, I came across a mass of then unsorted material dating from 1847 and dealing with what were called ‘disturbances in the north’.

This material, I established, consisted mainly of correspondence arising from efforts to contain and suppress riot and disorder in towns and villages all around the Moray Firth. Since my thesis was less concerned with that area than with the West Highlands and Islands, I did no more than dip into those letters.

Even then, they looked to have been untouched since they were bundled away by some mid-19th century clerk. It occurred to me then that here was a topic that might someday make a book in its own right. Now, nearly 50 years later, I have at last got round to following up that thought.

These ‘disturbances’ were related to events that affected the whole of the British Isles. When Scotland’s 1846 potato crop was wiped out by blight, the country was plunged into crisis. In the Hebrides and the West Highlands, a huge relief effort came too late to prevent starvation and death. Further east a succession of towns and villages rose up in protest at the cost of the oatmeal that replaced potatoes as people’s basic foodstuff. As a bitter winter gripped, it was feared that the calamitous famine then ravaging Ireland would repeat itself in Scotland.

When George Pole made his way into the Barra township of Bruernish on the morning of Wednesday, January 13, 1847, he was at once confronted by indications of the sort of crisis a later age would call a humanitarian catastrophe. The immediate cause of the misery affecting this crofting settlement’s 27 families was a runaway plant disease that had deprived them of potatoes. That would not have mattered had alternative foodstuffs been available in quantity. But this was not the case. Barra, said by a 16th century cleric, Dean Donald Munro, to be ‘fertill and fruitful . . . in cornes’, might once have been a grain-producing locality where oatmeal and barley-meal were common foodstuffs. Now little of either was to be got on an island where nearly every scrap of arable land had been given over to potatoes.

In Bruernish, George Pole reported, ‘I found few families with any meal at all.’ What he did find, on ‘entering the dwellings’ constituting this ‘little village’, were ‘diarrhoea and typhus fever’ – standard accompaniments of famine.

Outside, crunching under Pole’s boots, was ‘evidence’, as he put it, of Bruernish people’s desperate search for food: ‘The approach to the cottages was paved with . . . shells’. Those shells came from Barra’s beaches. Mostly they had contained cockles.

‘The famous blue cockles of Barra,’ a visiting scientist observed in 1841, ‘are probably the finest, largest and most abundant in the kingdom.’ Writing in 1840, Barra’s Church of Scotland minister, Alexander Nicolson, was equally emphatic. Cockles could be taken from his parish’s shores in ‘immense quantities’, the minister remarked. Barra’s 2,500 or so people turned to cockles in ‘scarce seasons’. Those occurred when a potato crop, perhaps because of prolonged rains or early frosts, did not come up to expectations, and when, as a result, one year’s ‘old’ potatoes gave out in advance of the next year’s ‘new’ potatoes being ready. Islanders, Nicolson added, thought ‘that the quantity of this [shell]fish on the shores is much greater in scarce seasons than at any other time’.

This comforting notion, that cockles were most prolific when most needed, did not survive the 1840s. Its demise may have been delayed had food shortages been kept confined, in the way Alexander Nicolson described, to the months between April and high summer. But what George Pole encountered in Bruernish was a crisis of a different order from any that had gone before. As had also happened elsewhere in Barra and, for that matter, in much of the rest of north and north-west Scotland, the bulk of people’s staple – often only – source of nutrition had been destroyed during July and August 1846 when potato blight reduced field after field, plot after plot, to a sickeningly reeking mass of blackened, rotting vegetation. ‘We frequently had bad [meaning hungry] springs,’ one of Alexander Nicolson’s fellow churchmen remarked, ‘but this is a winter of starvation.’ Many Barra people would not have survived that winter had food not reached them from outside. The person tasked with its delivery was George Pole.

From Bruernish, the ship that had brought him to Barra could be seen at anchor in a sheltered inlet immediately to the north. This was HMS Firefly, one of the Royal Navy’s newer vessels. A steam-powered, paddlewheel-driven gunboat that, since its 1832 launch, had seen service in several of the British Empire’s far-flung outposts, Firefly that morning was discharging, on Pole’s orders, 50 large sackfuls – or 6 tons – of barley-meal. Landed by sailors crewing the ship’s boat that had earlier ferried George Pole ashore, this aid was meant, at the minimum, to stop Barra’s plight worsening further. It had been delivered, Pole reckoned, not a moment too soon.

George Pole’s findings were corroborated by Sheriff Charles Shaw who, just four or five days after Pole’s departure, arrived on Barra to take sworn statements about the circumstances surrounding the growing number of deaths amongst the old and very young caused, islanders said, by hunger. Like Pole, Shaw spent time in Bruernish where one of the township’s residents, Archibald MacMillan, was in no doubt that his daughter Catherine, ‘then about 14 years of age’, had died in mid December as a result of ‘her being [for] so long a period on a small allowance of food’.

In Borve, a mile or so south of Father Donald MacDonald’s church at Craigston, Neil MacNeil spoke about his four-year-old son who had died less than a week before. The family, MacNeil said, was so lacking in resources that, for months, they had depended upon the charity of friends. Those friends, however, were ‘themselves so scarce’ that they had little food to spare. Sometimes, it followed, there were days when ‘the only thing . . . tasted’ by MacNeil, his wife and their five children ‘was warm water’.

A further narrative of trauma and bereavement awaited Shaw at another MacDonald household, this one in Cliad, a coastal settlement occupying a little glen two or three miles north of Tangasdale and Borve. Shaw’s principal informant here was Mary MacDonald, a woman of ‘about 30 years’. Mary was unmarried but had two small sons – described formally at the time as ‘natural’ or ‘illegitimate’. This, in what was a censorious age, would have made for difficulties enough for Mary. But added to these were responsibilities arising from her being, in today’s terminology, sole carer of her ageing mother, Margaret.

Margaret and Mary MacDonald grew potatoes on a diminutive croft rented, like all such Barra smallholdings, from landowner Colonel John Gordon. When their croft’s 1846 potato crop was wiped out by blight, Mary said, she had first slaughtered the little flock of ducks and hens that, in better times, had provided the family with eggs. Her poultry eaten, Mary had next turned to her savings – consisting of 50 shillings earned at some point from the sale of a horse. Back in the summer, 30 of those shillings had been spent on oatmeal. But by winter, when this oatmeal was exhausted, her two boys, Mary said, ‘frequently for five or six days together tasted nothing but dulse and tangle’ – these being varieties of seaweed that could be gathered from coastal outcrops within an easy walk of the MacDonald croft.

But what, Charles Shaw queried, had Mary done with the cash, amounting in total to a pound, she had not so far accounted for? Although neighbours had been ‘very kind’, Mary explained, they had never been able to spare more than a little of their own scanty stocks of food, and it had thus become obvious that her mother, already ailing, could not long survive. She accordingly ‘gave the remaining pound’ of the family’s savings to a trusted friend for safekeeping. This meant that when Margaret died in December, there were 20 shillings with which to bury her. ‘She would look upon it as an indelible disgrace,’ Mary MacDonald told Charles Shaw, ‘if she had not [had] money to expend upon her mother’s funeral.’

What made such episodes all the more inexcusable, in the opinion of Charles Shaw and William Peterkin from the Board of Supervision, was the fact that Margaret and Mary MacDonald should have been able to draw on a fund put in place to help people like them. This fund’s creators were two Barra men who had long before gone overseas and, on doing well financially, had made a joint bequest of £400 (equivalent to several tens of thousands of pounds today) to Barra’s poor.

This sum was banked and, as mentioned in the Revd Alexander Nicolson’s 1840 account of his parish, interest from it was ‘distributed . . . annually’ to needy islanders. Why, Peterkin and Shaw now asked, had no such distribution been forthcoming ‘while the poor were on the eve of starvation’? The answer was extraordinary. Nicolson had been persuaded to relinquish control of the £400 legacy which, up to that point, had been deposited with the Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh. ‘This sum,’ his son told them, ‘is now in the hands of Colonel Gordon of Cluny.’

Quite how that had happened was unclear. Only two things were certain. First, in a promissory note, dated 27 May 1844 and available for inspection at Barra’s manse, Gordon undertook to invest the £400 bequest in such a way as to deliver an annual return of 3.5 per cent. Second, he had since remitted to Barra not one penny of that supposed return. This meant that, by early 1847, their rich landlord had, in effect, stolen accumulated interest payments of around £40 from Barra’s poor. Even at the famine-inflated prices then prevailing, this amount could have provided the island’s hungriest families with a modicum of food. In those circumstances, it was as well that the Commissariat, in the person of George Pole, had come to Barra’s assistance. It was as well too that, in Scotland’s cities and in other centres further south, lots of contributions were beginning to be made to famine relief funds.

While London political circles feared armed uprisings in Ireland the threat was initially discounted in Scotland. Hugh Miller, the Highlander in charge of the pro-Free-Church Witness, lamented Highland and Hebridean quiescence: ‘They [the Irish] are buying guns, and will be by-and-by shooting magistrates . . . by the score, and parliament will in consequence do a great deal for them. But the poor Highlanders will shoot no-one, not even . . . a brutal factor, and so they will be left to perish unregarded in their hovels . . . Government will yield nothing to justice, but a great deal to fear.’

Miller was premature in thus writing off the possibility of insurgency in the Scottish north, however. His point was certainly true of Barra. There, the only demonstration mounted during the famine winter of 1846 was island families marking his departure by gathering on the shore to signal, as Pole put it, ‘their gratitude for the temporary plenty’ he had brought them. Elsewhere, however, the opening weeks of 1847 were to bring no end of dispute.

Soon villages and towns across the eastern half of the mainland Highlands, among them Grantown-on-Spey, Inverness, Beauly, Avoch, Cromarty, Dingwall and Invergordon, would be convulsed by riot and disorder as, in blight’s aftermath, food ran short and prices soared. Here and further east, in Moray, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire where similar protests were organised in places like Fraserburgh, Macduff, Portgordon, Burghead and Elgin, thousands of men, women and children mobilised with a single aim in view. What they wanted to bring about was the cessation of the trade in grain that had so offended Queen Victoria when she learned of its continuation in famine-stricken Ireland. This trade consisted of grain shipments destined for the Scottish Lowlands and for England.

The scale of the efforts ordinary people made to stop these shipments is reflected in the national press’s response to there being suddenly so much unrest in a part of the United Kingdom not usually associated with widespread turmoil. ‘Food riots have been spreading in the north of Scotland to so great an extent,’ reported the London-based Spectator at the start of February, ‘that several parties of military have been despatched from Edinburgh. In some parts the country is described to be nearly in a state of insurrection.’ The winter was to see grain carts seized, ships boarded, harbours blockaded, and a jail forced open. The army fired on one set of rioters. Savage sentences were imposed on others. But thousands also gained key concessions: they won cheaper food.

Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter by James Hunter is published this week by Birlinn (£20, hardback)