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Issue 64 - The Potato Blight

Scotland Magazine Issue 64
August 2012


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The Potato Blight

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of the potato in Scotland

What bliss it was to be alive when the potato came to the Highlands. It had first been cultivated in Scotland near Stirling in 1739 and was introduced to South Uist by Macdonald of Clanranald in 1743. He ordered his tenants to plant it but they were deeply suspicious of this strange new crop and some were thrown into jail before they would comply. But once their innate conservatism was overcome, the results were miraculous indeed.

Traditionally the Highland diet was barley, oats and kale along with whatever cheese and milk that could be kept back from rent in kind paid to the landlord. Meat was likely to be no more than what could be rescued from the occasional casualty. With such poor acid soils, hunger was a constant companion and kept a check on the population. When lairds began to turn their land over to sheep, many people were moved to the coast on much smaller holdings. There they were expected to survive by fishing and by kelp production, working seaweed into fertiliser for their masters, and poverty was exacerbated.

But the potato changed things. It was cheap, grew well in poor soil and was highly nutritious. Within two generations it provided 80 per cent of the Highlanders' diet and the population began to grow, spurring many to emigrate across the Atlantic for freedom, land of their own and to escape overcrowding. However there was a snag. The potato was prone to disease, particularly when conditions were damp, and when is it otherwise in the Highlands? Crops suffered in 1836-7 but this was just an ominous precursor to what took place a decade later.

In 1843, a new potato fungus arrived in the United States from the Andes. From there it passed across the Atlantic. What happened in Ireland is well known but the effect in the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland and much of the North West Highlands could have been as devastating. It first struck in 1845 but the damage was limited. The following season the crop failed completely; the stench of rotting potatoes permeated the air up and down the west coast and famine ensued. The starving walked the seashores scavanging for winkles and limpets. Dystentry, influenza, scurvy, typhus and cholera killed large numbers.

People first turned to their landlords and chiefs for help. In contrast to Ireland they often received it. Some, Macleod of Dunvegan, MacLean of Ardgour, spent huge sums providing relief. Many of the old proprietors had already sold their estates to a new breed of wealthy tycoons and some of these men, typified by Sir James Matheson on Lewis, could and did spend large sums to alleviate suffering. Other land owners did nothing and the damage to the reputations of their families has reverberated down the centuries. The Free Church, newly created after the Disruption, took a lead in distributing meal to the needy of all denominations, using their network of ministers to provide information and their own ship, the Breadalbane, to carry food. They also provided transport for 3,000 Highlanders who found jobs building railways in the Lowlands. Initially the government felt it should avoid interfering with a free market but the disaster was too great.

An army logistics officer, Edward Pine Coffin, who must have suffered too many jokes about his name in his lifetime to add to them here, was put in charge of distribution and dispatched ships from the Royal Navy round the Highlands and Islands to deliver supplies. Food depots were set up at Portree and Tobermory. A Central Board of Management was established in the Lowlands to co-ordinate supplies and handle donations from America and Canada as well as Britain. A ration was fixed of 1.5lb. of meal per day for a man, .75lb. for a woman and .5lb for a child. The famine subsided and the relief effort stood down. The potato crop the following season looked very promising but storms soaked the fields and the blight struck, again wiping out the harvest. The same happened in 1848.

Relief supplies re-started but this time the Board bowed to criticsim of their previous efforts and made people work for their rations. If they would not or could not, their meagre allocation of food was reduced. 'Dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable mode of life,' said the government. An army of bureaucrats and overseers was employed to administer the 'destitution test' and to ensure that each man worked, and worked hard, for eight hours a day. The labour was often futile, constructing unneeded piers, building walls, digging ditches but 'destitution' roads pioneered routes in remote places and many are still in use, sometimes now under tarmac.

Sir Charles Trevelyan who was knighted for his efforts to relieve the Irish Famine wrote bitingly that the Highlanders: "were to be starved after the Irish fashion."

At the famine's peak the death rate was about three times normal but the mass mortality seen in Ireland was averted. However a third of the population of the Highlands emigrated as a result of the potato famine. In Ireland the figure was probably less than half that. Relief money ran out in 1850 and the burden of providing for the population fell back on the landlords.

The solution arrived at was emigration and the remains of the emptied villages litter the north west Highlands. Some people left voluntarily, knowing they and their families had no future in their ancestral homeland.

Many others moved to the Lowlands where the economy was booming and there was already a tradition of seasonal work in the south.

Many already had relatives who had sailed across the Atlantic to the New World and now lairds were offering assisted passages.

But there was also a wave of compulsory clearances as owners sought to remove those they feared might become a financial burden. They were bundled onto ships and sent to Nova Scotia. Sheep, as usual, took their place in the empty landscape.

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