Highland Potato Famine
|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (March 2009)|
The Highland Potato Famine was a famine caused by potato blight that struck the Scottish Highlands in the 1840s. While the mortality rate was less than other Scottish famines in the 1690s, and 1780, the Highland potato famine caused over 1.7 million people to leave Scotland during the period 1846–52. The Highland Potato Famine is now in widespread use as a name for a period of 19th century Highland and Scottish history. Famine was a real prospect throughout the period, and certainly it was one of severe malnutrition, serious disease, crippling financial hardship and traumatic disruption to essentially agrarian communities. The causes of the crisis were similar to those of the Great Irish Famine and both famines were part of the wider food crisis facing Northern Europe caused by potato blight during the mid-1840s.
In the mid-19th century, most crofters (tenant farmers) in the Highlands of Scotland were very dependent on potatoes as a source of food. The potato was perhaps the only crop that would provide enough food from such land areas. The land was generally of poor quality in exposed coastal locations. (See Highland Clearances.) Very similar conditions had developed in Ireland.
In the Highlands, in 1846, potato crops were blighted. Crops failed, and the following winter was especially cold and snowy. Similar crop failures began earlier in Ireland, but famine relief programmes were perhaps better organised and more effective in the Highlands and Islands. During 1847, Sir Edward Pine Coffin used naval vessels to distribute oatmeal and other supplies. Nonetheless, in Wick, Cromarty and Invergordon, there were protests about the export of grain from local harbours (this grain being privately owned). Troops were used to quell the protests. Crop failures continued into the 1850s, and famine relief programmes became semi-permanent operations.
Crofters were not simply given their oatmeal rations: they were expected to work for them, eight hours a day, six days a week. Relief programmes resulted in the building of destitution roads. Also, they produced projects with very little (if any) real value, and their administration was very bureaucratic, employing legions of clerks to ensure compliance with complex sets of rules. The daily ration was set at 24 ounces (680 g) per man, 12 oz (340 g) per woman and 8 oz (230 g) per child.
Some landlords worked to lessen the effects of the famine on their crofting tenants. Other landlords resorted to eviction. John Gordon of Cluny became the target of criticism in Scottish newspapers when many of his crofters were reduced to living on the streets of Inverness. Gordon hired a fleet of ships and forcibly transported his Hebridean crofters to Canada, where they were dumped on Canadian authorities. News of the famine led to the Scottish diaspora including Scottish-Americans to organise relief efforts.
During the ten years following 1847, from throughout the Highlands, over 16,000 crofters were shipped overseas to Canada and Australia. In 1857, potato crops were again growing without serious blight.
- "Emigration for the Highlands", highlandclearances.info.
- Strum, Harvey (2000), "Famine Relief from the Garden City to the Green Isle", Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 93 (4): 388–414, JSTOR 40193453.
- Richards, Eric & Clough, Monica. Cromartie: Highland Life 1650-1914. Aberdeen University Press, 1989, Chapter 15
Redcliffe N. Salaman & J. G. Hawkes, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1985) New York Cambridge University Press isbn=0-521-07783-4
T.M. Devine, The Great Highland Famine: Hunger, Emigration and the Scottish Highlands in the Nineteenth Century (1988) Edinburgh: Birlinn