WHEN we hear or read the words the Great Potato Famine, we almost always think of Ireland in the middle of the 19th century when one-fifth or more of the population died and the same number were forced to emigrate to find work and food.

Known as the Great Hunger or an Gorta Mór, the Famine changed Ireland for ever, with the horrific death toll something that had not been seen since the Black Death hit the country in the 14th century.

There had been plague outbreaks in the 1650s, imported by Oliver Cromwell’s forces while, at the start of the 19th century, typhus and cholera epidemics devastated the populations of towns and cities across Ireland. But the Famine killed more than a million people in a relatively short space of time with the government in Westminster seemingly unable to help.

It wasn’t just about dying from hunger – typhus among populations seeking refuge in towns and cities killed tens of thousands. Many fled west – almost half of all immigrants to the USA between 1841 and 1850 were Irish.

In short, it was a catastrophe for Ireland, with the best estimates showing that the population fell from 8.4 million to 6.6m in just seven years from 1844 to 1851. And of course the Irish came to Scotland in large numbers to work in pits and mills and to build roads and railway lines.

Yet who in Scotland has heard of Gaiseadh a’ bhuntàta? That is the Scottish Gaelic term for the Highland Potato Famine, as historians and academics have come to call the period when parts of Scotland saw death and huge deprivation caused by exactly the same disease that devastated Ireland.

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It in no way downplays an Gorta Mór to write about Gaiseadh a’ bhuntàta. In terms of sheer numbers alone, the two cannot be given equal consideration, but this week and next I am hoping to show that Scotland’s potato famine – it was not just confined to the Highlands – had a similar effect in terms of population and societal shift as the Great Hunger had for Ireland.

Just as an Gorta Mór should always be considered in the context of the long-running depopulation of rural Ireland, so Gaiseadh a’ bhuntàta must be seen in the context of history’s greatest movement of people out of Scotland, namely the Clearances.

I have written before of my opinion that the Clearances really started on one day, April 16, 1746, when the Battle of Culloden was lost by the Jacobites. There had been emigration from the Highlands and Islands before then, but the Hanoverian victory – backed by most lowland Scots – started a whole new process that we would now call ethnic cleansing.

As I wrote about the Clearances in 2016: “ The land was occupied by soldiers in great barracks such as Forts William and George, alien roads were made by General Wade. Acts were rushed through Parliament to curtail the independent nature of the highlands and islands, clan chiefs had their power removed, the broadsword was made illegal, as was tartan.

“Britain and British order came to its wild northern frontier, where the people even spoke a different language – the replacement of Gaelic with standard English became a key tool of the government. As a result, it’s said that even today the people of Inverness speak the most grammatically correct English in the UK.

“Along with the suppression of the people’s culture came an economic system that was alien to the people – one of money and ‘improvement’ of land and agriculture. In retrospect, it was fairly easy for landowners, most of them Scots, to start moving the people off the land. There was virtually no protection for tenancies, the form of land tenure that most people had. Disheartened and disorientated by the new British order of things, many people chose to leave their homes voluntarily.

The Industrial Revolution needed people and the Highlands and Islands supplied them.

‘OTHERS wanted to cling to their homes and way of life, and that’s when cruelty and atrocities came in. For while it is a simplistic analysis, it was nonetheless true that the landed classes decided sheep were a better source of income than people.”

The most notorious Clearances happened in the 1810s and 1820s and were perpetrated by landowners such as the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, whose hated factor Patrick Sellar literally got away with murder. Despite the influx of sheep, subsistence farming was still a way of life for perhaps 200,000 people north of the Highland Boundary Line as the 1830s dawned.

While there was not the intensity of forced emigration which the likes of the Sutherlands had visited upon the people on their own lands, there were still plenty of occasions when glens, villages and hamlets were cleared of their people.

In the first half of the 19th century, crofting, labouring on farms by cottars, and fishing in coastal villages were the main economic mainstays of the Highlands where attempts to introduce new industries – most notably by the Sutherlands – had failed spectacularly.

The main crops grown in the Highlands had usually been cereals such as oats, but over decades potatoes became a staple crop – they were easier to grow and, although less nourishing, the humble spud was a good source of vitamin C.

Almost every croft had a potato patch or even a field full of them, and just as in Ireland, the people of the Highlands were dependent on the potato for much of their sustenance.

That exemplary Scottish historian Professor Michael Lynch wrote in his Scotland: A New History: “By the 1830s the bulk of the society of crofters and cottars in the West Highlands and the Isles depended on the potato for at least three-quarters of their diet.”

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The author James Irvine Robertson summed it up in an excellent article he wrote in Scotland Magazine in 2012: “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% 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.”

There had been several crop failures in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Lynch identifying three in 1772, 1783, and 1816, but the first great failure of the potato crop happened in 1836, not long after there was a dreadfully poor harvest of all crops for the second year running.

KNOWN as potato blight, the disease seems to have started on the Continent and spread through England to affect Scotland. The effects on potato crops were devastating, the tubers turning to black inedible mush within days, sometimes even hours, as crop after crop was hit right across the Highlands and Islands.

Famine was already beginning to set in even before the harsh winter of 1836/37 arrived. The potatoes would normally have been harvested and conserved to see the population through winter, but the blight had taken root in virtually every potato-growing area.

Skye was particularly badly hit, and it was estimated that half of the island’s population was left starving. The arrival of a very cold and wet winter destroyed the other necessity for life in the Highlands and Islands – their stocks of peat, with people being reduced to drawing lots to choose whose houses were to be burned for fuel.

We can say with considerable certainty that the combination of hunger and poverty drove many people away from the island, especially to seek a better life in Australia. In a celebrated voyage, the ship Midlothian left Skye on August 8, 1937, and not everyone on board was being forced to emigrate in a Clearance. The ship’s records have been preserved along with the passenger manifest, and from those we can see that tradespeople such as blacksmiths and stonemasons and even shopkeepers were aboard.

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A website dedicated to historical research about the Australian Mid North Coast Pioneers contains this information: “Midlothian, a barque (three masted ship) of 414 tons, under Captain Morrison, left the small port of Uig, in Loch Snizort, Skye, on August 8, 1837. The surgeon superintendent was Dr Robert Stewart, and the minister the Rev William McIntyre.

“The ship carried nearly 300 passengers, most of whom were Clearance victims. They were brought to Australia under Rev John Dunmore Lang’s Government Assisted Migrant Scheme.

“Twenty-four persons died on the voyage to Australia, 18 of them children and women. The deaths were due mainly to dysentery, and a fever which appeared five weeks into the voyage. Dr Stewart, in an effort to combat the disease, stopped all animal food, prescribed extra sugar, and doubled the oatmeal ration. No fever cases occurred after November.”

Cleared from their homes with their way of life destroyed, it is only too easy to see why people clamoured to escape to a new life, but sometimes matters only worsened. The previous month, the emigrant ship William Nicol, chartered by the British Government, sailed from Sleat on Skye for Australia carrying 322 passengers from 70 families.

Parbury’s Oriental Register recorded that the William Nicol “had reached the Cape in a most distressing condition. It said: “It is stated that the ship was much too crowded; the berths ill-constructed, being just calculated to hold one person each and no more, and so arranged as neither to admit of the classification of families, nor of the sexes.

“There was a great want of water-closets, and other necessaries of cleanliness. Many of the children had died, and all the women and children were sickly, from an injudicious selection of food. The women had suffered the more, in consequence of the ship’s surgeon not knowing their dialect, and there being no female interpreter.

“They complained bitterly of not being allowed to go on shore. The Cape residents generously raised a subscription to purchase an adequate supply of articles of food and clothing.”

Between 1837 and 1840, in all 20 ships took part in the Government Assisted Migrant Scheme, conveying some 4000 Scots, nearly all Highlanders and Islanders, to a new life on the other side of the world.

Those who stayed at home on Skye and elsewhere must have thought that in surviving the terrible winter of 1836-37, they had endured the worst that the weather and potato disease could throw at them. But they were wrong, because in

1837/38, the winter returned with a harsh vengeance and the potato crop failed again. Less than a decade later, worse was to come. Much worse.

Continues next week