Most people will be familiar with the Great Famine or Great Hunger, a period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1849. Outside Ireland, it is often referred to as the Irish Potato Famine. Less well known is that the potato blight also affected many parts of Scotland during the same period, leading to protests and riots. These are documented in James Hunter’s new book, ‘Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter’.
Some of the most violent riots took place in the North East of Scotland, Inverness and Caithness. The Western Isles were also badly hit by the famine and this led to a further stage of the land clearances and migration to North America. Absentee landlords, some of which invested their generous slave compensation payments in Highland and Aberdeenshire land, promoted migration.
For example, John Gordon of Cluny sent nearly 1,700 people to Canada. ‘These parties,’ a senior immigration officer noted of people reaching Quebec from Gordon’s estate, ‘presented every appearance of poverty and . . . were without the means . . . of procuring a day’s subsistence for their helpless families on landing.’
The insurrections were eventually put down by the military, although this took some time as there were few soldiers stationed in Scotland. At the outset, only 240 in Aberdeen and 55 at Fort George. There were no railways in the north of Scotland at this time, and only one Royal Navy gunboat available to transport troops. Law and order was enforced by a handful of constables and specials enrolled from the ‘reliable’ middle classes. However, many of these were sympathetic to the rioters and were in any case overwhelmed by the numbers involved.
The courts handed down punitive transportation sentences, in actions reminiscence of the Tolpuddle Martyrs case. As the Manchester Times noted “the men who supported the . . . exclusion are in high office and honour, and the poor young fellow who obstructed the exportation of a boatload of corn, when his neighbours had the horrors of starvation before their eyes, is sentenced to ten years transportation.”
The famine also raised political consciousness. The Whig MP for Caithness, who was in the pocket of the local landowner, complained, “They are great readers and their local press is of the worst description, tending . . . to preach socialism and its accompanying doctrines.”
The Chartists were also active in the areas affected. The authorities in Inverness made strenuous efforts in 1839 to deny venues for Chartist meetings organised by the Aberdeen Chartist, Alexander MacKenzie. He had similar problems in Macduff and Elgin. Hunter also notes the prevalence of shoemakers in radical activity, something which had been a feature of continental revolutionary activity.
Some historians have argued that there was no organised activity behind the riots. However, Hunter points out that while riot and disturbance was endemic in these communities, theft was not. Many of the actions were also well organised, such as in Inverness in 1847 when roadblocks were established around the town. Although there is limited evidence of wider political goals other than the relief of famine.
The authorities were forced to respond with food supplies and the sentences were reduced. Not welcomed by The Scotsman newspaper, which reverted to its long-standing conviction that crofters, said to be ‘men who love to live without without work’, needed to be ‘disabused’ of any notion that they might be deserving of help from outside.
The later extension of the franchise brought radical Highland land reform (HLLRA) candidates into the 1885 election including Gavin Clarke as the MP for Caithness. As a student, he joined the International Working Men’s Association, regarded Karl Marx as a guiding light, and was for some time on good terms with our very own James Keir Hardie.
As Hunter says in the concluding chapter, “Might there have been among the Bridge Street crowd, on the day when Gavin Clark became MP for Caithness, at least one or two people – in their fifties or sixties now – who were in that same street, on an equally snowy day in February 1847, when the Riot Act was read and a harbour-bound grain cart brought forcibly to a halt?”
There is a lot of detail in this book about the impact of the famine on Scotland, and pretty harrowing it is. It also highlights the establishment attitudes of the day and some nascent political responses. In all, a very worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the period and the insurrection that the famine provoked.
Ps. The book is half price at Waterstones in Glasgow at present.
This is the Blog of the Keir Hardie Society.