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In James Hunter's book on 1846 potato famine protests and riots across the North

By Margaret Chrystall

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IT'S surprising that we don't know more in our times about the events of 1846 and how Scotland's potato famine saw starvation in the Hebrides and West Coast of Scotland, while in places like Inverness, Beauly, Avoch, Cromarty, Dingwall and Invergordon, people rose up to protest at the cost of the oatmeal that replaced the lost potatoes.

James Hunter's latest book brings the era back to life as he has used eyewitness accounts and extensive research to tell the dramatic story of this 'forgotten famine'.

Families feared the same fate as those affected by famine in Ireland, so grain carts were seized, ships boarded, harbours blockaded, a jail was forced open and the army fired on one set of rioters.

Below he answers Margaret Chrystall's questions about his book and the times:

Writer James Hunter writes about turbulent times in the North of Scotland in 1846.
Writer James Hunter writes about turbulent times in the North of Scotland in 1846.

Q Why do you think we do not know more about the times of the famine and what happened more widely than we do now? Did that come into your decision to write your book Insurrection: Scotland's Famine Winter about it?

A While there’s some awareness of the fact that the arrival of potato blight in Scotland in the summer of 1846 brought famine to the crofting areas of the West Highlands and Islands – where, as in Ireland, potatoes were often the only source of food for entire families and communities – the impact of the famine on a whole series of towns and villages around the Moray Firth seems to have been forgotten more or less entirely.

In places like Burghead, Elgin, Inverness, Avoch, Beauly, Dingwall, Invergordon and Wick – all of which saw large-scale protest and riot in the opening weeks of 1847 – families were not so wholly reliant on potatoes as were their counterparts further west. But potatoes were a major source of food for them all the same. When potatoes failed because of blight, the substitute to which folk turned was oatmeal. The price of this then shot up – almost doubling in a matter of weeks. This coincided with a big downturn in incomes from fishing and in a wider economic recession. So families had less cash at a time when oatmeal prices were spiralling.

At the same time, farmers and dealers were shipping a lot of oatmeal and grain south to cash in on the demand in the Scottish Central Belt and England. People felt – understandably – that if these shipments were stopped, the price of oatmeal would come down. The government refused to intervene on the grounds that it wasn’t up to politicians to interfere with market forces. So people all around the Moray Firth began to take the law into their own hands.

This led to a series of sometimes violent confrontations – culiminating in the army opening fire on protesters in the Pulteneytown area of Wick.

There were clashes and stand-offs between protesters and soldiers in other places too. One was Avoch. Another was Invergordon where a crowd used a battering ram to stove in the door of an inn with a view to releasing – as happened – prisoners that had earlier been sized by soldiers.

Getting soldiers north in big enough numbers to deal with disorders was a real problem for the authorities. This meant that in Inverness, for example, the local authorities lost control of the streets to protesters for a fortnight or more. Grain dealers had their windows smashed in Inverness by angry crowds. Attempts to recruit a big number of special constables from among lawyers, businessmen, shopkeepers and other supposedly ‘respectable’ individuals failed – because of widespread sympathy for families who were going hungry. People put roadblocks in place all around the town to check on grain carts coming into the town to make sure they weren’t heading for a waiting ship at Thornbush Quay. When one carter tried to break through such a barricade, his cart was unyoked from his horse, the grain in it emptied on to the road and the cart wheeled through the town to the Waterloo Bridge where it was pitched into the river.

As well as going into these events in detail my book has quite a bit to say about the famine on the west coast and in the islands. There I’m looking to tell the story of named individuals – of how things were, for example, for the family of 14-year old Catherine MacMillan who died of hunger in Barra.

Q What were the most surprising things you discovered in your research for the book?

A I’m not sure if surprising’s the right word, but I was greatly taken by the extent to which all sorts of people rallied round to help those less fortunate than themselves.

A lot of cash was raised to help subsidise the price of oatmeal to the most badly-off families in Inverness, for example. Often this cash came from people who were by no means terribly well-off themselves – but who wanted to help those who were really suffering. Much the same happened in lots of other places like Elgin and Nairn for instance.

Then there’s what’s to me the remarkable story of William Fraser-Tytler who was Sheriff of Inverness-shire.

When, towards the end of 1846, a cargo ship carrying 6,000 barrels of flour ran aground in the Sound of Harris between Harris and North Uist, people from Berneray, an island just off N Uist began to help themselves to flour which would otherwise have gone into the sea.

This flour was taken by folk who were starving. But taking this flour was to commit a crime. So eight men from Berneray were arrested and sent to Inverness where they were imprisoned in the castle.

Fraser-Tytler took a huge interest in their case. He visited them, he spoke with them through an interpreter – they were Gaelic-speakers – and he was clearly greatly moved by their accounts of what their people were going through. "I can’t get these poor fellows out of my head," he wrote.

James Hunter's new book looks back.
James Hunter's new book looks back.

He had the Berneray eight bailed and taken to his own home – he lived in some style at Aldourie Castle at the top end of Loch Ness. There he gave them work for a time on his estate while he made arrangements simply to have them admonished and sent home.

Eventually, at his own expense, Fraser-Tytler had all eight put on a steamer that took them down the Caledonian Canal to Oban – from where they were able to get home to the islands.

I find this a remarkable story – not least because it runs so counter to the standard portrayal of Victorian justice as unfailingly harsh and implacable and cruel. William Fraser-Tytler, I believe, deserves to be remembered and I hope my book helps at least a little to do that.

Q The resonances now with poverty, the surprising and terrible return of hunger and the increasing need for food banks with these times of famine, such as those you document in your book – did Scotland learn from the famine? And what should or could that time teach us about our own times?

A In my book, I don’t make any connections between what happened in the 1840s and what’s happening now. But there are clearly parallels. Where then people were raising funds to supply food to the hungry, now people are doing much the same thing by way of food banks and by other means.

The 1840s were a time of terrible inequality, of huge divides between the wealthy and the mass of ordinary people. Over the last few years, as inequality has grown and poverty increased, we’ve seen at least something of a reversion to the problems of the past.

These problems were eventually tackled by means of government intervention through the welfare state, the development of the NHS and other measures of that kind. Now much of this is again under threat – or so it often seems. It would be a tragedy if we were return to where we once were.

Today we think of famine as something that happens far away – in Africa, for example.

We see on television and in the press pictures of African children with, for instance, the shrunken arms and legs and the swollen bellies that result from extreme malnutrition combined with vitamin deficiency. This condition is called kwashiorkor. Today it’s confined to times of famine and crisis in the developing world. But in the famine winter of 1846-47 it was common in Scotland. We’re not back there. It’s much to be hoped we never are.

There are two chances to hear James talk about his book:

The first is a free event with book signing at Waterstones Inverness on Thursday, October 10 at 6pm.

His second event will see the writer talk about the dramatic and often moving stories told in his new book. Before the lecture on Wednesday, October 16 at Inverness Town House at 7pm, there will be a wine reception, archival documents display and book-signing at IMAG (Inverness Museum And Art Gallery) at 5.30pm. Tickets (£12) for the lecture at 7pm – which will be followed by a QnA session– can be booked by calling 01349 781730, emailing inverness.museum@highlifehighland.com or calling into IMAG reception.

Insurrection: Scotland's Famine Winter is pubished by Birlinn, £20.

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