Paul Warde

The Famine

‘By Kelp and Kelp alone this remote country is emerging from poverty, if this fails, decided and inevitable ruin must fall on every class of its inhabitants.’ This was penned by a Highland observer in December 1817. Three decades of buoyant kelp prices may have promoted an illusion of permanency for some, but others recognised the vulnerability of Hebridean society.

Indeed, as the Highland proprietors sought to stave off reduction in barilla duties and salt taxes, their key argument was the dependency of – how many? eighty, one hundred thousand? - on the industry. But the government declared itself unwilling to subsidize one part of the British populace at the expense of another. This despite the proprietors argung that the costs of supporting the inevitable emigration of no less than forty thousand, a policy recently adopted in Ireland, would in the end cost the nation far more than protective tariffs.

Painting titled `The Harvesters` by Duncan MacGregor Whyte. An Iodhlann.

Tiriodh had waxed through the export of freely given, but extremely hard-won resources. Could it survive now that the purses of industry opened towards other hands? And Tiriodh’s plenitude was relative. A report on the island recorded as early as 1822 ‘cases of individual wretchedness and misery that perhaps are not to be found in any part of Scotland.’ In fact, the Duke of Argyll continued to purchase kelp into the 1830s though to no profit, as some revenue was better than none at all. Poor harvests in 1836-7 saw a quarter of the population on relief.

Despite the dreams of improvers, Tiriodh was not a fertile lowland lea cast far out into the shining Hebridean sea. Its light soils of shell sands and machair made for a rich and beautiful pasture, but could only yield crops with repeated layerings of seaweed. The many smallholders’ lands were too limited to permit rest, and nineteenth-century farmers were convinced their crops were declining as a result. It had been difficult to rent all the farms out as early as the 1730s, unless the head leasees could draw income from sub-letting. And in that decade, sand blow was already a problem. By 1769 two farms were rendered ‘as sterile as a snow-drift’ as a result. Bent grass (marram) held together the dunes, but was frequently removed to make ropes, sacking, chair seats and other rough fabrics.

Equally, Tiriodh lacked for fuel. By the end of the eighteenth century, many of the mosses from which turf was drawn had been stripped to bare rock and families spent valuable summertime excavating only to two or three inches’ depth of peat. Dried horse dung, straw, or in desperation parts of houses could be burned in extreme cold. Lacking any firewood, island houses were built with thick double walls of stone, infilled to maximise insulation. Inevitably dark and prone to damp, nevertheless they could retain the heat of a fire for a week.

Lack of fuel and timber made Tiriodh dependent on outsiders during the eighteenth century. ‘Outsiders’ remained, however, within the context of the empire of Argyll. Tenants were supplied with timbers from the famous oakwoods of Loch Sunart, seventy miles away, or from Mull. Yet this required the hire of boats and a fortnight’s work to collect it. Damp air and sand blowing meant that timbers did not last long and farms sometimes had to be re-located.

Over time such dependency grew. From the 1780s, ducal officials considered how they could get more coal into the island, and limited cutting of the remaining mosses. To tenants, the charge for coal, taking a very substantial part of their cash income, was tantamount to a hike in rents. The 8th Duke would concede that the time required to obtain peats made it, ‘the dearest of all possible fuels’, only worth doing when there was no other profitable employment – but failed to make the connection that it was limited opportunity, not idleness, that governed economic life and channeled islanders’ efforts into activites that brought no revenue to the dukes.

The east of the island brought its peats from the Ross of Mull, the peninsula cast westward towards Tiree and tipped with the sacred island of Iona. This required a sometimes hazardous voyage over twenty miles of open sea in boats piled high with turf. Peats had to be cut, stacked and dried in one season, and ferried over in the next. Immediately after 1800, the new crofters of Balemartine did not think this a journey worth making and continued to plunder the local moss by stealth. After a few years the Factor gave up resisting this pressure, and allotted the moss among the crofters, but not the burgeoning population of cottars who had to look over the sea. ‘I scarcely conceive’, wrote the minister in 1840, ‘how poor families, who have no boats of their own, can afford the hiring of boats for this purpose,’ a task done by five hundred families. Yet it was cheaper than buying coal. These seasonal trips also built new, more intimate connections – like Uisdean Ròs who moved from the Ross to the island and married in the 1820s, not untypically, meeting his bride Ciorstaidh Dòmhnallach at the altar four months into her first pregnancy. Uisdean became the shoemaker of Balemartin. Or at least he aspired to be so, because in later censuses he is recorded as a labourer.

Tiriodh entered the 1840s with its highest ever population of four and a half thousand, their local opportunities to earn cash crushed by the vagaries of industrial markets and lordly fiat, living in a beautiful but delicate land whose outdoor life remained dictated by the oceanic climate.

Then came the blight.  

The fungus phytophthora infestans favours cool wet nights and days of mild rains, spreading its spores through splashing and dripping water. It could infect potatoes in the ground, when they were being dug out, or in storage, reducing them to a stinking pulp. Intimations of the spread of the blight appeared in 1845, but as in neighbouring Ireland, it was not until the harvest of autumn 1846 that it became clear disaster was afoot. As the Free Church’s newspaper, the Witness would put it, ‘The hand of the Lord has indeed touched us.’ Two-thirds of Tiriodh’s food supply was gone.

Lifting potatoes at Ruaig, c. 1925-6, with Nancy and Alexander MacInnes in the foreground (Duncan MacInnes`s aunt and great-uncle). An Iodhlann.
Skye Crofters, Planting Potatoes. George Washington Wilson. 18602-1880s. The MacKinnon Collection. Acquired jointly with the National Library of Scotland with assistance from National Lottery Heritage Fund, Scottish Government and the Art Fund.

The first resort was cash reserves and local substitutes. The island’s black cattle were sold en masse but a glut in that market and the poor quality of beasts saw prices collapse by 1847. People cut back efforts to a meal a day, sending hungry children to bed early, and scouring the shores for shellfish. The moment of greatest danger was in the winter and early spring of 1847. The miserable diet available led to vitamin deficiencies and the ravages of purpura, with people reported dying every day in January. Victims suffered ‘great langour and depression’, aching limbs, sore throats and ulcers. Yet Tiriodh was spared the cruel fate of the Irish landless who almost vanished entirely in the famine. Tenants and crofters helped out destitute cottars from their stores, and the island was blessed with resources beyond the potato patch.

Skye Crofters using the crooked spade in the late nineteenth century for ploughing (source: ambaile.org.uk).Charles Edward Trevelyan (contemporary lithograph). 1840s. Wikimedia.Nevertheless, even a government to whom intervention was distasteful in the extreme recognised the need for action. Although ostensibly organised through private charity by a ‘Central Board’  convened in urban Scotland, or arranged via loans to landlords, relief activity proceeded under the close direction of government figures such as Charles Trevelyan and the fittingly named Sir Edward Pine Coffin who also directed policy in Ireland. Charity had its own price, however. Initially permitted one and a half pounds of meal, by 1848 the application of a ‘destitution test’ for an able-bodied man required him to work a day of eight hours to receive one pound of meal, although the meal, containing around 1 600 Kcal, may have sufficed for metabolic function but hardly for sustained hard labour.  Women received about 1 300 Kcal in meal. This was, of course, considered the necessary level of deterrent to the idle. In 1848, half of Tiriodh’s population received assistance, and two-fifths, still, in 1849. The new landlord, the 8th Duke who began to manage his inherited estates in 1846, extended this scheme into the 1850s. But the choice was stark. The able-bodied could leave the island, whether permanently or temporarily, or they could work for their meal on drainage projects funded by cheap loans from the government, or – as the factor John Campbell put it to ‘daily numerous applications for food... they must just starve.’ Meanwhile, the ducal rental income, to which the poorest third of the population did not contribute at all, held up remarkably well, being in receipt of 79% of the expected sum, in 1846-9.

Somehow, and with great suffering, Tiriodh got through. The burial registers have not survived, but mortality was not, in the end, greatly elevated. Yet between the census of 1841 and 1849 the parish lost 36% of its population. The decline in resident families was much less, at 9%. This indicates a trend that was established before the famine but became unstoppable thereafter. Indifferent to the island’s established products, the only thing global markets demanded of Tiriodh was its youth. 


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