Potato Famine in the Hebrides

The potato blight which ravaged Ireland did not reach the Hebrides until the following year, 1846, and it struck my native island of Harris severely.
Harris is not truly an island but the southern and much smaller part of the Long Island - the larger northern section being (also misnamed) the island of Lewis. Until Local Government Reorganisation in the 1970s, Lewis was in the County of Ross and Cromarty but Harris was in the County of Inverness; both islands being quite distant from their respective Administrative Centres of Dingwall and Inverness right on the East Coast of the Highlands. Now, we have a new county – Western Isles.
The topography of Harris shows a startling contrast between the lush ‘ machair’ lands (‘machair’ = a plain) on the West side with its miles and miles of shell-sand beaches, contrasting with the barren, rocky East side, indented with bays and inlets, with cliffs and boulder-strewn, sea-weed covered shores. Once, and not so very long ago, nobody lived on the barren East side - the population lived on and tilled the fertile machair land.In my great-grandfather’s time (he lived 1791 - 1845) the landowners began to realise the potential of large-scale production of grain for sale, and the production of wool to satisfy the demands of the textile industry, which had initiated the Industrial Revolution. The cruel process of persuading the crofters to leave their small-holdings to make way for large farms and estates had already caused untold havoc in the mainland Highlands and thousands of Gaels were evicted - some to find a scrap of land by the inhospitable shores but many to emigrate overseas.
Enterprising landowners had introduced their tenants to the potato as a crop with a much greater yield than oats or barley and capable of being cropped in less valuable soil than the fertile areas they themselves coveted. The process of clearing the people from their homesteads spread from the mainland to the islands. of Scotland.
On Harris, there had been a period of ‘prosperity’ with the discovery of chemicals being derived from seaweed, by burning it to kelp and exporting to the growing industries of England, cut off from European supplies by the Napoleonic Wars. This boom did encourage immigration to Harris from other islands and several hamlets grew up on the inhospitable East side, but the low wages did not attract many from their good land in the West. After 1815, with the cessation of the wars, kelp was no longer in demand, Harris was overpopulated, landowners’ kelp-income slumped and the solution seemed to be the production of wool. Sheep-farming required the good lands of the machair, and the eviction of people commenced, some to the corners of the East side of Harris and the prospect of scratching a living, many, many to sail the Atlantic to a new world.
The landowners met with considerable resistance and the 78th. Highland Regiment had to be called in to evict tenants by force. My great-grandfather was forcibly evicted around 1840, when my grandfather was a toddler, and my great-grandmother was heavily pregnant with a second child. On eviction the roof was set alight and a long slog to the East coast began. The family had barely settled and started to rebuild their badly shattered lives when , in 1845, there was a slight experience of the blight that had wreaked havoc in Ireland. However, the following year, 1846, the blight struck again and the whole potato crop rotted. It was estimated that the ‘humble’ potato made up more than 80% of the people’s diet and the crop failure meant the direst famine. People were reduced to eating such shellfish as the could pick up on thr shore, and there was dire competition for that. Scurvy and typhus struck and weak under-nourished bodies had no resistance to cholera. It took some time in those days for news of such disasters to reach Edinburgh and London and it took even longer for official relief work to be set in motion. Many, many died and there are still ruins of cottages on Harris, in which whole families had died, and, in dread of any traces of disease remaining, the cottages were burnt down and demolished to deter any potential new tenants. In my own boyhood, mid 1920s to mid 1930s, we were duly warned by our seniors never to play amongst certain ruins where the ‘Big Fever’ had destroyed families.
Pending the arrival of government aid, some people looked to their Clan Chiefs for help. Under the Clan system, the Clansmen looked on the Chief as the Head of a family. He had a paternal responsibility for them and they had a special loyalty to him, which inculcated a readiness to follow him, even to death in battle. Some Chiefs recognised their responsibilities in the famine crisis - the Chief of my own Clan, MacLeod of Dunvegan, bought as much food for his eight thousand-strong Clan as his wealth allowed, thereby permanently damaging his own family fortune. Many however did not; one Chief, indeed, bought meal provided by the Relief Board, and, instead of bringing it home, he sold it on the market in Liverpool at a huge profit.
The scale of the famine disaster was so great that the Government decided that the powers which were decreed to deal with the Irish famine should be extended to Scotland. By 1847 there was a Board of Management in place to co-ordinate famine relief but there were further outbreaks of blight in 1848 and 1849 so that by 1850 the Board’s funds were used up. The onus of providing relief was thrown on the landowners by the imposition of a Poor Rate on the value of their estates. This amounted to sixpence in the pound on mainland Scotland and fourteen pence per pound in Skye and the Hebrides.
A Poor Law Board was set up to administer this but it soon decided that the only real solution for the problem was a wholesale emigration of people. Today then as a result, we have a Canadian Province called ‘New Scotland’ (Nova Scotia) having more Gaelic speakers than Scotland and boasting an all-Gaelic University, whereas in Scotland we have only some universities with Gaelic departments. My own family have blood links with the Province of Ontario, and my father, who was a merchant seaman, did a spell of service with the grain-carrying ships that take wheat from the West end of Lake Superior to the East end of Lake Huron. The Western terminal was at the twin towns of Fort William and Port Arthur (now united under the name of Thunder Bay) and I have seen an old photograph of Fort William Town Council, in which every single member was a Gaelic speaker. Scotland has not yet recovered from the disastrous loss of skills, talents and intellectual potential of that period of our History.

The writer of this article, John Angus MacLeod, formerly of Lydney, Gloucestershire, is a retired chemist, a member of the Scottish Mod, and a translator to and from Gaelic. Mr. MacLeod, now living in Scotland, has been a successful part-time teacher of an extra -mural Gaelic course at Cardiff University.

Published in: The Green Dragon No 1, Winter, 1996.