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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XI. The Highlands

75. Famine and Destitution in the Highlands, 1846

Texte intégral

1See introductions to texts 73 and 74. The following letter was addressed to the Rev. Macleod of Glasgow just after the beginning of the potato blight of 1846.

2N. Macleod, Extracts from Letters to the Rev. Dr Mcleod, Glasgow, Regarding the Famine and Destitution in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Glasgow: John Smith and Son, 1847, p. 7-9.

My Dear Sir,

Yours of the 19th I this moment received. It is unnecessary to state that the condition of the poor people all over the Highlands is fearful. Nothing of the kind that ever happened to them before can give the least idea of their present state: we frequently had bad Springs, but this is a Winter of starvation after one of the ‘bad Springs’. Formerly, if they had anything, it was in Winter; always a good fire and plenty of potatoes, if nothing better. My only fear at present is, that relief will come too late. They are now in actual want of every thing in the shape of food; some of them days past told me they had not eaten anything for two days but a salt herring, which they said “kept them in heart”: but even this much, only those who had a few shillings at the time could buy them from the other end of the country. Where they have been favoured with a good fishing—but comparatively of little value, from the want of potatoes—they get no price for them; but even this much the poor people of Brocadale had not got, but when they could get a few shillings they went to buy them, as being the cheapest thing in the way of food they could buy. I can scarcely find time, in writing you by return of post, to consider what the prospects of Spring are. The present evil is the worst; and, before another week ends, I would be afraid to conjecture the most favourable results under present circumstances. I have attended already death-beds that, though they actually did not die of want, may be said to have died of starvation, their disease having been evidently from want of proper food. In many cases I have seen some, who were said to be dying of some sickness, for which I found a little nourishing food an effectual cure: but with what can I feed? I have already involved myself: and all my efforts would not give them one bit each. Too much cannot be said of the exertions of Mr. McAskill of Tallisker, who has in a great measure supplied the country with meal; and I should say, to a ruinous extent given it to poor people who can never pay him. This day, a great number came to my house, who said they had not a bite, and the meal store was run out; a Government store ship having come into the loch, on her way to Portree, they thought I could get them to land some of it; but this could not be done. Oh! send us something immediately, whatever may be done again. In this parish no works of any kind have commenced, and perhaps this very time is the worst that can be. Send it: whither from Establishment or Free Church. I may say that nothing has been done in this parish, in a general way, for a starving population. The extensive farmers are trying to create some work for some of the people; but it is impossible for them to support the expenditure for any time. I might multiply cases that would melt the hardest heart in Glasgow. I entered the house of one, the other day, who formerly was in better circumstances than the generality. By the flickering light by the fire, I saw the mother earnestly looking at the four young children, unconscious of my presence, dropping tear after tear in the embers that had not that day prepared a repast I could almost fancy her saying, “must I let them die”; the youngest of them exclaiming, “Mother, mother, you never kept food from us before.” I hope you will excuse the hurried note, as I had only time to scribble it over before the return of the post, as the incoming post by which I got your note had been later than usual, from the state of the roads.

  • 6 A peasant farmer.

I do believe there is no part of the Highlands in a more wretched state than Brocadale; the majority of the people being cottars6, that had no cow or anything to calculate on when the potato failed. I implore your sympathies in behalf of your native land, as they are, from not having a herring fishing, and other circumstances, worse off, if possible, than any other parish I know. If you can send but a few pounds at present, let it come, for many are dying, I may say, of starvation.

In haste, yours truly,

N. McKinnon.

Brocadale Manse, 29th December, 1846

NB. This case was considered so urgent, that relief in meal, to the value of £30, was immediately ordered—N. M’L


6 A peasant farmer.

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