James Hunter at John O’Groats Book Festival
John O’Groats Book Festival: Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter
James Hunter – in conversation with Jim Johnston about Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter with particular reference to the Pulteneytown riots.
HIGHLANDS historian James Hunter will open people’s eyes to a time when fears of starvation led to riots, disorder and being shot on by the Army on the streets of Wick.
In 1846 blight caused the potato crop to fail across the north of Scotland and it had an immense impact on people who depended on it as their staple food.
In the Hebrides and west Highlands people starved to death before relief came, similar to scenes Ireland faced at the time, while towns and villages from Peterhead to Thurso rose up in protest as the price of oatmeal soared in response to increased demand.
Caithness features heavily in Mr Hunter’s new book Insurrection – Scotland’s Famine Winter, which he will talk about at this year’s book festival.
Mr Hunter said: “The potatoes were wiped out almost immediately. Potatoes had no resistance to blight in those days.
“There is reference to them one night looking fair and flourishing and the next morning they were black and rotting.
“In the crofting areas in the west and in Ireland they were 100 per cent dependent on potatoes, so there was a famine.
“In Caithness it was not quite total dependence but what made it worse was in the Wick and Pulteneytown area there was a real crisis in the fishing at the time. The bottom fell out of the herring industry, which was a major thing.”
People turned to oatmeal, but Mr Hunter said trouble stemmed from the fact that farmers, meal dealers and landowners were trying to export their meal generally south because it was easier for them to have a bigger order than to sell in dribs and drabs.
He said: “The price of meal more than doubled on occasion and people’s incomes were on the way down.
“It was a real crisis. People just could not afford food.”
People thought one way to bring the price of meal down was to stop these ships heading south, so they marched in protest.
Mr Hunter said: “In Wick they were stopping farmer’s carts taking meal down to the harbour.
“This leads to a real fracas in February of 1847. The Army were called in to try and disperse the protests at the harbour.”
Soldiers arrested a group of men and took them along Union Street towards the bridge.
Mr Hunter said: “They were confronted by a crowd hurtling stones down on them from the bank.
“Eventually the Sheriff, Robert Thomson, ordered the soldiers to fire on the crowds.
“No one was killed but people were hurt, which was quite a cause celebre.
“Nothing like this had happened since the Jacobite rebellion.”
Mr Hunter said people were arrested, one of them a young man from Pulteneytown who was eventually tried in the High Court for rioting and disorder.
He was sentenced to ten years transportation to a penal colony in Australia.
He said: “This was really draconian. The court was trying to make an example of him.
“Transportation was only short of being sentenced to death.”
Mr Hunter said the episode was successful in a way as the authorities were taken to ensure food supplies were available locally.
Mr Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has written extensively about the north of Scotland.
His book Set Adrift Upon The World, about the Sutherland Clearances, was Saltire History Book of the Year 2016.