"Insurrection: Scotland's Famine Winter" by James Hunter is a surprising and in many ways shocking book. It is shocking because of the events it describes, events that seem utterly alien to anyone who thinks they know Scotland. It is a surprising book because the story it tells seems to have been buried and forgotten. We're no historians, but we like to think we have more than a passing familiarity with Scotland's story. It is very telling that our first reaction on being presented with a book about the failure through blight of Scotland's 1846 potato crop, and the consequences of that failure, was to check that we were reading about Scotland and not Ireland.
No, Scotland it was. And it's fair to conclude that if this was a byway of the history of Scotland that had been too-long overlooked and forgotten then James Hunter's book brilliantly puts that right. There is perhaps no surprise there. James Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands and is well known for the many outstanding books he has written over the past three decades, books that have tended to have a strong focus on the history and the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and, in some cases, how the dispersal of those people has had an impact elsewhere in the world. He writes in a clear and accessible style and his writing conveys a deep empathy for the the plight of the real people he is writing about, people who were all-too-often caught up in events and changes that were usually beyond their ability to control or influence. Usually, but, as we see here, not always.
"Insurrection: Scotland's Famine Winter" brings the author's immense understanding of his subject to bear on, as we've said, the failure of Scotland's 1846 potato crop and the crisis that followed. In the Hebrides and West Highlands a huge relief effort was launched, which came too late to prevent starvation and death. Further east, in towns and villages from Aberdeen to Thurso, people rose up in protest at the rising cost of the oatmeal that had replaced potatoes as people's basic foodstuff. As a bitter winter gripped the country there were real fears that the famine then sweeping Ireland would be repeated in Scotland. The soaring price of oatmeal was blamed on shortages caused by exports and civil unrest followed, with grain carts seized, ships boarded, harbours blockaded, a jail forced open and the military confronted. The army fired on one set of rioters and many others were thrown into prison. But important concessions were gained, most notably lower food prices.
The result is a book that is, as we have said, both surprising and shocking. It is also a book that, in an age when food banks and homelessness are on the increase, has some very uncomfortable echoes for the modern reader. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in Scottish history.