Highland historian Jim Hunter’s, Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter, had a particular resonance for me. The Hebrides and the Moray Firth, two of the main locations in his account of what happened after the potato blight arrived in Scotland in the summer of 1846, provided the backdrop to my childhood.
As a young boy, I’d scramble over the rocks of Lewis, where we lived, and Harris, home to my paternal grandparents, lifting up heavy curtains of seaweed in pursuit of the theatrical thrill of bringing shy crabs into the limelight.
I didn’t know then that, a century earlier, some of the friends and neighbours of my Gaelic-speaking crofting ancestors had crawled along the same shores, scavenging for limpets and anything else that could keep them and their children alive in those hunger years.
In my early teens, long summer days were spent cycling with my pals from Elgin to the fishing villages of Burghead and Hopeman for sand and surf, blissfully ignorant of the brave and highly effective resistance the quines and loons of the 1840s had mounted in the face of attempts to move grain from Moray’s fertile interior to the marts of Edinburgh and beyond while local people fretted over soaring prices and their ability to feed their families.
These are the stories Hunter, emeritus professor of history at the University of the Highlands and Islands, recounts in his latest book and, as with other unfamiliar episodes of Scottish history I’ve read about in recent years, anger over the injustices of the past often feels compounded by a sense of “why didn’t I know more about this before now?”.
In contemporary Scotland, as we face big decisions about our future as a nation, it seems to me that the history of how history has been taught, deserves its place alongside all the other neglected chapters of our collective story.
But that’s a subject for another day. This YouTube video of my interview with Professor Hunter at this year’s online Islay Book Festival hopefully covers the essential of what the book is about. It’s published by Birlinn and is also available from Islay’s independent bookstore, The Celtic House in Bowmore
More reflections on a very readable piece of history to follow below when I have the chance. In meantime some tweets from the event:
Ends For Now