- Famine in Scotland: The “Ill Years” of the 1690s
Rarely has a natural disaster had such wide-ranging historical consequences as did the famine that struck Scotland in the mid-1690s. Little more than a decade later, as Scotland’s social elites despaired about their nation’s grinding poverty and profound structural weakness, the country’s Parliament finally voted away its age-old independence in favor of unification with England, previously Scotland’s bitterest and most enduring enemy. The product of this unheralded union, Great Britain, would become a formidable economic, political, and imperial force on the global stage for the next 250 years, with Scots frequently placed advantageously within it. The “seven ill years,” as contemporaries knew [End Page 445] them, could therefore not have been more significant (or, at the time, less foreseeable). This fact, however, makes it all the more striking that the nature and extent of this formative national crisis for the Scottish people has hitherto escaped concerted scholarly attention.
Cullen’s book comprehensively fills the breach, demonstrating how this catastrophe arose and how its effects spread irresistibly throughout Scottish life. Although ultimately caused by an unfavorable climate and a vulnerable pastoral and agricultural ecology, the famine was greatly exacerbated by rigidities and inefficiencies in the prevailing systems of production and distribution. The result was a demographic devastation that left a lasting scar not only on the population of the country but also on the psychology of the people. Not surprisingly, such a multifaceted phenomenon lends itself especially well to interdisciplinary investigation, which Cullen ably accomplishes.
Cullen gives particular care to provide hard statistical data about Scotland’s economic and demographic situation before, throughout, and immediately after the famine. Fortunately, the Scots of the period were often assiduous record keepers, leaving future historians an abundance of material, ranging from the official accounts generated by Parliament and the exchequer at the national level and by county administrations in the localities, which Cullen shows to be especially useful for documenting the nature and effectiveness of the governmental response to baptismal registers; the papers of landed estates; and the proceedings of individual kirk sessions (parish committees), which are particularly helpful for filling out the critical details in the various communities. In addition to a close reading of minute books, judicial proceedings, and proclamations, which she subjects to astute interpretation, Cullen offers a systematic analysis of data about such key variables as grain prices and births and deaths to lend unprecedented quantitative exactitude to the emerging picture.
One consequence of this interdisciplinary methodology is Cullen’s ability to demonstrate not only the scale and impact of the famine but also the widely divergent experiences within different districts as events unfolded—a marked feature of the crisis that previously research had never fully explored. As a result, we can now know that the effects were greatest in the north and least damaging in the eastern lowlands, that grain prices roughly doubled because of the scarcity caused by the poor harvests (grain markets had effectively collapsed in Aberdeen and Inverness, the north’s two main towns, by 1698), and that the reduction in population either directly through death or indirectly through outmigration was close to 15 percent of the previous national total. This experience was predictably a shattering blow to the Scottish elite’s faith in the ability of their economy to support the nation’s population. The substantial costs of importing additional grain and providing much-increased welfare payments to the needy, clearly subjected both the public administration and the agricultural and commercial systems in Scotland to considerable stress.
In light of these circumstances, the decision of the national leadership less than a decade later to accept the Treaty of Union presented by the English—the inhabitants of a far wealthier and economically much more advanced country—seems significantly less inexplicable.