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Christina Stewart

Lullabies of Loss

Hanna Yaffe, based in Jerusalem, is collecting lullabies from around the world, sung from the perspective of mothers in a time of hardship and war.

She contacted me with regard to a traditional, Gaelic song, Bà Bà mo Leanabh Beag, from the time of the potato famine in Scotland.

Potato blight ravaged Ireland causing tragic losses and terrible hardship for the populace.  The resulting famine is known world-wide.  Less well-known is the effect it had in Scotland. 

This was not the first failure of crops to hit the area, but it was the most devastating.  The Highlands and Islands which relied on the potatoes for food suffered similar losses to the crops as had been seen in Ireland, but the population was smaller to begin with and many of the poor turned to their landlords asking for them to meet the costs of passage abroad.  More landowners in Scotland tried to help their tenants than in Ireland, but there was a limit to what they could do faced with the scale of the problem.

People in the Highlands and Islands were well aware of what had happened the previous year in Ireland.  There, the population had been similarly dependent on potatoes for food, while exporting grain to foreign markets.  The Corn Laws, which protected prices of grain, made it impossible to import cheap grain from abroad.

Grain merchants had orders to fulfill, but it was galling for starving people to watch grain being shipped out of the ports and there were many protests.  The government feared social unrest and sent in militia to quell the protests.  In Wick, protesters broke into grain stores and two companies of soldiers marched on them with fixed bayonets.  The protesters were armed with no more than stones they picked up on the streets.

The population had already undergone the infamous "Highland Clearances" and now it was depleted further through loss of life from shortage, emigration and migration to the towns and cities.  Those who stayed were often unfit through long periods of deprivation.  A significant sum was raised for immediate famine relief through church fundraising further south, but those giving support saw it as a one-off, emergency assistance.  The economy was destabilised, the people demoralised.