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Historian's new book reveals story of violent protests in Wick and Thurso

By Staff Reporter- NOSN

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THE story of dramatic events that saw violent protests in Wick and Thurso as people fought to avoid starvation are told in a new book by the distinguished Highland historian and author James Hunter.

Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter sheds light on a turbulent episode in the history of the north which saw soldiers fire on stone-throwing rioters in Pulteneytown, actions that attracted press condemnation in Edinburgh and London.

In 1846 Scotland was gripped by a winter crisis following the loss of the country’s potato crop to blight. A huge famine relief effort, Dr Hunter writes, came too late to prevent starvation and death in crofting areas where dependence on potatoes was little short of total.

All around the Moray Firth and across Caithness a succession of towns and villages – many already suffering from a sharp downturn in fishing incomes – rose up in protest at rapid rises in the cost of the oatmeal that had replaced potatoes as people’s basic foodstuff.

Dr James Hunter, whose latest book tells of the food riots in Caithness.
Dr James Hunter, whose latest book tells of the food riots in Caithness.

Oatmeal’s soaring price was blamed on the export of grain by landlords, farmers and dealers cashing in on even higher prices in the south. When the authorities refused to stop these exports, infuriated families – fearing a repeat of the famine then ravaging Ireland – brought shipments to a halt by taking the law into their own hands.

During January and February 1847, several Caithness localities were convulsed by unrest. Attempts to ship grain out of Thurso and Wick were obstructed and prevented by huge crowds. Cargo vessels were boarded and their crews threatened at Castlehill and in what was then known as Pulteneytown harbour (today’s Wick harbour). The Riot Act – entitling the authorities to take drastic measures against protesters – was read, with no effect, in Wick’s Bridge Street.

Because Caithness had only a handful of policemen, the county’s beleaguered sheriff called in the army. But when more than 100 soldiers were shipped north from Fort George, disaster followed.

On the evening of November, 24, 1847, 30 bayonet-wielding soldiers, attempting to clear a way through a stone-throwing crowd massed on the slopes above Pulteneytown’s Union Street, were ordered to open fire. The resultant bloodshed further outraged Caithness opinion and attracted condemnation in the Edinburgh and London press.

There was confrontation too in Invergordon, Dingwall, Inverness, Elgin, Burghead, Garmouth, Macduff and other places. Savage sentences would be imposed on some of those involved – one young Pulteneytown shoemaker, John Shearer, being condemned to transportation to a penal colony in Australia. But thousands-strong crowds also gained key concessions. Above all they won cheaper food.

Dr Hunter, emeritus professor of history at the University of the Highlands and Islands, who has written extensively about the north and the region’s worldwide diaspora, has brought these events to life in his latest book.

Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter will be published by Birlinn on October 10, costing £20 in hardback.

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