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Kevin Hall explores the causes and consequences of a major but overlooked 17th-century famine, whose impact on Scotland may well have been even more devastating than that associated with the more famous dearth of the 1690s

The Great Famine

Even in academic circles, very little is known of the great famine of 1623 and its impact upon the Scottish population. In the 1970s, Michael Flinn touched briefly on the subject in his benchmark work Scottish Population History from the 17th Century to the 1930s, and more recently, in an excellent paper published in the International Review of Scottish Studies, Laura Stewart assessed the impact of the famine upon the largest and most prosperous burgh, Edinburgh. Be it as it may that Edinburgh was then the largest urban area within Scotland, its population would not have exceeded more than 25,500 during the 1620s. That is less than three per cent of the entire population of c.900,000. What then, was the impact of this famine upon the rest of Scotland, and upon ordinary Scots?

This short feature, taken largely from my MScR dissertation Famine and the Cradle King: The ‘Ill Years’ of 1621-24, will attempt to shed a little light on the famine’s demographic impact. Perhaps though, it would be prudent to firstly examine the causes of the great famine, both actual and perceived. The 1620s were right at the beginning of a period dubbed ‘the little ice age’ by the Dutch geologist Francois Matthes. Throughout Europe, the decade was one of frequently wet, rainy and miserable summers, with flerce storms and strong winds being the norm during winter. It is recorded that in the early part of the decade the Bosphorus straits were frozen over for a short time, theoretically enabling the bold to walk from Europe into Asia.

Areas affected by the 1623 famine, which devastated communities from the borders to Aberdeenshire

‘Evel Wedder’, trade disputes and the sins of the masses

Whilst not a literal ‘ice-age’, it is true that mean temperatures during this period would have been much lower than those experienced just a few decades previously. With lower temperatures, storm force winds and near incessant rain battering the landscape, famine was a frequent event throughout the 1620s for much of Europe. In Italy, three short periods of localised famine were recorded in the 1620s. And in England, in what was to become the last serious incidence of famine there, the scarcity of food wreaked havoc upon the populations of Lancashire and Cumbria, with further – less serious – outbreaks of dearth recorded in Cornwall and Sussex.

Then, as is mostly true today, Scotland experienced even worse weather than our southern neighbours, with the storms being more frequent and affecting larger portions of the country. Research by Alan MacDonald and John McCallum has highlighted just how tumultuous the weather of the early 1620s really was. By looking at the disruption caused to kirk session, presbytery and synod meetings by non-attendance due to adverse weather over a ten-year period, they found that much of Scotland endured near incessant storms between 1619 and March 1622.

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About History Scotland

In the May/June issue of History Scotland we present the latest research from experts in the fields of Scottish history, heritage and archaeology, as well as news, opinion, book reviews and upcoming history events. Highlights include: · The tragic attempt by the tobacco heir David Guthrie Dunn to sail around the world in his small yacht, Southern Cross, in 1930 · A fresh contribution to the ongoing debate as to where the elusive abbey of Selkirk was situated during its brief existence in the early 12th century · A new study of the causes and consequences of the devastating famine of 1623 Plus: Family history advice, archaeology dig reports and finds analysis, National Records of Scotland column and lots more…