The Scottish Potato Famine of 1836

Scotland and Potatoes ? Jamie Oliver has promoted the Scottish Potato Scone – not heard of it ? Neither had I.  However there is a darker side to Scotland and the Potato.

When we hear of potato famines, usually we only think of the terrible Irish Potato Famine year of 1846.  But that was not the only Potato Famine, and nor was Ireland the only place affected by Potato Famines in the 19th Century.

There was also the Terrible Potato Famine of Scotland in 1836.

After 1743, the Potato was as important in Scotland, as it was in Ireland. According to an article by James Irvine Robertson in 2012 in the Scotland Magazine:

“Traditionally the Highland diet was barley, oats and kale along with whatever cheese and milk that could be kept back from rent in kind paid to the landlord. Meat was likely to be no more than what could be rescued from the occasional casualty. With such poor acid soils, hunger was a constant companion and kept a check on the population. When lairds began to turn their land over to sheep, many people were moved to the coast on much smaller holdings. There they were expected to survive by fishing and by kelp production, working seaweed into fertiliser for their masters, and poverty was exacerbated.

But the potato changed things. It was cheap, grew well in poor soil and was highly nutritious. Within two generations it provided 80 per cent of the Highlanders’ diet and the population began to grow, spurring many to emigrate across the Atlantic for freedom, land of their own and to escape overcrowding. However there was a snag. The potato was prone to disease, particularly when conditions were damp, and when is it otherwise in the Highlands? Crops suffered in 1836-7 but this was just an ominous precursor to what took place a decade later.”

There were Crop Failures in Scotland in 1772, 1783, 1816 and 1836, before the disastrous Scottish Potato Crop Failure of 1846, according to the Oxford Companion to Scottish History.

So what happened in Scotland in 1836 – how bad was it ?

One Highlands Clearances timeline mentions thousands starving in 1836, and another Scottish timeline lists for 1836 :

1836 (autumn) — a famine strikes the Highlands and Islands, leaving thousands to starve, despite efforts to fund emergency rations. “

Charles J Winters mentions in his book, “Gaelic Scotland : The Transformation of a Culture Region“, that by 1837, with crop failures for the second successive season, that 60,000 – 80,000 people would need sustenance. There were local and government relief schemes. But still people died – and some chose to leave. Things apparently improved by 1838.

Leslie M McKinnon wrote in 1973 : “The famine in Scotland in 1836

Half the population of Skye was destitute and starving. Bad weather had destroyed peat stocks. People burned divots from their roofs. Each week the men of some villages met to draw lots to decide whose house should be next taken down for fuel. Destitution had followed eviction, and now famine had made a trinity.

One half of the population of Scotland lived on potatoes for nine months of the year, and in 1845 the potato plants withered and blackened, the leaves to shine as if struck by frost. When the earth was opened the tubers wept and smelled of death. Crops that were sound and healthy on Friday were black and rotten by the Sabbath. In Skye there was scarcely a field that was not affected. The oats crop in the rest of Scotland in this year was generally abundant and of excellent quality. But the government took no steps to see that this abundant crop would not be sold to markets in the south, where prices were more agreeable to the merchants.

Norman McKinnon wrote from his manse in December 1846: ‘My only fear is that relief will come too late. Some of them days past told me that they had not eaten anything for two days but a salt herring, which they said kept them in good heart. I have attended already death beds that may be said to have died of starvation. Oh send us something immediately, whatever may be done again. If you cen send but a few pounds at present, let it come, for many are dying.’ 

Malcolm McKinnon and his family were aboard the Midlothian, which sailed from the port of Uig, Snizort Bay, Isle of Skye, on August 8, 1837, bound for Australia. There about 250 emigrants on board with their Church of Scotland minister, William McIntyre. This emigration had been organised by the Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang, and as an inducement to emigrate free grants of land were promised to every able-bodied adult and free passage to themselves and their families. As well as the Midlothian, 19 other ships came at this time as a result of the efforts of Dr Lang and his companions Henry Parkes and Mr Dalley. “

  • Name: Malcolm McKinnon
  • Sex: M
  • Birth: ABT 1802 in Waternish, Isle of Skye, Scotland
  • Occupation: Builder and ship builder in the Maitland area/
  • Immigration: 18 NOV 1837 Free setters, arrived in Sydney aboard Midlothian, with family
  • Death: 1852 in New South Wales, Australia
  • Occupation: 1842 Farmer/
Old Photographs Isleornsay Isle Of Skye Scotland

Old photograph of Isleornsay lighthouse Isle Of Skye, Scotland.

Emigration from the Highlands and Islands was endemic in the 19th century and the company that ran the Isleornsay store, MacDonald and Elder, acted as emigration agents from the early 1800s…. Rev Dunmore Lang, a Presbyterian minister based in Australia … instigated a programme of assisted passages to Australia from the area. ….  In the 1830s a programme of assisted passages to Australia from the Sleat peninsula was organised. The William Nicol sailed to Sydney from Isleornsay in July 1837 with 322 passengers including 70 families from Sleat. At the time it was reported that so many local people wished to emigrate that the ship could not accommodate all those who wanted to embark.

No wonder our McKenzie’s  were among those clamouring to leave Skye on the William Nicol in 1837. There were about 20 boats that left for the NSW Colony filled with Scottish Highland emigrants in those years.

Jamie’s Scottish Potato Scones


  • 250 g floury potatoes
  • 25 g unsalted butter , plus extra for greasing
  • 50 g plain flour
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder


  1. Peel and roughly chop the potatoes, then cook in boiling salted water for 8 to 12 minutes, or until tender. Drain, then mash with the butter.
  2. Combine the flour, baking powder and a good pinch of sea salt in a bowl. Add the warm mash to the flour mixture and combine gently with a spoon or your fingers to make a dough.
  3. Gently shape the dough into 2 balls and transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Roll each ball into a circle about 5mm thick, prick all over with a fork, then cut into quarters.
  4. Heat a griddle pan over a medium heat. Once hot, smear with a little butter. Carefully transfer the potato scones, in batches, to the pan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.
  5. Serve the hot potato scones with bacon and fried eggs, or scrambled eggs and slices of smoked salmon.

Click here for more recipes by Jamie Oliver


About Kerrie Anne Christian

Interests - Travel, Photography, Developing Websites, Social Media, Writing, Local History, Researcher, Genealogy
This entry was posted in The McKenzie Family and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Scottish Potato Famine of 1836

  1. Lyn Faint says:

    Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Glad you liked it Lyn Faint !

  3. Ross McKenzie says:

    Tough times indeed.

  4. Yes Ross – it was … and not just the clearances that sent our ancestors to the other side of the world – how brave they were … but with little to lose in heading off.

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