Chapter 2: Mull's Triple Whammie (1814 - 1850)

Chapter 2: Mull’s ‘Triple Whammie’ (1814 – 1850)

In the mid 1800s, Mull suffered three cataclysmic blows, which exploded that slow metamorphosis: (1) A devastating potato famine (the same one which hit Ireland), coinciding with (2) the collapse of the kelp industry, which tore the commercial heart out of the island, and (3) the infamous ‘Highland Clearances’. 

The potato is a versatile, high-yielding, nutritious crop capable of sustaining population densities significantly above most other crops. Basically, it produces more and better food, more quickly on less land than just about anything else, and was the foundation for higher population densities than ever before. In 1845, the wind-blown fungal disease known as ‘blight’ struck, damaging much of that year’s crop, wiping it out completely the following year and continuing until well into the 1850s. Blighted potatoes were inedible, so the result was famine. 

Kelp was seaweed, gathered (‘women’s work’ according to the New Statistical Account of Scotland), dried, piled into a trench along with heather and hay, then set alight. Once burning, it was covered with stones and turf and allowed to smoulder for several hours. The resultant ash was rich in soda and potash. It was transported to places such as Leith, Dumbarton, Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool and Bristol, where it was used in the manufacture of, soap, glass, gunpowder and was also to bleach linen. Until about 1820 a protectionist tax on the more alkali-rich Spanish substitute barilla had maintained the economic viability of the Scottish kelp industry, however, once that was reduced and then removed altogether in 1845, the kelp industry collapsed, depriving crofters and estates of a cash income (an early example of the down-side of globalisation).  

The ‘Highland Clearances’ followed the ‘Lowland Clearances’, but at a slower pace until the potato famine and collapse of the kelp industry rendered the crofting population an economic liability. There was some attempt at poor relief, but lacking the non-commercial component in the relationships provided by the clans, many crofting areas were simply ‘cleared’ of people to make way for more profitable sheep or later deer and grouse, forcing people from their highland or island homes to lowland Scotland or the New World. Some evictions were carried out with considerable brutality. For example, in Sutherland, roofs were torched, sometimes over bedridden occupants, and the surviving former tenants were forced to live in the open by the shore until they could provide themselves with shelter, and even then, they were deliberately 'cottarised' (I.e. allowed to rent a site for a cottage, but no land to farm for food) in order to force them towards the sea or overseas for livelihood.

The Mull clearances may have been a little less brutal than those in Sutherland, although one Bunessan crofter, Donald Morrison, who died in 1986 aged 101, claimed to know of an eviction by burning on the island. The impact of these three events was devastating. For example, the population of Kilninian parish slumped from nearly 5000 in 1830, to under 1000 in 1871. The marks can be seen all over Mull – ruined crofting townships surrounded by bracken-clad lazybeds, traces of which can still be picked out in the low evening sun. 

The First Clearance

Among those fleeing the Mull Clearances were Neil Livingstone, father of explorer David Livingstone who moved from Ulva to the cotton spinning town of Blantyre near Glasgow. However, they began in earnest in 1835, when Ulva was sold to Francis William Clark, a Morayshire man in his middle thirties. Clark was an ‘improver’ who must have been an admirer of Patrick Sellar, evictor in chief of Sutherland, because among his first acts was the eviction of 73 families from the island. According to Munro & MacQuarrie (Clan MacQuarrie – a History; ), he reduced Ulva’s population from almost 600 when he took over, to around 150 within five years. Sorley MacLean, the Gaelic poet, taught for a while in Tobermory. He wrote of his Mull sojourn, “I believe Mull had much to do with my poetry: its physical beauty, so different from Skye’s, with the terrible imprint of the clearances on it, made it almost intolerable for a Gael.” 

Also a refugee from Ulva’s first clearance, John Black turns up around 1836 in Ardachy near Bunessan on the south coast of the Ross of Mull where relatives sheltered him in their barn. And shelter was necessary. Climatically, Mull could be thought more benign than average for the UK - milder in winter, cooler in summer and only a little wetter. However, leather footwear and multiple layers of woollen clothing were the only protective gear, rubber Wellington boots and oilskins had not yet been invented and the wind-chill factor is only exceeded in the high Scottish mountains, so Mull was no place for a cardboard box.

Once in Ardachy, his first priority would have been to find a means of subsistence, no easy task because the Duke of Argyll was engaged in his own clearances on the Ross of Mull. The simple fact was that crofters were destitute. According to Argyll’s local Factor, John Campbell, known as the ‘Factor Mhor’, "The small crofters are generally in debt, otherwise than rents, to a larger amount than the value of their effects, even could they get a market for them." Rather than allow debt to mount up, rent arrears were swiftly met with first confiscation of animals or property and finally eviction. Many of those evicted emigrated, but there was one other option. A few north-facing areas were not added to the enlarged consolidated farms and some of the families cleared from other parts of Mull were settled there, among them John Black who settled on the acidic basalt peninsula of Ardtun. 

It is interesting to ponder why parts of the Ross remained under crofting. It might be argued that they were poorer land, except that the new, enlarged tenanted farms had equally poor land as rough grazing. Perhaps the problem was that the areas were on the wrong side of the arterial road from Craignure to Fionnphort, which would then have bisected any farm to which they were added. Perhaps crofter tenants on these parts added more economic value than simply adding them to the new farms. Perhaps the 8th Duke was troubled by the inhumanity of the clearances and sought to provide a refuge for at least some from former crofting townships. Or perhaps it was all of these.

Chapter 1: Before Crofting (pre-1814)

Chapter 2: Mull's Triple Whammie (1814 - 1850)

Chapter 3: Ardtun (1850 – 1914)

Chapter 4: Crofting Life

Chapter 5: Educated Non-conformists

Chapter 6: A Second Clearance (1914 onwards)

Chapter 7: Deja Vue all over again


Forgotten Scots