Past records speak of periods of food shortage, poor living conditions and disease. King William's lean years (1693 to 1700) saw dearth and famine across much of Scotland and upland parishes in the Highlands suffered most.
The advent of the potato
Crop failures occurred several times during the 18th century, but the introduction of potatoes in the second half of the 18th century was to prove 'a saviour of the people' in Skye and other districts. Ardersier, which had not yet introduced potatoes, suffered badly during the dearth of 1782.
By 1845 dependence on the potato had become so great that, when blight destroyed the crop, severe famine followed. To alleviate the famine in Wester Ross the Lairds of Gairloch and Dundonell employed their tenants in the construction of a road from Garve to the west. It became known as Destitution Road and the bridge at Kinlochewe as the Hunger Bridge.
The battle against smallpox
In the 18th century smallpox was rife and caused many infants deaths. The practice of deliberately infecting children appears to have been common, however, in the Highlands by 1715. By the end of that century inoculation had become widespread. "Fewer children die in the Highlands than almost anywhere, particularly since inoculation is so widely practised" said one Highland minister. Johnny Notions on the Shetland Isle of Yell inoculated all on the island with great success yet Lowland Scots remained opposed to inoculation until 1800.
In 1832 cholera reached the Highlands after being carried there by Sutherland fishermen. Diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough were responsible for 4,923 deaths across Scotland and tuberculosis for a further 10,509 deaths in 1900. In recent years vaccination has greatly reduced the incidence of all these diseases.
The church at one time dealt with the care of the poor. Collections were made and given out to the most needy in the parish, local knowledge ensuring a fair distribution. Care for the poor passed to the State following the 1845 Poor Law Act.
Improving health and welfare
Conditions improved as governments encouraged better housing, sanitation, education and medicine. Fresh water and sewerage services installed throughout the region also greatly improved the health of the population. By the early 20th century the State had introduced allowances to offset any difficulties caused by unemployment, illness and old age. Among measures taken were the 1845 Poor Law Amendment (Scotland) Act, the 1867 Public Health (Scotland) Act, the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, the 1908 Old Age Pensions Act and the 1911 National Insurance Act. The introduction of the National Health Service (1948), a symbol of the Welfare State, has been of great benefit to the region.
If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon -
Poverty and Welfare in Scotland, 1890-1939
Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press, 1988
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