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"Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" Michael Pollan.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What does a Scot do when they can't grow Oats? Move !

I have a strong interest in landscape studies-especially the relationship between people and the land through food production. This relationship is quite sensitive to climate-and small changes can create big results. I have been studying the peopling of Ulster and New England by lowland Scots and find it interesting that so much attention has been focused on politics and overpopulation as motivating factors for the great wave of migration that occurred after 1606 and so little attention has been focused on the weather. For example: Oats play an important role in the Scottish diet. In Southern Scotland, higher altitude arable land has commonly been used to grow oats, but there was extensive abandonment of these same lands between 1600 and 1700-often with the people associated with their cultivation leaving for Ulster and later, America. When scientists measure it, they have found that because oats require a certain amount of warmth or degree days to ripen and that for many years in the 17th century the cool weather led to dramatic and reoccurring crop failures. The viability of any farmland depends upon its ability to sustain a family from one harvest to the next and these failures caused upheaval in the farming system of the lowlands and led to land abandonment and migration, for the lucky. Many others starved to death. The years between 1693 and 1700 were called the ‘ill years of King William’s reign’ because of crop failures in 7 out of 8 years. More people in southern upland Scotland died of starvation than had killed during the great plague of 1348-50.
Starvation is a good motivation for migration. Its interesting that New England, also affected by the so called “little ice age” also experienced a terrible drought during the same decade-including the famous year 1692.

I have been preparing a statistical analysis of temperature, land abandonment, witchcraft accusations, and hopefully migration records for 17th century Scotland. Temperature, witchcraft accusations and land abandonment in southern Scotland were all highly related and statistically significant at a .05 marker level. In one correlation that I did, temperature was found to explain 38% of the rate of witchcraft accusations. This means that when the temperature went down, the level of witch accusations spiked up. The migration records have been difficult to put together-the estimates of total migration out of Southern Scotland vary from 20,000 to 200,000 out of a total [Highland and Lowland] population of about 800,000! Pretty impressive. It should be noted that both England and Ireland were in the process of absorbing an enormous tide of Huguenot migrants[more than 100,000 over time] from France at the very same time! It seems that King James endorsement of the Ulster plantations and English New World settlement was actually sound political policy in the face of a natural disaster and demographic and political pressures that makes our Katrina pale in comparison!


  1. M.M.:

    Did this also affect the people on the English side of the border, in the lowlands?

    And did it affect people in Yorkshire and Lancashire as well?

    For that matter, I'd be interested in learning what grains they grew and ate in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

  2. I don't think that the historians have emphasized the role that the changing climate had on the entire border area. It was behind the land clearances and and loss of the commons. And yes, all of the borderers suffered during the Little Ice Age. There were many dearths and periods of famine in the northern areas-especially in the time period right before the English Civil War. As you headed southward from Scotland, the popularity of wheat increased. Barley was also grown.