We are regularly reminded of the an Gorta Mór, or the Great Hunger of 1845 caused by the Irish Potato Famine. Indeed, Tayto considered producing limited edition crisp packets to commemorate the event, although I may have just made that up. But how many people have heard of the Scottish Potato Famine?
On this day in 1846 a spell of hot weather began to suck up all the water from the normally soggy earth of north west Scotland and it became so dry that ‘men swore that they had seen salmon swimming in red dust’. This was a bit of a worry for the Highland crofters. The usual heavy rainfall and high winds that would destroy grain crops was ideal for potatoes that had become the staple crop.
The winds also protected the crop from ‘curl’, a disease spread by greenfly that don’t fly anywhere if the breeze is above 8mph. And the heavy rain is also great for washing parasites from the plants.
Anyway, the Highlands had somehow avoided being infected by Phytophthora infestans that had caused the problem in Ireland the previous year and the crofters were doing a roaring trade in spud exports . But they had only delayed the inevitable. Infected tubers had been planted alonside healthy ones and and by this day in 1846 the first diseased potatoes were being dug up.
To cut a long story short, the ensuing famine caused 1.7 million people to leave Scotland over the following five years or so. That’s quite impressive given that the modern population of the whole country is just over five million. Or perhaps one of the reasons why.
More importantly, it was the famine that changed the Scottish diet forever. With no potatoes to cook, tartan clad housewives had to resort to whatever was in the kitchen cupboard and thus the deep-fried Mars bar was born. The rest, as they say, is culinary, cultural and minority regional stereotyping history.