Book festival serves up feast and famine

James Hunter.

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Today sees the start of the 2019 Tobermory Book Festival: West Over Sea, which this year promises a veritable feast of literary offerings.

Our spotlight this week, however, highlights the exact opposite, with Jim Hunter’s Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter exploring the hunger, starvation, protest and riot which gripped the north in the months following the 1846 failure of the area’s potato crop.

Jim Hunter will be at the Aros Hall on Saturday (October 26) 4-5.30pm and will have quite a bit to say about how the famine affected Mull and surrounding localities.

‘I’m very much looking forward to being in Tobermory, this is something of a return for me to my own part of the world,’ said Jim who was born and grew up in Duror and went on to Oban High School.

The 1846 potato blight saw Scotland plunged into crisis. In the Hebrides and the West Highlands a huge relief effort came too late to prevent starvation and death. Further east, meanwhile, towns and villages rose up in protest at the soaring cost of the oatmeal that replaced potatoes as people’s basic foodstuff.

As a bitter winter gripped and families feared a repeat of the calamitous famine then ravaging Ireland, grain carts were seized, ships boarded, harbours blockaded, a jail forced open and military confronted.

The army fired on one set of rioters while savage sentences were imposed on others. But thousands-strong crowds also gained key concessions. Above all they won cheaper food.

Those dramatic events have long been ignored or forgotten. Now they have their historian. The story Jim tells is, by turns, moving, anger-making and inspiring.

‘I’ll be talking about the impact of famine on Mull, other islands and the West Highland mainland,’ added Jim, whose talk will also include the protest and riot.

An account from the Greenock Advertiser’s correspondent in Tobermory of conditions at the time stated: ‘The children may be heard outside crying for food … Snow aggravates our distress … Human lives are at stake. They will be perishing about our doors ere long if something is not done.’

Jim, who has carried out a comprehensive study of the event, continued: ‘What I’m looking to do is tell the story of the famine winter in a way that tries to bring out the horrors of that grim time as it was experienced by families and individuals.’

‘This isn’t a book about death rates. It’s a book about people, about what they went through, about the tremendous efforts made by the folk who did so much to bring emergency supplies of food to the starving.’

One such person was Oban doctor and leading layman Andrew Aldcorn who organised the first large-scale effort to get food onto the islands.

‘If ever there were to be a memorial put up to honour people who did their best to bring aid to famine victims, Andrew Aldcorn’s name would surely have a prominent place,’ said Jim.

The 2019 Tobermory Book Festival, West Over Sea, takes place from Thursday October 24 to Sunday October 27.  A full programme of events is shown on the festival website,

Tickets for the events are available from Comar, the Tobermory and Mull Arts Centre, by following the link on the website to the Comar Box Office or phoning 01688 302211.