THE DISEASE OF THE CURL

An Economical History of the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland,
John Walker
1808
‘Potatoes are now become the poor man’s boll, as pease* used formerly to be called; and their cultivation on that account, as well as others, deserves the greatest care.
This valuable crop has of late years been infected with a disease which threatens to increase, and is now but too well known by the name of the curl.’

Whilst this viral disease was not the fungus called Potato blight that caused the 1846-1857 Famines in Scotland, John Walker’s warning is chillingly prescient of what was to happen less than 40 years later.

Potato Curl had led to several years of poor harvests prior to 1808 but the underlying cause of why this one crop had ‘become the poor man’s boll’ is significantly lacking from the essay. The Clearances, which continued throughout the Century, pushed people away from fertile land and onto rocky coasts where what little space could be brought into cultivation was more productive for potatoes than any other crop. The people did not become ‘Potato Eaters’, so hauntingly illuminated in Van Gogh’s painting of that name, by choice but by necessity.

If the years of Potato Curl’s ravages were bad, those of the Potato Blight were several magnitudes worse, a fact exacerbated by the reliance upon this single source of sustenance of an ever-increasing population crowded into the finite spaces between the rocks and the sea.

In the decade from 1847 no less than 16,000 Highlanders emigrated, and there was a scheme to import meal to stave-off starvation for those who remained, but none of us today can truly appreciate the horror as year after year this cruel fungus rotted not just the potatoes as they lay in the ground, but also those apparently-healthy and hope-imbued specimens that had already been harvested…

*Note:
Pease, as in ‘Pease Pudding’ Pease Pottage’ or ‘Pease Porridge’ was the term for an oat-based soup-stew that had been the staple food for most people since Medieval times. The term ‘boll’ eludes me, but it was, perhaps coincidentally, an old unit of measure in Scotland.

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