This letter continues the correspondence that I alluded to in an earlier piece about Captain Sitwell .
Rodel August 21 1846
The Countess of Dunmore
Ere this can reach your Ladyship, my letter of the 14th will have informed you of the total failure of the potato crop ; and my letter to Captain Sitwell will have given your Ladyship a pretty correct idea of the quantity of meal required for the population of Harris, until September 1847 : at the present price of meal the whole will cost upwards of £5,000. This is a large sum for such a purpose, but large as it is, I fear that I am rather under the mark than above it, for ever since I made the estimate, several who then expected to save as many of their potatoes as would serve them during the autumn, came to me yesterday, and informed me that now they could not be eaten. In order to lessen the expense as much as possible, a proportion of the pease meal and barley meal should be sent along with the oatmeal. I tried them with some Indian corn, but they did not like it.
There are about 369 tenants, and about 220 cottars, with their families, requiring relief, exclusive of the paupers, who are under the charge of the parochial board. I think about 200 of the tenants can ultimately pay in cash for any relief they receive, and the remainder of them and the cottars can pay by work.
I am, &c.
(Signed) J. R. Macdonald.
In his earlier letter to Captain Sitwell, Macdonald mentioned that ‘the population return for Harris is 4,429’ and this, together with the fact that the number of people needing assistance has now increased, shows that his original estimate of £5000 for oatmeal was well in excess of £1 per person. He suggests this cost can be reduced by pease meal and barley meal being sent too, presumably these being less-expensive substitutes?
His comment that he ‘…tried them with some Indian corn, but they did not like it.’ is pretty patronising and something one might say of a child or, indeed, a pet; but on the other hand it does display a side of his character that wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that the people had tastes and preferences of their own, too.
However, the most revealing thing in the letter is the final sentence where we are informed that the people ‘can ultimately pay…for any relief they receive…’ whether it be in cash or kind.
Some accounts of landowners providing relief during the famines fail to mention this important detail, instead leaving one with the impression that relief came solely from the largesse of the landowner, a gross distortion of the truth as revealed here by J R Macdonald…
Ref: ‘Correspondence From July, 1846 to February, 1847, Relating to the Measures Adopted for the Relief of the Distress in Scotland’ 1847, W Clowes & Son, London for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.