Coping with Risk: Subsistence Crises in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, 1600–1800

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With their climatic variability and low crop yields, the Highlands and Islands formed a risk-laden environment for traditional farming communities. Yet whilst the major or exceptional famines between 1600 and 1800 are well-recorded, there has been less comment about the more frequent low-order crises that afflicted communities on a regular, even routine basis, leaving them without sufficient meal for a month or so before the new harvest was ready. Evidence for the nature and frequency of these low-order crises is discussed. Continually threatened with the problems posed by them, it is argued that the typical farming community would have been skilled in their response. Two forms of response are explored. First, the paper reviews some of the different ways in which Highland and Hebridean husbandry would have been organised so as to minimise risks. Second, it is argued that when these risk aversion strategies failed, communities buffered themselves against shortage by resorting to a range of alternative famine foods, from seaweeds and shell foods to the edible weeds of arable and grassland. We need to see major famines as occurring not just when exceptional or bad conditions prevailed, but also, when both these risk aversion and risk buffering strategies failed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalRural History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2004


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