Poverty and Progress in the Age of Improvement: Evidence from the Isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides
Authors: James Symonds
Summary: In 1851, the landlord of the Hebridean islands of South Uist and Barra evicted almost 3,000 people from their homes and transported them by means of assisted passage to Canada. This episode of clearance was prompted by a failure of the potato crop and a four-year-long famine, and exposed the dire state of poverty in which the inhabitants of the islands had been forced to live. This paper draws upon six seasons of fieldwork at Milton and Airigh Mhuillin, in the middle district of South Uist, and argues that historical archaeologists should do more to expose the causes and long-term consequences of poverty. The paper explores the imposition of agrarian capitalism in the Isle of South Uist from the late 18th century, and makes the case that a system of landholding and land use that privileged profit for landowners over the subsistence needs of the mass of the population created a fragile economy that was prone to shortages and completely unable to respond to the challenge of a prolonged famine.
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