The Potato Famine
The potato famine of 1846 to 1852 hit Ireland and Scotland. Many poor people grew potatoes for food. Potatoes grew on poor soil, even in wet and cold conditions.
When a potato disease (blight) arrived, possibly in ships from America, it was a disaster. Potatoes went rotten, and were not fit to eat. People went hungry. More than 1 million people starved to death. Many more got sick. In Ireland, one in four people died or emigrated. The potato famine was one of the most terrible events in Irish history.
Blight ruined potatoes in Scotland too. Many people there also starved in the 'Great Hunger'.
More mouths to feed
In Highland Scotland, good farmland had been given over to sheep. In Ireland, most of the best land was used for cattle. Poor farmers were left to grow potatoes, and not much else.
To make matters worse, there were more mouths to feed because the population was growing. Poor farmers could not grow enough food. If a farmer divided his small plot of land between several sons, each son ended up with a strip of land too small to support a family.
For help, starving families turned to the Church, the workhouses and landlords. Churches could not feed so many hungry people. Nor could workhouses, which became so overcrowded many people died from diseases.
Many rich landlords lived far away in London. They did not believe the famine was as bad as it was. Some landlords forced poor families off their land, to avoid having to pay to feed them. A few landlords did send food to starving people in Ireland and Scotland. Sadly, such help was often too little and too late.
The government did not do enough to help either. Food from Ireland was still being shipped to England, when Irish people were starving.
To escape famine at home, many poor Scots and Irish emigrated to America and Canada. They went in ships. Charities paid for tickets for some poor families.
The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean could be terrible. The ship might be at sea for a month. Food was bad and the overcrowded conditions meant lots of people got sick and died.
Migrant ships were called 'Coffin Ships', because so many people died. It's thought that in 1846/1847 20,000 people died in migrant ships sailing to Canada alone!
To new lives
Many migrants went to Australia, Canada and the United States. They went in sailing ships and steamers. The journey was long and dangerous, some ships were sunk in storms.
Migrants took very little with them. On arrival, they had to make homes on their own. Some found work in cities. Others started farms, clearing forests to grow crops and raise animals. It was a hard life, but for many migrants it was better than the hardship they had left behind.