The famine caused by the potato blight during the mid-nineteenth century affected rural communities throughout Scotland, especially in the remote Highlands and Western Isles. In an attempt to alleviate the suffering, charitable organisations in Glasgow and Edinburgh offered food and income in return for knitting stockings and laying roads. Published reports and surviving Hosiery Accounts describe how this aid was distributed and provide a glimpse of those who applied for it.
Victorians did not believe in giving something for nothing as they thought it would encourage idleness. Therefore, charitable organisations had to offer aid for something that everyone could do. The choice of knitting stockings suggests that knitting was considered a universal skill. However, even if most people could knit, the quality of their knitting – and the stockings they could produce – varied widely.
Charitable organisations in Glasgow and Edinburgh formed the Central Board of Management (CBM), which employed Relief Officers to distribute aid in each district. Initially, aid was offered in return for the completion of several tasks –
In-door work, entitling to the full fortnightly allowance of one stone of meal, or 14lbs:
4 lbs. of wool spun
4 lbs of hemp spun
4 pairs of socks knitted
4 yards of net netted, (25 feet wide, and 34 meshes to the yard;)
But one-half of the above requirement will be accepted from women who are partially infirm, or pregnant, or nursing, or who have large families.
Circular Letter addressed to Relief Officers, Kyle House, 10th Feb 1848
However, as the famine continued, individuals could choose just to knit stockings for 1 ½ d a pair. Hosiery Officers were employed to distribute yarn and needles and collect knitted stockings. They also kept hand-written accounts of the number of pairs of stockings knitted in communities and the amounts paid to individuals by the charities.
One of the most poignant accounts lists the names of women who knitted stockings in the district of Uigg and Kinsaleyre in 1848. The account lists their names, where they lived and the amount of money they received. A search for some of the names on this list in the 1841 and 1851 census provides a possible glimpse of the households in which the women lived in. However, it is impossible to know with any certainty that women found in the census were the women on the list.
The name Effie McLeod, living in Glennhinisal, matches an 1851 census record. She would have been 43 years old in 1848 and lived with her mother, Margaret, aged 65, her sister, Flora, aged 48 and her sixteen year old niece, Anne.
Charities recognised that households without able-bodied men were especially vulnerable during the famine. This was not because the women were incapable of maintaining a croft but because their crops had failed, leaving them with little or nothing to eat. Crofting communities were not wage earning economies, and women could not simply find waged work to sustain them during hard times. Several names from the list matched with those on the census often revealed households of women with either no men or only very young or very old male family members.
Although knitting stockings did not provide much of an income, it represented an opportunity for women, who lived in remote crofting communities, to earn money during the famine.
In an effort to generate income for communities after the famine, the CBM established a spinning mill in Portree, which successfully supported and promoted textile production on the island for more than a century.