The eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland may be causing untold chaos for air travel, but to date is merely causing distress and inconvenience and not leading to seismic cultural changes in Scotland. However, our past has been shaped by previous eruptions which have changed both the landscape and our way of life.
Mount Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes and known to locals as the “Gateway to Hell”, is feared with good reason. Its 1159BC eruption devastated the west coast of Scotland when a sulphuric cloud of ash blocked out the sun for years and the sweep of acid rain destroyed the land. The accompanying tsunami might even have re-shaped some of our coastline. The event most likely changed the inhabitants’ lives permanently.
Alistair Moffat, author of Before Scotland, conjured up the fear that these early Scots would have felt as they heard first the boom of the eruption and then witnessed the electrical storms that would have lit up the sky. The gods, they would have surmised, were far from pleased.
This would have been confirmed as the weather changed, the crops failed and even the fish in the sea shrivelled up and died. Moffat believes that generation after the eruption would have suffered. “We know it happened because of dendochronology,” he says. “By measuring tree rings in ancient trees you can see that it was a climate-changing event. It shows that for 18 to 20 years there were no summers.”
And as the west coast inhabitants moved east, a whole new way of life would have sprung up. The basis of their society changed from hunter-gatherers into warriors as more people fought over limited resources. Moffat cites archaeological finds that show more swords and fewer ploughshares from this period.
And it is not just this ancient eruption that shaped Scotland’s history. The mid-1840s in Scotland were plagued by poor summers and harsh winters. In 1845 farmers were battling with their 11th cold year in succession. Europe was also in the grip of a terrible potato blight that was to so devastate Ireland.
But worse was to come.
The summer of 1846 was hot and dry and, across parts of north and west Scotland, a fine white dust skirled in the dry heat before, in the words of notable Scottish historian John Prebble, it fell “like a shroud”.
Scottish weather data collected from the Kelso weather centre from the period notes the peculiarity of the weather detailing the “milky haze” and “brownish haze” that prevailed throughout June before peaking with a “dense mass of haze” on the 26th. The dust did nothing for a country already suffering from years of cold weather and the effects of the potato blight.
It is only recently that an explanation for the dry summer and strange dust has been offered. Winds that June were recorded as being westerly for almost the whole month. Far away in the south Pacific, the Tongan volcano Fonuelei erupted on the 9 June. Sailors’ logs from the time record the lightning storms and sulphurous stench as volcanic ash blew everywhere as great plumes of smoke belched out.
Met Office experts now think that it was this ash, blown in by the westerly winds, that covered Scotland in its dusty haze. And we should be in no doubt of the effect on a still largely rural community at the time, as Prebble’s eye-witness account shows: “Fierce droughts sucked dry the streams and lochans, and men swore that they had seen salmon swimming in red dust only.”