Over recent years Icelandic volcanic eruptions have caused travel nightmares with aircraft grounded across Scotland and also many other parts of northern and western Europe. Back in 1783 of course there were no aircraft but what did arrive in Scotland was worse than the ash and dust that we’ve experienced during the eruptions of 2010 and 2011.
On 8th June 1783 the Laki volcano on Iceland exploded into life with lava being fired high into the air along with toxic gases. The eruption was to last right through until the 8th February 1984 with a massive amount of lava spewed from the volcano during this time, although the lava itself did not directly cause any deaths.
Much of the northern hemisphere experienced some effects from the eruption. Unfortunately for Scotland and Europe a large area of high pressure was sitting just south of Iceland giving us a north-westerly flow of air straight from the volcano.
By the 22nd of June a huge cloud of sulphuric acid droplets arrived and would hang over the UK killing hundreds.
An English country clergyman living in Hampshire recorded the incident. Gilbert White said there was a notable change in the climate as the sun went ‘blood-coloured’.
He went on to paint a very vivid picture of the living conditions at the time:
“The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. All the time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic, and riding irksome. The country people began to look, with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun…”
The summer became known as the ‘Sand Summer’ due to the fallout of ash across the country. The summer was very hot with tremendous thunderstorms and hailstones so big they were reported to have killed cattle. The fog was so thick that ships were unable to leave harbours on some days. The conditions must have been unbearable!
It is estimated that more than 20,000 people died in the UK from inhalation of the poisonous gas, choking as their internal soft tissue swelled.
Even though the haze dispersed during the autumn the winter which followed was harsh, perhaps in part due to the vast amounts of ash and dust in the atmosphere creating a dimming of the sun. The cold conditions of the winter killed a further 8,000 people.
It was a lot worse in Iceland where 25% of the population died, along with 80% of sheep and 50% of cattle and horses.