Hiring Fairs
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Contests of Strength

An important component of the rural Scot's entertainment were contests of strength. Sandy Glendinning, tenant in Holmains, Dumfrieeshire, was:  

a man of great strength, not very passionate but very proud and determined. On one occasion he fought and won a famous pitched battle at Lockerby with a hero named Haliday.[i]

These shows of strength could have started as components of the hiring fairs farm servants were required to do hard physical labour, and they should prove it before getting hired. Or perhaps local showoffs in the town square at the time of the market fair led to the idea of the hiring fair in the first place.

Hiring Fairs in Lowland Scotland

One of the economic and workplace traditions associated with certain fairs disappeared altogether in the early twentieth century. Martinmas Fair in November, for instance, was primarily a "hiring fair" where men and women, boys and girls, were engaged as servants for the coming half year. Some customs associated with the hiring fairs and servants are particularly interesting:

Friday last was the "Dudsday" (or Martinmas) fair in Kilmarnock (Ayrshire) that is, the fair at which the country servants spend their former half year's wages in new clothes.[ii]

  In turn-of-the-century Lesmahagow:

The villagers efter their day's wurk wis done, would arrive to enjoy the "fun o' the fair". The fairs were held in March and October. That was when the fermers would walk aboot, talking to the men and women they were considering employing as farm hands, ploughmen and maids, arranging to fee them for the next six months and a two shilling piece would be handed over to seal the commitment of employment.[iii]

"Erchie" Hay, 1878-1953, describes the feeing or hiring process in the following two verses from his love poem, "Logan Braes"[iv], fitted to a "fine old Scottish tune":

So away I went to Hamilton Fair
An' I met a Logan fermer there,
Says he tae me "Dae ye want a fee?
You're the very chap that'll jist suit me."
Says I, "I'm looking for a hire,
An' if I'm the man that you require,
Tho' I say't masel withoot self praise
Ye'll no get better on the Logan Braes."

Twa hauf-croons he put in ma haun'
Says he "Ma man you'll unnerstaun,
That this bit money is your 'arle fee,
It's a binder, lad, twixt you and me.
I'll look for you on Monday shair"
Says I, "You can depend on Jock McNair."
So on Monday mornin' I bundled ma claes
An' made God Speed for the Logan Braes.

Increasing farm mechanization in the early twentieth century resulted in a reduced need for manual labour. Hence, the "hiring" at fairs eventually disappeared. There is evidence, however, in the "Hamilton Advertiser" that the hiring fairs were losing popularity with experienced workers as early as 1895:

The usual half-yearly hiring fair for farm servants was held on Wednesday and is considered to have been the smallest ever held in Lesmahagow. There was almost a total absence of experienced servants and those in want of situations were mostly girls and boys. A good many of the farmers who were present in the morning hurried away home early in order to get on with the finishing up of the harvest so that at no time during the day was there any great crowd in the streets. Contrary to usual custom, there were no public concerts in the evening but attempts were made to get up dancing in three of the halls normally used but only in one case was this successful.[v]

Five years later, the popularity of the fairs and other large gatherings in Lesmahagow seemed to strike a new low. On February 24, 1900 a report of a meeting of a committee of Lanark County Council was published in the "Hamilton Advertiser":

The Clerk intimated an application had been received in regard to the "shows" which come from all parts of the county and stand in The Square at Lesmahagow, which had been taken over by the Council in October, 1899. It appeared that they stood for some considerable time and some of the villagers were inclined to consider them to be a nuisance although public opinion was divided upon it.[vi]

[i]               "Account of the Glendinnings in Cassock, Eskdalemuir".

[ii]               Kilmarnock , Ayrshire. Clydesdale Journal, December 1, 1820.

[iii]              "Coalburn Chronicles", Part 65, p. 3566, testimony of "Wull" Cowan (James Hamilton, Jimmie's Life in Coalburn, 1978).

[iv]              Hamilton, Jimmie's Life in Coalburn, 1978, p. 30.

[v]               Hamilton, Jimmie's Life in Coalburn, 1978, p. 27.

[vi]              Hamilton, Jimmie's Life in Coalburn, 1978, p. 29.


The Scarboro Heights Record V13 #4