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Haddington Hiring Fair

Like so many others at present, staff at the John Gray Centre are working from home.  For the archive team it’s a whole new experience keeping our service running without access to our physical collections.  Thanks to the hard work of our volunteers many of our photographs are now available online and this is an opportunity to highlight some of the gems in the collection.  This blog showcases a series of photographs taken at the Haddington Hiring Fair in the early 1900s.

A large crowd in Market Street on Hiring Fair Day

Hiring Fair Day took place in February each year – this photograph shows just how crowded even the wide expanse of Market Street was on Fair Day, how very different to how it looks just now. 

Hiring fairs were lively, crowded events and took place annually in market towns like Haddington throughout Scotland.  The fairs were an important part of the agricultural calendar when men and women farm workers– including farm servants, ploughmen, dairy maids, shepherds, domestic servants etc – came together to bargain with prospective farmers to secure a position for a six or twelve month period. 

Employers would move amongst the workers discussing terms and experience.  The workers and the employers can be distinguished by their head wear.  If you look at the photograph below the farm workers are wearing flat caps or bonnets while the farmers sport bowler and top hats.  

Traditionally prospective workers would carry some sort of badge or tool which symbolised their speciality.  For example dairy maids carried milking stools and housemaids held mops or brooms.  The photograph below depicts men negotiating a position.  The crook in the arm of the man on the right indicates he will be employed as a shepherd.  Verbal agreements made at the fair would be sealed by the advance of a token sum of money to the worker known as arles.

Until the end of the 19th Century farm workers received most of their wages in kind.  In 1792 the Minister of Dirleton wrote in his Statistical Account for the Parish:

The wages of these cottagers or hinds as they are called, is nine bolls of oats, two bolls of barley, two bolls of pease, a cow maintained summer and winter, and if they sow and stack the grain one firlot of wheat and a pair of shoes

These payments had a major influence on shaping diet.  For centuries oatmeal was the most important element of people’s diet – this is how eating porridge came to be regarded as a Scottish trait.

Married farm servants would be given a rent free cottage.  For this they were expected to provide a worker – often their wives – to work for 21 days in the harvest.  In the Lothians and the Borders these seasonal female workers were known as bondagers.  The distinctive bonnet which was known as an ‘ugly’ were worn by female farm workers until around the Second World War.  It was usually made from gingham or cotton cloth which was stretched over a high frame with an extended brim and a protective shield over the neck. 

Three female farm workers at West Barns, 1930s. All are wearing the distinctive dress of the bondager – ugli bonnets, striped skirts and aprons, stockings and strong boots

By the end of the 19th Century there was growing pressure to stop the hiring fares because they were seen as little more than slave markets.  Attempts to supress the fairs were rarely supported by the workers.  At a time when holidays were few and far between the Hiring Fair was a family day out and a social occasion which was looked forward to.  Fairground attractions and stalls were set up as part of the fair and the shilling given to the workers to seal their contracts would be spent here and in the local pubs.

The fair days in Haddington were held in February and more often than not the weather must have been very cold and bleak. However as this photograph shows there were plenty of attractions to keep the crowds occupied.

The last Hiring Fair in Haddington took place in the 1920s.  By this time it was more common for vacancies for farm workers to be advertised in local newspapers.  Improvements to farm cottages meant that workers and their families were reluctant to move every six or twelve months and  contracts were extended from the very short term to several years.  By the late 1930s the Hiring Fair had disappeared from most parts of Scotland.