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Scottish Hiring Fair

At the 'turn of the year' on the second Tuesday in March, hinds and herds, shepherds, halflins and women workers made their way from the bleak hill farms among the Moorfoots and from the arable valley steadings to the annual hiring fair at Stow, anxious to secure employment for the new term commencing at Whitsuntide.

The hirings took place in the morning at the Townfoot, where workers took their places hopeful of a suitable engagement. Employment was always agreed on an annual basis, and in the Gala Water valley agricultural workers were paid for the most part in 'gains', that is, payment in kind. Quantities of oats (measured in bolls), potatoes, allowances of ground, a cow and grazing are examples of the gains of a labourer in Stow valley. A small sum of money would also be agreed, amounting to a proportion of the labourer's annual income.

The hind, or married man, was additionally expected to provide a female day-labourer known as a bondager to work a 10-hour day at rates of up to one penny an hour paid by the farmer. The bondager may have been a member of the hind's family, making an additional contribution to the household income. If no suitable family member was available the bondager, often chosen in haste to secure employment, would probably have been a stranger to the household. As the hind was responsible for her board and keep the domestic complications are obvious.

Reputations made the best references, and when the agreement was made the bond would be struck with some coinage, known as the arles, or earnest money. It was usual for agricultural workers to seek fresh employment for each new term and there are many reasons why workers preferred to migrate from one farm to another; not the least of these was to secure improved conditions in a system where hours were long, pay a mere subsistence and holidays few.

The Scottish hiring fair was an important social gathering, and when the business of hiring was done and new contracts settled the festivities began. It was a day well attended and a rare opportunity for family reunions and the renewing of old friendships and acquaintances.
Entertainments in the form of side shows and stalls were a feature of one of the few holidays of the working year, and the day would end with sessions of drinking and a traditional dance.

An account from the reminiscences of Isabella Bonthron (1825-1913) offers a contemporary glimpse of the annual Stow fair: "'It was a hiring market for men and women engaged in farm labour. Krames (stalls) loaded with oranges, gingerbread and sweets, etc., and a few with small wares and trinkets lined one end of the street with a show of some kind at the top end of it. After the hiring was over the lads would treat the lasses to a fairin' and might finish off with a reel or two in Mrs Thomson's ballroom before leaving."

Typical of these traditional fairs held throughout the Borders, Stow Hiring Fair gradually declined as money wages replaced gains and the system of employment based on a monthly contract became more popular.

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