Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Land Girls in Skirts – The Scottish Banner

August 31st, 2012

BondagersImagine if, in this day and age, it was a condition of a man’s employment that he was required to provide a female worker to share his duties. Two hundred years ago, in some parts of Scotland, this wasn’t just commonplace it was automatic.

Bondagers were part of an ancient system of agricultural employment that occurred mostly in the Border counties of Scotland and England.

Agricultural improvements in the early nineteenth century had resulted in large labour intensive farms. This need was met by requiring a male farm servant, known in the Borders as a hind, to supply a female worker, a bondager, as part of his employment bond or agreement.

A document of 1656 stated that ‘a hind was bound to provide a woman whose labour, at harvest, paid the rent for his house and could be called on as a day labourer when required’. He was bound to find a woman when required, to assist in cutting the corn, haymaking, singling (weeding) and pulling turnips, spreading dung, assisting with the threshing and whatever other general agricultural work the farmer might require her to do such as mucking out byres and cleaning stables.

Hiring Fairs took place at the main market towns on both sides of the Border in May and November to fit in with the agricultural year, when agricultural labour was hired for the following year. Farm servants bargained with the farmers for the next six or twelve month’s employment and once a deal was struck the farm servant received one shilling (1/-) earnest money or arles.

These fairs were usually the only holidays an agricultural worker had and often included horse trading and entertainment, and were important social gatherings. Poet WL Ferguson described a typical scene in his poem ‘The Mairch Hirin’ –

“The Merket Place, it’s waur than Lunnon! / Ye canna see the street for folk, / Hinds, fermers, bondagers a’ stannin, / Stapped ticht like sweeties in a poke!”

Hinds’ cash wages were less than subsistence level but supposedly made up with the provision of rent-free accommodation. Other payments in kind, or “gains”, included pasture for his cow in the summer and straw and hay in the winter, oats, a pigsty, coal and 1000 yards of cultivated ground for him to grow potatoes which were an important staple for the family.

Attitudes towards the standard of remuneration highlighted the sharp division between the social classes. An unidentified commentator wrote of the perceived benefits of the hind’s hire – “It seems to assure them a comfortable support, independent of variation of prices in the markets; and though it seems to deprive them of the command of money, it preserves them from the temptation of the ale house.” This from someone who probably drank two bottles of claret, and more, every night!

A married hind would often have his wife as his bondager, or a daughter if she was old enough to carry out the physically demanding work, and from a family point of view this was preferable because it brought in another small wage. Where the hind was single or his wife overburdened with family responsibilities he was bound to hire an outsider who lived with him and his family, which became a matter of conflict between hinds and the farmers.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the bondage system had come to be seen as iniquitous. Not only was there agitation from both hinds and bondagers but considerable public outcry too.

At the Hiring Fairs hinds began to refuse engagements which insisted on his providing a bondager, unless it was to be a member of his family able to contribute to the family income. Farmers keen to ensure a full work force for the coming season found themselves forced to compromise. By about the 1860s it had ceased to be a condition of a hind’s employment to provide a bondager and farmers undertook to employ female out-by workers direct.

Young girls began to have employment choices not previously open to them. Going into domestic service in the “big hoose” and working indoors was a great attraction. Other genteel occupations such as dressmaking and teaching further reduced the pool of female labour, and there had long been a drift from country to town to seek the higher wages offered in the mills and factories.

Working outdoors, as they did, the bondagers developed a practical and distinctive form of dress. The work was heavy and dirty and they wore a wide skirt made from 3 yards of drugget (coarse woollen cloth) pleated round the waist and coming to just below the knees to keep the hem from trailing in the mud. A rough tweed waistcoat was worn over a print blouse, and an apron protected the skirt. In wet weather they hoisted up their petticoats and “breekit” them – binding them with straw ropes to make breeks or breeches. Black woollen stockings and high-sided leather boots (there were no wellingtons) protected their legs which were also bound with straw ropes when it was running gutters.

The most colourful item of their uniform was the “ugly”, a wide-brimmed straw hat lined with cotton, with a scarf, or wimple, worn below it to protect the neck and shoulders from the elements, which the girls trimmed with buttons and feathers and ribbons.
Mechanisation of farming in the twentieth century, particularly the replacement of horses by tractors, led to a reduction in men employed on the land and consequently the need for women to support them. Men left the land for the higher wages offered by the coal mines, although they were surely only changing one arduous lifestyle for another without the benefit of working in the fresh air.

In 1912 the Scottish Farm Servants Union was formed and one of its early demands was a reduction in the punishing sixty hour working week. Agriculture and the provision of food for the nation was considered too important when the First World War broke out in 1914 and agricultural workers were generally not called up, but many volunteered anyway especially for the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
The war changed attitudes fundamentally and the Hiring Fairs declined as money wages replaced the old system of payment in kind. As the men left the land so did the bondagers, although they continued at least in name until the Second World War when the Women’s Land Army was re-formed and Land Girls largely replaced the farm workers called for military service.

The old bondager system may not have been slavery but it was close to being servitude, the women being under the control of the hinds who in turn were subject to the farmers.

The terminology, the conditions of employment – it was a system that could never survive the social changes. Largely forgotten now, its legacy is perpetuated in song and poem and surnames like Hynd and Hindman and Arles.

For further examples of Bondager dress see

Written on Friday, August 31st, 2012 at 4:22 pm for Claivers.