Wednesday, October 27, 2010


From the Author’s Note to Wild Talent: A Novel of the Supernatural: On the farms of the Scottish Borders in the 19th century, field workers were mostly women and young girls. Hired or “bonded” at hiring fairs along with a male relative, they were known as bondagers, and they did every kind of heavy outdoor work except for ploughing.

I first encountered a reference to bondagers in a coffee table  book on English cottages: “In Northumberland there was a large class of female farm workers, known as bondagers, who were the servants of the hind, who in turn was the farmer’s servant. The bondagers were always unmarried,, aged between ten and thirty, and they would live in. On the larger farms there might be six or eight hinds, each with two or three bondagers to help him. They would work in gangs, chiefly out of doors, but if there was little to do on the land, bondagers were not bound, like other women to take on trivial household tasks.” (English Cottages, by Tony Evans and Candida Lycett Green, Penguin Books, 1982, p.16)

Intrigued, I wondered if the lives of these women workers had ever been documented. With a little research  I discovered that the term “bondager” had been in use right up until the beginning of the Second World War for full-time women field workers in the south-east of Scotland. I also learned that in 1997-98  the Scottish Working People’s History Trust had recorded the personal recollections of eight Scottish bondagers , who were then in their eighties and nineties These oral histories, transcribed in the women’s own words, were edited by Ian MacDougall and published in 2000  by Tuckwell Press as Bondagers: Eight Scots Women Farm Workers.

The book begins with an interview with Mary King, born 1905 in Berwickshire.

“Well, ah can remember the first day I went out ah felt a bloomin’ fool because ah wis dressed we’ this big straw hat and the drugget skirt and the brat, because ah wis supposed to be a bondager. There wis an older woman, ee see, and ah wis dressed the same as her. And ah remember her takin’ me tae the granary, up the stair, and writin’ ma name and ma age an ma weight. And ah was 7 stone 12. And ah wis only thirteen years auld. And that’s what ah was.”

Scottish playwright Sue Glover brought the lives of the bondagers to the stage in her 1991 play Bondagers: a play in two acts for six women.

And in my novel Wild Talent, Jeannie Guthrie writes in her journal:

"Today I was up at 5:30, with cold mist curling over the fields, to be at the stables by first light. The steward set me to work sorting tatties for the spring planting: six in the morning till six at night stooped over the pit in a grey drizzle, up to my boot-tops in mud, my hands half-frozen in my gloves. And on this day -- though it has passed as drearily as the ones before and the ones to follow -- I am sixteen years old.

. . . That raw February morning when I went with my Uncle James to the hiring fair, I guessed well enough what my life was to become. I was not yet fourteen, shivering with cold and nerves in my thin jacket, while the farmers came by to ask my uncle "Are ye to hire? And do you have a woman or girl with you?" Other women were laughing and chattering, in a holiday mood, for they'd not have a free day again before New Year's. And there was I, near dying of shame while the farmers looked me up and down, and my uncle swearing I was a braw strong girl, with back and arms meant for stooking sheaves and cleaning byres. No Paris gowns it was to be, for Jeannie Guthrie, but an apron and drugget skirt. No feathered chapeau, but a bondager's kerchief and wide straw hat ruched with red and black; no stockings of silk, but rough tweed leggings and tackety lace-up boots.

More on bondagers