Feeing markets were employment fairs held twice a year in Scottish towns, generally in May and November. The November market was sometimes called the Hallowe’en feeing market. People seeking work attended, hoping to catch the eye of farmers and others looking for servants to hire for the next six months.
Markets could be held at several towns in one district. The Banffshire Journal listed feeing markets held in November 1895 in Grantown, Longside, Interaven, Dufftown, Ellon, Huntley, Aberlour, New Deer, Banff, Insch, Aberdeen, Elgin, Turnff and Keith. Newspapers report the wages being offered at the feeing markets for foremen, horsemen, cattlemen, halflins (male adolescents), boys, and females. By the 1890s, many women and girls were seeking employment through the alternative of register offices.
Report of Grantown-on-Spey Feeing Market - Dundee Courier 21 November 1901 British Newspaper Archive
Sometimes winter wages were reduced from summer rates. In general those staying with the same employer were offered the same rate. Servants who changed employer mostly had to settle for a wage reduction. The servants had to wait for the farmer to approach them and bargain. An agreement was often sealed with a dram purchased by the farmer and payment of a token sum to meet moving expenses. Farmers might hold back from hiring in the hope of getting workers at a lower fee later and it was not uncommon for servants to leave the market without an engagement. Servants might accept a significant cut in fee rather than risk missing a hiring altogether. An Aberdeen man who had worked as a foreman for a fee of £18 10s during the summer of 1905 took a subordinate position for the winter at a fee of less than £14. Married men could receive perquisites to supplement their pay in the form of allowances of coal, potatoes, milk and meal, as well as a house and garden.
The market was enjoyed as a holiday. Vendors of fruit, sweets and toys attended. Street musicians, stalls and merry-go-rounds provided entertainment. Worries were expressed about the potential for misbehaviour and horseplay when large numbers of young men and women were gathered in town. Extra policemen were sometimes drafted in to keep order, and temperance refreshment rooms were often set up.
The system of feeing markets had its critics. William Watson of Aberdeenshire believed the markets were ’hostile to steady application and permanent settlement’. He said that farmers hired on a calculation of physical strength for so much money and meat, with no thought of moral character. Masters could easily combine at a feeing to lower wage rates. Watson proposed the introduction of hiring through parish or village registers. However he believed that there would be a greatly reduced need for this as ‘engagements during pleasure’ would be long-lasting if there was ‘fair accommodation and humane usage’.
There were counter arguments to the claim that only brawn mattered and that good character and a reputation as a competent worker counted for nothing. Workers tended to stay in the same district, so both farmers and servants probably knew a considerable amount about each other before the feeing. Attempts to replace the markers with registers from the 1830s onwards largely failed. At the outbreak of the First World War, the vast majority of Scottish farm workers were still recruited at feeing markets.
Lead Curator, East India Company Records
British Newspaper Archive for example Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser 26 November 1895, 30 November 1897, 28 November 1905; Dundee Courier 21 November 1901
William Watson, Remarks on the bothie system and feeing markets (Aberdeen, 1849)
Ian Carter, Farmlife in Northeast Scotland 1840-1914 - the Poor Man's Country (Edinburgh, 1979)