Scottish history - The Little Dunning hiring fair

06 March 2013
imports_CESC_0-ybhbtehh-100000_92362.jpg Scottish history - The Little Dunning hiring fair
p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }The Little Dunning hiring fair was an eagerly-anticipated annual event which allowed farmers the chance to recruit labourers for the coming season, and provided locals with the chance to stock up on sweets, ribbons and even strong drink, writes Jim Black ...
Scottish history - The Little Dunning hiring fair Images

In 1937 the Perth-born poet, William Soutar, penned a short humorous poem beginning with the lines:

‘Whan Little Dunnin’ was a spree; And no a name as noo.
Wull Todd wha wrocht at Amuree; Gaed hame byordinar fou.’

It's evident that Wull had been on a binge, but what was Little Dunnin’?

The village of Dunning stands not far from Perth but ‘Little Dunning’ is quite unconnected with the village itself.

Little Dunning was a fair held each October in Perth.
The original name was St Denis’s Fair, instituted back in 1670 and held annually on 9 October. With the change of calendar in 1752, the date was rescheduled to 20 October before, in 1822, being finally fixed as the third Friday in October.

In its early years, Little Dunning was a noted cattle market, held on the city’s North Inch. Trade in flax also took place and many country people brought along their butter and cheese to sell at the market.

However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Little Dunning flourished as one of the largest feeing markets or hiring fairs for farm servants in the country.

Hiring fairs were a common occurrence across Scotland in the years before World War One.

Throughout central Scotland, Martinmas – 28 November – was the customary day for servants taking up their new employment and feeing markets were held a few weeks prior.

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The advent of the railways in the 1840s brought Little Dunning within the reach of farm servants from a wide area. Those seeking a new job assembled in great numbers at the foot of the High Street and, over the years, the areas of activity migrated westwards along the length of that street, where hopefuls in search of farm work congregated to await the approach of farmers looking to engage them.

The farmer or his grieve (farm manager) would approach a likely-looking man and inquire if he was 'tae fee the day?' If the reply was positive and a satisfactory wage agreed, the farmer would proffer a shilling or two, referred to as 'arles', to bind the bargain. The men would then adjourn to a nearby public house, where the farmer would stand the man a dram. Such agreements, though purely verbal, were legally binding and the man would take up his new appointment at the Martinmas term.

The day was also a general holiday among farm workers and they flocked to Perth in their thousands.

Young men would buy their sweethearts fairings, treating them to sweets, drinks and small items such as ribbons, gloves and bunches of paper roses.

Family men brought along their wives and children for a day’s outing, indulging the bairns in such dainties as sugar pigs, gingerbread horses and toffee apples.

The city’s taverns did a roaring trade and, like Wull Todd, many would make their various ways home ‘
by ordinar fou.’

With the onset of World War Two, agricultural wages became regulated by the government and, like all such fairs, Little Dunning was made obsolete. For many years afterwards, however, as the third Friday of October dawned again, old farmers and ploughmen would muse wistfully how in times past, that day was ‘Little Dunning’.

Article first published in Scottish Memories magazine.

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