The social context of the Society of the Horseman's Word

In the 18th and 19th centuries, among country people it was widely believed that horsemen had supernatural power to control horses, and that the whispering of the Horseman's Word into its ear magically bound a horse to obey the whispering horseman. The Word was also supposed to be efficacious in the control of women, and an unmarried girl made pregnant by a ploughman was regarded with less disapproval than one made pregnant by another, because the Word would have made her incapable of withstanding the persuasion of her seducer. Some people believed that the power of the horseman was derived from a pact made by the horseman with the Devil.

In Buchan, as in much of rural Scotland, the social unit for agriculture was the estate, owned by the laird. and administered by his factor, a permanent employee. All or part of the estate was divided into farms, fermtouns, comprising the farmhouse, the bothy or chaumer, accommodation for the unmarried labourers, farm-servants, stables, byre, barns, and other farmbuildings, and tied cottar houses for the married farm-servants and their families. The farmer paid his rent to the factor, and held the farm usually for a specified number of years, after which the tenancy might be terminated or renegotiated. The farmer employed a foreman, or grieve who was responsible for managing, and in some cases hiring, the farm-servants required to work the farm: the hiring was for a fixed period, a term of six months or a year. At the end of the term the farm-servant might be offered a renewed term or be required to, or choose to leave and seek a new employer.

At the end of each term there was a pool of unemployed farm-servants and of farmers needing replacement labourers. They met together at feeing markets, usually held at Whitsuntide in the Spring, and in the Autumn at Martinmas (11th November) and negotiated terms of duties and pay, and when a farmer and farm-servant came to an agreement the farm-servant would flit to his new place of employment.

An idea about the kind of wages the farm-servants received can be gained from the entry in Robert Walker's diary for 7th May 1863. He wrote:

The summer feeing market was held at Longside yesterday. Engagements were very stiff and wages had a downward tendency. Winter wages were the rule.
Ploughmen (foremen) 10 10s. to 11 10s.
Common Ploughmen 9 to 10
Orra Men 6 to 7 10s.
Halflins 2 10s. To 4
Boys 2 to 2 10s.
Women (first class) 4 10s. To 5
Women (second class) 3 to 4
Peterhead Sentinel, May, 1863

The wages were for a full term's work of 6 months. Translated into modern terms (2010), the annual wages for a foreman ploughman would be about 13,500 per annum, provided he was employed for the two terms in the year. To put this into perspective, if he were married, and in a good place, he would be living rent-free in a tied cottage, and would be supplied with other perquisites such as a ration of coal, and perhaps milk and meal in addition to his pay.

As can be seen from the hierarchy of wages there was a distinct hierarchy among the farm-servants, the horsemen, ploughmen, were at the top. The orra men were general labourers capable of turning their hands to most of the work of the farm except the work of the horsemen, and they were the next. The word orra means something like spare. The halflins were young trainee horsemen, who, if they were skilful and lucky would be invited in the future to become members of the Society of the Horseman's Word. The boys were taken on as orra loons, loon being a Doric word for boy, and as they became stronger, and more experienced would expect to become orra men then halflins, and finally horsemen.

The horsemen were notorious for their pride in their skills, their empathy with their horses, and for their sharp and insolent tongues. A typical example of the interaction between horseman and his foreman is abridged from Smith (1992) writing about farming in the year 192526:

[The foreman, Rob]'Michty min, ye ken wale eneuch fin ye fee'd hame here for third horseman ye wis wale telt ye hid tae tak' s muckle work out of yer horse as the rest o' them, in ither wirds, ye hid tae keep up wi' the foreman, yed better mak' shure it disna happen again.' He stoppit spikin and made for oot the door, but Wull wisnae tae lit him aff wi' that makin' oot he wisnae fit tae keep up wi' the rest o' the men, so he drappit the braichem [horse-collar] he was huddin and jumpit in front o' Rob before he got oot, face to face tae Rob he wis. . . . Wull wisnae neen feart, he wis a bittie wrocht-up ir this time, he says tae Rob, 'Noo look here, yer maybe gaffer aboot this toon, by naewey will I be coorse tae mi horse to please you, or ony ither body for that matter, hiv ye nae forgotten something?' . . . 'Look you here, ony mair lip like that and ye'll get doon the road, awa' and sort yer horse and lits hear nae more aboot it, and onywey fit div ye think I've forgotten?' 'Forgotten,' says Wull,'maun min ye hiv a short memory, ye're spierin' at me fit wey I wis fa'in ahint at the ploo'in, div ye nae mind that baith thae mares ir carryin' foals . . . fit wey dae ye expect them tae keep their end up? I'll juist tell ye this, I'll nae force them tae dae that, nae tae plaise you or ony ither body.'

Accommodation for the unmarried farm-servants was in a bothy or a chaumer. Those living in a bothy were responsible for making and cooking their own meals; those living in a chaumer slept there but were fed in the farmer's kitchen. Accommodation in a bothy could be very primitive, and often the buildings were in disrepair. Some farmers stabled their horses, longterm investments of 10 to 15 years duration, better than they accommodated their farm-servants: you could get new farm-servants every six months . . .

A consequence of the fluidity of the labour market caused by the feeing system was that groups of young men spent a period of living together, and at each term, in a given bothy there could be departures and arrivals of newcomers.

It was in the bothies that halflins were invited to join the Society of the Horseman's Word and become horsemen. Membership conferred two benefits: the new member was taught the secrets of managing horses, and he was eligible for a man's pay.

(Revision date: Saturday 28th April 2012)