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Bondagers Scotland

Until the 1870s, the bondage system, was almost a form of female serfdom in the Border counties and southeast and central Scotland. A male farm worker or cottar, living in a tied house on a farm, was bound as part of his conditions of employment to provide a female field-worker, as often as not his wife, whose work was regarded as paying the rent of the cottage. She was the equivalent of the tied dairywoman in the dairying parts of southwest Scotland.

Bondage work was not light; indeed it was no less hard than the work of a man. In the 1650s a bondager was expected to shear grain during harvest, help with the hay and peats, set lime kilns, carry and spread dung, carry stacks from the barnyard to the barn for threshing, winnow and clean the corn and feed and clean the animals in the byre and stable.

The system was dying out by the 1860-70S. As early as 1845, an agitator called Thomson, from the town of Tranent, had led an attempt to organise the ploughmen of East Lothian to refuse to bind themselves to a farmer on feeuing day unless they were relieved of the
bondager system. His attempt failed, but the custom petered out anyway within a generation or two. And yet female outworkers did not vanish from the scene. They continued their all-weather labour in the fields, still under the name of bondager, although not tied as before to the conditions of employment of male workers. They might, however, have a small room and kitchen attached at the end of the ploughman's house, where they led an independent existence.

They were kenspeckle figures with a characteristic form of dress, in Scotland as in the northern English counties. Originally the hat was of black, plaited straw, with a fringe of red and black ruching around the rim. Below this was worn a 'heid hankie', a scarf or headsquare, knotted under the chin. A print blouse buttoned down the front, and there was a waistcoat of tweed. Strong stays gave support for lifting heavy loads. The skirt was of a sturdy grey material, protected by an apron, or 'brat', striped red, blue, black and white. Stocking legs worn from wrist to elbow served as protective armlets, and their hand-knitted gloves had the backs of old leather gloves sewn on to the palms. The black leather boots were surmounted by button-up leggings. In wet weather the women 'breekit' their petticoats by fastening them between their knees with pins. They would also twist 'thoom (thumb) ropes' of straw, and tie them around their legs from ankle up to knee to keep them dry. At the end of a working day little trails of smoke would be seen rising from the farms where the women were burning their straw protectors after a day of dirty work.

Sometime between the wars the style of headgear changed. The women adopted a Victorian-style bonnet with a hood over the forehead and a flap at the back of the neck. The cloth was usually gingham, stretched on a framework of cane. Although not unattractive, such
bonnets rejoiced in the name of 'ugly' in East Lothian and Northumberland and 'crazy' in Lanarkshire.

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