FIFESHIRE JOURNAL THURSDAY 11 SEPTEMBER 1845
HARVEST – SHEARERS’ WAGES – STRIKE AT CAIRNEYHILL
Harvest is now quite general in our neighbourhood, and the crops are most luxuriant. The prospect of the farmer is most cheering, and the joy manifested by the groups of reapers as they repair in the morning to the scene of their toil is most animating. The drowsy head who denies himself the pleasure of seeing these groups, attired in their loose bedgowns clean striped petticoats, scouring the road or lea with a bouyancy peculiar to the season, frequently to the music of their own voice, or exhilarated by the unrestrained laugh, loses a treat which cannot be compensated for by midnight revelry. At such an hour we see no old women – for though through the dull year the gaiety of youth may have fled from many a furrowed cheek, and care may sit heavy on many a youthless brow – at such a season even age assumes the elasticity and gaiety of youth.
Farmers in this neighbourhood generally fee their shearers for the season early in the year. For many years past, the rate of wages has been 1s 6d per day. They do not commence work until 9 o’clock, and they receive no victuals except at 1 o’clock, when each reaper receives a large scone and a bottle of small beer. The time for which they are feed is usually twenty days; but ere the potatoes are dug and the harvest work is completed, the period is frequently thirty days. Thus women in the poorest circumstances receive upwards of £2 in hard cash – a sum which to them is indeed a great treasure. Many a thrift housewife, who has to struggle hard to make both ends to meet, holds this payment sacred for the payment of the house-rent, and many a thrifty lass with provident care lodges it safely in the Savings’ Bank as part of her marriage tocher [meaning her dowry].
It is truly with feelings of regret that we anticipate amongst agricultural improvements the time when the sickle must give way to the scythe, and the song of the reaper must be exchanged for a continuation of the sighs and cares which so generally are the concomitants of female labour; but in the meantime we hope the behaviour of those employed at harvest-work will not be such as to hasten this consummation, and that they will take warning by the result of the strike of the shearers at Cairneyhill for an advance of wages.
Mr Watt of Pitdinnie has been long in the habit of feeing about forty or fifty shearers, all females, resident at Cairneyhill. Inspired with the spirit of the times, and more especially with the spirit of ‘strike’ from the neighbouring collieries, they resolved to strike, and a public meeting of Mr Watt’s shearers was held at Cairneyhill, in the school-room, a few days prior to the commencement of harvest-work, though they had been feed six months previous; Mrs C- in the chair.
The chairwoman, after stating the object of the meeting with a loquacious eloquence peculiar to the sex, in which no doubt she expatiated on the comforts of the farmer, the importance of woman’s labour, the value of a drop of female sweat, and the smallness of the beer allowed them to wash down their half-flour half-oatmeal scone – that while she was shearin’ Jock ran about like a diel – that Bob was a stupid idiot – that the Queen was gi’en mair to the German beggars than would pay a’ Mr Watt’s shearers.
The effect of her eloquence must have made made a great impression on the meeting had it not been interrupted by the voices of others anxious to show off their loquaciousness, and the rest of the speeches were altogether lost in the clamour which usually characterises a meeting of females.
But though we are unable to give anything like a correct report of this important meeting, we have quite correct information as to its results. It was unanimously agreed that no-one should shear to Mr Watt during the harvest under 1s 10d a day. It was also agreed that if anyone engaged herself to Mr Watt for the harvest at less than 1s 10d she should forfeit her harvest’s fee, which was to be equally divided among those who should attend to the spirit of the resolutions.
The result of this important meeting was, that Mr Watt never offered to fee any of those who put such a value on their services. He has made an engagement to have nearly one hundred acres cut down by the scythe, and also feed about half his usual number of shearers from Crossford, and by earnest solicitation he has, in that goodness of heart which marks all his transactions, engaged six or eight of his old shearers at the old price.
How little have the good wives and lasses made of their strike at Cairneyhill; and all strikes sooner or later must have similar results, if not so immediate, quite as certain, whether made by shearers, weavers, masons or colliers.