Hundreds of foys are held on
hundreds of farms north of the Forth on the night of the 21st of November,
the evening preceding the great service term of Martinmas. The society of
rustic labourers is then on the eve of a great change. There is to be a
rearrangement of its units which the next four-and-twenty hours will effect.
And, meanwhile, the occasion is seized of parting company with the old
arrangement and bidding it formally farewell. The custom—a time-honoured
one—though no longer retaining its ancient vigour, is still far from
destitute of vitality. To a town-dweller the name and the nature of the
institution will scarcely now be known. ["If you're my friend, meet me this
evening at the Rummer. I'll pay my foy, drink a health to my king,
prosperity to my country, and away for Hungary to-morrow morning."—
Farquhar's Constant Couple Act i. sc. I. The word is French—-foi, faith.
Leigh Hunt's edition of Farquhar gives 'way'—a misinterpretation.] Briefly
described, a foy is a farewell entertainment given to former associates by
the person or persons leaving. It is of rural growth, and is in an especial
sense a ploughman's institution. It originated, doubtless, in the shifting
nature of his employment. Fee'd by the year, the young ploughman at the end
of his term longs for change of scene; the monotony of life oppresses him;
he is eminently social, and has little outlet for his social instincts; he
seeks service on another farm, but not till he has taken kindly leave of his
last year's companions on the farm he is quitting. He is besides in a
position, pecuniarily, to give the leave-taking entertainment: his year's
money is (or rather was—tempora mutantury) paid down to him at the end of
his service in a solid and unbroken sum.
Though primarily a
ploughman's institution, it is not confined to farm servants. It is
occasionally observed by gardeners, hedgers, and foresters, on the occasion
of their leaving one district for another. There used also to be 'prentice
foys in the homes of blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and such-like country
craftsmen. Tam or Wull had "served oot his time;" he was now "getting up his
indenture," preparatory to starting for himself as a free journeyman. In his
case the master, to whom he had been bound from boyhood, provided the
entertainment; and reason-ably. He had made considerable profit by his
apprentice, especially during the last two years or so. The system of
apprenticeship by indenture is now pretty rare. It was a legal bond by which
the master undertook to instruct his apprentice in the methods and mysteries
of his handicraft, the apprentice on his part undertaking to make out and
conclude the period of his apprenticeship. The length of apprenticeship
varied, according to the nature of the craft, from four to seven years. Each
party provided caution to the amount of from £10 to £20 that he would fulfil
his part of the contract. The cost of the stamped indenture, thirty
shillings or so, was borne mutually His indenture saved a wayward apprentice
from the grasp of the recruiting officer, but only while it ran If he had
imprudently taken the shilling at some market or merry-making, he was liable
in military service as soon as his term of apprenticeship was up. The lifted
indenture, of course, relieved both master and apprentice; their mutual
agreement was satisfactorily concluded, and they were in a position to
appreciate the simple festivity of the foy.
Partaking of the nature of
the foy were certain old drinking customs that used to be known to the
various "trades" by whom they were practised, as the "foondin' pint," "the
bindin' spree," "the spreadin' drink," etc. They speak to the sociality of
the old days no doubt; but they look to us terribly like ingenious excuses
for a dram.
To return to the foy
proper—the ploughman's foy. It is, and it was, long looked forward to as an
agreeable break in the monotony of social life in the country. It used to
rank with waddiris and maidens—that is, penny weddings and harvest homes. It
was the epilogue of field service. There was a prologue, too, "the welcome
hame," which was usually given "an eight days" or so after the arrival of
new ploughmen. As the name indicates, the expense of the welcome hame was
borne, or supposed to be borne, by the "remaining" ploughmen—those, namely,
who took service on the same farm for another year; but as a matter of fact,
each man at a welcome hame, new comer and old hand, bore his own share of
the expense of the simple entertainment. It was by means like this that
ploughmen got to be acquainted with each other on adjoining farms. Markets
were another means of drawing them socially together. They are a social
people, ready at all times and places to introduce themselves to each other,
and quick to recommend their several acquaintances. Sometimes, but rarely,
it would happen that a welcome hame would be diversified by a quarrel or a
fight Some vain or cantankerous ploughman would only settle into what was
called "good neibourhood " after he had endured one or two "good lickings."
Good neibourhood was always achieved by Hansel Monday at latest; but there
might intervene between Martinmas and that day the social diversion of a
more or less bloody tuizie.
The great foy time, as we
have said, was and is at Martinmas. This is the great " flitting " term in
the rural districts north of the Forth. It is not so in the south country,
whatever it may have been; Laidlaw, it is to be remembered, represents Lucy
in the ever-popular ballad as flitting at Martinmas—
"'Twas -when the wan leaf frae
the birk-tree was fa'in'
An' Martinmas dowie had wound up the year,
That Lucy row'd up her wee kist wi' her a' in,
And left her auld maister an' neibours sae dear."
And Laidlaw was a
south-countryman; but it does not follow that the scene of Lucy's "flittin'"
was the south country. We have heard south-country people express their
strong disapproval of a custom which made "flitting" imperative at a time of
the year when only wet or broken weather, with all its inconveniences, could
be expected. North-country people, again, regard their southern friends as
singularly unfortunate in having to remove to new quarters at Whitsunday*
What advantage, they ask, can any one have in a kailyard that cannot be
delved and planted till the end of May? "Ilka land," says the old proverb,
"has its ain laugh and its ain law."
It depends a good deal on the
departing ploughman's character, or rather disposition, whether his foy at
Martinmas is big or little. His comrades like a social fellow, who has no
meanness or treachery with him. Burns's estimate was the ploughman's
estimate of a man:—
"The social, friendly, honest
Whae'er he be,
Tis he fulfils great Nature's plan,
And none but he."
As many as eight or nine men,
with as many of the maid-servants additional, may take part in a Martinmas
foy. The entertainment could not begin till the horses on the farm were "suppered";
but beginning at nine p.m., a late hour for a ploughman, it might go on till
one or two next morning. Before 1853 the foy was usually held in some
neighbouring alehouse; if held there after the Forbes Mackenzie Act came
into operation, adjournment would be made at eleven to some neighbour cottar
or ploughman's. Not seldom the farm foreman's house was the scene of the foy.
The entertainment was of the simplest—whisky diluted with "sma' ale," and
the never-failing fare of the country, "cheese and bread." There was plenty
of talk. It would begin with the new place Jocky was going to, include a
description of the pair of horses he was to have in charge, and speculate as
to the names and nature of his new neighbours. He might be entrusted with
messages to this or that person supposed to be residing in the locality to
which he was going—verbal letters of introduction recommending himself.
Songs would be sung—ploughmen's songs: such as creep along the country-side
and escape collection; sometimes, not often, one of Burns's. Burns's songs
were well known, and required good style in the singer to make them
acceptable; whereas a new song or ballad might be indifferently rendered—its
interest was largely its novelty. They would dance, as the night wore
on—mostly to their own rough and ready music. A ploughman with a little
whisky in his pulse needed little invitation to the dance. Foursome reels
were the favourite dance. Occasionally they would order their steps to the
rhythm of the bagpipe, played by some Highland shepherd or ploughman.
Towards the close of the foy, tenderness would begin to manifest itself, and
a great deal would be said and done in the strictest confidence. A "greetin'
match," as Jocky took farewell of Jenny in the midst of their friends, was
not uncommon. Sometimes not love, but friendship, was the motif. And often
tears were shed at parting with a favourite horse. It might be, "Man! a'm
vexed at pairtin' wi' yon Bob horse!" Bob, it is to be explained, was a
willing worker associated with a lazy mate. He would enlarge on what Bob
could do at "leading" time—how many thraves of wheat he could lead at one
rake, and never turn a hair! There were few presents interchanged, none
costly, at the parting scenes. A comrade might present Jocky with a
"snuff-pen;" or Meg or Jenny might extend the gift of a riband—red, or
green, or black—for Jocky's watch.
Next morning about eight
o'clock Jocky got away, if he was on terms of good agreement with his
master. If not, he might be kept at his work till noon. He was in high
spirits; his year's fee was in his pocket The ploughman was counted
weirdless who broke on his fee while it was in his master's hands. A
"single" ploughman had only two items of luggage—his kist and his
meal-stand. The latter was a padlocked barrel for his oatmeal. These he
would commission the carrier to call for and convey to his new bothy. Or, if
he were removing only a few miles away, he would himself fetch them in the
evening with the help of his new horse. His departure was quietly taken at
last. Sometimes two or three ploughmen, all leaving together, would go in
company for a mile or twain, separating where their common road divided, or
at the quiet four-ways, each to his own destination at some distant farm.
Years might elapse till chance brought them together again.