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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century

THE old country fairs had apparently been an institution established by the Monks of the middle ages, with a view to facilitate the transaction of general business. And hence the fair came usually to be held on a saint’s day. In degenerate times, indeed, it was frequently held on a Sunday. And at one time the fair was regarded quite as much in the light of a rendezvous for indulgence in such rude games and wrestlings as are celebrated in "Chirst’s Kirk o’ the Green"—a poem with an appreciably northern smack about it, by wbomsoever written—as in that of a resort for the transaction of serious business. Hence such expressions as "Play Feersday" (Thursday), when the fair happened to be held on that day of the week, or "Play Friday," if it happened to be on a Friday; the dominating idea being amusement. The practice common in last century, of having fairs announced outside the kirk door after service on Sundays, with a comprehensive summary given by the "crier" of the more attractive articles likely to be found thereat, gave rise to the "byeword," that such and such a thing that seemed likely to become notoriously public was "like a cried fair."

An almost invariable accompaniment of certain of the fairs was the occurrence of party fights, or personal encounters between rustic athletes fond of testing their physical prowess. These encounters, which ordinarily took place about the close of the fair, were sufficiently brutal in character, the combatants often mercilessly belabouring each other with cudgels. In no quarter perhaps were they so formidable or so systematically kept up as in the district of Croinar, where the periodical onsets between "the rough tykes of Tarland," and "the Leochel men" seem to have been as regular in their occurrence as the fairs in which the two parishes were interested; the fight being understood always to end in one or other of the sides being driven off the field vanquished.

At the last century fair, the business transacted was of an exceedingly miscellaneous kind. Live stock was by no means the most important feature. All sorts of household furnishings —including chairs, stools, wooden ladles, "caups," and barrels and brewing "bowies," rough wicker "creels," and such like, were exhibited in quantity by the wrights and coopers and other artificers, so as the more strictly agricultural class might supply their needs in such matters. Even ploughs and harrows were taken to the fair for sale. On the other hand, those who tilled the soil had the wool of their small stocks of native sheep spun into yarn at home, and then converted into webs of "fingrams" by the weaver, to be taken to the fair and offered to such as would buy; their customers, to a large extent, were itinerant "merchants," who picked up the fingrams at the annual fairs in Aberdeenshire, and then found a market for them in other parts of Scotland, or by getting them exported abroad. And after the decline of the trade in fingrams, when spinning worsted and knitting stockings for "the factory merchant," mainly engaged the attention of women in the country, dealers in soft goods in Aberdeen and the other county towns, found it worth while to shut shop for a day or two on the occurrence of some of the principal annual fairs, in order that they might cultivate business by exhibiting prints and other fabrics there alongside the stocks of the regular packmen.

Seventy or eighty years ago Aikey Fair, which ia still held annually on Aikey Brae, in the parish of Old Deer, in Buchan, was the largest fair in the North of Scotland. A legendary account of its origin is to the effect that a paekman of unknown antiquity, Aul’ Aikey by name, in crossing the river Ugie, on stepping stones, a mile west of the ancient "Abbey of Deir," dropped his pack. On fishing it out of the water, then slightly flooded, he proceeded some three hundred yards farther on to what is now known as Aikey Brae, which was then, as it still is, covered with short grass and heath. Here he spread out his goods to dry. The contents of the pack consisted of prints and woollens, some of them being of gaudy colours. A good many people passed during the day, and being attracted by his stock bought up all the articles in it. Aul’ Aikey was charmed with the success which followed what he had regarded as a calamity—the accidental soaking of his pack. Apologising to his purchasers for the meagerness of his stock he promised to show them something better worth looking at if they would meet him next year at the same time and place. He kept his word, while the report of his gains brought others with goods for sale to the same place, and so traffic gradually increased year by year till Aikey Brae, from its central position, became a general mart for the large and populous district of Buchan.

Doubtless the story of the packman is fully as picturesque as credible. But be that as it may, the hillside called Aikey Brae, where Aikey Fair is held yearly on the Wednesday after the 19th of July, slopes to the north down to the Ugie, while between the market stance and the river runs eastward from New Maud Junction, the Peterhead branch of the Buchan and Formartine Railway. The Brae affords an extens1v~ view of the country to the west, north, and east, including the fine grounds of Pitfour, with the mouldering ruins of the Abbey of Deir nestling amid the

orchard gardens of the same seat, the grounds of Aden, and half-a-dozen miles to the north, the highest ground in Buchan—Mormond Hill—with the noted figure of a white horse occupying an acre of the surface of the south slope of the hill, the space within the outline of the animal being covered with ‘White quartzose stones.

When their great annual fair approached the dwellers in Buchan, eastward and westward, began to bestir themselves in preparation for the most important gathering of the year. On the day preceding the fair cattle were to be seen converging from all sides to fields within easy reach of the stance. Dealers and others from a distance came, all on horseback. Thus at the ford of the Ebrie, near Arnage, some eight miles off, as many as a hundred horsemen would pass on the evening before the fair. They rode not unfrequently at full gallop. Bets on the comparative merits of their horses sometimes gave rise to racing in tins sort ; but there was, in addition, the prevalent notion that it involved a sort of slur to allow your neighbour to pass you on the road to the fair. On the day of the fair fifty or sixty acres of Aikey Brae were covered with human beings, cattle, horses, and various kinds of merchandise.

Aikey Fair day was regarded as the great summer holiday; and both old and young flocked to it. Indeed, it was the boast to have seen so many fairs. "Old Cairnadaillie," who died at the age of ninetysix, affirmed that he had been at ninety-one successive fairs at Aikey Brae, having been first carried there in his mother’s arms. As many as 10,000 persons are said to have been sometimes present, all attired in their Sunday best. The men appeared in the old-fashioned, home-spun, woven, and tailored coat and vest, with big pockets and big buttons, knee breeches and hose, all made of the wool of sheep reared at home. They wore shoes with large buckles; and some of the rustic dandies came dressed in white trousers and vest. The women also were in their "‘braws," and those of the fair sex who could afford it appeared in white. They generally wore high-crowned gipsy mutches; Then, as now, in matters of dress, the common folk trode on the heels of the gentry. The latter made a point of attending the fair, and several carriages might always be seen at it. The traffic at Aikey Fair, as at other annual fairs of the period, included cattle, horses, sheep, merchandise, and chap-book literature of no very pretentious character. There was always a wonderful supply of " carvy" and, coriander sweeties wherewith the lads might treat the lasses. The shows and amusements at the fair were of a very simple kind. The pipers from the country around assembled, and often a dance would be improvised on the green-sward. As time wore on there appeared the " slicht 0’ han’ men" to divide the attention of the idle and curious.

Cattle and horses chiefly were the animals exposed for sale at the fair, very few sheep being reared in the districts around it. Most of the cattle sold in the fair were driven south by Savock of Deer, Tarves, Inverurie, Echt, Banchory, the Cairn o’ Month, &c., to be fattened on the rich pastures of England. Seventy years ago as many as 6000 beasts are said to have passed through Tarves in a continuous drove, a mile long, on their way south on the day after the fair. In 1836, 1~owever, only 2200 cattle were counted- on this road on the same day, while at the present day not over 250 in all appear in the fair, though in 1876 as many as 600 horses were shown.

The merchandise sold in Aikey Fair about 1800 consisted chiefly of webs of sacking, bed-tick, a variety of prints often of gaudy colours, cottons in the shape of moleskins and corduroys, of which the outer garments of working men were then mostly made; wool and yarn were also sold in large quantities. On the day before the fair there used to be a large wholesale business done in woollen cloths among merchants and others. About the period indicated there were, as now, tents in the fair for supplying refreshments. Such a thing as whisky for sale was unknown, the liquor being confined to home-brewed ale, which was much drunk, though it was rare to see any one tipsy.

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