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Caithness Field Club

Some Notes On Markets In Caithness In The Old Days
Henrietta Munro

Before the War the market day was a great event in the life of the countryman here in Caithness - and of course because travel was more difficult, markets were more plentiful - every small township had a market of sorts and some of the larger ones were attended by folk from all over the north. I think that the Dunnet Marymas and the Georgemas Markets were the last country markets in the country - Georgemas certainly was going in the twenties and maybe longer and the Marymas went on for about the same length of time.

Married couples usually contracted at the Spring markets while the single chaps might stay only for six months and return for another fee in the autumn. While I was reading about some of the families connected with the Brubster area I was surprised to find that many of them had moved several times - I had imagined that farm servants stayed for long periods on a good farm but apparently this was not so.

The choice of date for some markets is unusual - for instance the July Georgemas Market was held 'The Monday before Inverness' and the Sordale Tryst Market also in July was 'The Fortnight before the Muir of Ord'. Certainly until fairly lately the Annual Holiday in Thurso (the July one) was always the first Wednesday after the second Tuesday of the month. As the Petersmas Market was held in Thurso on the second Tuesday of July it seems sensible that the town would need a holiday to recover!

The names of the old markets are fascinating - Roodsmas in Barlan - early spring when the sowing was complete and Roodsmas in harvest - last Tuesday in September when the harvest might be expected to be gathered in.

Lukesmas, Fergusmas, Trothersmas, Marymas and Petersmas remind us that the markets were connected in some way with either the patron saint of the area or with the chapel or church situated there.

A common saying in Caithness if there is a lot of noise and arguing or even fighting is 'At's chist lek a hill markad' - there was a hill market held in Wick either on July 18th or the first Tuesday thereafter - this used to be held at the North Head but in 1877 the stance was changed to the Jib Park on the Ackergill Road which was the stance used before 1857 - in 1875 there were two preachers (one coloured) and several drinking booths - in 1874 there was little business but plenty of people and plenty of drink and sweetie stalls while in 1873 Simon's menagerie was the great attraction especially the lion. In 1878 card sharping was observed by the police, who intervened and presumably took action. The entertainment was provided by an acrobat, a piper, a German band and 'a man who endeavoured to sing and act as an Irish character' - all that remained of the former glories! There is also a note to the effect that 'those who got drunk never intended to - it arose from the depth of the measures'. So with all that going on maybe the hill market was a fairly lively affair.

Fergusmas Market was usually known as 'Foul tailed' because of the bad weather and in 1873 while the weather was lovely, there was enough mud of the streets to justify the adjective. In 1872 again the weather was glorious but there were very few cattle forward and whisky and sweeties were the main attractions. Several strangers appeared in the town for the occasion and in the evening there was more than one case of 'elevation of the spirit'.

Roodsmas in Barlan near Watten seems to have been a better behaved place - in 1873 prices were high while in 1874 there was a large attendance of south buyers and Highland cattle sold at 6-8. But in 1875 cows were bought at 12-14 and rare young horses fetched high prices - Henderson, Innkeeper, Dunn sold a 3-year old to Stewart a dealer from Keith for 80 guineas.

Lukesmas Market was held at Reaster and in 1868 it was a very cold day and liquor supplies ran out at 3 p.m. - unprecedented happening. In 1874 there was a larger attendance than usual and unmarried men servants were plentiful as the railway contracts had just ended - but there was also brisk competition for the women. In 1878 again there was a large attendance and servants wages were as high as ever but the cattle shown were poor and prices low. Here there was a large number of whisky tents, cheap johns and sweetie stalls - all of whom did a roaring trade. In 1879 feeing seemed to be the principal business but wages were back about 1 - men 7-8 and women 4:10s.-5 for the top quality. An ox was sold for 19:10s. and there were 'plenty of whisky tents - more's the pity'. While in 1880 the bad weather contributed to a poor stock and drunkeness was prevalent among the young farm servants.

Olrig March Fair which was held in the first field at Croxter Toll had a large attendance in 1880 but there was not many cattle, although horses were in abundance. Also here plenty of canvassing went on for the local Tory candidate.

Aukengill Market 1878 had buyers from as far away as Aberdeen -there is also mention of a Candlemas Market on the second Tuesday in February which was held at the hill of Harley between Freswick and Aukengill as late as 1921 but I do not know if this was the same one.

Petersmas Market was held in Thurso in Market-Street beside the Town Hall Square and was apparently a tremendous affair and folk came from all over - there were several stalls selling a variety of produce including gundy - a delicious chewy toffee which one seldom sees nowadays - there were shows - usually a menagerie of sorts and it is no wonder that the local Annual Holiday was set for the first Wednesday after the second Tuesday (Petersmas Day) - one needed some time to recover from that kind of celebration. Mr. Donald Grant has a lovely true tale of Petersmas Markets - sanitary arrangements were non-existent so one enterprising lady who had a large black crinoline dress went round with a bucket crying 'relief' and for a halfpenny females were accommodated below or behind the broad skirt and had the use of the bucket. A real public benefactor. But even in the towns country people made up the larger part of the attendance and in 1875 the large numbers were attributed to the turnip cleaning being well advanced owing to the good weather.

Thurso Marymas was held on the Friday after the Dunnet Marymas and lasted usually from the Friday of one week until the end of the following week. In 1774 the superior decided that the Marymas market was taking up too much time and folk were neglecting their duties so he decided that the market must be confined to three days. The magistrates agreed to this and it is interesting to note that because of the popularity of the market the fact was advertised in the Edinburgh Courant and the Caledonian Mercury as well as the local notices posted in public places. However all was not well and later in the year while the superior complained that his rules were being broken, the Bailies had second thoughts and raised an action to have the market revert to its old time. So from then on it was held for the full week. This fair went on at least until 1900 as during that year the Salvation Army complained about the tents pitched beside their hall.

Dunnet Marymas was the big event in that area and as I said continued until the thirties. It was held in the field at Maori' Ha' and again there were many stalls from all over, whisky tents, sweetie tents and usually some sort of menagerie - once the attraction was to see Sargana the lion tamer put his head right into the lion's mouth. The gundy at Dunnet Marymas was supposed to be the best of the lot and the sale in sweeties was tremendous - the sweeties sold at all the markets were usually conversation sweeties - can they still be bought? - and they proved a godsend to the shy young men of the time - and also to the girls who by this means could manage to 'talk' to the fancied young man.

Georgemas Market this again which lasted until the thirties was a very large affair - in 1867 women servants were scarce and could command 3-3:10s. but there was not much stock forward - Peter Campbell, Reay bought Highland stirks at 11 and set off at once for the Muir of Ord. Many licensed stalls but only two for 'mocha'. A German fiddler and a female ballad singer contributed to a very merry evening - but the local constable kept order. 'Many amusing pairings were to be seen 'twixt the gloaming and the mirk'. In 1868 with the coming of the railway it was decided to change the stance to a field nearer the station. In 1877 the Railway Company again ran a special excursion from Inverness and there were over 8000 sheep on offer. This market was held the Monday before the Inverness wool Fair. In the June Georgemas Fair for 1874 there were 12,000 sheep and 1000 cattle while in 1878 Mr. MacKidd, Thurso had a threshing mill on show. At intervals during the day it was driven by a steam' engine. Mr. MacKidd had the foundry in Thurso and his house was where the Thurso Club is now. Also at this Fair Mr. Geddes from Wick had two small threshing mills on his stand.

I attach a list of markets taken from an old calendar for 1902 and from the 'Groat' for 1915.

Notes taken from 'John O' Groat Journals' and from 'Old Thurso' by Donald Grant and from various conversations with various folk.

Caithness Markets

 

Date

1902

1915

February

2nd Tuesday

Freswick

Freswick

March

1st Tuesday

Killimster

 

2nd Tuesday

Olrig

Olrig

last Tuesday

Camster

Camster

April

1st Tuesday

Dunnet Links

Dunnet Links

last Tuesday

Feeing Market
Sordale Hill

Sordale Hill

last Wednesday

Bruan

 

May

2nd Tuesday

Roodsmas in Barlan

Backlass Hill

Roodsmas

Last Tuesday

Tryst Sordale Hill

1st Tuesday
Canisbay

June

2nd Tuesday

Nybster

Nybster

3rd Tuesday

June Fair Georgemas

Georgemas

July

Monday before Inverness

Georgemas

Georgemas

2nd Tuesday

Petersmas Thurso

Petersmas

Fortnight before Muir of Ord

Caithness Tryst
Sordale

 

18th if a Tuesday
(if not first Tuesday thereafter)

Hill market, Wick

Hill Market

Thursday after Hill Market

Lybster

Lybster

August

2nd Tuesday

Georgemas Lamb Fair

Georgemas

3rd Tuesday

Dunbeath

Dunbeath

Fortnight before Muir of Ord

Tryst Sordale

 

last Tuesday

Dunnet Marymas

Dunnet

Friday after Dunnet

Marymas Thurso

 

September

1st Monday

 

Reay

3rd Tuesday

 

Sordale

Fortnight before Muir of Ord

Tryst Sordale

 

Last Tuesday

Roodsmas in Harvest Bower

Roodsmas

October

2nd Tuesday

Dunnet Links

Dunnet

2nd Wednesday

Bruan

 

3rd Tuesday

Lyth

Lyth

4th Tuesday

Lukesmas Reaster

Lukesmas

November

1st Tuesday

Wester Watten

Watten

2nd Tuesday

Lybster

Lybster

3rd Tuesday

Bower & Dunbeath

Bower & Dunbeath

4th Tuesday

St. Trothermas
Olrig
Fergusmas Wick

 

December

1st Tuesday

Canisbay

Canisbay

2nd Tuesday

Freswick

Freswick

3rd Tuesday

Halkirk

Halkirk

4th Tuesday

Stonehouse Watten

 

Published in 1981 April Bulletin