Scottish Farm Servants' Union - Established 1913

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Dec 5 18:38:22 GMT 2012

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Scottish Farm Servants' Union - Established 1913

Farm workers in Scotland had attempted to 
establish a union throughout the agricultural 
"boom" years of the 1860's and early 1870's.
A Farm Servants' Protection Association was 
formed at Slateford, Edinburgh in 1865 and many 
other local farm labourers unions appeared in 
areas such as Kinross, Forfar, Perth, Kincardine, 
Stirling, Clackmannan, Peebles, Roxburgh, Berwick 
and East Lothian and as a result wages were 
improved and seems to have finally ended the "bondager system" on many farms.

The bondage system was one where the male farm 
worker had to provide a woman worker for a stated 
number of day's in the year a practice that 
continued in to the twentieth century as did the 
distinctive dress of the Scottish farm labourers.

Like wise the hiring fare or "Feeing mart" held 
in the open street once or twice a year in larger 
rural towns were where a great many farmworkers 
were hired. later this practice was described by 
Scottish Farm Workers union, leader Joseph F 
Duncan as "simply a relic of barbarism".

James C Thompson (1848-1904) established the 
first national union in 1884 (Scottish Farm 
Servants Union) and became it's General secretary 
in 1889. Thompson was the son of a harpooner in 
the whaling fleet, He had been born at Peterhead 
but his family moved to Aberdeen,  when  young he 
travelled to Dundee for work and then onto Glasgow returning to Aberdeenin 1875

The Scottish Farm Servants Union began life in 
1884 as the Scottish Farm Servants', Carters' and 
General Labourers' but merged into the Scottish 
Ploughmen's Federal Union ten years late.

Scottish Farm Servants Union
The Scottish Farm Servants Union was formally 
registered as an independent union in 1913 with 7,477 members

It is said that the events at Turra in North East 
Scotland (wages cuts at hiring fairs and refusal 
of a farmer to pay the new National Insurance) 
was the catalyst for the formation of the union 
in Aberdeen in late 1912 and registered in 1913.

However, the union was more likely the result in 
an upsurge in militancy across Britain,

The Union's motto was "Unity is Strength"

Scottish Farm Servants Union Offices at Queens Gate, Sterling

The Union campaigned for
• Job length to be longer than 6 months
• Monthly payment, not six monthly
• Half day holidays per week

First General secretary was James Rothney, he was 
tradgically killed in August 1914

The union launched early on,  high profile 
campaigns in West Fife, Arbroath, Dundee, Mid 
Atholl, and amongst the Forfar ploughmen.

Early campaigns included reduction to 50 hours a 
week, half day a week off and in 1917 a campaign to end "Feeing Markets".

The union campaigned to improve the pay and 
conditions of the Potato harvesters "hokers" The 
Scottish potato harvest was dominated by "tatie 
hokers" from Ireland (Donegal and Mayo), The 
Harvest took place between June and October and 
the "tatie hokers" could spend up to 6 weeks on a 
farm. The Union forged strong links with the 
Irish union ITGWU and in particular the great 
Donegal Socialist and trade union organiser 
Peadar O'Donnell. One joint campaign included a 
boycott of the 1918 potato harvest.

The union was one of the first to employe a women 
as an organiser, Mary Sutherland (1895-1972) a 
native of Aberdeenshire, she was appointed union 
organiser between 1920 and 1922

The 1924 bi annual conference was held in the 
Labour Rooms Perth with Mr Thomas Denholm of Mid 
Lothian as Chairman and Dr Gavin Brown Clark 
(former Crofter's MP for Caithnesshire)  as 
Honory President. Delegates from Sutherland to the borders.


Joseph (Joe) Forbes Duncan (1879-1964) - Scottish Farm Servants Union
Born in Banffshire, Scotland
Left school at 15 and became a clerk

General secretary Scottish Sea Fishers' Union 1904,

Scottish Independent Labour Party (ILP) Organiser 1906-1908
Founded the Scottish Farm Servants Union in late 1912 registered in 1913

Joseph F. Duncan was to fight for Labour in a 
number of elections in rural Scottish 
constituencies. He stood on platform stood for 
land reform, better wages, holidays, hours and 
social life for agricultural labourers

He stood as Labour candidate for Moray and Nairn 
at a General Election in April 1916 and secured 
26% of the vote, later at Aberdeenshire and Kircardinshire central

Labour party Advisory committee on rural problems 1918-1919

Member of the Royal commission on Housing in Scotland 1912-1917

Royal Commission of Agriculture 1919-1920

President of Intentional Land workers Federation 1924

President of Scottish Trades Union Congress in 1926

Chairman of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture,

Doctor of laws honour conferred on Duncan by 
Glasgow University contribution Scottish culture 
and to improvements in Scottish agriculture.

Joseph Duncan and  wife was Jessie Mable Duncan 
(Saunders) lived in retirement at Foveran, Newburgh, Aberdeenshire

Joseph Frederick Duncan died in 1964

Mary Elizabeth Sutherland (1895-1972) born at 
Burnhead, Banchury-Terna, Aberdeenshire organiser 
and the editor of the Scottish Farm Servants 
Union journal "Scottish Farm Servant"

The Scottish Farm Servants Union joined the TGWU in 1933 
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