Samuel Smiles of Haddington, of whom I wrote in my last article, worked at his Autobiography intermittently over many years.Â An important memory is of what Samuel Smiles called â€œThe Cartersâ€™ Ployâ€. It was a great event in early summertime Haddington in those days, when Smiles was ten, just after the Napoleonic Wars.
The matter is also examined in Riot, Revelry and Rout, John Burnettâ€™s account of public sport in pre-1860â€™s Scotland, published in 2000.Â John Burnett refers to â€œThe Cartersâ€™ Playâ€ in his book. I prefer Samuel Smiles’ rendering, firstly because he was closer in time to the event, secondly because â€œPloyâ€ is a Scottish usage which the young Samuel Smiles would have been familiar with and more accurately translates the spirit of the event: â€œan amusement, a frolic, a scheme for amusement.â€ Something extended over time, in other words.
â€œThe Cartersâ€™ Ploys, or â€œPlays,â€ were races run by ordinary farm horses, not by thoroughbreds. Their jockeys didnâ€™t own them, in most cases, but borrowed the horse from the farmer or carter who employed them.
The geographical distribution of the nineteen â€œCartersâ€™ Playsâ€ were centred around Leith, whose races on the Sands were their inspiration, according to Burnett. They were mostly in East- and Mid- Lothian, with none in West Lothian, at places like Haddington and Dalkeith. Aberlady, Haddingtonâ€™s port in those days, had its own. Three were outliers to the main group, at Biggar in Lanarkshire, West Linton and Peebles in Peebleshire. These last were called â€œWhipmansâ€™ Plays,â€ after the Scottish word for a carter. The West Linton Play still goes on. At least the nameâ€™s the same, but the event has greatly changed in nature.
â€œCartersâ€™ or Whipmansâ€™ Playsâ€ were run by local Friendly Societies, especially those whose membership included workers with horses, although others could join. In Haddington membership was open to anyone â€œfrom the labouring and trading part of the communityâ€ if they were between eighteen and forty. Each â€œPlayâ€ was conducted in a manner broadly similar to the rest.
Friendly Societies were an important bulwark against unexpected death or unemployment in industrial Britain, in the days before state benefits. They paid a small weekly sum to members, if they should be unlucky and were thrown out of work, or they paid out a lump sum on death.Â Some were strictly for workers in one industry, others, as at Haddington, open to all.
Friendly Societies became increasingly popular as the nineteenth century progressed. â€œThe International Order of Rechabitesâ€, â€œThe Oddfellowsâ€ and many others had a mass andÂ country-wide membership. As the population increased, many prudently insured against the disaster of unemployment.
This was in the future. In the East Lothian which Samuel Smiles was remembering the societies were small and local.
The Agricultural Revolution was well underway by the time of which Smiles was writing, the 1820â€™s. Crops were improved, fields drained and enlarged. East Lothian was a prime site for the reforming landlords, given its (relatively) good climate and tractability of its land.
Only a few years before, most ploughs were still drawn by oxen. Horses were too small and puny, except for the lightest soil. But by 1820 most farmers had changed over to horses as draught animals, and employed ploughmen, who paid their membership fee to the new Friendly Society.
The reason for this change was the spread of the proto-Clydesdale and Shire horse blood throughout Scotland, although things hadnâ€™t yet been formalised into breed societies with stud books. Even if a farmer couldnâ€™t afford a fully improved animal, and many around Haddington could, the transfusion of new blood into the equine population meant a horse could drag much more weight.
Haddington was close enough to Edinburgh, which meant that, before the railways came, there were many carters who ran grain and other goods to the city. They, like the ploughmen, paid their annual fees to the parish Friendly Society, and could act as riders at the Cartersâ€™ Play.
Samuel Smiles remembers the Cartersâ€™ Ploy as a holiday from school. â€œOne of the carters was elected to preside over the Ploy, and was hailed as â€œMy Lord.â€ Each had sent his hat to his girlfriend, who was generally a servant- maid (a great many people were in service then) who covered it with ribbons. â€œMy Lordâ€ had a velveteen jacket decorated in the same way. The Cartersâ€™ Friendly Society then joined a procession mounted on their cart horses, and stopped at the burgh school. â€œMy Lordâ€ begged a holiday for the pupils to watch the race.
â€œThis was always granted,â€ said Smiles. After the race was the dance, which was opened by â€œMy Lordâ€ dancing with â€œMy Lady,â€ who had decorated his hat and jacket. Samuel Smiles remembered one of his motherâ€™s servants being â€œMy Ladyâ€ for that year.
The race was held on the public road. Smiles says that â€œfrightful accidents sometimes happened. A cart-horse was quite unfitted for galloping on a macadamised road.â€ They had heavy hooves and legs, and were bred for slow pulling, not for speed. A horse could fall and have to be shot. The jockeys sometimes broke their arms or legs.
Once the railway arrived, in 1849, the fate of the Cartersâ€™ Ploy was sealed.Â The last race was in 1859, because what carter could compete with a train on price and speed?
If you’d like to know when new articles appear on Lothian Life, sign up here. If you’d prefer a monthly newsletter, sign up here. Articles on Lothian Life are free to read and we hope you enjoy them. However we do pay our writers and have other expenses too, so if you feel like making a contribution to keep things going we’d be very grateful. As my mother used to say, “Mony a mickle maks a muckle”.