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John Clay - A Scottish Farmer
By his eldest son (1906)


Chapter I - Youth and Marriage
Chapter II - Farming in Berwickshire
Chapter III - Farming in Roxburghshire
Chapter IV - Waygoings from Winfield Kerchesters and Plenderleith
Chapter V - His Employees
Chapter VI - As a Business Man
Chapter VII - As a Churchman
Chapter VIII - As a Politician
Chapter IX - As a Sportsman
Chapter X - Part 1 - What he did for agriculture
Chapter X - Part 2 - Notes
Chapter X - Part 3 - Retiring Address
Chapter XII - His Last Eight Years
Newspaper Notices


THE latest book sensation, Mr Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” has caused an extraordinary and to a great extent a foolish revulsion of public feeling against the great packing-house industries of the Chicago stockyards. That the world-famous Armour, Swift, Morris, and Cudahy firms have been systematically pursuing a suicidal policy by using old and unwholesome material for can-filling is to the writer of this note, something incredible. The finest American shorthorn grade cattle now grazing on the western prairies are only worth two and a half cents per lb., on foot or gross weight. The finest Californian grapes are only worth twelve dollars per ton. Why should American meat-packers or wine-makers adulterate? But on the much-vexed Chicago question, there is no one better qualified to speak with authority than a very notable son of the Scottish Border, Mr John Clay, of Chicago, St Louis, Kansas City, and several other places in the United States. Like some other prominent American cattle men, it is not always certain where Mr Clay’s interests begin and end. His name is best known, however, about the Chicago stockyards, that huge area which might be described as a thousand oattle markets united — a great city of itself. Mr Clay has become a very wealthy and successful business man in every sense of the word, and belongs to a family who have been always prosperous. His brother, Mr Charles Clay, is a partner in the great cereal firm that owns “Quaker Oats” and some of the best-known cereal foods. His third and youngest brother is Mr Alexander Thomson Clay, of the firm of Pringle & Clay, W.S., Edinburgh. But this‘is not a story of worldly success; it is a little study of the career of a busy man, who has had at all times a warm heart to his native Borderland.

The namesake and father of the subject of this life-sketch, for many years must have been paying perhaps a larger amount per annum for land rent than any other tenant farmer in Scotland, for Kerchesters, Plenderleith, Winfield, Wedderlie and other rentals, running to thousands of arable, grass, and moorland acres. When Robert Burns made his famous tour on the eastern Borders, the Clays were in the front rank of the Berwickshire “gentlemen farmers.” Their extensive operations were a surprise to the poet, whose previous experience had been connected with the smaller and more primitive farming of Ayrshire and Galloway. As a farmer, the late Mr John Clay was the last and greatest of his family. His sons have taken to other pursuits, like so many sons of “gentlemen farmers” in England, and in future the agriculturists who keep a carriage and spend money freely among the tradesmen of their district are likely to become every year fewer in numbers, a pity for the welfare of country towns throughout Britain.

Brought up as boy and young man at the large farm of Kerchesters, on Tweedside, Mr John Clay, of Chicago, was in his early years a familiar figure in the old Border market town of Kelso. About twenty-five years ago, in early morning, before Kelso shopkeepers.had taken down their shutters, a black-haired, swarthy, athletic young man riding through the streets en route for Wedderlie, in the Lammermoors, was a familiar sight. Later in the day the same horseman might be seen on his way back to Kerchesters. About 7 p.m. Mr John Clay, jun., for he was the rider referred to, might be seen coming back to town on a fresh horse, perhaps to attend a meeting of his favourite debating society, the “Kelso Dialectic,” now one of the defunct educational associations for young men on the Borders. During Mr Clay’s time the society was one of the most flourishing and useful in Scotland, and numbered among its members such men as William Robertson Nicoll, the far-famed editor of the “British Weekly”; William B. Cook, of Stirling, an able writer on Scottish antiquarian subjects, and one of the best extempore speakers in this country; Mr George Deans, of the Glasgow “Citizen”; Mr William Robertson, Glasgow, who not only manufactures “Robertson’s wonderfu’ flees,” but first-class angling material of every description; Mr W. H. Thompson, a brother of Leslie Thompson, the artist, and a fine writer of magazine poetry in his day; and the late Mr W. Fred Vernon, a genuine clever humourist, and one of the most versatile men of talent the writer has ever met. Let me give you a glimpse at one of the old Kelso Dialectic Society’s meetings. Mr Clay, senior, the much-respected president, was in the chair, and his eldest son, now Mr John Clay, of Chicago (then an aspiring youth), read a paper on his first impressions of America. Some of the members mentioned and a few of the younger men remained in the hall after the society’s ten o’clock closing hour, to chat over the proceedings of the evening. Fred Vernon, who was always the chief spokesman, said, “What did you think about that bit of writing describing the Niagara Falls?” One member gravely remarked that Mr John Clay, jun., had simply stolen the passage from an American author, and if Mr Nicoll had been present he would have been able, from his phenomenal memory, to have mentioned the source from whence the piece of fine writing had been culled. This was the unanimous opinion, but it turned out afterwards that “the junior ” (as the essayist was generally called to distinguish him from his father), had really accomplished a good literary piece from earnest study on the spot. This little incident has been introduced to give the keynote of Mr Clay’s character, which is conscientious thoroughness in all duties of life.

Not long after this period Mr John Clay, jun., made a careful study of the subject of draught horses, and received an appointment from the Canadian Government to purchase Clydesdales, for the purpose of improving. the breed of working horses in Canada. This was one of the most fortunate schemes for assisting farmers in which the Canadian Government ever engaged. Quebec and Ontario working horses, from the want of an infusion of good draught blood, had been every year becoming smaller and more weedy in quality. To Mr Clay’s successful purchases at that time, the splendid “general purpose” horses of Canada at the present day are to a great extent due. After this work Mr Clay’s services were largely taken advantage of by Western cattle ranching syndicates in the United States. Some years later he started on his own account, chiefly bs a rancher, a cattle buyer, and a cattle salesman. His success has been extraordinary and well merited, being the result of genuine industry, combined with business faculty of the best. Mr Clay roughed it in the wild and woolv West twenty years before barbed wire fencing broke up the power of the cowboys. Several of his turbulent crew of cow and horseboys met violent deaths. Perhaps a safer man than Mr John Clay never walked into a Wyoming drinking bar, filled with desperate characters with revolvers in their belts and hip-pockets. Boy and man he had always a cool nerve, a kind heart, and a plain, manly manner. To-day, riding into the Chicago stockyards, he looks the same quiet figure that he did nearly thirty years ago, when, mounted on one of his father’s horses, he passed Jovial Jenny’s toll-house on his way to Wedderlie. The farm of Wedderlie, romantic for Situation, near Westruther and Twinlaw Cairns, was the last holding that identified the Clay family with the Borders. The place has always a great charm for Mr John Clay, and is one of the magnets that has so frequently induced him to take up residence in Scotland for the hunting season. At present he is lessee of Sunlaws, near Kelso, the seat of Captain Scott Kerr, and if health permits he will hunt with the Buccleuch and Berwickshire foxhounds for the next three seasons. Mr Clay’s much-loved mother still survives. She resides in Edinburgh, and it may be mentioned of her that when a young lady she was considered a delightful singer of Scottish songs. This gift has not descended to her eldest son, the subject of this sketch, although he is hard to beat at relating braid Scotch stories of a humorous character. It is a safe thing to say that there are Americans residing in “millionaire row,” Prairie Avenue, Chicago, who know many events in the lives of the Rev. James Izzet, the Rev. Dr Taylor, and other worthy people who resided in the old Berwickshire village of West-ruther thirty years ago.

Mr Clay was very fortunate in his marriage. His wife was a Miss Forrest, who belonged to an influential Canadian family, originally from Scotland. His son, it is hoped, will live to follow in his father’s footsteps, and take a managing interest in his large business ventures at Chicago and other industrial centres of the United States.

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