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John Clay - A Scottish Farmer
Chapter I - Youth and Marriage


John Clay was born at Dykegatehead, a farm in the Parish of Whitsome, in the county of Berwick, on November 5, 1824. His father, John Clay, farmed the above place at that date, and his grandfather, (old) John Clay, ["Eyemouth, 19th May, 1787. "At a general encampment held this day, the following brethren were made Royal Arch Masons, viz. Robert Burns, from the Lodge of St. James's, Tarbolton, Ayrshire, and Robert Ainslie, from the Lodge of St. Luke's, Edinburgh, by James Carmichael, Wm. Grieve, Daniel Dow, John Clay, Robert Grieve, Sec. Sic. Robert Ainslie paid one guinea admission dues; but on account of R. Burns's remarkable poetical genius the encampment unanimously agreed to admit him gratis, and considered themselves honoured by having a man of such shining abilities for one of their companions."—Extracted from the Minute Book of the Lodge by Thos. Bowhill.— Allan Cunningham's Life of Burns.] was a very prosperous grain merchant in the good old town of Berwick-on-Tweed. The family of Clay had been around the Border town for several generations, but it is sufficient for this story to go back to the grand old man whose name is historic on the Borders for probity, push and perseverance. We have seen many men who knew him—notably the late Adam Darling of Governor's Yard, Berwick-on-Tweed, and he loved to depict in warm colors the man who for years had been a leading factor in the agricultural life of the Borders. His portrait in oil used to hang in his daughter Sarah's house, Castle Terrace, Berwick-on-Tweed, and it also appears in the picture now at Magdala Crescent (Edinburgh), entitled "Four John Clays," and reproduced in this work. His strong face, deep-lined, with a crest of gray hair, looks down from the frame on his successors, who in their time have lived and worked out their destiny. If you take this picture and put it beside that of Henry Clay, the great American statesman, you would say they were brothers. In fact, the subject of this memoir, when first in the United States, in 1876, was so struck by the likeness that he purchased an engraving of the above gentleman, and it now hangs in the house at 8 Magdala Crescent. Although ancestral rolls were explored, no connection could be traced, but if family likeness counts for anything, they are from the same parents in the years gone by.

John Clay of Dykegatehead married Ann Wilson, an orphan who had been brought up by her uncle, Young, tenant of Lady Kirk, a farm not far from the above place. They had a large family, several of whom died in infancy, and a son Charles who succumbed to consumption or a similar disease just when he had reached manhood. Those who survived are as follows:

Ann (Mrs. Young, living in Australia).
John (the subject of this memoir).
Johanna (Mrs. Stedman, living at Timpendean, Jedburgh).
Agnes (Mrs. Somner, living in Edinburgh).
Sarah (Mrs. Glynne, living in New York, U. S. A.).

All the above had families, so that the connection is spread to all parts of the globe. After spending a "nineteen'' at Dykegatehead, John Clay took the farm of Kerchesters, moving there in 1839. These farms were totally different. Dykegatehead lay almost in the centre of the Merse of Berwickshire. It is full of rich land, with fine natural drainage, compact, easily worked and producing everything of the best quality. For many years it has been admirably farmed by the Balsillie family. On the other hand Kerchesters was a big, wild place, 1,296 acres in extent, a large portion of it whin, heather, and bracken. It would take a strong pen to describe the struggle, almost hopeless at times, to conquer it. Many an hour we have listened to Aunt Agnes (Mrs. Somner) describe in graphic language the trials of the bluff old fanner. He borrowed money from his father, expecting that his share of the estate would call for no repayment, but a shadow to which it is no use to refer further, had come across the business path of the firm of John Clay and Son, and instead of receiving from he was a debtor to his father's estate. These were the dark days of 1846 and succeeding years. The noonday of his life was full of bitter experiences, of rugged work, of an intense nervous strain, but the later were years of peace and prosperity. He died in 1866 at the somewhat short age of 69 years. He was a grand type of the British yeoman, bluff, quick-tempered but never sulky, fond of his tumbler of toddy, generous in his hospitality, a keen farmer, an indifferent politician and not much of a churchman. In fact his life was with the land. From it he drew his inspiration. Before passing on to other subjects it may be well to say a word about two remarkable men that served him for years. Thomas Mabon was steward for many years both at Dykegatehead and Kerchesters. He was from all accounts a remarkable man, daring, energetic, fearless and with an intense power of concentration and work. He left a large family, of whom we shall speak later. Eventually the Sprouston Boat House which then had a license became a too favorite resort of old Tom's and he had to leave. The gap was never filled. The other was Walter Stobie, shepherd at Lanton Lees, a hill farm taken in 1835, which was farmed for two leases, one of nineteen, and a second of fifteen years, by the Clays. Wat was the epitome of all mankind so far as laziness is concerned. He was a stout, splendidly built man with a leonine head full of sheep lore and native wit. He knew every sheep on his hirsel by headmark, and better still he loved them. He was always treated as an equal and when the farmer rode over from Kerchesters to see the stock Wat dined in the parlor that day and there was generally a considerable toddy drinking afterwards. When everything was going all right Wat was the most indolent of men, but when occasion required he rose to it. In the great snowstorm of '60 Wat's soul was stirred to the very depths. His fodder was running short. The ewes on Blackrig were nearly starving, so getting his pen in hand he indited in large letters the following words: "Lord God send hay." This he placed in an envelope, intending to post it to his employer. Instead of that he took his staff in his hand and walked across country to Kerchesters, crossing the Tweed at Banff Mill Boathouse, or for all we know he may have crossed on the ice, and so he delivered the letter in person. And he got his hay, and saved the lives of his sheep.

* * * *

John Clay, the subject of this memoir, came into the world at a great time in its history. He saw the beginning of the Victorian era and he lived beyond it. His life began with the stage coach. It ended with the electric car. Napoleon was dead but the echoes of the tragedies which he inflicted on Europe still were heard. The tunic and the hat which his father had worn as a yeoman during the French Wars still hung on a peg in the wardrobe. The thrills and throbs of warfare were over and Britain was working out her destinies in other ways, and it is rather a strange coincidence that the first vivid recollection of his life was being taken by his father to the village of Whitsome to celebrate in some way or other the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832. He went to the Parish school at Whitsome, but of those days he had a dim recollection. Then, with many other Berwickshire boys, he was sent to James Trotter's school at Ayton. Trotter was a remarkable man. From the Parish school of Ayton he moved to Musselburgh, where he turned out a splendid lot of men, and wound up his career at the Edinburgh Academy in a blaze of educational glory. At Ayton the late Dr. John Cairns was pupil teacher, a long, lank, shaggy-haired son of the farm who won fame and distinction in pulpit and platform. The Berwickshire boys followed Trotter to Musselburgh. The Herriots, the Allans and hosts of others received their education there. East Lothian also contributed, and James Hope, East Barns. is still doing credit to the discipline and foresight of his teacher. William Kirkwood, of Chicago fame, who still lives amid the old scenes, was at school with the above men, but most of them have gone and soon Trotter will be but a memory. The Dykegate-head or Herriot Bank noddy, a springless carriage of ancient build, took them to Musselburgh. Probably then their school looked to them like a Dotheboys Hall, but in after years they always spoke of their stay at Trotter's with kindly feelings.

The Dykegatehead family moved to Kerchesters in 1839. They lived in the old house now used for steward's house and stables till the new house was built. Meantime young John completed his education at Musselburgh and came home, entering the office of the National Bank of Scotland, Kelso, then as now guided by one of the Tait family. After some years there he went to work on the farm. Under the guidance of his father and Tom Mabon he got a grand education, for they were busy reducing part of Haddon Rig to order. Liming, draining and fencing were in action. There are no signs of the wild moorland of 1839 around Pot's Close nowadays except you peep into the fox cover. Old Will Williamson, the Duke of Buccleuch's huntsman, in those days drew all of that country, for it was practically all cover. Tom Morrison, late gamekeeper at Sprouston, used often to relate of the day when the Duchess of Roxburgh, grandmother of the present Duke, had ten acres saved from the Clay ploughs in the early "forties." Although Morrison was older chan John Clay they grew up side by side and a friendship commenced that was only severed by the death of the former. Tom was the ideal keeper and he spent well nigh half a century at Sprouston. He was a sportsman in every sense of the word, a splendid servant to the Duke and yet fair to the tenants, and for years he was on the most friendly terms with the fanners, the shepherds and the ploughmen. While he loved a dram or a tumbler of toddy he rarely exceeded the proper limit although he was a social favorite and the temptations great. He had an admirable bump of discretion and tact. One morning he found after an anxious night's vigil a young shepherd taking a hare from a snare. The detection had cost him several nights' sleep. He made no noise about it, but he went to the tenant. The young man left next day and that was the last seen of him. There was a sad sequel. The young fellow emigrated to the United States. One Sabbath morning he was seized with cramps in the chilly waters of Lake Huron while bathing. Help reached him too late and his body lies in what to the parents was a foreign land. But Tom had his foibles. He had the fortune to raise a very good-looking family. This is the way he conveyed the fact to a mutual friend, drifting in his earnestness back to his Yorkshire dialect: "Yes, sir, my son Edward is as like my Uncle Ned as a bean, and my Uncle Ned was the best-looking man I ever saw in my life.'' Kerchesters was a house of call once or twice a week and Tom had the hospitalities of the place extended invariably. There were two kinds of whiskey in the house—the parlor whiskey and that used for the laborers, etc. Whether from intent or otherwise Tom had been getting the latter. He stood it several times, but it was too rank; so he said to the tablemaid, " My respects to the mistress, and if it's just as convenient, I would thank her to send out that green bottle that the master and I help ourselves from." And so it came out from that time forth. A little over a year ago when golden sheaves studded the fields, the writer stood in the little churchyard at Sprouston. His glance fell on the solemn little plot of ground where old Tom rests; the eye grew dim, for it brought up a flood of recollections, of many a pleasant day spent with gun in hand near the murmuring Tweed or on that wild piece of moorland opposite Phaup where Kale and Oxnam find a birthplace.

Now comes a series of busy years on the farm at Kerchesters, during one of them a trip being made into the Highlands to visit the late James Lindsay, Whitmuir-haugh, who was then managing an estate there. Mr. Lindsay was one of the old type of Border farmers. A big man physically and mentally, sagacious but slow, exceedingly well read, a grand man to meet in a single handed crack. In a business way he was content to farm Whitmuirhaugh and Banff Mill, and there he died respected by all who knew him. There is little to tell further of this time, for work on a farm is not exciting, but it lays a grand foundation of brain and brawn. About 1846 John Clay moved to Winfield, a farm of over 500 acres in the "Howe" of the Merse of Berwickshire. It is stiff clay land, rebellious in bad seasons but prolific in favorable years. To use a Scotch expression, it is a "kittle" place to farm and needed the most cautious management. At the time we write of, bare fallow was still the order of the day in low Berwickshire. With the decline in the price of wheat the rotation had to be changed and it came under the regular four-course shift with a lot of land laid away to grass. Old John Clay of Berwick was the tenant, the proprietor being Richard Trotter of Charterhall, a splendid landlord. William Clay, one of his sons, was managing the place. He had been in Canada for several years without much success. On his death John Clay, 3rd of that time, was sent from Kerches-ters to take hold. Alick Mabon, son of old Tom, also went about this time to act as steward, but more of him hereafter. The old Berwick merchant was gathered to his fathers in 1846, and the lease of the farm fell to his son John at Kerchesters, but he did not care to take it up. He had more than enough to handle at home. So in the whirligig of time the John Clay of whom we write became tenant of Winfield and he remained so till 1892, rounding out 46 years on the place, although it was farmed by the family for nearly 70 years. So at 24 years of age, with boundless energy, a grand training and a very slim bank account he began his business career. Having a farm of his own he began to think of matrimony, and on February 26, 1850, he was married to Patricia Thomson at Eyemouth. This was the great turning point in his life; he steadied down, the hobbledehoy stage was past and work began in earnest. In this marriage two kindred families, famous in Border farming, were united. The above lady was the daughter of Alexander Thomson of Glororum, a farm near Bamburgh, his wife being one of the Turnbulls of Abbey St. Bathans in Berwickshire. Alexander Thomson was the son of James Thomson, Bogend, near Duns. This gentleman and old John Clay of Berwick had married sisters, the Misses Grieve of Eyemouth, so that John Clay and his wife were second cousins. Their ancestors had farmed many an acre on the Border. "Old Bogend" and his sons had countless farms, but the last of the name so far as farming is concerned disappeared when James Thomson of Mungos Walls, near Duns, died. It seems almost tragic that two great families whose names were household words in Border farming during the nineteenth century, should disappear and be only memories. Is it the old adage repeated that one generation makes the money, the second holds it, the third spends it? Or is it due to the shifting sands of modern life? Many of the descendants of the above families have made names for themselves all over the world, but the spot which gave them a start — "historic Tweedside"— has been left behind. Dotted are their remains in many a graveyard from Bamburgh to Abbey St. Bathans, from Sprouston to Eyemouth, but so far as the Thomsons and Clays are concerned the farming fires have gone out. Have they gone forever or are they like some brawling stream sinking under ground, only to appear a few miles below?


 


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