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John Clay - A Scottish Farmer
Chapter II - Farming in Berwickshire


Previous to 1850 farming on the Borders was very different from what it is now. Low Berwickshire — better known as the Merse — was a wheat country. Toward the western boundaries of the country mixed husbandry prevailed, while on its northern line, by Lauder and Westruther and eastwards by Duns to almost St. Abbs Head, the old-fashioned, easy-going sheep farmer still pursued his methods. Before the above date John Clay was tenant of Winfield and he came upon the scene of agriculture when a new view was opening up. The Reform Bill of 1832 had led up to the Free Trade measure of 1846, but a more powerful pulsation was moving the whole world. It was the introduction of steam on land and water. True it is that the genius of Stephenson had given the world the locomotive years before and steamships had been used more or less, but it was not till nearly the middle of the century that the climax came. The change in agriculture as in other things was radical. Wheat growing declined, stock raising and feeding increased. The country village decayed; the town increased in wealth and population and poverty, for these three are bedfellows. The silence of the valleys was broken by the shriek of the locomotive. Few could fathom the depth or the breadth of the changes that were to come. It was not the lamp of Aladdin nor some fairy power that made the change. It was the inevitable movement of cheaper transportation and rapid transit. It was pathetic to see the old carters, who had braved many a blast on Soutra Hill or had wended their way from Kelso to Berwick-on-Tweed, drop by the wayside as the iron-horse came careering on—a great juggernaut — crushing all in its path. Not Caesar or Attila or Napoleon had ever such influence as Stephenson. Their changes came by the sword, the fierce stalking giant of war covering with his mantle fields of blood and carnage. He came with dove-like flight, borne on wings of peace, and yet it made misery in many a home. It revolutionized conditions and the old conservative ways are only given up after a fierce struggle, for the victories of peace are often as cruel as those won by the ring of the rifle or the shotted gun. It was at this era in history that the subject of our memoir came to his manhood and calling. He had little money, but he got a cash credit at a bank through his father's signature. Farms were then generally full back rented. Thus if you entered any Whitsunday you did not pay any rent till the second Martinmas, and even then you got a month or two's credit. This was easy for the tenant. It was not so easy for the landlord, who, however, was protected by what was known as the law of Hypothec, of which more hereafter. The general creditor had to take all the risk, but with economy a fair start could be made on very little capital. Then in those days the boll wage was general all over Berwickshire. It is obsolete now, but it does not follow that it was the worst system physically. Under it no better class of people ever were seen than the Berwickshire hinds and their families. Clothes might be scanty, but the brose and the porridge gave bone and sinew, and the old parish schools developed intellect. This system called for the farmer using little ready money. The quality of the labor was of a high standard and the quantity kept down the price. Robert Harkess, who came as a hind during the early fifties to Winfield, had been working in Swinton Quarry at 1/6d. per day. With no work there was no pay. With a maximum of 9/- per week he had to pay house rent and rear a family. A better workman never trod in shoe leather. The boll wage at that time was

5 Loads Oatmeal (100 Stones ),
3 Bolls Barley,
1200 to 1600 Yards Potatoes,
A Cow kept,
A free house and garden,
Coals driven free,
Meat in harvest,

5: 0: 0d. in cash, and occasionally 1 Boll Wheat.

Under this system food was certain. A pig was also kept and probably two a year were killed, and most of it salted down. The butter from the cow gave the housewife money for groceries and clothes. Under the present system it is doubtful if the children fare as well as in the days of old. Women workers were plentiful. The "bondage" system was in vogue. It meant every hind supplying a woman worker from his house. If he had daughters, good and well. If not, he must go to market and hire a "bondager." The system was degrading. It was a degree better than the bothy system of other parts of the country, but that is all one can say. Drainers and orra men were also plentiful and a farmer had no anxiety on these scores. The drifting to the town of the surplus labor was only in its infancy. Under these conditions good farming was the order of the day. At Winfield intense energy was thrown into the work. The double hedges were rooted out, at least one of them; the big ditches were filled in, the land was ploughed deep, the fences were well kept; when a new lease was taken lime was freely used and under-draining made great strides. There was a degree of push, progress and perseverance that told a tale of growing prosperity.

In the Autumn of 1852 the farm of Wedderlie came on the market. By the death of Miss Grieve, who had adopted Patricia Thomson and taken her to Eyemouth to live with her, several thousand pounds fell to the young people at Winfield. By this means the above farm was taken and entered upon at Whitsunday 1853, and here began an era of success. The dormant hillsides began to bloom. The bent and the heather were judiciously converted into arable land. Thousands of cartloads of stones were taken from the land and made into dykes. When no stones were available wire was used. When the land was broken lime was applied in generous quantities, under-draining was vigorously pushed and a transformation scene was brought about. The family lived here in summer and in winter went back to Winfield. Wedderlie and Ellemford were on the market at the same time. Bids were made on both places and although his uncle by marriage owned the latter place, he did not get a chance at it on account of a condition being made that it would only be let to a resident tenant. A Mr. Murray got it, but at the end of five years he failed. John Clay was trustee on his estate. William Elliot, one of a large and prosperous family of farmers, took the farm and was very successful on it. It is rather a strong coincidence that Elliot left Ellemford at Whitsunday 1905 and the name of Clay was severed from Wedderlie at the same time.

With two blades of grass growing in place of one, other things changed. Cheviot sheep on the lower hirsel gave way to halfbreds, and the blackfaces produced grayfaced lambs. In the former change the financial advance was great, in the latter it was always a doubtful question. The carrying power of the farm was doubled and during the heyday of sheep farming, more especially during the American Civil War, the profits were large. The practice for many years was to draft the wether half-bred lambs to Winfield during the month of August, weaning time being about the 15th of that month. These lambs were roughed in winter, grazed in summer, and then about the following August forcing for market commenced. Tares were cut early and fed to them as the pastures failed. Then they got six weeks turnips with a liberal allowance of cake and corn, and went to the knife weighing close to twenty pounds per quarter. The wool and the mutton made a grand profit. Nowadays a Berwickshire farmer would be termed a lunatic if he followed such a plan. But in those old days when big cuts were in demand, when wool sold high, the bank account waxed large upon this system. And it was given up with regret, for it suited the farms to work in this line. From 1853 to 1867, when John Clay went to Kerchesters, the two above mentioned farms worked in close harmony. The stock from the hill farm was drafted to the lowlands and finished off, and in summertime the farm in the Merse supplied horses and carts to push forward the work of improvement on the upland place.

Those were happy days for the tenant and his family. The tree was bearing fruit for the home and grew steadily in numbers. The business was successful under rigid economy both outside and inside the house. The mother lilted with pathos the old ballads, told stories to the wondering children, weaving the folk lore of the Borders into romances that dwell in memory. The babbling Blackadder was a constant source of joy, for it was full of trout in those days, and its limpid waters served for a daily bath. The echoes of its song are ringing still. It gurgled and sang and played through a scented meadow, full of blue bells, yellow daisies and nodding violets, blue, gold and yellow in riotous profusion amid the grass that was changing from green to gray with ripening seed, and then at last the scythe came along and flowers and grass lay low scenting the summer air with an aroma of Araby. Beyond were fields of golden grain, the oat with its tangles dropping gently, shimmering in the sunshine, shivering when a cold blast swept across its path. Fields of turnips interspersed, their greenery sometimes broken by a wave of scarlet poppies or mildewed by drought. Further still the purple heather, sweeping in gentle lines to the Twinlaws, the sky-line dotted with fleecy clouds. Many an evening we climbed the hill and drank in the scene. The ideal had then if possible more to say than the real, and yet with all the glamor of youth flushing with roseate hue our simple lives it would be difficult to think of nature in a better garb. You were away from the throbbing world. There amid the ozone of the hills you had the odor of the pinewoods, the glory of the heather with its delicate incense, the shifting shadows on the purple hillside; and westward as evening came the sun in silent majesty dropped behind the woods of Spottiswoode, whose stately Dame had given a new insight to the story of Annie Laurie. Then you walked back in the softening twilight, into the old-fashioned sitting-room with its Chippendale furniture and its smouldering peat fire. The family gathered around the table, family worship was held, the mother leading the singing; then came the simple supper and soon after we were all oblivious to the shifting sands of the outside world.

At Whitsunday, 1863, John Clay of Kerchesters turned over to his son the hill farm of Lanton Lees and Blackrig. They were then bare, bleak places stretching from Kyle's Hill to Harden's Hill. They carried a blackfaced stock of medium quality. The valuation was left to Thomas Penny, then of the firm of Penny & Fairbairn. Penny was a genius in the auctioneering line. He had a glib tongue, but his ready wit was never biting, for he left out the sarcasm and the object of his sallies always joined in the laugh. His honesty was proverbial. He was a short man with a pock-marked face, very genial, a grand toddy drinker, for he loved the social side of life both wisely and well. He preached and practiced moderation, yet there was scarcely a gathering he was absent from. He had a grand business, but he was too easygoing in money matters ever to make a fortune. Yet he stamped his name in indelible characters on the Border land.

The stock from the above places was drafted direct to market and did not ally itself with the other two farms.

In the days when John Clay began to farm there were a. wonderful lot of men in the Merse who had either taken farms or inherited them from their fathers. There is no hesitation in saying they were great men intellectually and physically. Probably to-day they would not survive, because they had not the drive or push necessary at this era, but they knew their business and they were favored with fairly prosperous times, and, as said above, they had a sufficiency of good labor at low rates. It was the heyday of the farmer more than the laborer. Turnip culture was in full swing; the wheat days and bare fallow were passing, and instead of marl, guano, bone meal and phosphates were being used. The land responded to this new treatment. The country wanted more and better meat; the brewer and the distiller wanted barley and the Merse was well able to supply its quota of the above. Far and away the most prominent man, not only in the Merse but in the whole country at that time, was John Wilson. He was then farming Edington Mains and Edington Hill, lowland farms by the banks of the Whiteadder and the farms of Rawburn and Scarlaw in Lammermoor. He was, however, unable from the state of his health to do much practical work, so he turned his abilities to literature and he gave to the world "British Farming" and the article upon agriculture to the Encyclopedia Britannica. For many years John Wilson and John Clay were close neighbors. They sat in the same church; they served at the same Communion Table, and the one imbibed much from the other. Wilson was not a driving master; he was easy-going in his methods, an excellent farmer, but he had not the close business methods of his neighbor. He was content to go along in his old way and it served his purpose well, for he retired after a long tenancy of the above farms to spend his latter days in ease and affluence at Duns. Very few men can write about agriculture and farm well. Wilson could do both. Theory and practice went hand in hand, especially in the culture of the soil. As a stockman he had to leave much to others on account of his health. Aside from all this, his moral worth was of the highest standard.

The typical old-fashioned fanner was found in the Messrs. Herriot — James, William and David. They were big men physically and intellectually, but slow, easygoing. They understood the culture of the soil but they never got beyond handling a single farm. As men they stood out in bold relief, whether at market or kirk. James, who was always called "the Laird," on account of his property of Herriot Bank, was a silent, shrewd man, wonderful at absorbing news and ideas, and consequently in a single-handed crack he had few equals, and no superiors among his cotemporaries. He farmed Leetside and Herriot Bank. They were what are known as clever places and he managed them splendidly. Having been at school together he and the tenant of Winfield kept up a close intimacy. He acted as best man at his wedding. Then he took unto himself a wife who is still alive and very active. A large family resulted and the intimacy of the fathers has been more or less continued by the children.

Robert Glendinning, farmer at Broomdykes, was also remarkable in his way. He was more progressive than the Herriots, but unfortunately he lost his hand by accident and his brilliant intellect was affected by it and he died at a comparatively early age.

Further away were hosts of good men: James Calder at Swinton Hill; Robert Calder at Kelloe Mains, and Adam Calder at Blanerne; John Allan was at Billie Mains; the Elliots were at Lamberton; Abraham Logan at Hassendean. John Blackadder near Chirnside, a great wit and master of repartee. One instance we must give: He farmed on the estate of Ninewells, the agent being Thomas Bowhill of Ayton, a very clever country lawyer. The proprietor having died he was succeeded by a gentleman who belonged to a curious religious sect called the Society of Angels, or a name to that effect. Shortly after the new succession Bowhill met Blackadder and accosted him in rather a facetious manner thus: "Aye, Mr. Blackadder, you'll be grandly off now, having an angel for a laird." "True, true," replied Blackadder, "but unfortunately I've got the deil for a factor."

The above were a great coterie of men, all of them now gone, who made farming famous in the Merse. Berwick market, then as now, was the rendezvous for the Border farmers. There every Saturday they went to meet the grain and other merchants in the Exchange. Old John Clay was gone, but his son Patrick reigned in his stead, and he in turn was succeeded by his son John, and at his death the business passed away into other hands. Adam Darling was then in the fullness of his great vigor. The Hendersons, Crossman and Paulin were there, also, the Carters, who were just coming on the scene. James Allan, of Allan Brothers, was there to look after his wood business. But the most unique character of all was Joseph Ruddick, cattle dealer and Bohemian. He with his two assistants, Thomas Lurm and James Dixon, were landmarks in our memory not easily effaced. To the younger generation it would be a revelation even to think of Laird Herriot and James Dixon running a foot race, the former being an easy victor. Ruddick was altogether an extraordinary character. He had a fine head set on a large body which was supported by a very feeble, badly made pair of legs. He made you think of Napoleon, for he had a mobile face and a quick, active, decided manner. In his early days he was a splendid business man. Through the week he was over all the Borders buying stock — principally sheep. Those he dressed mostly at Berwick and there we first saw in a rude way the dressed meat business. The blood was saved and sent to his farm and some attempt was made to utilize the offal. The carcass was shipped to London. Every Saturday he adjourned about noon to a room in the Kings Arms Hotel and settled for his stock bought the previous week. Champagne unfortunately flowed like water, and latterly the meetings finished in an orgy. When he came to the vicinity of Winfield he generally dined at one of the farm houses. The best was always put forth and the bargain for the stock generally finished over a bottle of port. The neighbors were invited and many a time Laird Herriot, Robert Glendinning, Alexander Turnbull, then tenant of Dykegatehead, and various others would foregather to see the stock and hear the bargain. The dinner was at three o'clock and Ruddick generally left about eight. After he went the others played whist and went at the toddy again, for while Ruddick drank port the others had "hot Scotch." Nowadays business is done differently, but under the above conditions many thousands of pounds changed hands. Ruddick did much for the farmers of Tweedside but unfortunately nothing for himself. His brilliant mind became clouded and he sank down into an obscure old age. But be was a brilliant meteor flashing across the agricultural sky, and the world after having petted and cajoled him turned its cold hand against his generous heart.


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