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John Clay - A Scottish Farmer
Chapter III - Farming in Roxburghshire


John Clay, tenant of Kerchesters since 1839, died in June 1866 and his son took up the lease at Whitsunday 1867; so that he was then farming Winfield, Wedderlie and Lanton Lees in Berwickshire, and now he became tenant of the above large farm, 1,296 acres in extent. After the great era of improvements in the forties very little had been done. The hedges had run wild, the drains were choked up and the place was in need of lime. As years crept on him the old tenant was willing to rest on his oars. Having gotten into comfortable circumstances he let the world wag on easily. The new broom began to sweep clean. Down went the hedges so that a new growth could come, drainers were in demand and lime was freely applied. Wonderful activity, reminding some of the old servants of early days of what had been done then, came into play, and for nearly thirty years the same magnificent energy was in evidence. The farm itself is a subject worthy of the best thought and work that can be employed. It rises from near the level of the Tweed (Whitmuirhaugh and Redden intervening betwixt it and the river) gently towards Haddon Rig, and then it falls swiftly towards the Lempitlaws. It is an oblong, about if miles north and south, ii east and west. Half of it is good land; half is weak, mostly a moor-bound soil, but capable of raising a lot of stuff of inferior quality. However, it is sure turnip and barley ground, and as the good land lies on the north side round the steading and close to the railroad it is in many ways a desirable place. The great drawbacks are the want of a steading on Haddon Rig, entailing long travels for the work people. The result was that the hinds and women workers were a shifting population. It was further still a difficult place to manage in regard to the sheep stock. They "pined" more or less on the upper land and the death rate was heavy. Then it was bleak, most of it facing the north wind which swept across it with " angry sough." There were no plantations behind which the stock could shelter. Of late years this has been remedied.

The writer came to the farm at Christmas 1867 after nine months in a Leith office, and for ten years remained on it more or less. It was the heyday of farming in Roxburghshire, and Kerchesters was one of the best examples of what could be done by an enterprising tenant. It was a great education fencing; liming; heavy manuring, feeding stuffs galore being used; deep ploughing; every nerve being strained to get the most return per acre without any fancy work. It was all practical, commonsense management. At the May Day 1868 James Mabon, son of old Tom Mabon, who in his time had served the family so well, came as steward and he remained ten years. He was a remarkable man in many ways. His egotism was intense: his vanity overflowing; but aside from these faults he had a grasp of his subject which made him a master in the art of agricultural work. His mission was with the soil, for he knew little about stock, and he got full play for his faculties at Kerchesters. He was a great worker, and had the faculty of inspiring those under him in the same direction. He quarreled with them; he became too familiar; he gave himself endless trouble, much anxiety and vexations, but in the end it seemed to work out right for he was ever advancing with his work at a tremendous rate. Aside from being capable, he was honest, careful and watchful of his employer's interests. The root, however, of his success was his boundless confidence in himself. If he had been a modern Ulysses he would have had no use for wax in his ears when he sailed past the Siren of the sea.

In 1870 the farm of Plenderleith was leased. It is a large holding at the head of Oxnam and Rale waters, carrying about 130 score of Cheviot sheep, and one of the finest farms of its class in the Borders. It is "inbye" and yet it is "outbye." It is just beyond the region of the plough, and, although it had some arable land upon it which was cultivated for a year or two after entering the lease, the attempt to keep it going was given up and it relapsed into a purely grazing farm. So Kerchesters and Plenderleith became like Winfield and Wedderlie, being worked in conjunction. The Cheviot wethers and dinmonts and part of the shott lambs and gimmers found their way to the low country and were turned into money there. With wool touching at one time 50 shillings per stone and the clip paying the rent of 1,300 by all but 4, the first ten years of the tenancy, were very successful. It had one grievous fault the want of a good "hogging," and whether from want of management or otherwise it was the weak link in the chain of John Clay's farming in Roxburghshire. He could manage the poor land at Kerchesters and put it to the best of use, he could turn his Plenderleith stock to the greatest advantage; but he failed over and over again with wintering his ewe hoggs. Many a time he thought of turning the Blackfaced hirsel at Wedderlie into a winter hogging but he lacked the courage, or what would probably be a better word, the "inclination" to make the experiment. And so it went on to the end, every year more or less loss and trouble. Sometimes there was a big bill to pay when the summer days rolled round. It is doubtful, taking all in all, if he was as good a farmer in Roxburghshire as in Berwickshire. He was more at home in his native shire. It is no flattery to say that his management in the Merse and on Lammermoor was ideal. It was spontaneous and splendid; whereas in Roxburghshire it was more a reflected light.

The second lease of the farm of Kerchesters to the Clay family ran out in 1876. The rent for the "nineteen" had been 1,700 per year. The landlord of both the Roxburghshire farms was the Duke of Roxburgh and for years the relations betwixt landlord and. tenant had been of the most friendly character. But there was a change in store and we take the matter up somewhat in detail because the treatment received from the representatives of the Duke gave an impetus to the work of protecting the interests of the tenants as shown in the part taken in two Royal Commissions on Agriculture, and of which we shall treat in a separate chapter. The smoke grew into a flame because of what the tenants thought was gross injustice.

When he succeeded to the lease of the farm in 1867, nine years being still to run, he began improving at a prodigious rate. He did not ask the landlord for a penny but he went ahead with perhaps more energy than judgment. He limed more than half the farm; he drained a lot of wet land; he cut down nearly every hedge on the place and renewed it where wanted; his manure and cake bills were enormous the proverbial two blades took the place of one. He had several talks with the Duke's Agent upon the subject, saying he did not expect to be raised in rent in respect of his own improvements. The response was that these matters would be considered in the old way. When the time came for a renewal of the lease the Duke's Agent wrote and asked if David Curror of the Lee, a man of the highest standing, would be acceptable as a Valuator. This proposal was at once agreed upon, and accordingly he came and looked over the farm. Then came an ominous silence. At last a letter came saying that the Curror report was not satisfactory to the Duke and informing the tenant that the farm would be gone over by John Gibson, Woolmet; Thomas Scott, Whitton, and James Dickson, Saughton Mains. What their valuation was never transpired, but eventually after considerable bargaining the farm was taken at 2,200 per year and fore-rented, equal to another 100 per year. A total rise of 600. The whole affair from the tenant's point of view was a shameful business, and he always said that the greatest mistake of his business life was in taking the farm. From a financial point of view he would certainly have been much better off. It paved the way, however, for his great work in the interest of the tenant farmers of Great Britain, and from evil once more came a lot of good. To show the change in the value of land the farm after having had five or six thousand pounds spent on it for improvements and having been well farmed in the meantime is now rented for 1,300 a year.

Farming in Roxburghshire differs from the same pursuit in Berwickshire. The farms are larger, the soil is lighter and works more freely. It is essentially a stock country. The mainstay is mutton. All the other operations merely lead up to one end the breeding and feeding of sheep. As a result no people in our range of observation can handle flock and fleece so well. It seems to be in the blood of both master and man. In the lowlands of the shire you have the historic names of Polwarth and Stark, in the higher elevations you can conjure with the name of Elliot. It is not, however, in the realm of breeding pure bred Leicesters or Cheviots but it is the average farmer we refer to. They shine by their clever management, and it has made Tweedside famous and rich also. Possibly the most noticeable difference was in the type of farmer. In Berwickshire the holdings are generally less; as stated above the farmers were not so progressive but they lived more economically. They used the old-fashioned gig; in Roxburghshire it was a smart dogcart or a carriage. At the time we write of Roxburghshire was overflowing with gentlemen farmers, men of the type of Murray, Kersknowe; Logan, Caverton; the Cunninghams of Morebattle Tofts and Grahamslaw; Thomson Rutherford; Johnston, Crailing Hall; the Simsons of Bedrule and Oxnam Row; and hosts of others. Every Friday they drove into Kelso in fine style, most of them proud as Lucifer and sensitive as a Roman Citizen of their dignity, but withal they were able men and fine farmers. Then there was an intermediate class, half farmer, half proprietor. Prominent among them were Oliver of Lochside, Boyd of Cherrytrees, Pott of Knowesouth. They had an ambiguous position for they were neither at the head of the farmers nor at the tail of the gentry. But they filled a distinctive place in the community and were very useful men in the county. Robert Oliver, still living at a magnificent old age, represents a class of men who were more numerous in Roxburghshire than in any county of Scotland. Those men and their ilk gave a distinctive note to the shire. They all lived well and with prosperous times they were able to keep things moving. When the turn of the tide came, they seemed to melt away, and with few exceptions none are left. Their families had been educated up to a standard far above their position. The sons wanted to commence where the fathers left off, and if the history of some of the families were written it would reveal the usual tragedies of business lives possibly more intense than the average.

Of another type was Scott of Timpendean. He had risen from the ranks by ability and shrewdness. He had a large family of sons, all able men, and they began about 1850 to make a great impression on the fanning of Roxburgshire. They had a tremendous land hunger and as they were aggressive and progressive, careful and economical, of undoubted probity, and all exceedingly shrewd, their influence was widespread and contagious. They turned hill farms into half hill farms and half arable places. They knew the business so well and they came on the scene at such an opportune time that they revolutionized much of the farming on the Borders. Factors patted them on the back, for they bid on nearly every place of any size. If reports be true they went further and intimated that they were ready to take farms if the old tenants would not meet a rise in their rent. Some of them went too far and several ventures ended in disaster. It is sufficient for our story to give the rise and prosperity of this family, for the older men lived side by side of this John Clay, and one of his reminiscences was telling of going to a sale with the elder Scott about 1853 and how he was struck with the ruggedness of his character.

Still another type, and it is with us still, was the old-fashioned Cheviot hill farmer. They belonged to both sides of the Border. Chief among them were Elliot, Hindhope, Robson, Byrness; Dodd, Catcleugh; the Telfers, the Douglases, the Scotts and others men of might mentally and physically, and their sons follow in their footsteps. They retain to a great extent the simplicity of their surroundings and their skill has not abated.


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