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John Clay - A Scottish Farmer
Chapter V - His Employees


The majority of men are judged by their associates. Most masters are classed as to their ability by the employees they have around them. From this point of view John Clay was a great success, as during his sixty years of mature life he had ever by his side a splendid lot of leading men, — men who were competent, loyal and honest. It would be impossible to name them all—most of them lie under the green grass in country kirkyards, almost forgotten, but to us who saw many of them in the flesh, their lives are still reflected in our memory.

Mention has been made in a previous chapter of the Mabons. Old Tom Mabon began at Dykegatehead with old John Clay, and he followed him to Kerchesters. There for many years he battled with the heather and whins and the big boulders on Haddon Rig. The day came when the tenant and his steward parted company. They both made a mistake and lived to regret it. His place at Kerchesters was never filled, even by his eldest son James. Alexander, the second son, migrated back to Berwickshire when the John Clay 3rd of that time went to Win-field, and there he lived the balance of his days. At 66 years of age he was gathered to his fathers never being out of the service of the Clays. He was a second edition of his father, a small wiry man, like forked lightning on his feet, a master of every agricultural art — even to bookkeeping. He had energy and decision, together with the patience of Job. For the management of a heavy clay soil, such as you find at Winfield, these qualifications were invaluable. He had no other ambition than to put his whole time mentally and physically into his work, and aside from his wife and large family he had no other thought. He lived for practical agriculture and it is doubtful if he had a peer in his native county. Like his father he was fond of a glass and it made him very talkative, but he kept it under control. In fact he was an ideal steward because he was more ardent in his duties when his master was absent than when he was present. Then he had the respects of his fellow servants and the hinds stayed well with him.

We have mentioned James Mabon previously, so we pass to John Mabon, otherwise known as "John the groom." He was coachman at Winfield and Kerchesters for many years although he had not spent all his younger days there. He came about 1860 or '61 and although he left for three or four years about 1880 he probably spent all of his life in the service of the Clays, with the exception of a dozen years or so. John had neither the stamina nor perseverance of the other brothers, but he was called "a clever bodie." He was a sort of Jack of all trades and master of none. Although a coachman by profession he was a very indifferent horseman. He was more than an average gardener. He loved to fuss with flowers and fruit but he hated to dig for cabbages. With these failings he had all the perversity of the Scottish gardener. One memorable instance: Mr. George Mtdrhead, a son-in-law of the house, then factor for Milne Home of Paxton and now Commissioner for the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, had sent up to Kerchesters some very fine bulbs. These were carefully planted in the autumn. When spring came no shoots appeared and when John was questioned on the subject by Mrs. Clay his laconic reply was, "I carina be bothered wi' trash like yon so I just dug them up and threw them o'er the dyke." Withal he took a place in the household and its daily life that left a blank, more especially during his absence in the early eighties. If a house servant was needed John was able to get one at a day's notice. He had all the cooks and serving maids over the countryside spotted, and for thirty years at least he provided most of the house servants. Being a poor horseman he never cared to take a second horse to the hounds; this was deputed to one of his sons; but if there was a greyhound coursing, a dancing party or a picnic, you could bet on John laying the wires to be there; and when he got an extra glass his tongue wagged fast and furious, for he was gifted naturally in that line, and in the old revival days he had done some preaching. If any of the Duke's pheasants began to trespass in the garden they soon found their way into the larder. In winter nights if he had been out late he would take a turn to the pond, and many a wild duck was gathered in the morning,for he never waited for the game to float to the side after shooting. He knew it was safe. One evening Violet Walker, the hen-wife, forgot to house her ducks. John unfortunately visited the pond that night. Results in the morning — half-dozen dead tame ducks and an awful hullabaloo. This stopped the duck shooting for many a day. He got very frail towards the last and was practically a pensioner. One cold winter's day in 1895 we laid him away in Sprouston Churchyard and as the frozen clods covered his honest breast you could not help repeating the line, "Alas, poor Yorick! * * * a fellow of infinite jest * * *."

Next to the Mabons the family most intimately associated with John Clay was the Craigs. Matthew Craig came to Winfield in 1849. He went as steward to Wedderlie when it was taken in 1853 and he was at Wedderlie in May 1905 when the Clay Trust gave it up. He was actually 54 years in the employment of John Clay, so he saw the Alpha and the Omega of that place so far as we are concerned. Shortly after going to Wedderlie he married Mary Taylor, the nursemaid at Winfield and the union resulted in a numerous family. Of those who are alive, three sons are in the United States, two are at home and there are also two daughters at home. The mother died about a year ago. It is difficult to write of a man who is still alive, but as probably Mat Craig was closer to John Clay than any other man, it is necessary to sketch his character not alone for what he did for his employer but because in the half century he has lived in Lammermoor he has become a part and parcel of the neighborhood.Matthew, as the late Reverend James Izzett of Westruther Free Kirk loved to call him, came from the peasantry, but as the years have gone on he has outgrown intellectually most of his associations. While the Mabons were ideal men in their positions, keen and quickwitted, they had their faults; whereas in this Lammermoor steward, poorly brought up, indifferently educated, you come across a man who is not only in the first rank in his business but also morally and intellectually of the highest grade. Severe in his religion; strictly temperate; walking according to his light with God; honest, faithful, loyal, you find in Matthew Craig a beacon light whose luster shines far beyond his narrow surroundings. For over forty years, or, to be more accurate, from 1860 to 1903, he and his fellow neighbors conducted a prayer meeting every Friday night, meeting alternately at their cottages, and they only gave it up because as age crept on they could not go out any distance at nights, but it is a splendid record and it may be said that Mat was the center of inspiration. Many a night the tenant used to join in those solemn meetings. They were crude, but the proper spirit was there.

On the farm Mat Craig was at home. He was never such a worker as the Mabons with his hands, but his mental activity was far superior and his executive power wonderful, and it seems a shame that all this wealth and rich fruitage should not have found other worlds to conquer. To arrange work, to cope with difficulties, to seize a vantage point either on the farm or at market, we have never met a man who could equal him. He had more than a fair share of the Scotch craftiness — some folks call it cunning; added to this was a thrifty sort of light that he threw on every business subject that came before him. Keep on intensifying those qualities, heaping Pelion on Ossa, and you get a combination impossible to break down. He was a little inclined to belittle the sporting instincts of his employer but no one enjoyed a coursing match as much as he did and many a hare came to hand by the greyhounds he kept in the old days. Then when hounds were in the neighborhood he always took up his position where he could see the fun, and if a fox passed near him, with hat in one hand and stick in the other, his arms went like a windmill, and as the chase passed he hobbled away to the next vantage point.

Second in importance at Wedderlie was William Anderson, shepherd on the blackfaced hirsel. He came in 1856; went away in 1867, and returned in 1870, only retiring in May, 1905, thus completing a splendid term of service. He was a typical Lammermoor shepherd, being mentally far more active than physically. This condition was a natural outcome of the shepherd's vocation. Outside lambing time they have little real work to do, but they have to be watchful and have an intimate knowledge of their business. Added to this, Anderson was a fine judge of stock, he had a quick eye that scanned the hillside closely and he had an intimate knowledge of nature. His life had been among the heather and he had gathered garlands of thought and wisdom from his keen observation. Over and above there ran through his soul a poetic, romantic vein which occasionally burst into song and verse. But it affected his religion most. He had speculated keenly in the affairs of this and the other world, but his ultimate thoughts rested on the Bible; believing thoroughly in the glory and the grandeur of a future salvation, and yet pregnant with the thoughts of faith, hope and charity. He told us one winter's day as we walked across the hill that in his judgment the Roman Catholics had little hope of heaven. "Then who will get the front seat there, Willie?" was our natural inquiry. The response came back, "Well, I believe the Free Kirk folk have as good a chance as any persuasion." The spirit of the Covenanter still reigns among the hills.

Another family who had a long connection with Wedderlie before and during the Clay regime were the White-laws. Old Willie Whitelaw came in 1853 and stayed four years, when he retired. His son John succeeded him and stayed for thirteen years. He left on account of ill-health. His son Willie came in 1887 and is still on the place. They were and are born shepherds, strong characters, and the present incumbent, if we can use such a word, is as good a man among the half-bred sheep as can be found. They inherit the inherent reticence of their class. They have long ears for news and are as well versed in the day's topics as a newspaper editor, but their views rest on a sounder foundation for they have reasoned the matter out for themselves.

It would be an almost endless story to tell of all the men who spent years on the above farms, but we glance briefly at a few:

James Cowan, shepherd at Kerchesters from 1867 to 1896, a man who used his brains and managed his flock splendidly under many adverse circumstances.

Robert Harkess, first a hind at Winfield and then for many years woman steward at Kerchesters, only retiring because of old age. He was a grand tpye of the Border peasant, massive in form and intellect, a slaving worker. He was mighty in the Scriptures and had an intimate knowledge of literature, more especially the old Scotch sermons. By strict economy he and his wife pushed a large family forward to better positions in life than they held.

Thomas Elliot at Wedderlie and his son William at Plenderleith long held positions as shepherds at those places. They were hard working, splendid men, their thoughts strongly centered on their flocks.

Matthew Little, for a score of years at Plenderleith, did yeoman service. He was a keen, pawky, clever shepherd and stood high in his employer's estimation. Then came a long string of names — Jock of Phaup; John Mullens; Walter Brown; the Haigs and the Booklesses, and many others, forming a galaxy of Border peasants, than whom, we might add, none stand higher in the world's gallery of men and women.


 


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