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John Clay - A Scottish Farmer
Chapter IX - As a Sportsman


Tweedside is a great home for sport and people who live there are cradled amidst it. It has been said with truth that Kelso is one of the most sporting centres in Great Britain. It is related of Lord Elcho, latterly the Earl of Wemyss, that when he lived at Kelso he killed a hare in the morning with his own harriers, saw Will Williamson kill a fox with the Duke of Buccleuch's foxhounds, and after coming from hunting he went to the junction cast above Kelso Bridge and landed a salmon. From it you can hunt with hounds six days a week. There is the finest kind of salmon and trout fishing; within an easy drive you can find a grouse moor, while all around on its fertile farms is excellent low ground shooting. None of the sport aside from the salmon fishing may be superlative, but it is so many-sided that those who have the good fortune to be born within its confines grow up to be natural sportsmen. So John Clay, inheriting from his forefathers and neighbors the love of sport, kept more or less at it all his life. Commencing with the gun among the rabbits on Haddon Rig he probably did the usual amount of shooting which falls to a young farmer, but this class of sport was evidently early abandoned, because our recollection, which dates back nearly fifty years, tells us that his fancy ran to the hound and it matters litde whether it was foxhound, greyhound, harrier or staghound, he took a deep interest in them all. As far as memory goes back, till within a few years of his giving up active farming, there was always a greyhound and a fox terrier about. He never went in professionally for any of them, but merely kept them as a means to give him sport and pleasure. Many a day he used to slip greyhounds at the Blackadder meetings when the Herriots and the Turnbulls, Glendinning, Popplewell, Brown, Allan, Penny and others whose names are almost forgotten, met in friendly rivalry to test their dogs before the impartial eye of John Dove, then living at Eccles Newton. Possibly some who glance over these pages will remember the days of the old Border meeting where every October on the rich haughs of Redden and over the broad sweeping fields of Kerchesters a coursing meeting was held. In it he took the keenest interest and it led on to a grand display of hospitality. The Berwickshire division came up to meet their Roxburghshire and Northumberland comrades. It was a meeting of the giants. The Herriots and Glendinning men of stature came from the Merse; Smith of Melkington, the Borthwicks from Bowmont, men farming many a broad acre on the English side, were seldom absent. After dinner they met over the whist table. At the piano Bob Shortreed's sonorous voice could be heard, George Laing, then living on Wark, would lilt with mellow voice about "My Nannie's Awa," and Jack Fair, king of good fellows and prince among clowns, would give a character song. Dreamy days: little did we think then of the long years to come, when the gold of Autumn would come across our horizon just as at that time it was lighting up with ruddy glow the path of the Kerchesters tenant.

While he never lost his love for a greyhound and enjoyed a good course, it was the note of a foxhound that stirred his soul and made his blood run wild and the passion waxed strong even unto death. As a boy at Dykegatehead he could remember Hays of Duns Castle, Campbell of Marchmont, Houston Boswell of Black-adder hunting hounds, but naturally his recollections were indistinct. It was on coming to Kerchesters that he commenced to follow the Duke of Buccleuch's pack. Will Williamson was huntsman and Haddon Rig was a favorite fox haunt. When he went back to Winfield Lord Wemyss was then hunting Berwickshire. He therefore began his foxhunting days under two of the greatest sportsmen Scotland has ever seen. He could tell endless anecdotes of these men. It would be hard to say which of them was the strongest character, but there was a charm about Williamson which captured his nature and he always talked of him as the beau-ideal of the foxhunting craft. In old days Lammer-moor was a favorite hunting ground. It was not fenced in those days and you could gallop across its heathery uplands without getting into a bird-cage as nowadays. He often used to tell a story about Williamson. After drawing Spottiswoode either blank or without sport one Saturday afternoon he trotted along to Wedderlie and after drawing all around he never touched sign of a fox. This was a grievous disappointment for it was in the Spring days when the hills are ridable and specially enjoyable. Across the march on Rawbum down in a little valley was a cosy little young wood. "Will" kept edging towards it and at last gave the word to his hounds to draw it. Just as they topped the wall he turned round and said in his broad Doric, "Mr. Clay, where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise." He was quite aware only one man beside himself knew the dividing line betwixt the "Duke's" and the Berwickshire. A fox broke and ran almost in bee-line to Amisfield near Haddington. The field of course stopped long before reaching that point but the huntsman had to push on. The whips, who had also got lost among the hills, gathered up what hounds they could and went back to the kennels. Long after dark Williamson reached Byrecleuch with part of his pack and put up there for the night. Next afternoon he met the Wedderlie tenant returning from Church at Westruther. He had borrowed an old coat and hat from Smith, shepherd at the above farm, and had strapped his red coat and hunting cap in front of him. He did not stop to parley but passed on with the remark, "I'm apt to be a-fore the session noo, Mr. Clay."

Shortly after his marriage, hunting was practically abandoned. With an increasing family he felt that it was not prudent to incur the expense or loss of time. This was a piece of magnificent self-denial, for he was in the vigor of youth and all around the mimic warfare went joyously on. But he kept to his resolution and did not commence regularly hunting again till 1868, a year after entering the Kerchesters lease. From that time forward he hunted about three days a fortnight. He had a wonderful knack of combining business and hunting, and it was surprising how many business excuses he could get to be in the neighborhood where hounds met.

He was never a finished horseman like George Grey of Milfield, William Smith of Melkington or George Dove, who still goes hard with the Duke's, but he had a great eye for country, indomitable pluck, and as a consequence he was always there or thereabouts. He generally had a galloping horse that invariably was a good fencer. Probably the last horse he rode was the only one that failed in this respect, and yet he was so good in other ways that, with the exception of a dislike to timber, he got as much fun out of him as anything he ever crossed country upon. He hunted till he was 76 years of age and at three score and ten he went very hard. One of the best runs he ever participated in was about 1875 with the Duke's. We found at the Blackknowe running west through Frogden strips to Frogden cover, thence by Mianhouse, through the Shank, diagonally across the Softlaws to Mellendean, in fact to the spot where the present gorse cover at Softlaw is located. Turning southeast the fox made across Windy-walls, Kersquarter to Haddon Rig Whin, through it as if for Lempitlaw, but turned back at the stank on the march between Kerchesters and the above place. It looks like yesterday, meeting the hounds coming back to the cover. Shore got his second horse on the Wooler road. It may be mentioned that from Mellendean the hunting had been very slow although there had never been an actual check. This game fox, for we had no reason to think we had changed, now ran by Haddon Wood, across Haddon and Nottylees Farms, across Sunilaws, near the station of that name he swung north across Wark farm, went over the ruins of Wark Castle, and thence up the river side to the Carham policies. Even after this tremendous dusting at a fast pace, more especially after leaving Haddon Rig, the fox was able to jump a high rabbit-wire fence into the garden and there he died. George Grey got the brush but in the run he had been hard pushed by George Dove and John Clay. On the road home, Shore and a lot of the riders came in to Kerchesters. They attacked a big piece of potted head and to the surprise of the assembled hunters Shore took a second draw at the whiskey bottle, and then went on his way exceedingly pleased with himself.

In riding Lammermoor the tenant of Wedderlie was exceedingly expert. He had grown up with the wire fences and other changes and noted them mentally. Here the race is not always to the swift. Kinch, the N. & B. huntsman, tells a good story in illustration. Hounds had found a fox about Hallyburton and he gave them a dinking run. John Clay was riding his chestnut horse, the last hunter he owned and a wonderful goer on the hills. He had been at the tail of the hounds most of the time. The lead hounds began to veer away. Suddenly Kinch saw the old warrior, as he called him, riding like a madman directly away from hounds, his hat almost flat on his head and his coat tails like sails in a gale. The chase went on. They found the chestnut horse and his rider about half an hour afterwards standing on the top of an earth, cheering the baying hounds, and he had been there about ten minutes. In his sixty years of hunting it is impossible to compute the amount of amusement and good fellowship he received. He never let his passion for the chase overcome his business duties and family cares, — these came first but fox catching was a close second.

Aside from the above sports he had many pastimes. He loved to play quoits, he was more than an average curler, and after having left off golf for fifty years he took it up again with the greatest zest, and his figure became well known at North Berwick and other Scotch courses.

And when the end drew near and he could only talk of the days gone by nothing could amuse him more than a crack about the old hunting days. They kept green in his memory.

Among his papers we find the following letter characteristic of the writer. It will be of interest to the older set of foxhunters.

St. Boswells, 30 April, 1860.

Mr. Clay,

Dear Sir: I am favored with yours and have to thank you for your attention and with reference to the fox killing your Lambs, I hope your Shepherd Man can fall upon some plan of both protecting the Lambs and also the fox and her young ones from being destroyed. I am not aware of anything we could now do,—the season being over—and to go to the moors where so many Ewes and Lambs are, would only be creating confusion amongst them and very likely doing more harm than good.

The only way I have been able to satisfy a Shepherd in the like case was to give him something for the extra trouble it might put him to, and to your man I would willingly do this, provided he does his best both for your interest and the hunts.

I may mention I have known a pair of Trousers to the Man, or a gown to his wife, have a good effect and shall be glad if any or both of these would do for both parties in this.

We have had a most unfavorable season for our occupation—indeed we have not yet hunted much above two months out of the six and even then the weather against us.

I hope to hear better accounts of the fox's behavior. Will be glad to see you here at St. Boswells Fair to breakfast in the morning and a glass of toddy —after the day is over. And with my most respectful regards,

I am, Sir, faithfully yours,

W. Williamson.

John Clay, Esq.


 


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