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John Clay - A Scottish Farmer
Chapter X - Part 1 - What he did for agriculture


WRITTEN BY DAVID YOUNG, EDITOR NORTH BRITISH AGRICULTURIST, EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND.
[Owing to the author having been away from Scotland for 27 years, with the exception of short visits to his calf country, and consequently not in close touch with his father's semi-political work. Chapter X is a composite one, in three parts.]

In the course of his long and very strenuous life, Mr. Clay rendered great service to all who are engaged either directly or indirectly in the agricultural industry. His service in the interest of British agriculture consisted mainly in heading a movement, or rather a series of movements, for wresting from the reluctant hands of Parliament, a series of legislative measures designed to safeguard the rights and promote the interests of the tillers of the soil. He was particularly well fitted to act as the leader of any such movement, as he was a strong man mentally and physically; and in addition to these great qualifications he had a high sense of public duty. When he first entered on business as a farmer he found the conditions affecting agriculture were very far from satisfactory. His blood boiled at seeing tenant farmers condemned to grow crops to be in a large measure destroyed by game which were held sacred for the sport of the landlord; and his soul revolted at the tenant's improvements on the farm being confiscated by the landlord at the termination of the tenancy. Like the hero of Locksley Hall, he had dipped into the future far as human eye could see, and he foresaw clearly enough that through foreign competition, free and subsidized education, the dividing up of new and boundless virgin lands in the far west, and the fascinations of the cities, with their many avenues to wealth and poverty, and their attractions in the forms of theatres, music-halls, etc., the questions of agricultural depression, rural depopulation and physical determination would even in his time become burning ones. In the agricultural controversies that engaged the leading minds in his earlier days, such as the Bondage System, the Law of Hypothec, the Game Laws, etc., he took a leading part. There were men of might in those days: Wilson, Edington; Barclay, Auchlossan; Pindlater, Balvinie; Smith, West Drums; Goodlet, Bolshan, etc., and he was one of them. He shared with them the labors and responsibility of leadership, and he found, as they did, that dreary was the long campaign in these days when the rural laborers were not enfranchised, as they afterwards were in the early eighties. But more than any of the agricultural leaders of these days he bent his energies in the direction of urging legislation which should secure the tenant farmers just rights in the improvements which he executed on his farm, so that every fanner should have the fullest encouragement to develop in the highest degree there sources of his holding. He grudged no sacrifice of time, labor or money for this course, and as is elsewhere noted in this memoir he led a forlorn hope in a Parliamentary contest for the cause which he had so much at heart. At length, however, he got the chance he had wished and waited for so long, as in 1879 he was appointed a member of the Royal Agricultural Commission. By that time nearly all the old warriors who had led the ranks of agricultural reformers in his earlier days had either "crossed the bar," or had found the burden of age too heavy to be borne in the fighting line. His position on the Commission was one which called for all his fighting energy and strategy. He was the only representative of the tenant farmer interests on the Commission, and although some of his fellow members were "chevaliers sans peur et sans reproche" they were mostly landlords, and as such were naturally averse to the old, established privileges of landlordism being in any way curtailed. But "thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just," and strong in the justice of the cause he championed he prepared for the fight which, as he felt convinced, could have but one issue. He first of all succeeded in getting his old friend, Mr. James Hope, appointed assistant commissioner, as he knew full well that Mr. Hope was heart and soul with him in the reforms he was bent on achieving. It is not too much to say that it is to the joint efforts of these two men that the agriculturists of Scotland are mainly indebted for the legislation which secured to them their present rights over the capital they invested in the improvement of their holdings. These two comrades in arms were in many ways not at all alike. Mr. Clay was a stalwart, physically and mentally, outspoken to a degree and wholly opposed to compromise in any form. Mr. Hope was slim and wiry, and more inclined to rely on his great powers of persuasion, while he was not at all disinclined to make a compromise provided that his clients, the tenant farmers of Scotland, got the best of the bargain. Mr. Clay had spent his life in battling with adverse forces in the farming with poor soil which was difficult to work and did not respond very readily, even to the most generous treatment. Hope, on the other hand, had spent his life in farming some of the most fertile and generous soil in the kingdom, or in the world. The two friends differed also in politics, for Mr. Clay had always been a leader in the party of what Andrew Carnegie called "Triumphant Democracy," whereas Mr. Hope had thrown in his lot with what Sir Walter Scott called "the more gentlemanly party of the two." But although they were unlike in many ways these two comrades, whose friendship began on the school forms at Musselburgh, and had never for a moment been interrupted, trusted each other implicitly, and resolved that they would leave no stone unturned to secure the just rights of the tenant farmers. Mr. Hope, with the warm approval of Mr. Clay, selected as his legal adviser in his work as assistant commissioner, Mr. David Curror, the venerable secretary of the Scottish Chamber of Agriculture, who had all along been a strenuous advocate of justice and progress in agricultural legislation. Just as the work of the commission was about to commence, the Government of the day passed an act abolishing the Law of Hypothec, as there was a general election pending and this would be a sop to the agricultural Cerberus. At the commencement of the work of the commission Mr. Clay and Mr. Hope took care to keep in the forefront of the inquiry the necessity for a drastic amendment of the Game Laws; and the new Government which entered office shortly afterwards made it their first business to pass an act which invested all occupiers of agricultural land with the inalienable right to kill and take ground game. The passing of these measures enabled Mr. Clay and Mr. Hope to concentrate their efforts on securing a satisfactory Tenant Rights Act. Many and long and earnest were the consultations which these friends had with Mr. Curror in the drafting of their findings, memoranda, etc., for the commission. Mr. Hope's report to the Commission was a masterpiece of incontrovertible argument in favor of the reform which he and Mr. Clay had set their hearts upon winning for the tenant farmers, and Mr. Clay pressed home with ceaseless and relentless vigor these same arguments on his fellow-members of the Commission. The result was that the Commission, though mostly composed of landlords who disliked the idea of their privileges being curtailed, were drawn into reporting in favor of the reform so ably advocated by Mr. Clay and Mr. Hope.

In 1883 the Government of the day took up in earnest the work of passing an act which should embody the findings of that Commission. Mr. Clay was indefatigable in his efforts to get this act made right at the outset, and not only did he and Mr. Hope and Mr. Curror give invaluable assistance in the drafting of the bill, but while the bill was in the Committee stage Mr. Clay spent most of the time in London in close and constant consultation with Mr. J. B. Balfour (afterwards Baron Kinross, Lord President of the Court of Sessions) who had charge of the measure. But Parliament had not then been educated up to the extent of passing a satisfactory act on the subject, and besides there was then a widespread though groundless fear that if tenant farmers were to be appointed arbiters to assess the value of the unexhausted improvements executed by their fellow tenants they would be all but certain to show a very decided animus against the landlords. On this account the Parliament of the day declined to make the measure so thorough-going as it should have been, and various amendments introduced by the House of Lords tended still further to weaken the measure. Mr. Clay clearly foresaw that the Bill as whittled down by its enemies in the Commons and in the Lords as well would very soon have to be followed by an amending act, and he never hesitated to say so. With all its defects, however, the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1883 proved a useful measure, and was hailed as a boon and a blessing to agriculturists. At first many landlords were bitterly hostile to the principle of the Act, and every claim for compensation against them was fought with a tenacity worthy of a better cause. As the costs of such contested references conducted by two arbiters and an oversman were often very heavy, a short amending act was passed in 1889 decreeing that either party to a reference could call upon the Sheriff of the County to appoint a single arbiter as being a step in the way of economical administration; but the defects which Mr. Clay and Mr. Hope had all along pointed out in the Act were always making their influence felt, and particularly in England, where the work of arbitration seemed to have been monopolized by land agents who never erred on the side of generosity when dealing with the claims of improving tenants. In 1893 the state of agriculture was far from prosperous, and a new Royal Commission was appointed to investigate and report upon the best measures to be adopted for improving the condition of agriculture. Mr. Clay was again called upon to represent the interests of tenant farmers on that Commission, and he readily responded to the call, though it was no light matter for a man who was passing the three score years and ten to travel to and from Edinburgh to London, week after week, and spend long weary hours in hearing and sifting evidence, and in interminable discussions on agricultural depression. Mr. Hope was again called upon to act as assistant commissioner for Scotland, and he too readily responded to the call. By that time Mr. Curror, the much respected secretary of the Scottish Chamber of Agriculture who had acted as Mr. Hope's legal adviser in the first Commission, was practically retired on account of old age and failing health. Mr. Hope, therefore, with Mr. Clay's cordial concurrence selected as his legal adviser Mr. Guild, W. S., who as a lawyer, a factor and a farmer had thorough knowledge of agricultural law and practice, and was well known to be in fullest accord with Mr. Clay and Mr. Hope in regard to agricultural reforms. Mr. Hope, accompanied and assisted by Mr. Guild, conducted a most exhaustive investigation, and again drew up a masterly report which attracted great attention from the commission and the country. In the said report Mr. Hope again adduced abundant evidence to show that the passing of a measure which would give the tenant farmers full security over all their unexhausted improvements was the one legislative measure which was most urgently demanded in the interests of agriculture. Again, as in the case of the former report, Mr. Clay pressed home with great force on his fellow commissioners the facts stated in Mr. Hope's report. There were three points brought prominently out in that report which Mr. Clay particularly insisted on. In the first place he strongly insisted that compensation should be allowed for the laying down of land to temporary pasture as being an improvement of the most important order where the land was well laid down and had abundance of cake consumed upon it by stock. In the second place he urged that compensation should be allowed for the consumption on the holding of home-grown produce, which he was entitled to sell off, whereas if he sold that home-grown produce and bought similar produce for consumption he could claim compensation for that. In the third place he urged that the Board of Agriculture should be empowered, on the application of either party to the reference, to appoint a single arbiter who would be empowered to disallow the costs of any unnecessary proof, and would be instructed to allocate the costs of the reference in proportion to the relative success of the parties. Much hard fighting had to be done before these reforms could be carried, but in the end the Commissioners agreed to recommend them, and in 1900 Parliament passed an Act embodying these reforms. The result has been highly satisfactory, and now little or no complaint is ever heard in regard to the question of compensation for unexhausted improvements. The Agricultural Holdings Act has been well called the Tenant Farmers' Magna Charta. Most certainly the tenant farmers of Great Britain have good cause to remember with sincerest gratitude the noble and devoted part which Mr. Clay and Mr. Hope acted in securing for them this great act.


 


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