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John McLay, the pioneer journalist of the county of Bruce, and now registrar of the county, was born in the city of Glasgow, June 11,1831. His father, who was a manufacturer, died of cholera the following year. His mother was Ann Kerr Bell. His paternal grandfather who was a stock farmer in Argyleshire, belonged to an old family of agriculturists. The subject of this sketch received his early education in St. Enoch’s school, and afterwards at the Hutchesons institute. At an early age he entered his uncle’s office, and learned the trade of a compositor. At twenty one he commenced business for himself as book printer, and shortly afterwards combined with it lithographing and engraving, which he carried on successfully for five years, when the state of his health necessitated his removal to a dryer and more bracing climate.
December 4, 1855, he married Helen Cox Watt, daughter of John Watt, wine and china merchant, Glasgow; and in the summer of 1857, having contracted with parties in the county of Bruce to publish a newspaper, came to Kincardine with his wife, child, and mother. On the 4th of August of that year he issued the first number of the “Commonwealth,” the first paper published in the county, bringing his printing material with him from Scotland. He continued to publish and edit that paper between six and seven years, during which time he resided on his farm in the township of Huron, about two miles from the then village of Kincardine. During that period he held at sundry times the offices of councilor, deputy-reeve, and reeve of the township, and was a member of the united counties, council of Huron and Bruce, as also of the provisional council of the county of Bruce, in which he took an active part in the long contested county town question, as well as in the construction of gravel and railroads and other public works, which has made the county one of the most advanced in that respect, for its age, of any county in Ontario. In February, 1864, he was appointed registrar, under the administration of the late Hon. John Sandfield McDonald, and looks as if he were likely to enjoy his office for a great many years to come. His appointment necessitated his severance from journalism and public life. Immediately afterwards he removed to Southampton, where
the registry office was temporarily located and where he remained until the completion of the county buildings in Walkerton, in 1868. For several years Mr. McLay was chairman of the board of public school trustees, Walkerton, and is at present a member of the high school board. He is also president of the Saugeen Valley Railway Company, and president of the Northern Agricultural Exhibition Company. In addition to his office, he has been a partner in several speculations and contracts, that have resulted successfully to him. His residence, “Hillside House,” and surrounding grounds, are an ornament to Walkerton.
The “Commonwealth,” which Mr. McLay conducted was a reform paper, and for some years was the only newspaper of any kind in the county. Now there are thirteen weekly newspapers a fair index of the rapid progress of Bruce in twenty-three years.
Mr. and Mrs. McLay are members of the Presbyterian church, and, with their family, worship at St. Paul s church, of which the Rev. Geo. Bell, LL.D., is the scholarly and much esteemed pastor.
Mr. McLay has had nine of a family, seven of whom still survive.