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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter I - Duncan's Birthplace and Early Training


ABOUT sixteen miles south of Aberdeen, the wild rockbound shore of the Mearns, lashed by the German Ocean, is indented by a spacious bay, into which flow two small streams, the Cowie and the Carron. Like the Don and the Dee, these rivers once entered the sea at separate points, though now they unite their waters just before mingling with the ocean. The secure harbour here formed, which has often been talked of as a port of refuge for the east coast, and the wide and fertile double valley beyond drew human habitation at an early period; and two villages, whose origin is hid in antiquity, grew at the mouths of these streams. The village to the north was named after the river on which it stood, the Cowie, and still exists beside the picturesque ruins of St. Mary's Chapel, amidst its crowded and weed-waving graveyard. The hamlet at the mouth of the Carron took its descriptive title from a mass of sandstone that once blocked the entrance to the harbour, called Craig ma-cair, [Either from cathiar (th being mute), a chair or scat, or car, a bend or turn. The same word also occurs in the name of a rock south of the town, Dunnacair, Dun signifying a hill or fort.] the rock of the seat or of the turn, meaning either in Gaelic, to which the word belongs. Hence the striking name Stonehaven, originally, in old Scotch, Stanehyve, the Haven or Harbour with the Stone in its throat, though this obstruction has been long since removed.

Like the granite city, the present Stonehaven consists of two towns, the old and the new, but, unlike the northern capital, the old is to the south, and the new to the north, both mainly standing within the peninsula between the rivers. The new town is spacious, well-planned, and inodorous; but the old is crowded, low-lying and pervaded by that "ancient fishy smell," that clings to all our fishing villages; for it is chiefly inhabited by those picturesque and peaceful descendants of the old piratical Danes, who gain their livelihood off that dangerous shore.

But when our story begins, at the close of last century, the site of the new town was covered with bent, and formed the links of Arduthie, the healthy recreation ground of the good folks of the old town. This was not then the fishing quarter it is now, for the fishers at that time were confined to the village of Cowie.

As the county town of Kincardine for two hundred years, created such by our wise James in 1607, and inhabited by the elite of the shire, it was comparatively clean and healthy for that period, and its inhabitants had the usual caste and consequence characteristic of all seats of local government. It was, and still is, mal-odour and its causes notwithstanding, a picturesque place, recalling Old Edinburgh in many respects, with its crowded streets, narrow lanes and wide pends, revealing pretty peeps for the painter, and its old houses, with the family crests of the once titled inmates above the doorways. The old pier was then sufficient for the growing trade; the new harbour not being formed till 1812. The present great Flemish-looking steeple had only been built ten years when the century closed. Before its erection, there was no public clock for the regulation of the business of the quiet-going burgh. The march of time was indicated, to the eye, by a quaint old dial, that had stood for eighty years near the quay, and, to the ear, by a bell, simply hung in sight of the lieges at the top of three tall posts near the cross, and rung at stated intervals, and on occasions of public moment.

Into this quiet, pleasant, old town, in the mid-winter of 1794, there walked, with sad countenance and heavy step, a good-looking young woman, named Ann Caird. She had travelled that day eight weary miles, from the upland village of Drumlithie, where her parents dwelt; and she carried a burden which should only be borne under the happy sunshine of wedded love. The want of this accounted for the slow pace and dejected air of what should have been a happy maiden of twenty-one. She took refuge in a house not far from the Old Tolbooth, at the end of the pier; and soon after, on the 19th of December, gave birth to a son. This boy, who was named John Duncan, after his father, a weaver in his mother's village, and who was thus ushered into the world under a ban always hard, but at those stricter times almost cruel, is the subject of this history.

His mother, as he used to tell with pride, was "a strong, pretty woman." Bred up in the healthy country, she could even lift with ease "a boll of barley over a riddle."  [The sieve used for corn by farmers.] She came of a robust, long-lived race, her father surviving to the great age of 105 years. Why his parents never married it is now impossible to say. His father, characterized by the son as a pretty clever man and good weaver, afterwards became a soldier, perhaps on account of this youthful folly, and he seldom saw the lad, though he took some interest in him. The place of both parents, however, was, in most respects, more than filled by the devoted mother, who cherished the child with no common care The poor woman, deserted by her lover, took up house in Stonehaven, not far from the old pier where her son had been born. She supported herself and her boy by taking harvest in the country, at which she was a superior hand, but chiefly, during the rest of the year, by weaving stockings, then a staple trade with the continent, for which houses existed in all the larger towns of the north, and gave out the worsted to be worked at home.

Throughout life, John Duncan had the highest respect and affection for his mother, and to her memory he always recurred with peculiar pleasure amidst trying experiences. One of her sons, still living, born after John had left his home, speaks of her in the same terms of loving regard, as an unusually hardworking, honest, affectionate woman, and economical housewife. Their combined testimony proves her to have been a good, clever woman, strong in mind and body, rearing her children well, and supporting her eldest son single-handed and alone. On his death-bed, when his nurse was kindly tucking the blankets round the old man, his heart went back once more to his mother's house in Stonehaven, across the varied experiences of more than eighty long years; and, in tones which showed that the fountain of tears had been opened, lie said, "So my mother used to do to me!" His mother was always his ideal of a tender, kindly woman.

But Stonehaven was no unworthy place in which to be born, and possessed unusual elements to mould her children for good. These certainly had the deepest influence on the life of her lowly son, physically, religiously, and scientifically. Her streets furnished a varied and interesting playground and numerous well-conditioned playmates for the lad, when he was old enough to run about. The harbour was there with its exciting and ever-attractive life to boys. A curious stone dial near the edge of the pier, bearing circles and figures and points of the compass, drew his youthful fancy, and, no doubt, silently impressed him—for who can limit the educative force of such early associations?—with a desire to pursue the study of dialling and produce copies of this chronometer, as he did in after years. The old granary of the Marischalls, which stood near it on the quay, and which, as being used for court-house and prison, was known as the Old Tolbooth, would be regarded by even the wildest boy with solemn awe. Its window facing the sea was gazed at with wondering eyes, for from it, after the '45, the imprisoned Jacobite Episcopal clergy used by stealth to baptize the infants of their flock. The newly-finished tower of the steeple, with its great clock, erected three years after his birth, was not far off; and the town cross that stood by its walls, was the centre of many youthful pranks; while; a curious round boulder half-way down the High Street, on the side path, near a heckling shop, was the special rendezvous of the town lads.

At that time, "Bony," as Napoleon was familiarly known amongst the people, was the terror of Europe; and our continental wars were then in full rage, with all their heavy drain on the national manhood and the national purse. War was the daily sigh of our homes, the talk of our streets, and even the cry of our children in their games. In Stonehaven, in Duncan's youth, the boys regularly played at soldiering. They used to appoint their officers, enlist and arm their men with wooden swords and guns, hold court-martial over, deserters, and imprison and punish the refractory; a friend of John's, James Barclay, spoken of in this history, being thus immured for a considerable time in a hen-house. These mimic war-plays were entered into with remarkable zest by the boys of that time, and, no doubt, did much to develop a patriotic spirit and intensify the national hatred of the great continental aggressor.

Then what was grander in the world than the liveried four-in-hand coach from Aberdeen, which daily clattered into town, drawing an admiring crowd of urchins, and then slowly climbed the Red Braes to the south, on its way to Edinburgh; the red-coated guard with the post bags catching it up, by a short cut, at the top: while the return coach from Edinburgh came rattling down them at a splendid pace, and repeated the same pleasures?

When little Johnnie was able to take a wider range, as he grew older, there existed in the country round a wonderful field for developing his muscles, strengthening his nerves, and instilling quieter and deeper lessons into his youthful heart, which, in after years, moulded and elevated the man. There was the long, pebbly beach, between the Cowie and the sea, to which the boys used to wade in ebb tide, to play with the plunging waves, bathe in their waters, and seek for the pretty pink, ribbed shell (Cyproa  Europea) to be found there, a favourite both for its beauty and for its rarity—known by the Pentland Firth and vended there as "Groatie buckies," and called, in sacred Iona, by the great name of St. Columba, and sold there also by the children. There were the breezy Links, where the new town now stands, with their undulating hollows, redolent with wild flowers and wavy with bent, the haunt of children and cattle, where Johnnie first saw and smelled the favourites of his life. There was the Bog Well under the Red Braes, across the Carron to the south, to which, when of age, he went daily for water for his mother, and where he was always sure to meet with merry groups of women and bairns bent on the same errand; for these were the days before water-pipes were dreamt of, and this well supplied the whole town with its famed limpid treasures. There was also the more distant St. Kieran's Well, a good chalybeate, with healing virtues—then in its natural wildness, but now conserved in a granite fountain—to which he and his mother walked across the Links, when the pressure of over-toil somewhat relented; but not during the Sabbath rest, for in these strict times such journeyings would have been profanation.

Beyond this, finely set amidst its woods, was the house of Ury, the abode of that religious enthusiast and sufferer, Robert Barclay, the moral-force Quaker apologist, of his son the founder of new Stonehaven, and of his physical-force grandson, the pedestrian and pugilist, to whom John's mother had probably been nursemaid, for she always called him "my boy"—the burial-place of the family in the grounds, called "the Howf," being then a boyish haunt. There were also those never-failing attractions to youth, the Cowie and the Carron, with their shady nooks and minnow pools for "gudling," where boys spent hours together in untold bliss. There were the ruins of St. Mary's Chapel and its churchyard, and the fishing village of Cowie, on the way to them, where the lad watched its strange inhabitants; and where he once saw a marriage amongst them, full of old-world customs, as he used to tell, when the bride made her affianced swear to be true to her, by her father's house, the fishing boat and the fish he caught. Across the Carron amidst tall trees, there stood the quaint old Kirk of Dunnottar, the parish church of the town, to which his worthy mother regularly took her boy, and where she pointed out the Covenanter's Stone, which was erected for those who had perished when descending the Dunnottar cliff from their foul prison, and at which Sir Walter Scott first saw "Old Mortality," then engaged in renovating it the amiable enthusiast having died when John was five years old.

Then, last to mention, but first in youthful estimate, there were, still more distant and dangerous, and therefore all the more attractive, the glorious "heughs" and "coves" and "braes," the wild and wonderful cliffs, that guard the bay of Stonehaven on both sides, and stretch away to what seemed illimitable distance—a splendid region, rich in health, adventure, beauty, grandeur, poetry and deathless memories to all who have had the advantage of roaming in their youth along such wild and precipitous shores; a happy privilege which the author recalls with gratitude, as spent on a similar coast in the neighbouring county of Angus. This glorious education John Duncan enjoyed and profited by to the utmost, and, to his dying day, he never wearied of talking of the thymy braes and magnificent rocks, with their associations and stirring adventures, around Stonehaven and Dunnottar.

Geologically, the bay of Stonehaven is most interesting, from this amongst other facts, that it occupies, and no doubt greatly owes its existence to, a junction between the Silurian and the Old Red Sandstone, not far from the Kirk of Cowie. It thus exhibits two very diverse styles of rock and scenery on its two sides—the twisted gneiss on its northern half, and the thick-bedded conglomerate on its southern. It is this picturesque conglomerate that forms the famous cliffs round the Castle of Dunnottar. The scenery along the shore, with its high precipitous crags, washed by the waves, and scooped into magnificent headlands frowning over the deep, its isolated stacks, gloomy caverns, and winding rock-bound bays, is unsurpassed in its way for variety, wildness and grandeur. For boys, these contain the very essence of romance. Even the names they possess are irresistible to youthful imagination and promise endless adventure—the Boar Stone, the Diel's Kettle, the Fowls' Heugh, with its countless sea birds, the Long Gallery, the rock of Dunnacair, the very word enticing to fearlessness, the shelves of Dunnimail, famous for dulse, and many more, equally picturesque in sound and signification. Then within two miles of the town, protected by its almost inaccessible precipices seawards, and its guarded portal landwards, rose the magnificent ruins of the Castle of Dunnottar, which form one of the grandest and most striking sea-pieces in Scotland, rich as the land is in such scenes.

This remarkable coast was the constant haunt of John Duncan in his early years, and few surpassed him in adventurous courage and power of scaling a cliff. As he expressed it himself, "I had a terrible faculty o' clirnbin'. I was wonderfu' venturesome; awfu' fine at the fit (foot) ; and fear never cam' on s me." Dunnottar itself was the chosen scene of countless scrambles, which strangely never issued in accident, though pursued under conditions that, to the unaccustomed, would be gruesome and appalling. He and his companions used to approach the castle both by sea and land, and to them it was simple cowardice to enter by the prosaic gateway, then, as now, under lock and key. They must climb the seemingly inaccessible cliffs near the end of the headland, only reached by boat; or clamber in by Wallace's Hole, a small window on the south side in the portal wall, now closed up but then open to the venturous, by means of which the champion of his country once gallantly wrested the castle from English hands. This loophole Johnnie was always the first of the band to reach, when he would haul up his more timorous companions. Tripping over the rubbish which then filled the now empty room behind, they would range "roond and roond aboot like cats," as he said, through the whole interior. They entered every room, explored every dungeon, seated themselves on the topmost turrets, till they were sated with enjoyment; and hunger, calling a halt, sent them back to town.

Though he could not then understand the stirring history and cruel tragedies that had passed within those crumbling, grey-lichened walls, these were glorious days, "grand times," as John used to call them. They were more—they were an unrivalled training of the future man.


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