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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter X - His Studies at this period: Elementary Subjects and Herbs


JOHN'S unhappy domestic life during the eight years of his residence in Aberdeen had greatly interfered with the progress of the studies he had begun at Drumlithie, except politics, which, amongst the keen polemical websters of the city, had roused this increasing interest. But, with the greater leisure of his enforced solitariness, and amidst the sanative influences of the country life he now led, his intellectual appetite revived, and he devoted himself with redoubled earnestness and characteristic energy to certain subjects which will now reward our attention.

He set himself first to make up, as fully and as speedily as possible, the defects of his early want of education.

We have seen how he learnt to read, and, the eagerness with which he began to use this golden art. When he learnt to write, it is now impossible to state. We have found him working hard at it when living near Monymusk, in 1828, that is in his thirty-fourth year, and making creditable progress; so that he was soon able to write and receive letters. He carried on the careful practice of it in set copies, moreover, for several years after that.

The meaning and etymology of words claimed his early attention, and, to assist him in this desirable work, he soon procured that capital old book, unique in its time, and still worth having, the "Universal Etymological English Dictionary of N. Bailey, ," with the derivation and explanation of words in common use, in the sciences and arts, in law, in place and proper names, etc., and "a collection, explication, and illustration of our most common proverbs," which are really well done;" the whole compiled and methodically digested, as well for the entertainment of the curious as the information of the ignorant; and for the benefit of young students, artificers, tradesmen, and foreigners, who are desirous thoroughly to understand what they speak, read, or write"—a far better book than its magniloquent title-page would indicate. In 1757, it had passed through seventeen editions, and was the very help a solitary student like our good weaver required. In 1830, he also bought a "Dictionary of the Scottish Language," published three years before, to extend his knowledge of the vernacular he used so well. The etymology of the names of the places round about him he also wished to know, and he has preserved a list of names derived from the Gaelic, with their meanings, written by him at an early date.

He worked also at grammar, with the help of a "Grammar Made Easy," published in 1805; and at arithmetic, guided by the immortal Cocker, of which he used the edition of 1787, afterwards getting, in 1839, the "Introduction" of Gray, a name as synonymous with arithmetic in Scotland as Cocker's in England.

So determined was John to get at the roots of things in regard to his studies, that he essayed Latin, and his exercise-book still exists, evidently led to the subject by the technical names of the plants with which his medico-botanical studies made him familiar. He used the grammar of the great Ruddirnan, the small edition of 1803, issued from the Edinburgh University Press. He purchased a copy of "Ainsworth's Latin Dictionary," edited in 1825 by a Dr. Ross; and a "Catechism of Classical Biography," of 1824. His Latin was of real practical utility to him in his after botanical researches. He began also the Greek rudiments, in spite of its peculiar alphabet to bar the way of a home student. This great language he continued to study, chiefly in order to get at the original tongue of the New Testament, as we shall afterwards see. He was not the man to rest contented with using big technical terms, however fluently, without knowing what they meant. He knew their meaning and etymology to an uncommon extent. John's motto throughout life in all he did, from weaving to Biblical criticism and higher Botany, was, like that of all strong men, "Thorough." His Latin and Greek he took some pleasure and pride in using in various ways, like all private students of a foreign tongue, as poet Burns did his French.

A knowledge of the world in which he dwelt was necessary to his happiness, and he studied geography. He must become acquainted also with the strange and fascinating story of the doings of the human beings that have lived and died on its surface. He therefore devoured history and biography, both British and general, ancient and modern, and on both subjects he gradually gathered a large number of books and much varied information.

In a scientific direction, John had two chief studies at this period—those of plants, as far as they were medicinal herbs in medical botany; and of the stars in astronomy.

It was not till he was forty years old that he was introduced to scientific Botany proper, which became the enthusiasm of the next forty years, after his fortunate meeting with the friend of his life, Charles Black.

Before this meeting, however, John's knowledge of plants was neither small nor uninteresting, as it could scarcely be with so humorous and practical a master as Culpepper. We have seen how he began the study while yet in his teens, during his apprenticeship at Drumlithie, and how he early purchased a copy of Culpepper. Notwithstanding his strange-looking name, Culpepper was an Englishman, born in London in 1616, and dying in 1654. His book is curious and interesting, bearing on its front that it contains "nearly four hundred medicines made from English herbs, physically applied to the cure of all disorders incident to man, with rules for compounding them," by "Nicholas Culpepper, Student in Physic and Astrology."

Of each plant, it gives a description, sometimes pretty minute, though popular and unscientific; the places where it was to be found; its flowering time; its "government," according to the astrological influences under which it should be gathered, to possess potency; and its "virtues" or the diseases it was held to cure, with directions for preparation and use. It contains a deal of queer, old-world learning.

Nicholas Culpepper's style is quaint, with a touch of biblical antiqueness, often dryly humorous, and not seldom rudely outspoken. He does not describe the elder tree, for instance, "since every boy that plays with a popgun will not mistake another tree instead of it;" he says that if eyebright "was but as much used as it is neglected, it would half spoil the spectacle-maker's trade;" and that the common practice of applying a medicine in one part of the body to affect another, is "as proper as for me when my toe is sore to lay a plaister on my nose." He gives curious personal details, as his curing his own daughter of the king's evil with pilewort. He tells us, "Mars loves no cowards, nor Saturn fools, nor I neither." He essays practical philosophy and kindly moralizing. For example, he wishes "gentlewomen would keep butter-burr preserved, to help their poor neighbours, as it is fit the rich should help the poor, for the poor cannot help themselves;" "let no man," says he, "despise cinquefoil, because it is plain and easy—the ways of God are all such;" "seven years' care and fear makes a man never the wiser nor a farthing richer;" "he that reads this, and understands what he reads, hath a jewel of more worth than a diamond."

He leaves a remedy to the world, "not caring a farthing whether they like or dislike it; the grave equals all men, and therefore will equal me with all princes, until which time the Eternal Providence is over me; then the ill tongue of a prating fellow, or one that hath more tongue than wit or more proud than honest, shall never trouble me: wisdom is justified by her children: and so much for wormwood." He talks facetiously of Dr. Tradition, Dr. Reason, Dr. Experience, Dr. Ignorance, Dr. Folly, and Dr. Sickness. Altogether, the good Culpepper aims at being at once the "guide, philosopher, and friend" of his disciples. Certainly he cannot be accused of ever being wearisome, obscure, or dull.

John Duncan possessed at a later time a very fine octavo copy of the "Herbal," edited in 1835 by Sir John Hill, M.D. He also took out, in sixpenny parts, a large work by this same Sir John, "The Family Herbal," with an account of all plants, English and foreign, "remarkable for their virtues," with recipes for "distilled water, conserves, syrups, electuaries, juleps, draughts," etc., and "elegant plates of one hundred and sixty English plants, accurately drawn and coloured from nature."

At an early date, he bought another smaller but more scientific work of a similar kind, "Tournefort's Compleat Herbal" (1719), "translated from the Latin," two volumes in one, also with very good plates. The author, who is described on the title as "Chief Botanist to the late French King," was a Frenchman, one of the greatest botanists of the seventeenth century, who was born in 1656, and died in 1708. He travelled widely, and wrote several works on botany, which did great service to the growing science. He was the first to classify plants in genera, and formed a system which maintained its sway till it was superseded by that of Linnwus. Duncan purchased, in 1842, an "Alphabet of Medical Botany," by James Rennie, M.D. He extended his medical knowledge in after years, and possessed books on some of its more difficult parts, such as "Walsh on Cancer."

Even after being introduced to scientific botany, Duncan retained to the last a thorough faith in their medicinal virtues, and pursued his quasi-medical studies alongside of his scientific. His knowledge of plants was at no time a barren, dry, technical accumulation of characteristics and words, in both of which botany is richer than most other sciences, and which form a strong temptation to its ardent students to know these and nothing more. He gradually amassed a varied lore of interesting, practical, picturesque facts regarding plants, which he used to draw from when conversing with his more intimate friends and disciples ; and he continued throughout life to treat himself and them with the decoctions and ointments he made. In the flower garden he formed afterwards at Droughsburn, he cultivated such of them as did not grow wild, but were required for his medicines.

A few glimpses of John's utilization of plants in this way may be both interesting and instructive. When I first made his acquaintance in his eighty-third year, in taking a walk with the bent, eager old medico-botanist, as we passed the fig-wort (Scrophularia nodosa), he told me how he had cured himself of a very painful affection by means of a decoction of this plant and the common dock, adding, with grateful energy, "Man, it wrocht like a chairm! Widna the doctors hae made a fine job o' me?" Throughout life, until his last illness, he would never submit himself to a medical man's hands, believing rather in his old friends, Culpepper, Tournefort, and Hill, than in all the wisdom of the schools—like all genuine herbalists, whose condemnation of common practice is always uncompromising; and like the valiant Culpepper, who declares "the College of Physicians too stately to learn and too proud to continue." When Dr. Morrison of the Guise, in the Vale of Alford, on one occasion urged him to take salts and senna, then a universal cure, for some illness he had, he replied, "Ay, that's the way ye do—ye hunt it oot and ye hunt it in. I'll gae to the chield at the gairden" (Charles Black) "and get some rhubarb roots, which will do my job. I'll hae vane o' yer dirt!"

He used to give proofs of his own successful practice with herbs, in his own experience and in that of his friends, many of whom have spoken gratefully of the good his drugs did them. He spoke of curing several more serious diseases with them, "nae an easy dune thing;" of healing, amongst others, a woman who had been a cripple for years with a painful affection; and of like successes, which increased his faith in his works. But he had too much sense to place unlimited reliance on all he read and heard on this subject, for John had always in him a good spice of philosophical scepticism. Of many of their decoctions, he used to say that they were "gweedless, ill-less stuffie," that is, they did neither good nor ill. But in a discriminating study of the medical virtues of plants, he made rapid progress ; as he said, "I cam' great speed." With successful applications, he began to be "thocht siccar," that is, a secure, safe guide. Letters still exist addressed to him, acknowledging cures, asking advice, and, on occasions, telling him not to trouble himself to revisit the patient, on account of the improvement already effected.

As examples of the curative plants he employed:—He used sneeze-wort (Ac/ii/lea ptarmica) as a cure for toothache; and a little of the root placed between the teeth causes salivation and a slight elevation of the teeth like incipient toothache, so that it may cure by the homoeopathic law of similia similibus; being named sneezewort, he said, from its leaves having once been ground into a kind of snuff. When he showed this plant to a young friend, he said, "This is a cure for toothache; yet fowk'll be real ill wi' their teeth, afore they'll believe you or me, and they'll gang awa doon to Mr. Hay's " (the druggist's in Alford) "and pay threepence or fourpence for fat they micht get for naething but foul fingers! "—that is, for the trouble of digging for the roots. In garlic, he had great faith, and he kept it in his garden, using it to destroy the disagreeable eructation arising from castor oil, which it at once cured or prevented. Elecampane, or aligopane as he called it (Inula lzelenium), a rare British plant, he kept in his garden, as a potent cure for a cough, by means of a decoction from its roots. The leaf of the greater plantain (Plantago major) he used to stop bleeding with; and it has a remarkable power in this way, having been long known in Scotland, on account of this property, as "the healing leaf." It should be pulled slowly, so that the strong fibres in the broad ribbed leaf may be drawn out.

Of knotted figwort (Scrophularia nodosa), he made an ointment for the throat, whence the plant has also the name thread-wort or throat-wort, and with it he once treated Charles Black. Tansy he used as a cure for gout and for various women's diseases. Spurge he cured warts with, by means of its milky juice. The common bluebell he made a preparation of, to increase women's milk. Peppermint and spearmint he used to grow in large quantities, and sell dried in bundles, for various purposes. From one of the Polypody ferns, he made an ointment or "saw" for burns. Lichens, "the scabs o' staves," he used to make a liniment of, for chapped lips. For consumption, he employed, (t) the root of parsley, boiled first alone and then with candy sugar; (2) a decoction of horehound, hyssop, sedge, and camomile, boiled first alone and then with treacle. For dysentery, he found "an infusion of camomile flowers a useful remedy." For jaundice, he had a very simple cure, "two raw eggs with a little cold water in the morning, and one egg about twelve o'clock, another about seven in the evening, all in the same manner, by which in a very few days the distemper would subside and the colour resume its natural hue."

As examples of plants he made practical use of:—The gum of the gean (Prunus padus) he used as a substitute for gum arabic, being less transparent, but as strong. The common speedwell (Veronica officinalis) he made into a kind of tea, for which, though strong, he said, it once used to be employed in the country. From the fine-leaved heath (Erica cinerea), he brewed a kind of ale, said to have been used by,our Pictish forefathers, and hence called "Picts' ale," the secret of which, it seems, we have now lost. Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), which is prettily called in Aberdeenshire "birdies' bannocks," he employed the leaves of, as soap; and its juice, to take out ink, containing, as it does, oxalic acid. He was accustomed to put certain blades into his stockings next his feet, to keep them right when on any of his long excursions. In wandering about the country, he was always on the outlook for new practical uses of plants, and was thus vastly pleased one time, when in Forfarshire, to find that the factory girls there used a decoction of the avens (Gezem urbanum) as an expectorant and tonic, to help them to get rid of the dust that settled in their lungs in their ill-ventilated flax factories. The lichen (Lecanora tar/area), called in Gaelic crotal, he used for dyeing a kind of brownish-purple, as it still is in many parts of the Highlands. Another lichen made what John called a "fool fite," that is, a foul or dirty white.

As examples of the picturesque bits of associations he had about plants: The Lousy earthnut(Punium fiexuosum), which is dug up by boys for its sweet, knotted root, he said was a good food and could sustain life ; and he used to tell a story of the Danes surrounding a party of Scots in a bog, and trying to starve them into surrender, in vain, for the Scotch leader showed his soldiers how to dig up these roots, which supported them till the enemy thought them sustained by magic or heavenly aid, and went off. The spotted persicaria (Polygonnin persicaria) he knew the usual legend of, which says that the purple spot on its leaf was the sacred blood that dropped on it as it grew under the cross; but he used also to tell another about it, that it was the leaf Cain " dichtit (or cleaned) his fingers on" after murdering his brother! The aspen, he said, shivered as it does, because it was the wood that formed the hated cross; and he said the wandering tinkers were the descendants of the vagabonds who made it. He took delight in gathering every scrap of interesting matter regarding our wild flowers, and I have a set of his notes giving the plants that were used as the badges of clans and families.

The Cranberry, when ripe to blackness, John used to say was "grand for giving headaches." Of Meadow Sweet he used to quote two lines

"Pleasant as 'tis for a nosegay,
Smell it once, and throw't away."

The power of its over-luscious odour in causing headache and other pains, John said, arose from its containing prussic acid—it certainly has a smell like that of crushed almonds and other stony seeds—and he used to tell a story of four young botanists turning very ill, by leaving it in their bedrooms, and only being relieved when the doctor threw it outside. Of poisons to be obtained from our common wild plants, he often said he knew as much about, as, if put into a well, "would poison a' the fowk o' the hale countra side!".

It is now uncertain if John ever had any real belief, like Simpson the mathematician, in the astrological influences of the heavenly bodies on the "virtues" of plants, as so fully laid down in Culpepper, though such belief was far from uncommon in those days. One of his friends thinks he had, and says he used not only to gather plants under the proper stellar conjunctions, but even to take the horoscope of any one that wished it. I have found no proofs of this amongst his books or notes, or from his later friends. One of these is very decided on the subject, saying that John believed in nothing superstitious.

That he was vastly interested in Astrology, like many others then and not a few now, seems certain, if only from the number of books he accumulated on the subject, such as "Bo, an Indian Astrologer," and two large and expensive works, "A Manual of Astrology" and "The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century;" though he possessed none of the text-books for making the necessary calculations for its practical study. When John Taylor used to read Culpepper's remarks on the planetary influences on plants, in their botanical conversations, and asked him what he thought of them, he would reply, like the thoughtful philosopher he was, "Man, there are some terrible queer things i' the ward!" And what is John's exclamation but an echo of Shakespeare's?

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy."

But, whatever his earlier predilections in favour of the superstitions connected with this remarkable subject, gathered from his earliest master, the English astrologer, he would seem to have thrown them entirely aside in the later and more scientific period of his long life.


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