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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XI - His Astronomical Studies: "Johnnie Moon."


DUNCAN'S study of Culpepper introduced him not only to the plants that had medicinal virtues, but to the stars that "governed" them or had "dominion" over them, according to the astrology of the author and the time. In order to gather the cinquefoil. when Jupiter is "angular and strong," it is necessary for the gatherer to know not only Jupiter, and his position in the sky, but those relations to the other planets and constellations that constitute his angularity and strength; if loosestrife is "an herb of the Moon and under the sign Cancer," and if rue is "an herb of the Sun and under Leo," to do the plants justice, you must not only know the Sun and the Moon, which, as the facetious astrologer says, "every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake," but you must know both the Lion and the Crab, especially if either of the former is in "the house" of the latter. And this knowledge is all the more necessary to a true Culpepperian physician, for doth not the mild and learned Culpepper asseverate—"I would willingly teach astrologers to be physicians, for they are most fitting for the calling; if you will not believe me, ask Dr. Hippocrates and Dr. Galen, a couple of gentlemen that our College of Physicians keep to vapour with, not to follow"? Still true of many other things than physic, most redoubtable Culpepper! It was impossible, therefore, for any one, much less an earnest disciple like John, not to look into the stars. This he did with ardour, first, it may be, for the sake of the "government" of the herbs he gathered, but by-and-by for their own sakes, and for higher practical ends. Whether he became an astrologer or not, John became an enthusiastic astronomer.

He obtained text-books on Astronomy at an early date, such as "Astronomical and Geographical Lessons," by James Levett, published in 1814, and the "Catechism of Astronomy," and he studied charts of the heavens. By-and-by he grew so familiar with them that he could with ease distinguish and name them singly and in their constellations, and point them out to those friends who would listen to such heavenly lore. So eager did he become in his studies that, on clear frosty nights, he was seen setting off for the tops of bare hills commanding an uninterrupted view of the skies, and he did not return to his cold couch till long after midnight—a foolish and thankless proceeding, in the eyes of his wiser and more comfortable neighbours; so that he began to be thought "no very wise."

When staying at various places, John used to set up dials on dikes beside the house she lived in, to guide him in his observations. He would be busy at these things in the dead silence and the dark, when, all at once, down went the dial at the far end of the dike, followed by the crackle of bursting laughter, and the hurry-scurry of running feet, the meaning of which John knew too well. It was some of the mischief-loving sparks of the neighbourhood, who were thus making fun of the curious weaver's crazy pursuits - "moon-struck madness," in their eyes. And such annoyances were frequent and trying enough. Hence he was obliged to seek seclusion at a distance, whither their fears of the dark and its denizens effectually prevented their following him, or at an hour when even the restless spirit of fun was conquered by the more potent god of sleep.

While he stayed at Milldourie, close by Paradise, he had very good sites for stellar observation, on the hills around that beautiful hollow, where the clearness of the sky in a frosty night would be intensified by the dark foliage of the trees. For wider outlook, the hilltop near Corilabb, eight hundred feet above Paradise, where he lived for year, was free of trees, and he was often found there when most were beneath the cosy blankets; while just above this, Cairn William, double the height, without a tree for more than two hundred feet from its summit, was a splendid point of vantage, commanding an uninterrupted view of the whole heavens above, and a wonderfully impressive prospect of the darkened world below, with Benachie in front and the deep Don between.

It was most certainly no wonder that, in those days, when science was quite unheard of amongst the common people, a man who pursued such unearthly gazing at these uncanny hours should be thought to be more than queer, and to be decidedly affected by the moon to which he paid such absurd devotion. Hunting for weeds was sufficient to rouse suspicion, but this glowering nightly at the stars more than completed the proof. The man was "mad" or "wud —or "next door to it."

Akin to his astronomical pursuits, was the then common study of Dialling. When clocks and watches were comparatively scarce, the making of dials was, of course, an art of great practical value, and was much followed, up to fifty years ago. Their theory and practice were often taught in schools, and a knowledge of the subject was frequently a requirement of teachers, some of whom were practical masters of the art, and have left, in various parts of the country, very creditable specimens of their skill in this department of practical astronomy. [The elaborate dial in the churchyard of Currie, near Edinburgh, made by the late parish teacher, Mr. Palmer, is a noteworthy example.] It will be remembered by those who have read the life of that remarkable genius, James Ferguson, the Banffshire stargazer, as, told by himself and Dr. Henderson in a book of intense interest and fullest information, ["Life of James Ferguson, F.R.S., in a brief autobiographical account, and further extended memoir by E. Henderson, LL.D." (Fullarton and Co., 1867.)] that dialling was one of the early subjects to which that young stargazer directed attention guided by "God Almighty's scholar," as his disciple calls him, Alexander Cantley, mathematician, astronomer and diallist.

John Duncan also became a theoretical and practical diallist, making dials for himself and his friends, and specimens of his handiwork still exist in and round the Vale of Alford. Among his papers, there remain several very creditable drawings of different kinds of dials, upright and horizontal. Some of his correspondents also worked at the same art, and sent him sketches of dials they had seen or planned, with elaborate details of the form and height of the stile, the elevation of the plate, the length of the hour line, and the divisions of the hour circle. In 1830, he also made a drawing of a large geographical clock and dial, while staying at Longfolds.

John once possessed a watch, bought as soon after he had completed his apprenticeship as he gained sufficient funds, proud like all young men to possess this evidence of money and manhood; but this his after needs, about the time he left Aberdeen, obliged him to part with to a fellow-workman, and he never had another wheeled chronometer of any kind. His astronomical knowledge, however, was an adequate practical substitute. Throughout his life, he could tell the hour with remarkable accuracy, by observing the height of the sun when in the open air, and by the direction and length of the shadows when his beams streamed across his loom. At night, the position of the stars was sufficient to show the time ; and his accomplishments in this way, especially in the dark, created profound astonishment amongst his ignorant neighbours, who thought this another of his ways that were "no very canny."

But his desire of accuracy in all things, including hours, which his study of astronomy had increased, rendered him dissatisfied with this more or less indefinite mode of measuring time ; and he made a pocket sun-dial as a substitute for watch or clock, which he carried about with him for years, and which still remains as a proof of his executive power and the practical direction all studies took in his hands. It consists of a card about five inches long and three and a half broad, nailed to a piece of thin wood of the same size, with certain lines and figures drawn upon it and a pendent green, twisted cord, half as long again as the card, bearing a small blue glass bead, but now without the light plummet that once hung at its extremity. This was John Duncan's pocket sun-watch.

Such instruments have from time to time been advertised, and one called "the American timepiece," was shown by Mr. John Taylor when he read an account of Duncan, before the Aberdeen Natural History Society, in July, 1881, and exhibited John's herbarium and pocket dial. This American instrument, advertised for one shilling as a wonderful discovery in 1867, was found to be almost identical with John's! It indicated the time correctly, Mr. Taylor found, to within half an hour, while John's did so to within a few minutes, that forenoon, the 15th of July. John's dial shows abundant evidence of careful but constant use, being protected by a long roll of thick brown paper fastened to it at one end, and wrapped round it twice, in the manner of a pocket-book. The whole is of the homeliest construction, and is all the more interesting as being entirely the handiwork of the old astronomer. This instrument John called by its old Greek name of horologe, the hour-teller, or, as he transformed it, his "horledge;" and as such it was known amongst his acquaintances, who had a humorous pleasure in using the quaint word.

After considerable search, I have fortunately discovered what is no doubt the original of John's sun-watch and all subsequent forms of the same style of instrument—in a portable dial invented by the super-ingenious Ferguson, the astronomer, and published by him in 1759. [See "Memoir of Ferguson," p. 244, already mentioned.] Ferguson's dial is here reproduced to show the nature of the sun-clock thus used by our weaver. It was warranted, when rectified, to show the hour of the day, the time of the sun's rising and setting, the sun's declination and the days on which the sun enters the signs of the Zodiac. Ferguson thus describes it :—

"The lines a d, a b, and b c of the gnomon, or stile, must be cut quite through the card ; and as the end a b of the gnomon is raised occasionally above the plane of the dial, it turns upon the uncut line c d as on a hinge. The line dotted A B, must be slit quite through the card, and the thread must be put through the slit to keep it from being easily drawn out."

In Duncan's dial, the slit was also cut through the wooden board on which the card was fastened, and the cord inserted was fastened to a white mother-of-pearl button at the under side which moved along the slit as required.

"On the other end of this thread is a small plummet, and on the middle of it a small bead for showing the hour of the day.

"To rectify the dial.—Set the cross line on the slider to the day of the month, and stretch the thread from thence over the angular point XII, where the curve lines meet; then shift the bead on the thread to that point.

"To find the hour of the day when the sun shines.— Raise the gnomon, and hold the edge of the dial next the gnomon toward the sun, so as the upper edge of the shadow may just cover the shadow line; and the bead then playing freely on the face of the dial (by the weight of the plummet) will show the time of the day among the hour lines, as it is before or after noon.

"To find the time of sun-rising and sun-setting.—Move the thread among the hour lines, till it either covers some one of them, or lies parallel betwixt any two ; and then it will cut the time of sun-rising among the forenoon hour lines, and of sun-setting among the afternoon hour lines, for the day of the year indicated by the cross line on the slider."

Ferguson's dial also showed the sun's declination, but Duncan had not copied that part on his drawing, as not being of practical value for his purpose. It answered only for places in the latitude of London, and required to be rectified for other latitudes, which Duncan did for Aberdeen. This dial he used during the greater part of his life, and he was often asked to consult it by his friends and others, to their great surprise and amusement.

John took notes of various astronomical phenomena; for instance, recording that "on the 12th of April, 1842, there was a ring about the sun from two o'clock to four o'clock," and giving a drawing of it.

He also made a special study of calendars, and, as already told, bought an almanack every year, which he carefully preserved to the last. Numerous memoranda exist made by him regarding eclipses and other celestial phenomena that were to happen during the year, evidently transcribed, to be placed on his loom, according to his custom, in order to be glanced at while engaged in weaving, and to guide his nightly observations.

The related science of Meteorology, then in its infancy, also drew his attention throughout life, and he showed considerable skill in interpreting weather signs, the theoretical causes of which he investigated. These his frequent wanderings sub Jove gave him ample opportunities of observing. He possessed a thermometer and other meteorological gauges.

From the nature of the case, John's astronomical studies attracted more popular notice amongst his unlearned contemporaries than even his .herb-doctoring, during his pre-botanical days; and it would have been strange had he escaped some relative nickname. This he did not do. For many years before he became generally known as the botanist of the latter half of his life, he was notorious as an Astronomer, and was in various parts spoken of as "the star-gazer." In some places, he was called "Johnnie Moon," or as the Aberdeen tongue expresses Luna's name, "Johnnie Meen," a form as near to the original Anglo-Saxon mona, and the Gothic mena, as our modern English one, which we have no more reason to plume ourselves upon than the Aberdonians on theirs.

Another early cognomen that our harmless astronomer received, was the strange one of "the Nogman," by which he was generally known in several districts, but which none of his nicknamers could explain. The explanation, however, is not far to seek. Another name for the stile, index, or pin of a sun-dial that throws the shadow is, as we have seen, the Greek word gnomon, whence the art of dialling was called gnomonics. This odd-looking word, John, with his home education, faithfully pronounced every letter of, and inverting, from his short sight, the first two letters, called it "nogmon." As he talked a great deal about it in connection with his dials, the queer-sounding word was eagerly caught up by the bumpkins, and speedily transferred to the man himself, under the idea that it was a personal designation, denoting a kind of man, a "nogman."

It was more truly descriptive than they knew, for the Greek word , or gnomon, means one that knows, a knowing man, which John surely was. It is not a little curious that this quiet wanderer on the earth's surface should have received a name almost identical with that of the Rosicrucian guardians of hidden treasure, the Gnomes who dwelt in the earth's centre. But John "the nogman" was a true gnome in more than in oddness of aspect; for he was a guardian of real gold, "the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge."


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