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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XII - Life and Star-Gazing at Auchleven and Tullynessle


THE Gadie, [Pronounced Gaadie, with a long, broad a, as in far.] or Gaudie, is one of the classical streams of Scottish poetry, heard and sung of by many who have never seen the region through which it flows, and who may have little idea that it belongs to the north. The beauties that poesy has woven round it breathe more of the sunny south, with its "bud and blossom," "licht o' gowd and leaves o' green," "its bloomy heaths and yellow whins," amidst "its bosky lines," than cold Aberdeenshire. But the refrain sufficiently reiterates where it runs—"at the back o' Benachie," the hill that appears so much in our story.

The north side of the Vale of Alford is bounded by an elevated ridge stretching from the Coreen Hills on the west to Benachie on the east, where it abruptly terminates in its striking peak. Along the north side of this ridge, runs a quiet, pastoral hollow with gentle slopes, generally well cultivated, which are watered by this famous stream. It is itself only a small burn, which rises in the parish of Clatt, to the north of the Corcens, and flows eastward along the northern base of Benachie, into the Ury, which joins the Don at Inverurie.

In the middle of its course, just under the rounded top of Hermit's Seat, the north-west shoulder of Benachie, lies the small village of Auchleven, or the Smooth Field, a title which sufficiently indicates the feeling of rural seclusion that pervades the scene. It stands on the road between the Vale of Alford and the country town of Insch, where there is now a station on the railway, never dreamt of in John Duncan's time. Auchleven is a clean, tidy little village, with its shops and its public school, and a carding-mill driven by the Gadie, which here does practical work, theme though it be of poetical honours. It is overshadowed on the south by the huge bulk of Benachie, though its picturesque peak is out of sight at this point, and it is within view, on the other side, of the curious ruin of Dunnideer on its conical hill, a conspicuous object seen from far. The district has long been inhabited, and has numerous standing stones, circles, and cairns, that carry us back to prehistoric times.

To this quiet country village came John Duncan, about 1823, and here he remained for several years, returning to it again before he finally settled down at Droughsburn near Alford. Like Charles Black and all those who have roamed by its banks and braes, he had a great affection for this green hollow, and the stream that waters it. He could utter his feelings with literal truth, in the words of one of the songs composed in its honour:-

"I've roamed by Tweed, I've roamed by Tay,
By border Nith and Highland Spey,
But dearer far to me than they
Are the braes o' Benachie."

In Auchleven, John seems to have been happier, better understood, and more appreciated, than at most places in which he sojourned, and his old companions there retain a pleasant and grateful remembrance of the man, and speak of him with high respect.

He worked in the carding-mill at the south end of the village, where the Gadie crosses the road to Alford. He lodged with a weaver on the other side of the road, called Sandy Smith, in a tumble-down, thatched cottage, now entirely removed. He slept above a thatched stable at the mill, in a loft reached by a ladder directly from the highway. This apartment was merely the triangle formed by the sloping roof, seven feet in length, with sufficient height to stand up in at the centre. It was lighted only by an opening, three feet by two and a half, in the small door that gave entrance to it. This hole for light was without glass, being closed by means of a sliding piece of wood; so that when it was shut, the place was in darkness, and when it was open, the wind had free entrance, even in the wildest winter day. John's bed was at one side of the space, under the sloping thatch, his chest containing his clothes and books being at the other, with a narrow passage between.

From his studious habits, which soon became the talk of the village, this close, miserable hovel obtained the name of "the philosopher's hall," or "philosopher's den," or more curtly "THE PHILOSOPHER," which it retained for many years after he had left it. Here John slept during the ten or more years in which he lived at Auchleven. contented and solitary; here he kept his books and instruments, and wrote his letters and papers on the lid of his chest; here he used to sit for hours, reading and thinking and studying ; and to this chilly hole, without a fire, and always in the dark in winter—for a candle would have been dangerous—he retired nightly to rest. To make it more tolerable in cold, frosty times, he used to carry a bottle filled with hot water, supplied by a kindly neighbour. While lying there, he could distinctly hear the breathing and stamping of the horses, and the lowing of the cows, in the double stable and byre below, the fumes of which ascended through the crevices between the deals of the thin partition that separated him from these his fellow-creatures. Talk of Diogenes' tub! That was airiness, health, and comfort, compared to Duncan's "philosopher's hall."

John worked long hours, weaving at the mill. As the house in which he boarded for his meals was small, comfortless, and swarming with children, he used to spend his evenings in a quieter, more comfortable cottage next door, where lived a kindly woman, called Janet Brown, now gone, who filled his pirns and did his washing; and he retired at bedtime to his lonely crib.

During his first residence at Auchleven, his chief study was Astronomy, and it was here that he received the appropriate and telling title of "Johnnie Meen." It was along a dike at the back of the cottage in which he boarded, that he used to set up dials and strings, at the top of a high ground which commanded a good view of the heavens all round, and in sight of Hermit's Seat on Benachie. An ash-tree still stands just opposite "the philosopher," into which he used to climb at nights, out of sight of passers-by. Seated in its upper branches, he would watch the wheeling constellations for hours, happily there more unmolested among the country villagers than among the ploughmen and practical jokers in other places he lived at. To his confidential friends, he used to point out and name the chief stars and constellations, generally giving them their common as well as their Arabic designations, such as Charles's wain, the Lady's elwand, and the like. He would also explain the dials he had made, and the manner of setting them and telling the hours and the points of the compass with them; being, as an old friend of his said, "a great dial man."

This was Willie Mortimer, the village shoemaker, who still survives, an intelligent, genial man, in a green old age, with many memories and highest respect for his departed friend. William saw John's "horologe" and was often with him when he adjusted the folding "nogman" (or "the cock o' the dial," as William called it), and told the hour by its means. He was one of the few that were privileged to ascend into "the philosopher," where he was shown the secret chest, with the books and other treasures it contained—a proof of honour and confidence bestowed on few. He was impressed, as all that knew him there were, with John's high character, retiring studiousness, inoffensive, blameless life, and great memory; and William Mortimer had the honour of introducing him to Charles Black.

John's appearance and habits, even at that age, under forty years, were sufficiently striking, and certain to draw popular comment. He wore a blue dress-coat and vest of his own manufacture and country make, with very high neck and clear brass buttons, corduroy trousers, and white-spotted napkin round his throat; a tall satin hat, well set on the back of his head; a big blue umbrella, which was an old-fashioned "Sairey Gamp," under his arm; a staff in his hand, and great boots with iron toes, full of big tackets, on his feet; while his trousers were generally rolled up half-way to his knees, to keep them clean, " for fear o' bladdin' them." His tout ensemble and stooping gait gave him the general look of a quaint country Paul Pry—prying, however, not into other people's affairs, like that well-known worthy, but into matters his compeers knew nothing of, and cared less for. From thinking of other things within, or conning over some of the technicalities of the studies he pursued, he generally had an absorbed look, which at times became an almost vacant stare; so that by many, if not by most, he was considered "odd." Some said that he "looked like a fule," and others did accuse- him, in their charity, of being "silly."

He was extremely cleanly in his disposition, dress, and habits, brushing his clothes with fastidious care, and never putting down his hat, even in the finest room he entered, without wiping off any dust that might lie there, with his handkerchief. His tastes were singularly abstemious, and his food of the simplest—his bed, board, washing and dress, not costing him, then, more than four shillings a week. Yet no one accused him of being mean, and he was reckoned "liberal within his ability;" and it should be remembered that his wife and family, even after his daughters were married, were a constant drain upon his slender resources. Could simplicity and thrift go farther than this?

About this period, he stayed for some years two miles north of Auchleven, at the village of Insch. Here he also studied astronomy, "wasting his time," as the people thought and said, with such trifles, instead of devoting himself, like the sensible folks round him, wholly to his labour. His daughter Mary was then a servant with Mr. Brown, farmer at Drumrossie, close by the village. There John used frequently to visit her, and became in this way intimate with the farmer and his wife, who were very kind to him, and whose daughter, still living in Insch, recalls many interesting memories of the peculiar weaver, both in his astronomical and botanical days. At Drumrossie, he had better opportunities of observing the stars than in Insch, and there he used to use the cart-shed as an observatory; for protection from the cold in frosty nights, when the stars are clearest, is necessary even for the most ardent. He was often found there at that work, "when he su'd hae been sleepin'." The general name by which he was known in Insch, was "the star mannie," and the farm servants used to amuse themselves by getting him to point out Jupiter and Saturn and their companions, and then make fun of the peculiar names, if not the peculiar man.

The Vale of Alford widens out in various parts into lateral valleys, drained by tributary streams that flow into the Don. One of these is the upland region that forms the parish of Tullynessle, on the eastern slopes of the Coreen Hills, drained by the Suic Burn. It is a warm, pleasant hollow, facing the south, its curious name meaning, it seems, in Gaelic, the knoll that looks southwards. It possesses a church and school, and some ruins of departed greatness in the old castle of Terpersie, which overlook it from the west.

On its higher slopes, known as the Braes of Whitehaugh, there lies a farm called, from its size, Muckletown, close by the hillock of Wardhead, and a short distance south of a hill crested with trees, called from its shape Knocksaul, the hill of the barn. This farm is only some five miles over the ridge from Auchleven. Here John Duncan lived for some years, weaving for the farmer, Robert Barron. Robert had a holding, and a weaving shop, in which he worked himself and employed some journeymen. Besides being weaver and farmer, he had some local fame as butcher, veterinary surgeon, and sportsman. He was intelligent, keen, practical, and vigorous, and could show considerable temper when roused. He was bright and blithe, even after he got his leg broken, and followed the plough on his wooden stump, whistling and singing as he went.

John boarded with this good man, and weaved in a shop, now in ruins, behind his house. It had three looms, lighted by three small windows, looking to the road that ran past the door. Above the workshop, there was a garret formed by the low triangular space under the sloping rafters, which was reached by ladder, through a trap-door in the ceiling at the upper end of the shop, opposite John's loom. This upper room had no ventilation whatever, except through the thatch, and no light but what came up "accidently" through the small trap-door. With what ill-lighted, unventilated places were our forefathers satisfied, really little in advance of the underground dens and caves of the prehistoric times! Yet up here often slept, night after night, three men in the three box or "stockit" beds that were fitted up in the stifling, darksome den, in some ways worse than John's solitary "philosopher" at Auchleven.

Here at Muckletown, John also carried on his astronomical studies, and many memories of his eccentricities still survive amongst the aged people in Tullynessle. One of these, a daughter of Andrew Wilson, a farmer who lived next door to the weaving-shop, was then a little girl about ten years old. Her young imagination was taken with the queer little weaver and his peculiar ways, and her excellent memory has well preserved the things she then saw and heard with her sharp eyes and ears.

Nearly opposite the workshop, on the other side of the road, stood Robert Barron's byre, from which a long dike stretched right in front of the shop and parallel to it. Along the top of this dike, John used to place his dials. Each of these consisted of a piece of slate, with a central stile inserted in the middle, which formed the famous "nogman," of which his contemporaries made such fun. While here, he also possessed and used a small telescope, or "looking-glass," as they naturally and correctly called it, a translation of the poetic "optic glass" of Miltonic poetry and Galilean renown. This he also adjusted on the dike, to examine the stars. On clear, frosty nights, John made his observations along the dike, returning at a run, to save time and to keep up his temperature, to the weaving-shop just opposite, where he registered his observations and consulted his books and almanacs. It was in connection with this dike that the practical jokers of the place used to thrown down his dials and play other pranks upon the absorbed and short-sighted astronomer. Andrew Wilson, whose house as next-door neighbour he used to frequent, would not allow his daughters to make sport in any way of the odd little man, but tried to inspire them with some of the respect his studies should have roused in every one.

In Tullynessle, he was also known as the "star-gazer" and "the nogman." But though he devoted his leisure to study, he did not neglect his work and is still remembered in the place as a capital weaver. His medical practices, not making such an impression on the people as his studying the stars, are not so well remembered there by survivors.

John was delighted, at all times when any one would listen to him, to speak of his studies, and to the willing and intelligent he would pour forth his lore for hours. Especially did he take pleasure in talking to young people, in the hope of leading them to higher things. He used to point out the stars and call them all by their names, to Mr. Wilson's little maidens and to youthful Robbie Barron; but as Robert now naively remarks, he was too young to be able to say whether he did so rightly or wrongly!

To escape the annoyance offered to him at the cottar town, John used to go to a distance, especially to the top of the neighbouring eminences, to make his observations and have a wider field of stars. The sides of the isolated Knocksaul, about a mile north of Muckletown, fourteen hundred feet in height, commanding a splendid view of the whole celestial hemisphere, were special haunts of his. There he would remain for hours, often far into the morning, watching the heavens, like the young astronomer Ferguson, a hundred years before, when he lived near Keith, some thirty miles to the west.

One night, his next-door neighbour, Mrs. Wilson, was attending on a sick cow, about two in the morning, after the rest of the family had long retired to bed. She was sitting with the animal in the lonely byre, which was dimly lighted by a rush lamp, an eerie-enough place at that hour, when the door began to creak on its hinges in the dead silence. Looking apprehensively round, she saw it stealthily and slowly pushed open, while a weird-looking face, darkly illumined by the solitary rush light, appeared in the narrow space, giving her "a terrible fright." In tones of real terror, she sprang up and demanded who was there. In an instant, she was relieved. It was only John Duncan, who at once stepped forward to show himself and to apologize for thus alarming her. He explained that seeing the red light shining through the crannies of the byre at that late hour, lie thought the place on fire ; otherwise, he would not have disturbed her. He had been at the top of Knocksaul, watching the stars. But, as she said, "he was a quiet, harmless man and interfered in nobody's affairs."

John lived at MZuckletown for seven or eight years but not continuously, contented, comfortable, and happy, notwithstanding the pranks played on him by his frolicsome neighbours, and in spite of a visit from his wandering wife, who turned up here as she had done everywhere else. When not engaged in his studies, which he usually prosecuted in the shop or in the open air, he spent the evenings next door, at the pleasant and appreciative fireside of the Wilsons, or in the merry kitchen of his employer. Being a public-spirited, humorous man and a good fiddler, Barron's house was a kind of rendezvous for the neighbourhood. Notwithstanding his philosophy and douceness, John enjoyed a merry evening with the best of them, contributing his share to the entertainment along with the rest, for he was always counted "capital company" when amongst congenial friends.

One night in 1831, this secluded community were startled into consternation and tragic fear. The winter that year had been unusually severe, though less so than afterwards in 1837, known as the year of the "big storm." Mrs. Wilson, the good woman whom John had frightened at midnight, left the farm to go over the hill to Auchleven with some wool, to get it made into worsted at John's old mill there. The afternoon was fair enough, but a heavy snow-storm came on with the evening, and as she did not return after the dark had come down, an alarm was raised. The whole population of the Braes of Whitehaugh, John amongst the rest, turned out to seek the lost woman, who happily was found, after long search, in a snow wreath, where she would without doubt have perished, had she not been rescued in time by her kindly neighbours.

Duncan was counted by most about Tullynessle, "a queer kind o' creatur'," "a droll body," "an awfu' queer man," "losing his time, instead of working at his loom," though the worst never did or could accuse him of being lazy. He was, nevertheless, " universally respected," as an intelligent, honourable, well-living man, with "nothing mean" about him, and "generous as far as he was able." Though he was always poor, his wages being small, he never failed to pay his way, and borrowed from no one. His unusual aspect is still remembered on the Braes, especially when he went for oil for his lamp to the shop at Waterside, at the north end of the bridge of Alford. He would then set out, dressed in his best, in the style already described at Auchleven, and, as became one who was going into civilized regions at the merchant's, he of course wore his tall "lum" hat. He also carried the inevitable umbrella under his arm, his stick in the right hand, and a great black earthenware bottle held by a string, in the left. He was certainly a queer figure, as he ascended the Wardhill to Boggie-Shallock and followed the old church road, by the base of Millhockie Hill, to Syllavethy, long before the granite quarries were opened there, on to the bridge over the Don.

To the last, though he never again lived at Tullynessle, he kept up friendly relations with the district where he had spent some happy years, frequently visiting it, to see old acquaintances and gather plants. Muckletown was a special resting-place in his later days, when Robert Barron had passed away and his house had become the home of Mrs. Wilson's daughter, and she had become Mrs. Duguid. After kindly entertainment, he would sit for hours by the cosy ingle, enjoying the children's play and a "spring" from her husband's fiddle, showing and describing the plants he had then gathered, bubbling up into glowing humour, as the solitary man always did amongst congenial hearts, and often remaining in this pleasant circle till near midnight. He would then, old as he was, fearlessly face the dark and dubs, and walk home alone, some ten miles, all the way to Droughsburn.


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