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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XIII - Settlement at Netherton, and Village Life there


JOHN DUNCAN was now to take up his more or less permanent residence in a district where his life was destined to pass through a transformation that sweetened and elevated it—the pleasant Vale of Alford. In the early summer of 1836, the year of Coleridge's death and of the emancipation of slaves on all British soil, John made the acquaintance of Charles Black, the chief friend of his life, and began his stricter scientific studies.

After the Don has gathered its many waters from the great mountains in the west of Aberdeen, crowned by the big Ben Macdhui, and has become a full-grown stream, it enters the expansion of its valley, called the Vale or Howe of Alford. This wide basin has evidently been the bed of an ancient lake, from which the Don had issued at the narrow and picturesque gorge below Castle Forbes, and which has laid down the materials for its present cultivated beauty. The Vale is a broad hollow plain, through which wanders the clear stream of the Don, warmly embosomed by low rounded hills, prettily varied with wood, water, and field; guarded, on the east, by the peaked Benachie, and looked into, on the west, by the fine cone of the more distant Buck of the Cabrach. It is carefully cultivated to the tops of the enclosing hills, in a way that gives Alford no mean place in Aberdeenshire farming. Altogether, it is a sweet upland strath, beautified by fine scenery, and a pleasant place of abode.

Its houses have an air of happy comfort, its people are well clad and intelligent-looking, its churches though plain are not unpleasant, and its schools show that education is valued, as it generally is in Aberdeenshire. Though upland and inland, it now possesses its own railway, which joins it to the main line and the outer world, while the new village of Alford, created by the steam-engine, with its fine churches, banks and hotel, proves an active spirit of enterprise, which is a pledge of prosperity. Like all places long dwelt in, the Vale has also its great modern mansions, its ruined old castles, its older remains of prehistoric peoples, and its battle-field—for what fairest spot has not been stained with human blood?—where Montrose won one of his dashing victories in 1645.

The aspect and structure of its rocks and hills indicate still more ancient events, pointing back to the eras before the trees of the coal period grew, or the fishes of the Old Red swam, to the great Silurian ages, which deposited the gneiss of its upper reaches; and to the wilder disturbances that produced the beautiful granites of its lower portions; while the whole Vale and its surroundings bear abundant traces of the latest geologic changes, when the land was scratched and ground and smoothed by glacial ice.

The Vale expands into several side chambers or valleys, watered by tributaries of the Don. In one of these just described, John Duncan had already sojourned on its northern face, in Tullynessle. He now settled down for some years at its opposite extremity on the south-cast, in the parish of Tough, [Pronounced Tooth, with the guttural ch.] under the slopes of Corennie Forest. He took up his abode at a hamlet called Nether Edindurno, or shortly Netherton, at the entrance to the policies of the mansion of Whitehouse. It lies underneath Cairn William and the Hill of Tillyfourie, close by where the Whitehouse station now stands on the Alford Valley Railway. His new place of residence was immediately at the west side of the Benachie range, on the eastern shoulders of which he had spent many years near the woods of Paradise; and it was within easy distance of the two passes through these hills to his old haunts and Aberdeen, the one traversed by the Don at Castle Forbes, and the other, at a later time, by the railway at Tillyfourie.

Netherton, now represented by one house, was then a considerable hamlet with eight or nine families, and the centre of a large district, with its schoolmaster, innkeeper, tailor, shoemaker, smith, carpenter, weaver, and postman, and also with its neighbouring aristocracy in the mansions of Whitehouse and Tonlcy. [Emphasized on the second syllable.] It was situated on the great highway from Alford to Aberdeen, being twenty-three miles from the city, and a busy traffic then enlivened it, now drained off by the railway, which was not completed till 1859, twenty-three years after John Duncan first settled there, and ten years after he had left it. It was a delightful dwelling-place, near the well-wooded mountains to the east and south, which commanded an expansive prospect over the plain of Alford, with the distant peak of the Cabrach rising beyond its far extremity. It was surrounded by old cultivated land, especially about the parish church of Tough, and by extensive mosses, now nearly drained, on the flat land below.

John was engaged to work with a master weaver called Peter Marnock, whose house stood under the shade of two plane trees and a sacred ash, which are now its sole representatives, just below the farm of Netherton. It was a long, old-fashioned, thatched cottage, built of stones and clay, with great couples down to the ground, like a High-. land hut. It contained a kitchen with earthen floor, bright fireplace and shining "plate-rack;" a "ben hoose," or better apartment; and a weaving shop. The family lived chiefly in the cheerful kitchen, which opened right to the thatch, glossy black with the peat smoke of years, and which was kept scrupulously clean by Mrs. Marnock, a quiet, nice woman, noted as a good housekeeper. She had a son, who died young; and three daughters, one of whom remained at home to assist her mother, while the other two went to service.

In the workshop, which was next the kitchen, there were two looms. One of these was occupied by Marnock himself, the other by John. John lodged with Marnock, getting his food, paying so much for each meal, and sleeping in the weaving shop. He was engaged, as elsewhere, on "piece work," and was paid for what he produced; and, as wages were then very low, he was many a time "bare enough," according to a niece of Marnock's, who lived next door to him. As she tells, "he was easily pleased wi' his meat," his food being—for breakfast, porridge and milk; for dinner, potatoes and "kail brose" (consisting of oatmeal, with perhaps a little butter, saturated with the broth of green kail), being often quite satisfied with water-brose, that is, oatmeal softened by boiling water; and porridge and milk, for supper. Here, as everywhere else, he was reckoned an excellent workman.

Marnock, besides being weaver, was grave-digger and bellman at the parish church of Tough, and, like most "ministers' men," was somewhat of a character, though not so intelligent as his class generally were. When the late Dr. Gillan, of Alford, a man universally respected and loved, became minister of Tough, he asked Marnock to ring the bell for a quarter of an hour, as was customary elsewhere. The stiff old fellow, who had rung it for years only a few minutes at a time, replied, "'Deed, minister, if ye want it rung a' that time, ye'll better come and dee't yersel'!" and the good clergyman succumbed for the sake of peace. Though he was thus a parish and church pillar, Marnock's conduct at times scarcely squared with his ecclesiastical dignity. Not unfrequently he imbibed more than he could well carry, and then used language scarcely befitting his position to every one he then encountered, including his quiet wife. His love of work was not of the keenest, and he preferred the public highway to the weaver's treddles. He never interfered with John, however, allowing him full liberty to botanise, knowing well that he made up for loss at one time by working hard at another, when others were idle or in bed.

Like all small country places, where experience has been narrow and education with general knowledge narrower, Netherton had its social drainage in superabundant gossip, both cruel and kindly, and in envies and contentions. John's opinion of the village was not very high, for he said it was a rough place, "where they strove and fought falternally;" [A curious form of the word "eternally," or "alternately."] adding that "where there is a lot o' wives, there is nae want o' that." John himself, as one of his friends there says, was "a man of peace, whose word was never heard among his contentious neighbours." He thought that the women in Netherton, and everywhere else, indulged in tea far too much, spoiling their own nerves and emptying their husbands' pockets—in which he was decidedly right, the over use of tea in rural and Highland districts being still a dissipation of our time. He was, as he had ever been, quiet and retiring, delighting more in his own thoughts than in the pleasure of communicating them. Though he was not given to forming miscellaneous friendships, he cultivated more social life in Netherton than in any other place; for his spirits now began to shake off the domestic sorrows of the past, that had weighed so long and so heavily on his heart, especially after the death of their weak but guilty cause.

There was the shoemaker, Charles Hunter, a very worthy and intelligent man, who has seen a good deal of the world, and still survives in active work near Netherton, in his sixty-eighth year. Of him John thought very highly, and they became very intimate. Newspapers were then high priced and rare, costing a guinea a year, worth double that sum now; but, in the village, a club was formed to purchase one, and John and the shoemaker were active promoters of the scheme and diligent readers. Being strong Liberals, they got the Aberdeen Journal till the Disruption in 1843, and after that, the Aberdeen Banner, both of them having seceded with the Free Church. Charles Black, who was then and still is, as he says, "Tory to the backbone"—politics being the only thing in which he is conservative—stood alone in subscribing for the Aberdeen Constitutional. This paper John abhorred but read for its news, and, curiously enough, many of his plants in the herbarium now in Aberdeen University are preserved in the sheets of this hated organ, the paper having proved truly conservative in botanical as well as in political matters.

Charles Hunter's estimate of John Duncan is remarkably high. He praises his omnivorous reading, his extraordinary memory, his unconquerable perseverance against opposition, misunderstanding and difficulty. "When he didna understand onything," he says, "he just read it ower and ower till he had it, and then it stuck!" He believes that "he would have been a great man if he had had a good education."

The shoemaker's shop here, as in most places, was the rendezvous of the district, where the more intelligent used to drop in, to hear the papers read and hold discussions on the topics of the day. Ecclesiastical polemics were then volcanic, before '43; and how keen these discussions were, is impossible to be sufficiently realised by those who did not pass through that heated time.

One of the keenest debaters on these burning questions was Sandy Cameron, the tailor, who lived next door to Marnock's, a worthy, hard-working, careful, and intelligent man, respected by all that knew him. Though he cared nothing for plants, he studied astronomy in books, which became a natural bond of union with "Johnnie Moon." He was one of that species of tailor known in Scotland by the absurd but striking name of " whip-the-cat." Such tailors travelled over the country, to sew in the houses of those who employed them, carrying with them "the goose and the lap-board," [The first is the iron instrument, with the bent handle which gave it its expressive name, for ironing cloth ; and the second, the long flat board on which that is done.] and receiving as wages two shillings a day and their food. Sandy, having a house and croft at Netherton, always returned home at night when he could, and frequented the workshops of Marnock and Hunter. Like many of his wandering class, he had a wonderful flow of language, but, unlike most of his compeers, who used old Scotch, he discoursed in a high-flown English style that sounded pulpit-like and impressive. It was certainly overpowering in volume, if not in substance, and was poured forth, as one of his auditors says, in "a harangue of high-sounding words that seemed to have no end." As John and he took opposite sides in church politics, the tailor defending the "auld Kirk," and the weaver championing the Free, the wordy war at times became fast and furious—at least to the ear—and the tailor perorated so volubly, that his opponent could not get a word in even edgeways. John, who was less fluent but equally strenuous, would stand in front of the loquacious defender of the ancient church in perturbed confusion, scratching his head, twitching his mouth, as his custom was at such times, and waiting in vain for a break in the flood ; till his patience at last gave way, and in tones that scarcely drowned the other polemic's, he cried out in sheer desperation, "Nane o' yer English to me, man; I want nane o't. And stick to the pint, stick to the pint!"

tongue. Like the good Bonifaces of the olden days, he did not disdain to sit down with his customers and partake of his own cheer, and then convoy them for some distance on their journey, by way of completing the "entertainment" promised on his sign. In his later years, Davidson became very subject to rheumatism, but nevertheless continued his old attentions to travellers, accompanying them along the road without a coat. When remonstrated with for doing so, on account of this affection, he replied, in his best stutter, that "c-cold was the v-very life o' the room-a-room-attics;" meaning thereby that it cured them—homoeopathically, no doubt.

He was a man of considerable force of character and no little enterprise. In addition to the public-house he kept, he carried on a small grocery, which added to his income. He was also the first to start a stage coach from the Vale of Alford to Aberdeen, about twenty-three miles distant, which ran from his door. This undertaking diminished his possessions, however, and was soon given up, in those days of the universal use of "shank's neggie." [Or the leg horse, or "naig," as the foot in walking is expressed in old Scotch.] Though he had failed in carrying his neighbours when they could walk, he tried the experiment of carrying them when they could not, by introducing the first hearse ever seen in that part of the country—and he succeeded better with the dead than with the living. As an interested party, he wished to anticipate recent fiscal reforms, and drew out a long petition for the repeal of the hated malt tax. This document he submitted, before presentation, to the learned censor of English in the district, the dominie of Coulterneuk, for his careful revision. He reported that it would take a clever man to revise it, for, like the Irishman's gun, "it would need to be done all over again!" The petition, in consequence, never reached the House.

As we shall see, Davidson's hostelry became the scene of certain important botanical experiences in the life of the twin botanists of our story.

Yet, amidst the possibilities of cruel gossip, under the watchful eyes and ready tongues of the unloving, active at Netherton, the old rooted sorrow intruded itself here, notwithstanding John's silence and care. His wife appeared in the village soon after he had settled there, and made known her relation to the stranger, twelve years and more after their forced separation in Aberdeen.

She had haunted him through all these years, like an evil thought that would not be silenced. She had sought him out near Monymusk, had risen as his evil genius at Auchleven, and had allowed him no peace even in the uplands of Tullynessle; and here, again, she appeared at Marnock's, to blight his good name, if that were possible. It was indescribably baneful and hard to bear, especially in new scenes, where he had to make his character amongst new critics. The poor woman was now a wreck, palsied and almost helpless, yet a homeless wanderer who would not rest, even to wait for coming death. Her husband, disturbed beyond expression though he was and had amplest reason to be, did not reproach her, but arranged with the Marnocks for her food and comfort that day and night, when she rested in the kitchen under the gaze of the unsympathetic, and slept at night in a comfortable bed in the barn. She left next morning, still bent on a wayfaring life, with some of her patient husband's hard-won gains. He never saw her more. She passed away, unknown to him, soon afterwards near Insch. The story of her death and burial he never spoke of, and it must now remain for ever under an unbroken seal.


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