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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XV - Their First Botanical Studies


JOHN DUNCAN called early at Whitehouse the following evening, urged by an inexplicable expectancy. The time that night was chiefly spent in the garden and the greenhouses, according to John's wish, in some general talk about plants, and in those personal questions and mutual confidences that accompany a first introduction, when the one feels after the other, by which are laid the foundations of friendship. After parting, Charles was not yet very greatly impressed with the weaver, and he still thought him "a mortal queer man." John's shyness was so great; he shut himself from all strangers beneath such an impenetrable armour of natural reserve, which the sorrows he had to hide had painfully increased, that this was not to be wondered at. He was a modest mountain daisy, whose earlier growth had been stunted by sunless gloom, barren soil, and the bitter waters of grief, and which only lifted its drooping head under the genial warmth of trustful affection and fullest confidence. His backward reticence, indistinct utterance, and introverted, shamefaced look before strangers also concealed the latent power and the strong intellect that dwelt in his little body; so that, at parting that night, Charles had small hope of his doing much in science.

But increased acquaintance soon dispelled these impressions, and Black began to see that in this weaver he had a man of uncommon mental vigour and ability, who already possessed a great love of plants, much curious knowledge on that and on many other subjects he was himself ignorant of, a remarkable memory, and indomitable energy. At first, John's progress in Botany was slow; indeed, very slow, for this scholar had never been by any means "quick at the uptak'," ready in apprehension, and, in regard to entirely new ideas at his time of life, dull more than apt. But once grasped, once clearly perceived, they became his own, thoroughly and permanently absorbed.

John's visits increased in frequency, as intimacy deepened on both sides, and as the men began to catch hold of each other "with hooks of steel." John "grew upon" Charles so much that, as Charles said, he "became as it were part of himself, and if he did not come up of an evening, he felt a blank in the day." As Charles has often declared, he soon loved John "like a very brither." And John's affection and esteem for him became equally deep and absorbing. As he used to say, "Charlie Black was a bosom freend o' mine;" adding, like the solitary man he was, who valued trustful secretiveness, "if I tell't him onything, it was keepit there;" and concluding all references to their friendship with a return to the original theme, as if it were a dulcet melody that charmed him, "Ay, he was a great faavorite, a bosom freendI" Yet with all this admiration and trust, there was one subject never once alluded to between them during their long and close intimacy, because too painful for either to speak of—the central sorrow of John's life, his unhappy relations with his wife.

Though Duncan was slow in learning the thorny technicalities of the hard science he had set himself to conquer, he was intensely in earnest, patient beyond expression, eager to be taught, and humble as a child in his readiness to sit at the feet of his young teacher—a most praiseworthy trait, revealing finer touches of character and a true scientific spirit in a man twenty years Black's senior, who had seen and studied so much already. Such perseverance became its own reward, for John "got on," and his mastery over the subject grew apace. To aid him in his private study in the workshop, and to relieve his willing tutor from unnecessary trouble, he picked up, at his first visit to Aberdeen, a copy of "Pinnock's Catechism of Botany," a small introductory handbook, his first purchase in the science, with which he afterwards inoculated many a disciple, and which he preserved to the end as a pleasant memorial of early struggles in Botany. He used to bring with him bundles of plants when he came up to Whitehouse in the evening, which he gave to the gardener, asking him "to botanise heigh-oot." That is, he was to begin at the very first elements in discovering a plant, and tell at every step what he was doing; uttering aloud all his processes and conclusions, till he fixed its class, variety, and name, with reasons for each determination. John would himself then retrace the same ground in detail, under Charles's eye.

Though it was a considerable time before he could decipher a plant independently, he succeeded at last. Then followed the exquisite delight of self-discovery, crowned by the triumphant eureka when a difficult plant was finally made out.

To this was added in time the pleasures of mutual help, when the pupil could take his part with the master in determining a new-found specimen, the one using the book, and the other calling out the successive characteristics that were to guide them step by step to the very name ; and none but those who have thus worked hand in hand with a dear friend and fellow-student of plants can adequately realise the sweetness of such joint study of a favourite science. Like all such higher delights, it is one "which the world cannot give, and which it cannot take away."

During all that summer and autumn, both were busily searching for plants, John being simply indefatigable. With his greater leisure, he gathered more than Charles, who was a servant under command, with long hours and no holidays. Of course, John had more to get, as Charles had already a good collection, and he had only begun to form one. Charles had many duplicates, and kept only two specimens, handing over the others to his friend, whose herbarium began to swell to proud proportions in the weaving shop where he, kept it. In all his gathering of plants, John, of course, loyally collected for both.

The two students made many an excursion near and far throughout the Vale of Alford and its enclosing hills, in search of the loved flowers ; thus not only increasing their store of specimens, but gathering a thousand delightful memories to cheer them in after years, when they could be viewed only by that "inward eye which is the bliss of solitude " and distance. So that at last, as Charles Black gratefully and truthfully expresses it, "the Vale of Alford became to us one of the sweetest spots on earth. And the Tap o' Benachie, what does it not recall? How often did we wander over those dear old hills, and what a pleasure Botany was to John and me!"

It was their wise custom to collect and press the plants in summer, and lay them carefully aside, to be discovered during the long nights of winter, in the kitchen at Whitehouse. During the four years in which they thus worked together there, they visited the greater part of the surrounding country and conquered most of its plants, John going to more distant corners, which Charles's want of leisure prevented. And it is wonderful how much country they thus traversed together, with the little time Charles had at .command from his close confinement to work; as John proudly said, "we missed naething. a' roond." It is only another example of the perennial truth, of the will finding or creating the way; for in this, as in all else, enthusiastic will wields the might of the conqueror before whom every valley is exalted, every mountain and hill are made low, the crooked straight, and rough places plain.

But Charles had no spare time at all, except what was stolen from sleep, for he has always been too conscientious to steal even a single hour from the service of his employer, carrying this to an absurd extent, by refusing to take liberty when allowed it. Neither of these students grudged their sleeping hours for the flowers; and Charles was obliged occasionally to use the Sunday for more distant journeys to new spots where rarer species grew. John used at first to accompany him a good deal on that day, but by-and-by less frequently; for he became more rigid in regard to Sabbath observance, and having more leisure, he had not the same reasons for employing that day as Charles had, beyond his reluctance to allow his friend to go alone. And who shall say that these two men, deeply religious and God-fearing as they were by constitution and conviction, did wrong in thus employing the sacred day in the study of God's great book of Nature, twin volume as it is, and as it ought to be with even the most orthodox, to that of Revelation?

Their self-denying eagerness in pursuit of plants was exemplary; as their friend the shoemaker strongly put it, they were simply "wild" about them—a description which shows the impression their enthusiasm produced on their non-scientific neighbours. They would often leave Whitehouse before daybreak, and walk up Donside to the Bridge of Alford, scanning every cranny for specimens, and return to the house before the housekeeper was out of bed, after going at least ten miles of a morning before breakfast. On one occasion, they slept together at "the big house," and set out next morning at four o'clock, "before the screech o' day," carrying bread and cheese and a bottle of milk as their simple lunch. They went across Tough, by the high ground bounding the Vale on the south; down _into the valley of the Leochel at Skuttery Mill; up by Droughsburn, John's future residence; past Dorsell and Asloun to the Dori beyond Breda; [Pronounced Breddli. It has no connection with the continental town of the name, but is probably a corruption of Braidhaugh.] and back along the plain to the farm of Guise, in Tough, where they were entertained to tea by "the goodwife," the sister of a friend; and home again that night very late. They were not rewarded, however, by the discovery of many new plants that day, after a tramp over hill and dale of at least thirty miles. Another journey led them right over the Forest of Corennie, sixteen hundred feet above the sea, which bounds the Vale above the kirk of Tough ; down into the valley of the Dee; past the church of Lumphanan, to the Loch of Auchlossan, since drained, close by the Dee. There they got the pretty green plant, with small yellow papilionaceous flowers and sharp thorns, called needle greenwood, petty whin, or carlin's spur (Genista Anglica), which had longer needles or spurs than they ever saw; "bad," as John remarked, "for bar' feet."' One day they ascended the Red Hill near the crest of Corennie Forest, above the farm of Tillyfour—since famous under Mr. McCombie for his fine breed of polled cattle, visited by the Queen in 1866. Here Charles dropped his copy of Dickie's "Flora," which he had purchased at its first issue; and, notwithstanding diligent search then and afterwards, he never. saw it again—a loss which he could ill afford, and which distressed him much for its own sake, as an old companion and trusty guide in their researches. John, however, purchased a copy shortly after, for they could not do without it, and thus their progress was not impeded.

They explored minutely the whole course of the Don, from below Monymusk up to Kildrummy, with its splendid castellated ruins, and on to Towie, where they found the dwarf herbaceous bourtree or elder (Sambucus ebulus).

But the part they frequented most was the mountainous region behind Whitehouse, which bounds the Vale on the east, already so often mentioned when John lived on its eastern slopes by Paradise. Here they would go, past the fine erect monolith of gneiss called Luath's Stone, where a son of Macbeth's is said to lie buried, to the top of the Green Hill, above thirteen hundred feet. This commands a view reputed to be unrivalled in the district, from the sea beyond Aberdeen, by Lochnagar, up to Ben Macdhui and the Buck.; northwards, to the Tap o' Noth and the country beyond the Foudland Hills, round to Benachie and its wooded and cultivated eastern slopes. From Green ' Hill, they would climb to the top of Cairn William, down to John's old scenes by the Don, which they crossed by fords at several places well known to them, on their way to the dearly loved Benachie, every foot of which they knew. Still more frequently they walked to it, by the beautiful Brig o' Don, and the castellated Castle Forbes, nestling amidst its woods.

Benachic is not very rich in plants, except on its lower reaches. On the higher, in a moss close by the "Mither tap," they found the cloudberry, or mountain strawberry (Ratbus char cemorus), a rather uncommon sub-Alpine plant, with a large, pale-yellow, luscious fruit, the only rarer species they ever found there. One Sunday, they ascended the mountain, and continued their journey, to fulfil filial and social duties, by going down its eastern face; Charles visiting his old parents, whom he now saw too seldom, then resident at Burnside of Braco, and calling in the evening for John, who had seen his old friends at Longfolds. They then climbed Cairn William together on the way back to their quiet homes, in the dewy dusk, amidst the glories of the Sabbath sunset, and the adoration and thankfulness of their deepest hearts.

But pleasant beyond speech as were these wide and wild wanderings, they were equalled, if not surpassed, by the delights of deciphering the plants during the long cosy winter evenings, by the big kitchen fire at Whitehouse. It was then that the two set themselves to this happy task, with all the vigorous enthusiasm born of love for the plants and for each other. John was so eager that, winter as it vas, he threw off his shoes and coat when the examination began, and worked in his shirt-sleeves and stockings!

There is nothing like enthusiastic devotion to a subject to raise the bodily temperature. I knew two gentlemen, the keenest of chess-players, who, even at a drawing-room party, where they would retire to a window recess to play, regularly took off their coats before the game was half done, while the heated perspiration stood on their brows! Need we wonder at Duncan?

So very earnest were these two students that, as both have told me, often did the dawn surprise them at their happy toil! At that time, Charles did the chief part of the work of examination and arrangement, while John put them neatly on paper according to their classes; and, as Charles says, "deftly did he do it." He used the clean-washed floor to lay them on, the table being occupied by Charles.

Often, while thus employed, they were so devotedly absorbed in the work that hours would pass without a single word being exchanged between them; for, as Charles says, their "heads and hearts were too full!" And who that has engaged, especially with a dear friend, in the same delightful work among the plants gathered during the day, under the blue sky and amidst the countless charms of earth and air, has not known the raptures of like enthusiasm by the blazing fire, and cannot vividly recall many a blissful hour so spent as amongst the happiest of his life?

Would that such pursuits were commoner than they are amongst our people! Few things would do more to raise the intelligence and moral tone of the country, and save the memory many a blot and the conscience many a pang. What an influence might not our schools exercise in kindling a love of science and such employment of leisure! They have it in their power, and it is devoutly to be hoped that they will gradually rise to their high possibilities.

The winter of 1837-8, which followed that of their first meeting, was one of unusual severity, long known as "the winter of the big storm," when the snow was so deep that all trace of roads and fields was obliterated, and the snow lay long into the succeeding spring before it melted. It was similar to the winter of last year, when John died. The fierceness and cold of 1880-1, while draining out the waning strength of the old man, sent his memory back to those of more than forty years before, when he struggled through the deep snow night after night, to see his friend Charles and continue the study of the plants. But Duncan never was a man to be easily daunted at difficulty or hard work, and his enthusiasm in his new study soon became an overmastering passion.

When John left Whitehouse late at night, to retire to his bed above his loom at Netherton, Charles always made a point of accompanying him to "the yetts," or entrance gates, of the policies of Whitehouse. On the way, they were always engaged in ardent talk about the plants they had been working at, or about other subjects that interested them. When the gates were reached, the argument was rarely concluded; and, even when it was, John could not allow Charles to return alone; so he must needs go back with his friend. But he went so far that Charles had to return with him. And thus, under the charms of companionship and discourse, they often traced and retraced their steps for hours together past midnight. It is to be hoped that the reader has frequently indulged in such happy, peripatetic philosophising and folly!

One night they had been talking of some plants which Charles possessed but John did not, and Charles mentioned one he had seen growing luxuriantly near the Loch of Skene. This lake lies on the side of the turnpike which runs from Alford to Aberdeen, about two-thirds of the distance from Whitehouse to the city. John got him to describe the plant and its locality minutely. On account of their usual meanderings above and below the gates, they parted after twelve. Next morning, when the gardener rose to begin the work of the day, he was not a little surprised to see John waiting for him at the door, in a state of beaming excitement, with a plant in his hand. Before Charles could express his astonishment, John handed it to him with a bright light in his eye, and, in a quiet, subdued voice, that scarcely concealed the secret victorious satisfaction he felt, said, "Weel, Charlie, isn't that hit?"

It was the very plant they had been talking of when they parted! The eager little man had there and then set out along the high-road in the dark ; through the pass of Tillyfourie, a steep bit of climbing; on by the inn of Liggerdale, a frequent resting-place for the night with travellers from above Alford; and past the woods of Dunecht on the right, since famous for their astronomical proprietor, till at last he reached the Loch of Skene. Here, at the first peep-of day, he searched for and found the plant he sought, and with his well-won treasure returned to Whitehouse, to surprise his friend with it in the morning. It was a stiff midnight walk of at least thirty miles.

John's delight in returning to Charles, after a more distant ramble, with his bundle of treasures, was something beautiful to see, as Charles has told me. His joy would burst out, at the moment of meeting, in some characteristic exclamation, such as "Sal, lad, I hae fund something this time!" He would then produce his specimens in succession, naming them not unfrequently, especially in his earlier efforts, by wonderful transformations of the technical terms, which raised many a merry laugh, and recounting, in humorous detail, the adventures he had had in search of them.

O the pure blessedness, the quiet ecstasy of such simple tastes as were pursued by these humble students of flowers and lovers of nature! In very truth, to them Gray's joys of convalescence were the delights of daily health:

"The meanest floweret of the vale,
The simplest note that swelled the gale,
The common sun; the air, the skies,
To them were opening paradise."


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