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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XVI - Difficulties, Dumps and Dimples in their Joint Studies


BUT all was not smooth sailing with these self-taught botanists, notwithstanding their enthusiasm.

Having to pursue the science at that time altogether unassisted, the difficulties they had frequently to encounter in trying to decipher some of the rarer and more peculiar species were very great, increased, of course, by the want of the appliances of more favoured botanical students. It took them two whole years, for instance, to discover the Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris). This, the unbotanical reader should understand, is no grass at all, but a plant with a beautiful large white flower, which is very hard for young botanists to make out. This arises from different causes, but chiefly from the existence of certain stiff hairs symmetrically arranged within the petals in elliptical curves, bearing on their summits semi-transparent yellowish globes, very like stamens, which they are not.

Charles Black had found the plant before John came, beside a pond near the gardener's house at Castle Forbes, and was charmed with its exquisite beauty; for, along with the European winter-green (Trientalis Europe a), it is one of the prettiest of our paler wild flowers, well deserving its poetical name. He tried it frequently and failed, as many an amateur has done, for it is so peculiar that it forms a genus by itself amongst the Saxifrages. At last, however, he succeeded one wet Sunday, after renewed careful examination, proudly announcing the discovery to John next day; and the Parnassia carried to both of them, independently altogether of its great beauty, a certain delightful charm, to be understood only by those who have tasted the like joy of discovery after long protracted search in any scientific pursuit.

One of the chief difficulties these poor students had, was to obtain the requisite text-books for advancing in the subject, and identifying the rarer species when found—for microscopes and other instrumental appliances were out of the question, and never were possessed by them. " Galpin " was good as far as it went, but it was too brief, and required much previous technical knowledge. The best and most workable book then existing on British plants was the "British Flora" of Jackson Hooker, since deservedly dignified as Sir William. The first edition appeared in 1830, four years before Charles Black came to Whitehouse, though Hooker's "Flora Scotica," which they never then saw, had been issued in 1821. But the work was at a ransom price for them, being in two volumes, at something like a guinea apiece. It was a vain hope, to all appearance, that they should ever see it, and still less possess a copy.

One day, Charles met the eccentric innkeeper of Mayfield, who had a great respect for the gardener, and they entered into conversation. Davidson said he understood that he liked Botany. His son Geordie—the mention of whose name drew moisture to the old man's eye—had got a big book about Botany, which the father knew nothing of; would he like to see it? Certainly he would, and he was obliged to him for mentioning it. He called alone soon after, and found the book to be the long-desired Hooker! What a treasure, and what a God-send! So it seemed to the grateful young man, provided almost by special providence. Charles not only saw it, but got a loan of it; but for a short time only, for the old man cherished it too dearly for his son's sake, who had been his special favourite, to risk its possible loss.

This son of Davidson's, who had evidently been above the average of his class at that time, had been apprenticed as a gardener at Castle Forbes, and had, like our two friends, entered on the scientific study of Botany. After completing his time at home, he had gone to a situation in England, where the gentleman in whose garden he worked, observing his studious habits, and wishing to assist him in such laudable and unusual pursuits, had generously presented him with both of Hooker's volumes, then just issued. The lad, however, was weakly in constitution, and had to return home to his parents at Mayfield, bringing with him the precious work, along with others he had purchased. Here he soon died of consumption, in the flower of his age, leaving his books behind him. These his father treasured as mementoes of his dead son, and kept carefully locked up in a drawer.

If our two earnest students could only gain regular access to these lockfast volumes! That turned out to be less difficult than they thought; for the old man, when he learnt their desire, was only too pleased and proud to see them put any value on what his son had prized, and no one else seemed to care for.

So John and Charles used to go to Mayfield—a pretty and auspicious name, suggesting a happy spring to an abundant harvest of knowledge—and over a gill of whisky, purchased for the good of the house and as a sort of return for the kindness shown them, as well as, no doubt, for their own entertainment after the labours of the day, got a look at the books as long and as often as they wished. And many a sixpence was spent, many a long and ardent hour passed by the two men, poring over these hidden treasures at botanical lore, and many a plant was deciphered by their help.

But what of their morals, in such a place and with such potent draughts? Their enthusiasm was an all-powerful protection, and there is none greater. Would that this potent and delightful safeguard of our young men, an ardent love for nature and for science during the critical period of their lives, were better understood by them and their educators, and earnest steps taken to put them in possession of it! It would preserve and purify the youth of our country, more even than religion itself at such an age, and it would redeem their lives from many a stain and their memories from many a sorrow.

Charles was himself able, when he went to Edinburgh, to purchase the first volume of Hooker, for which he paid eleven shillings, and he got the second from a fellow-gardener. These he brought back with him to Whitehouse when he returned there in 1840, while Davidson still kept the inn at Mayfield. There they were at John's service, and they became their consulting cyclopaedia in all botanical difficulties.

Some time after this, in 1852, the year Duncan went to Droughsburn, the innkeeper accompanied a surviving son and his family to America, and, for some reason, all the books were sold. John Duncan was at the sale to watch the fate of the memorable volumes, and, if possible, to rescue them from unappreciative hands ; and they were knocked down to him for the large sum of—one shilling! Thus each volume brought the price of one of the costly libations they used to pour to Bacchus—or shall we not rather say to Flora or Minerva?—to obtain a sight of them!

Fortune does occasionally indulge her wayward fancy to dispense poetical justice, if she does not make abundant recompense, sometimes almost humorous, for bygone unkindness, as in this instance. Certainly, the reader will agree, the books could not have fallen into better hands. John got them strongly bound in calf—a pardonable extravagance—and they were carefully preserved in his chest all his days, a proud possession and a pleasant memory.

After Davidson's departure, in 1852, Mayfield ceased to be an inn, and not a stone of this old haunt of our botanists now remains; the thatched cottage having been replaced by a bran-new slated house, and the present trees that adorn it being recent like the dwelling.

But in their early botanical struggles, our students did not sail in the smoothest of seas even inside Whitehouse itself, less from the difficulties of steering amongst the greater rocks of the "big folks" themselves, than from those persistently thrown in their way by a woman. When the family went to Aberdeen for the winter, the place was left in charge of a vigorous housekeeper and Charles Black, and these two remained alone in that great empty mansion during the whole winter and spring. It was a most reprehensible system, carried out, if not in utter disregard of moral considerations, at least in most culpable thoughtlessness—but it is one even yet not at all uncommon, involving consequences which are not seldom painful.

The kitchen, in which these two guardians of the place were then obliged to spend the greater part of the day together, is in the west end of the sunk flat, to which a long flight of stone steps leads down at the back. It is a square, whitewashed room of considerable size, with stone floor, low roof, and large old-fashioned fireplace. It is lighted by a window, above the level of the eye, which looks to the front, and round which are clustered some of the plants that grow in the plot outside. Immediately off the kitchen, close to the back door, there is a small closet, in which Charles then slept. A passage runs from the kitchen along the front of the house, leading to other apartments on the same floor, where was the housekeeper's room, and to the hall and house above.

The housekeeper was considerably older than the youthful gardener, and though she could be pleasant when she liked, she was not blessed with the sweetest disposition. She was bilious in look and temperament and unattractive in her style. For some reason, best known to herself, she by-and-by took a moody dislike to her companion, and annoyed him in a hundred ways, as only a woman in such circumstances can, alternated with kindly offices. She might have made his life miserable; but as it was, from his inexhaustible humour and spirit, high health, and the grateful relief afforded by his botanical studies, while often making him very uncomfortable, she mainly succeeded in only rendering herself permanently unhappy. It would take a long chapter to detail the numberless petty annoyances to which she subjected him, in angry speeches and long moody silences, in preparing or neglecting his food, and in attacking like vulnerable points in the most philosophical armour. But, on the whole, she missed her mark as far as regarded the peace-loving, hilarious, and generally imperturbable object of her ill-natured attentions. John often told Charles that he should not stand it—lie wouldn't. "Sal man, Charlie," says he, "she widna do wi' me as she does wi' you; I would sune pat a pin in her nose! "—a figure of speech drawn from the custom of fastening a wooden pin in the nose of an obstreperous pig, to keep her from burrowing where she should not, and scriptural in every point except its substitution of a pin for a hook.

The weaver, as a friend of the gardener's, was no favourite with the housekeeper. She said they dirtied her kitchen with their weeds and big boots, and so John had to leave his at the door and enter on his stocking soles; and Charles did the same. In this way, all their botanical work had to be carried on shoeless, even in midwinter. When their specimens had been all duly spread out on the table and floor, and they were just in the very middle of an earnest evening's study, at an absurdly early hour she would insist on their stopping, and at once proceed to extinguish the fire, raking it out to the last embers, and leaving no materials in the house to rekindle it with. She would then retire to her room at the other end of the house, the only available candle in her hand, and leave the dumfoundered men speechless in the dark—and this not once, but often ! For the sake of peace, they submitted till she was safely gone, when they brought out a hidden store of sticks, with which they relighted the fire after they thought her asleep, and by which they continued their labours for hours, till they were completed, under the red light of gleaming fir-wood from the moss, or of a candle hoarded for the emergency. Sometimes, however, she would insist on their going to bed, and John would either have to retire with Charles to his room off the kitchen, or go outside to wait. When silence reigned and the light was extinguished in her apartment, they would softly emerge from the bedroom, or Charles would give John the signal to enter, in order to prosecute their forbidden studies. On occasions, they would adjourn to the greenhouse to seek a few hours' peace. But space would fail to tell a tithe of the petty persecutions to which Charles individually, and the two together, were thus subjected through jealousy and bad temper.

It was impossible, at that period, to quench the fire ofCharles Black's hilarity and light-hearted animal life, which streamed even through the fog and frost, rain and storm of this female Boreas. Happily for him, his spirits were irrepressible, and even astonished the more sedate and solemn weaver, and often drew forth his remonstrances. John's unconscious drollery and quaint, old-fashioned ways were at times too much for his young companion's risibility, and he would laugh so heartily that he had to roll on the floor to relieve his feelings. He was always a boisterous laugher, and John would sagely remark that if "fowk didna ken 'im, they would think 'im daft!" Often in the middle of a silent inspection of plants, Charles would all at once give a sudden roar, "just," as he said, "to let the steam off;" or he would burst out with instantaneous clamour into a song, or into some humorous quotation from Burns, whom he had at his finger ends, or from some other favourite poet; all to the utter bewilderment of quiet John, who could only express himself in "O Charlie! O man, man!"

Then, merely to vary the monotony of the counting of petals and stamens, and the incessant iteration of dodecandria, polyadelphia, heptagynia, and like fluent botanical sesquipedalia, Charles would hold mock arguments with the good weaver, on such a question as whether weavers were entitled to keep the "thrums" or remains of the yarn, an immemorial bone of contention started to try a weaver's temper. These his earnest friend would set himself to prove on logical grounds they had a right to, and would argue solemnly on the subject, for. which Charles did not care a pin-point; while the internal volcano of mirthful fun could hardly be kept from boisterous coruscations. Still farther to try him after all his arguments, he would hum "a stroud," [A popular song.] while working at the plants, from a radical ballad called the "Yellow-waimed Weivers o' Huntly"-

"Their sash was o' the stowan hank,
That day they walked through Huntly!"

This referred to their procession, along with other trades, in that ancient town, on the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832. John would gravely remark that "it was guid for him that he didna live at the roadside, else they would tak' him to the asylum!"

Sometimes when Charles was reading the Tory paper, the Aberdeen Constitutional, he would interpolate, of his own creation, some of the most outrageous Tory sentiments, to "touch up" John's radicalism; for a time with thorough success. But these new passages John at length wished to see with his own eyes, like the unbeliever he was!

At first, John brought his boots, when he took them off and placed them by the fender to dry, especially after a long tramp through the moss and heather seeking plants. Ere long they would strangely disappear from that position, though Lizzie, the housekeeper, had not touched them, however much she disliked these capacious "boats," rather than boots, with which the weaver protected his extremities. John then tried to hide them outside for safety, and when it was time to retire he sought them there, but found them not; and he was fain to go home barefooted, till Charles would take pity on him and produce them, amidst John's kindly remonstrances and advices to give up such pranks, which in a man, and much more in a botanist, he said, were scarcely to be commended.

Nor was John's bonnet—a broad blue Tam o' Shanter he wore when not in state with his long "tile"—allowed to remain unmolested more than his boots. It would unaccountably disappear when parting time came, Charlie not being always the culprit, and poor John had sometimes to go home bonnetless in consequence of this style of practical joking, then rampant in country places. By-and-by, John's instinct on entering, when he had untied his brogues, was to pocket his bonnet, to prevent possible theft; but even clever pocket-picking was not unknown in Whitehouse, a thing perhaps not very difficult to perpetrate during the weaver's absorbed moments when busy with the flowers.

Many of John's transformations of the sounding technicalities with which Botany abounds were simply irresistible, and raised a hundred bursts of laughter, which would not be suppressed. So comical were they sometimes in their new forms, that even the dark-browed housekeeper was fain herself to smile ; yet, as Charles says, "I was aften little better at them mysel'."

John was always a strenuous, over-earnest debater, especially on ecclesiastical and political subjects. In the midst of his gravest arguments, when his temper was beginning to wax a little warm, Charles, who was a phrenologist and could "read bumps," used to rise, and putting his hand behind John's ears where energy is lodged, and on his occiput where self-esteem is located—both of which in John were high—he would solemnly declare, "O John, John! ye canna help it, canna help it!" John, who had at that time had the religious horror long entertained of this subject in the country, would stand up at once and push his hands away, exclaiming, "Na, na na! gae 'wa wi' ye, Charlie. Nane o' that noo; I'll hae nane o't. It's sinfu', man; it's sinfu'!"—a common opinion then entertained regarding phrenology amongst the orthodox in Scotland. But, overcome by Charles's intense comicality, every annoyance was quickly dispersed, and John would. break into laughter in spite of himself.

Thus were dangerous arguments wisely terminated, and gathering clouds dispelled, by gay, good-hearted humour.

The hardness of botanical work at Whitehouse, with all its joys, was also not unfrequently relieved by the genialities of friendly Visits; for man's social instincts cannot be satisfied even with the delights of intellectual enthusiasm. Charles's relish of friendly society was then very strong, and John's was greater than his retiring selfcontainedness would indicate. Friends dropped in not unfrequently, to talk over the news of the day, especially the stirring questions that ushered in Disruption times, and the various social and political movements rising in the country. Plants were then thrown aside, for few of the visitors were botanists. Games were started, and very frequently, those "high jinks" were played in which youthful vigour and fun seem naturally to seek relief, especially during the stormy winter of 1838, when outdoor exercise became impossible.

The old-fashioned game of "catch the ten" gave pleasant excitement to many a quartette. John was generally Charles's weak but willing partner, and the housekeeper sometimes condescended to relax her severities by taking a hand—for in Aberdeen "the deil's books," as the innocent cards are called in puritanic Scotland, never were viewed with the instinctive horror of other over-Calvinistic regions. The big house would then ring with the sallies of good-humoured fun and kindly poking at each other's foibles. Sober John, earnest in play as in work, received perhaps the larger share of such attentions. But the philosopher, sad with silent griefs they knew not of, could unbend under the genial sunshine of the heart, and could give thrust for thrust, sally for sally. He could sing his song with the best, though the organ pipes were not of the clearest, and even discourse sweet music for the dance. This he did on the Jew's harp, which he carried when he went from home fastened on a cork, with a slit cut at the end for the thin tongue, and which he used to keep in salt to preserve it from rust—for he was careful and methodical in the minutest item of his life.

At times, John did become not a little cross, and, from his painful history, it is a wonder his temper was not worse than it was. But Charles "never fell oot wi' 'im, and," as he added with generous appreciation, "I never had ony occasion." Sometimes, as he confessed, he would give John a sharp retort, but he was immediately sorry for it, and said so; for, as he felt and still feels, "John's love for me was an enduring love."

These reminiscences are sufficient to prove that, as John sometimes phrased it, Charles was at that time "a gae sportsman chappie" and "awfu' merry." But then he was, as he said, "a steady honest man," and "meant and said and did nae hairm," for "I aye liked Charlie Black, and sac did he me."

As for Charles, he would not have hurt even a hair of John's head, much less ruffled his feelings of set purpose to pain him; his love and respect for him were too deep. As he says, "a more truly honest man than John Duncan never lived. I did try him at times, from sheer fun and suppressed steam, but the dear, kind soul seldom got angry with me on these occasions, but would in general only remonstrate with me on what he considered my daftness!"

How happy such confidential intimacy, and how human these simple details! Too earnest men like John would sometimes be inclined to censure even the sun for dancing on a dimpling pool, or laughing on a waterfall, or sparkling on a leaf spray. But what would life be, if the sense of the ludicrous and incongruous were banished from it?


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