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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XVII - John's early Experiences in his own Botanical Rambles


JOHN DUNCAN resided at Netherton, in Tough, for thirteen years in all, from 1836 to 1849, varied by visits to friends at a distance and by harvesting in different districts.

His botanical enthusiasm soon became too deep, and his practical command of the subject too great, to require the presence of his "father in Botany," as he gratefully called his young teacher, vho left the Vale temporarily for some time and finally in 1842. His love for it had already risen to the strength and permanence of a life-long passion.

He now set himself to complete his survey of the Vale and its surrounding valleys and hills. Guided greatly by Dickie's "Flora," he also began a systematic examination of Aberdeenshire, commencing with the coast line, which he explored from Belhelvie, north of Aberdeen, to Portlethen,. south of it; going up the Dee by the Loch of Drum to Tarland, and above it; and conquering the valley of the Don up to near its source at Corgarf Castle, from which he obtained one of his earliest finds of sub-Alpine plants unknown on the lower grounds, the Vaccinium oxycoccos or cranberry, which he brought home in triumph, announcing the discovery to Charles in a wonderful transformation of the strange-looking name, and which they then counted a treasure.

His botanical explorations in his own neighbourhood were the astonishment of the people. Being very shortsighted, the little man was obliged to grope along the ground in order to see the plants, and when this was done in bogs and mosses, it was not very pleasant work. But no place was too wet, no peat moss too dirty, no boghole too disagreeable for the enthusiast, who was often seen crawling along on hands and knees in such places till his neighbours really thought him becoming demented. To secure time for these outdoor pursuits, he used to get up in the early morning while others were asleep, even in that early-rising community, or work at his loom late at night, to complete his day's "stent" at the loom; for, with all his love of rambling, he never neglected his daily business, though he never made money like some of his contemporaries at the loom, as his friends Hunter and Cameron did at Netherton.

One morning in June, John rose before the lark to carry home to a customer, who lived at some distance, a web that he had just finished. Having delivered it, and got a kindly breakfast from the good lady of the house to speed him on his way homewards, he left the high-road and descended into the Moss of Tillyfourie, near the head of the pass through which the railway now runs, above Netherton, then an extensive peat bog, now greatly reclaimed for the plough. He wished to examine the numerous aquatic plants that grew in its black haggs and pools. He wore his tall hat, as he always did when visiting, and carried a small homely, portable herbarium under his arm, and a stick in his hand, both of the last being his constant companions in his travels. In one of the deep peat holes filled with water that abounded there,.he observed floating on its surface a somewhat rare plant, in beautiful flower, then found only at one or two spots in the Vale, stations that have disappeared with the mosses in which they grew. This was the Greater bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris), a botanical and physiological curiosity with interesting habits.

During the greater part of the year, it lies in a confused mass upon, but quite detached from, the bottom of the pool in which it lives. It is held down by the utricles or bladderets that give it its name, which are then filled with heavy mucus. When flowering time arrives in June, this mucus becomes replaced by a kind of light gas, which bears the plant to the surface, to enable its golden-yellow flowers —which stand erect half a foot above the water—to feel the sun and air, and fructify their seeds. This done, the mucus re-forms in the bladders and sinks the plant again to the bottom, where the ripened seeds are deposited in the soft mud, to propagate the race when the parent has died. These little bladders are otherwise very curious, opening inwards with an elastic valve, and catching water-beetles, which it is said to digest and consume. Like the Vallisneria and other plants, this species is often adduced as a striking illustration of the wonderful adaptations of nature for specific ends. [This plant also once grew, as Mr. J. M. B. Taylor informs me, in the old moss at Balfluig, near Alford, where also was found the smaller species, the U. minor. But this moss is now cultivated land.]

There happened to be in the Tillyfourie moss that day a large number of people engaged in cutting peats, who saw John leave the road and enter the bog. Thinking, like practical folks, that a traveller with a tall hat could have done so only to shorten his way, and seeing him disappear from view in an old part of the moss honeycombed with dangerous peat hags, one of the workers kindly sent a lad to show him a better path, and, if necessary, to help him on his way. The boy found him on the edge of a deep black pool, hat off, and stick in hand, trying with its crooked end to draw the floating plant towards him. The botanist was so intent that he did not notice the lad, who, coming close to the pool, shouted at the pitch of his voice, after trying in vain to draw his attention once or twice before, "Hey, man! I was bidden tell ye, ye wu'd get a better road oot this way." Startled at the sudden cry, for he thought himself alone, John raised himself to reply, and with the quick movement sank ankle-deep in the mud. He told him that he was not seeking a road, and then resumed his novel fishing. When the boy returned to his companions, he was asked if he had put the man on the right way. "Na, na," said he; "he's a queer chap yon. He doesna want to ken a gweed road; and yonder he is, up till the knees in watter, working in a peat hole wi' his stick!" "The man maun be daft," said his father; and so said all the rest, who dropped work to gaze in the direction in which John had gone out of sight. Their opinion of his sanity was only confirmed when he speedily reappeared on the bank above the pool, with the dripping, dirty weed in the one hand, and his hat, bundle and staff in the other. They were, however, greatly relieved when they saw him walk quietly away in this curious guise, the workers pitying his madness or folly, he proud beyond expression of his treasure. But so frail are the flowers of this plant that they would scarcely survive till he reached the edge of the moss. There he pressed them as well as he could in the paper he carried for the purpose, and he found, when dried, that their golden colour had been replaced by a dark purple hue.

Sometimes his search for plants was accompanied by no little danger. In one of his longer journeys from Netherton, he visited the Loch of Drum, near the ancient castle of Drum, to the east of Banchory, on the Dee. He had been told by Charles Black that it was a station for that magnificent plant, the white water-lily (Nynphĉa alba), of which he had not yet secured a specimen.

This exquisite species, as all know who have tried to pluck its alabaster blossom, is shy and retiring, like the modest nymphs after whom Linnous poetically named it, and keeps well off from the shore, generally out of reach of the spoiler. Devoted also to solitude and peace, it frequents only calm river pools and placid lakes, its flat leaves smoothing the surface where they grow, like the ancient halcyon, even in a stiff breeze, as if in return for their shelter. The root stocks require a soft, deep soil, so that they are found only in places with a very muddy bottom, which acts as a further protection to the plants and makes them very difficult to reach from the shore.

John was once asked by William Mortimer if he had visited the Loch of Drum, then famous for its plants. "Ay," says he; "and, mair than that, I hae been in't!" It happened on this wise. John found the lilies in full and tempting flower, and, like Cowper on a similar occasion on the banks of the Ouse,

"Their beauties he intent surveyed,
And one he wished his own.
With staff extended far, he sought
To steer it close to land,
But still the prize, though nearly caught,
Escaped his eager hand."

Having no kindly spaniel, like Beau, to bring it to his master, John did what the gentle poet would never have thought of doing, and would have been shocked to attempt had the idea occurred to him; he stripped himself of his nether integuments—called by him "his breeks"—and waded into the loch! It was a risk he should not have run on an unknown muddy shore like that of the Loch of Drum. He soon felt the bottom to be none of the safest, but loth to give up when he had gone so far, he advanced, and had just clutched the prize, when he sank irretrievably in the soft, tenacious mud, every step only increasing his danger. He would undoubtedly have perished, had not his involuntary cries attracted the attention of a gentleman who was fishing from a boat at some distance. Pulling with all his might, he was just in time to save the too venturous and ardent botanist from a watery grave, and bring him soaking, but grateful, to the banks.

After John had related the adventure to his friend, with great dramatic detail, William naturally remarked, "But ye had lost yer lily aifter a'." "Na, na," at once replied the mettlesome little man, "I brocht it alang wi' me!" speaking in tones that revealed no end of the courage and will that formed such strong features in his character. He had never relinquished his hold of what he sought even in extremis, and he brought the plant, Ieaf and blossom, home with him to Netherton!

The Loch of Drum, which still covers eighty-five acres, is now little better than a morass, fringed with birch and alder bushes, and is not more than four feet in depth at any place. At John's visit, it formed a very different scene, and was a deep lake surrounded by picturesque wood, now cut down.

The danger he had run made a strong and lasting impression on Duncan, and he naturally and firmly resented any flippant allusions to the subject, which some of his acquaintances were mischievously inclined to make, for he felt too serious for joking and too grateful for fun.

When Mr. John Taylor was arranging his herbarium for presentation to the Aberdeen University, some months before John's death, he came on a broken leaf of the water-lily, the rest of it and the whole of the flower having been eaten by the moths, in spite of care and protective camphor. That was all that remained of the memorable plant, gathered forty years before, which the old man spoke solemnly of, as a soldier would of a sword that might have killed him had he not been rescued. The leaf was too much destroyed to be sent to the university with the rest. But it was a pity it was not sent, however imperfect, if only as a proof and memento of pluck that every student might be proud to emulate.

During this same journey, John brought home a root of the Royal fern (Osmunda regalis), which he obtained from the banks of the stream that flowed from the Loch of Park, a habitat from which it has since been rooted out. [It is mentioned, along with the water-lily and other rare aquatic plants, as found there, in the list published in 1842 in the Statistical account of the parish of Drumoak, by the Rev. Dr. Corbet, then parish minister. Dr. Dickie mentions that in i86o it had become extinct near the Loch of Park.]

This he gave to his friend, the schoolmaster of Coulterneuk, in whose garden it remained for years, till Mr. Forbes presented it to the Rev. Mr. Milne, parish minister of Tough. In the splendid rockery at the manse—one of the best of its kind, worth going far to see—it still flourishes in luxuriant beauty. It is a specimen specially prized by Mr. Milne, because it once belonged to the old botanist, whom he knew and respected but thought peculiar, and because he says that that truly kingly fern is now exterminated from the county. So that our hero unexpectedly did royal service for the royal plant that day.

In this rockery, there long grew a specimen of the curious moonwort (Botryclzia lunaria), carried by John in an old napkin with his usual care. It was found by him in the valley of the Leochel, near Droughsburn, where the minister called on him to ask him to get a specimen, as it could not be got about Tough. The plant died, however, in less than a year, the species being somewhat fastidious as to soil and situation.

John's ardour and endurance were something quite remarkable. He was frequently out on the hills all night, coming home in the early morning when his neighbours were getting up. One of his friends recalls having seen him pass his house at dawn, after a night of storm and rain, drenched to the skin, but blithe and joyous, from having succeeded in obtaining some rarer species over the Coreen Hills, north of the Bridge of Alford. Several plants, as found there, in the list published in 1842 in the Statistical account of the parish of Drumoak, by the Rev. Dr. Corbet, then parish minister. Dr. Dickie mentions that in 186o it had become extinct near the Loch of Park, remember his being out all night on Benachie, when he lived at Auchleven at its northern base. If he had an unusually long journey before him, to some wild or unfrequented region, he used to set out very early in the morning, with bread and cheese in his pockets, his portable plant-preserving sheets under his arm, his broad bonnet on his head, and his constant staff in his hand. He carried also a bag of oatmeal, which he used to pour out in quantities on any flat stone and make a kind of "crowdie" of, with pure water from the rippling brook—the plainest and simplest of fare, but thoroughly substantial and nourishing. He would remain in the open air all that day and the following night, and then return home early next morning, to begin his weaving and make up for lost time. When absent for longer periods, where he had no house to shelter him in solitary spots whither his explorations often led him, he has frequently "slept the furth," [That is, forth of or outside of a house.] as one of his friends expressed it in local phrase, that is, under the heavens, during the warmer nights of summer.

The distances walked on foot by our brother botanists may seem to some incredible, but, at that time, a journey that would now be quoted as memorable was thought nothing of, and was not uncommon. When on his travels to the south, Duncan would walk some thirty miles continuously, day after day, with no fatigue whatever. Many of his early friends used to accomplish fifty miles without thinking it anything to boast of. More than once, Charles Black left Whitehouse, and walked over Corennie Forest, down into the valley of the Dee, across the hill road by the Cairn-o-Mount, and on to Lochlee, near the source of the North Esk, to visit his wife's relatives, some forty or fifty hard mountainous miles, every step of them in one day; and then return the next or following day, with little trouble. Even in those pre-railroad days, John was famous for his speed and endurance on foot, one of his characteristics being an unusually rapid, light and long step in walking. As he used to say, "I was terrible fine i' the fit; aye a gran' walker"—so that in his day, he "gaed ower a lot o' grund, a terrible heap o' miles."

His wanderings in unfrequented places, often the best stations for plants, frequently subjected him to the charge of trespassing, and brought him into unpleasant contact with the guardians of game and forests, whose rude exercise of authority was often quite mollified by John's kindly humour, and their haughty anger turned into smiles. In more difficult circumstances, his mother wit was more than a match for these mighty custodiers of the moor.

Many of John's experiences in his botanical excursions were entertaining and humorous. On one occasion, John went a-plant-hunting along a burn-side not far from the church of Tough, with James Black, Charles's brother, who often accompanied him on such rambles. After gathering a large bundle, they began to return home. As they were passing a small farm above the stream along which they walked, they were hailed by the farmer, who knew John well, and who thought he would have some amusement for himself at the mild man's expense. They accepted the invitation. "Weel, Johnnie man," cried he, "ye hae been bot'neezin', as ye ca't. Come noo, lat's see the weyds ye hae gaithered i' yer hand there." They were at once spread out on the ground, amidst the immoderate laughter of the farmer, an easy-going, stout young man of the true bucolic type. This brought out the rest of the family, including his brother, and his father, Joseph. While they stood round, the son took up the largest specimen in the group, one of the Knotted figwort, a handsome plant, with peculiar, dull-coloured flowers, and no very pleasant odour. "Noo, John," says he, "i' yer ain grand lingo, fat ca' ye that grite trailipus o' a thing?" "Knotty-rooted figwort, Scropliularia nodosa," replied John, all in one continuous run of knotted syllables, the Latin words being scarcely pronounced like an ancient Roman. "Fat, fat!" cried the dumfoundered man, with bursting laughter; "fat said ye, man? Sic gibberish I never heard ! Say't over again." The strain was repeated in its long-drawn concatenation, and re-repeated at request, amidst the merriment of the whole assembly at the "lang-nibbit" [Long-nebbed, or long-beaked, applied to long-sounding words in Scotland, with picturesque expressiveness.] words, John smiling, and James joining in the irresistible mirth with heart and soul, as he tells.

Old Joseph, the father, till now a mere spectator, prided himself on his intelligence, having served his apprenticeship, as he often told, "in the heed boro' toon o' Aiberdeen." He determined to come to John's aid; affronted, as he said, that his son, "a grown man, was so confounded dull i' the uptak'." [Up-take, that is, power of taking up mentally, understanding.] "Though I'm noo an auld man o' near fowr score," remonstrated he, addressing his son, "I ken ilka wird the man's sayin'. Can ye no tak' tent to fat's tauld ye, man ? " The son completed the measure of his father's contempt by saying that he did not believe a word of what John had been saying. Taking from his mouth his cutty-pipe—which he had till then been smoking —and clearing his throat by spitting fiercely on the ground, while he gazed with evident anger on the round, rubicund, meaningless face of his son, the disgusted old man shouted out, "Do ye no ken fat the man says yet? It's Scotch Zarclaiczfoseph's ear! ye stupid gowk [Gowk is the Scotch for cuckoo, of which it is the first syllable a little changed.] that ye are, speering at John sac of en." Thinking that he had solved the problem once and for all, and silenced his son, he turned and entered the house, with a look of scorn at such stupidity being exhibited by a child of his.

The young man was speechless, awed by the learning of his father and rebuked by his angry disdain. No further questions were asked. The plants were speedily gathered up again, and the two botanists passed onwards, to ruminate and talk over the odd encounter, John laughing more than usual on the way homewards. When he called at Whitehouse that night, according to custom, to show the plants he had found, he told Charles the story "with great birr." [Strength and glee combined. Another form of the word is virr, which suggests some possible relation to the root of the Latin vis, strength, and vii', a strong man.] He never afterwards forgot the scene.

It is but a specimen of numberless similar encounters with his neighbours. They seldom got the best of it, however; though the apparent simplicity of the weaver was a never-failing provocative to bucolic wit and contemptuous ignorance.


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