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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XVIII - Further Intercourse with Charles Black


CHARLES BLACK, left Whitehouse in 1838, after four years' residence, in prospect of a better situation at Bradford, in Yorkshire. As the new place required a married man, he took to himself a wife in his twenty-fifth year; for devotion to Botany had not dried up his affections, and he had found time at Whitehouse for both love-making and plant-gathering. His choice fell upon fair and sprightly Annie Gall, for some years house and lady's-maid to Mrs. Farquharson, of Whitehouse; Annie's tact and attentiveness being proved by her, retaining that service so long. They were married in Aberdeen in July. As John Duncan said, "Chairlie got a guid wife—a fine reconcilin' woman," the turn of the characterisation evidently indicating painful memories' of the reverse. Charles never reached England, however, for the situation there was filled up by its former occupant, who unexpectedly remained. He immediately removed with his young wife to Edinburgh, for the chief purpose of perfecting his knowledge of Botany, by getting employment, if he could, in the Botanic Gardens there. This he succeeded in obtaining before the close of the year, after enduring considerable privation from the want of work, then difficult to get. There his wages were only ten shillings a week; but to Charles the new chances of increased insight into Botany were more than money, which he has always had a tendency, perhaps, to under-estimate. During the previous trying time of forced idleness in business, but not in Botany, his good wife not only proved herself to be a thrifty and hard-working housekeeper, but a willing and efficient assistant in her husband's botanical studies—helping him to select, spread, iron, press, dry, and arrange the plants he gathered.

It is unnecessary to tell the reader that Charles Black took the fullest advantage of the rare opportunities he enjoyed in the Gardens: He speedily showed himself so capable and intelligent in the science, that he was employed to gather the plants required for illustrating the prelections of the Professor of Botany, with the additional advantages of hearing the lectures given to the students, and accompanying them in their outdoor excursions over the interesting botanical country that surrounds that most beautiful and exquisitely situated of cities.

In 1839, the year after Charles had settled there, John Duncan paid him a long-anticipated visit, going there from Dundee, where he had been harvesting. This was not the first time, however, that he had stayed in the capital, for he had been there before when he went through the Lothians to the harvest.

Far, far above all the lions of the town, interesting as Edinburgh is in sights and memories to stir the heart of every Scotchman, especially a patriot like John, was the garden down in Inverleith Row, known as the Royal Botanic. During all the time he was in town, John spent the whole or chief part of the day in that enchanted land, in Edenic felicity, from early morn till dewy eve. Sometimes he did not even take time to go home with Charles for his food, bringing with him his old bag of oatmeal, which, in more primitive simplicity than the oldest gardener and his wife no doubt indulged, he ate with relish, moistened with water and sweetened with appetite. If the reader should imagine that John Duncan had no pride of appearance, judging from his odd, old-fashioned dress, he would be mistaken, for he was most particular regarding his personal looks and tidiness in clothes. Thinking his own home-made attire not fine enough for such an important occasion, he donned Charles's long-tailed surtout and vest, to look more, as he deemed it, like the time and place. In this change of apparel, he was, no doubt, quietly backed by Charles himself, for he wished the ancient-looking weaver, as became a friend of his, to appear as like other people as possible.

Saturday was the only free time for the public, but Charles obtained leave for John to enter every day, under his care. He showed him round the whole garden, with no small pride and with mutual pleasure. John's surprise and delight were expressed in child-like phrase, as each new point of beauty and interest met his view. He was taken into the various hothouses, where he saw plants he had never seen before, though he had visited every gardener he knew in the north. He entered the great palm houses, where he first gained a practical realisation of the gigantic and luxuriant' vegetation of the tropics. The sensitive plant (Mimosa sensitiva), seen for the first time, specially drew his notice and fixed itself in his memory. He was also greatly surprised at the remarkable size of the leaves of some of the palm trees. Seeing a leaf of special expansiveness from the gallery above it, he remarked to his friend, "Man, Chairlie, ye cu'd be rowed [Rolled.] inside that, like a pund o' butter in a doken! " [The Ieaf of the dock, once much used in country places for holding butter when sent to market. The o is pronounced long.]

He also was silently impressed when he was privileged to see and consult the large herbarium gathered by the professor and students, from which he took many a note, and on the plan of which he tried to frame his own in after years. He also followed the students, as they listened to the discourses of Professor Graham, and moved about amongst the plants while he explained the peculiarities of each flower on the spot; making John think how happy they were to have such opportunities, which he, poor man, never had enjoyed. Would that more of the young men that pass through this admirable practical course, would cherish a little more of the old botanist's feelings.

He was also deeply moved at seeing the monument erected in the gardens to his great master, Linnxus, mentioning his visits to see it with special emphasis; [It was erected by Professor Hope in 1779. It is about eight feet high, and is surmounted by a large stone urn.] for the famous Swede was one of his greatest men, and he never mentioned his name but with the profoundest respect and reverence. He knew his life minutely, and used to tell stories about him in capital Scotch, with ecstatic, friendly detail, as if he knew and loved him with a personal affection. One of his most cherished possessions was a portrait of Linnmus, afterwards sent him by a friend as an expression of respect.

But the part of the garden in which John spent the most of his time was the British section, where the plants were classified according to the Linnaan system, and grew in plots, with their orders, species, and names attached. These were, to a keen amateur like him, the Elysian fields themselves. There John spent many charmed hours.

From his short-sightedness, he was obliged to kneel on the grass and stretch far over into the plots to see the names. Being shy and fearful of offence, he could not think of taking the liberty of lifting the labels in his hand, reading and carefully replacing them, as most men would have done. Stepping on the cultivated ground being forbidden, and his curiosity about the names demanding satisfaction at all hazards, he would look furtively round before venturing to peer so closely at the painted tickets, in order to see if any one was observing him; then cautiously step into the plot to read them; and then religiously rearrange the earth where his foot had left its print. He was observed doing this by the head gardener, Lawson, who knew him as Black's friend and an ardent botanist. Lawson told Charles, out of kindness to John, to go to him and say that "if he wasn't a thief, he shouldn't look so damned thief-like!" but boldly lift the labels and replace them; as the director might be walking about, and might misunderstand his movements.

By that time, having gained considerable practical power over the science, John knew enough to be able to direct his attention profitably to the parts new to him, and benefited greatly by the days he spent in the Botanic Gardens. As he said afterwards, "In Edinburgh, I was gae expert aboot the plants, I can tell you;" for his self-esteem was never very latent, bashful as he looked. "Ay, ay, I had my c'en a' aboot me there!" and there was not the slightest doubt that he had; for his short sight served him better than the long sight of most of us.

In Duddingston Loch, at the back of Arthur's Scat, John's keen eyes were rewarded by the discovery of a rare and beautiful white flower rising out of the water, erect as a soldier on duty, surrounded by dark-green, flag-like, sharp-toothed leaves, called from its appearance the Water Soldier (Stratiotes Aloides)—the first part of the technical name meaning the same as the English, and the second denoting its general resemblance to the aloe. Like his old friend of the Tillyfourie moss holes, this plant is a vegetable curiosity, with similar instincts, remaining under water for the most of the year, and rising to the surface during fructification. It grew too far from the side of the loch to be drawn to shore with his stick, like the bladderwort. His caution had been increased since his experience at the Loch of Drum; but the plant must be got, at whatever cost. John doffed his nether garment as before, got some old planks, floated in on them, supported by an overhanging willow which stretched out its branches conveniently at the spot, and successfully secured his prize! He carried it home to Charles Black's, proud as a soldier after victory, and erect as the "Soldier" he bore, as if he were himself once more on parade.

He also obtained another rarity in this loch, its only Scotch station, [It now flourishes also in one of the reservoirs near Paisley, having been brought there from Duddingston about twenty years ago by a botanist of local fame, Mr. Thomas Henry.] the Common flowering rush (Butomus imzbellatus), called also the Water gladiole, then in flower. It is a most beautiful plant, with large, delicate, pink and rosy blossoms, which rise out of the water and adorn it after the water-lily has gone. It derives its technical name [From bous, an ox, and temno, I cut.] from its sharp triangular leaves, which guard it from the rude intrusion of both animals and men.

John climbed to the top of Arthur's Seat, like the good mountaineer he was, and got there a kind of "fog" or moss new to him, which he afterwards found on the hills above the Vale of Alford. He walked round the Radical Road that skirts the base of Salisbury Crags, where he looked down on the undulating, smoky city, in admiration of "the gran' view." He went, like all visitors, to see the Castle, enthroned on its picturesque crags. There the number of soldiers on guard at every corner, and the prohibition to touch nothing, specially struck him, showing that his shortsightedness had received some check. He was much interested in "the great iron murderer" known as "Muckle Meg" or "Mons Meg;" because a similar—some say the same—large cannon, one of "seven sisters," used to guard Dunnottar Castle. This sent his heart back to the braes and cliffs of his youth and their splendid scenery. For the time, these became more vivid than the great city that lay under the battlements of the castle on which he stood. He visited Leith, where he was interested in the ship-building and the carpenters, and these also recalled early years.

Then each day closed with long and pleasant talks in the one large room which formed the happy home of his friends, when the gathered plants were spread out, deciphered and pressed, amidst a thousand delightful memories of the dear Vale of Alford.

The sight of books in the booksellers' windows was a sore temptation to the weaver. In Edinburgh, however, he withstood it well, for he bought only one volume, on Botany, which he found on an old bookstall in the street.

That Edinburgh visit remained with him one of the bright chapters in his life, and shone with a happy light in his after years when other things became dark.

He returned by steamer from Leith to Aberdeen, walking thence to his old home at Netherton. There his advent caused his friends to flock to the weaving shop and the shoemaker's, "to hear the news and ca' the crack," as at "the Rockin"' at Mossgiel, and to learn all about Edinburgh, the very name of which was a charm in that rural region—and, not least, about their old favourite, Charles Black, and about his young wife.

Charles returned to Whitehouse as gardener once more, in the year after John's visit to Edinburgh, and renewed old work and old associations in the Vale, botanical and friendly. When the Farquharsons were in town during winter, he occupied the "big house," Mrs. Black doing the duties of housekeeper; in summer, when they retired to the country, he removed to a house of his own at the offices behind. Charles had come back to his old quarters in the vigour of manhood, in his thirtieth year, with immensely increased knowledge of Botany and other subjects, and a splendid collection of native plants. These he set himself, during the winter of 1840, to classify according to the Linnan system, then the only one in vogue in the country, and the one on which all our botanical text-books were then based. The Natural System of the Jussieus, though established in 1789, did not make any practical way in this conservative country till forced upon it;" Hooker " not being rearranged according to the new system till 1855. Both of our botanists remained attached till the last to the system of their early studies, from 'reverence for the name and genius of its founder, and from the difficulty men old in science and in years have of revolutionising the habits and thoughts of a lifetime.

With the ever ready and efficient assistance of John and Mrs. Black, the great labour of selecting, the best specimens from the immense mass of materials accumulated for years, and arranging them according to the twenty-four Linnwan classes, was successfully accomplished during that winter, though it took many months to do it. John was freely presented with duplicates of such species as he did not then possess, and his own herbarium was thus rendered gradually more perfect. The joint working of these two friends was that of a mutual-help society, each foraging for the other and fairly dividing the spoils; and John had added, in no small degree, to Charles's herbarium, with his wider wanderings and greater leisure.

Their mode of working was this. As the Blacks had in winter, the use of the whole area flat of the mansion, they did not require to do their botanical work in the kitchen, the scene of former labours under the housekeeper's trying regime. They carried out the classification in a large room at the other end of the house. The floor of this room was chalked into twenty-four divisions, numbered according to the Linmean system. Charles worked at one end of the apartment, on the heterogeneous mass of plants—which had already been dried, named, and fastened on their protecting papers. He carefully selected the best, and checked former determinations, so as to render the herbarium as perfect as possible. John came to the rescue in case of difficulty or dispute. A learned consultation would then take place round some outrageous flower, which would not quietly submit to imprisonment like its meeker and more orderly companions, though obliged ultimately to succumb. When determined, each plant was handed to one of the attendant warders—to Mrs. Black, who was free from domestic duties when the children were in bed, or to John—who were in readiness in their stockings to consign it to its appropriate compartment. The lady was as obedient and silent as a mute, according to orders issued by the governor; but John, with the instinct to scepticism and self-conducted observation of the true rebellious scientist, was inclined not unfrequently to dispute the justice of the imperial ukase, and would stand to examine every specimen of which he had the slightest doubt. In spite of remonstrance and assurance, he would insist on being fully convinced in his own mind—a habit which, however commendable in itself, was sometimes deemed out of place, with the mass of work before them to be done, and which led to pretty little comedies that varied the severities of the evening.

When the general arrangement into classes had been in this way completed, the bundles were carefully tied up and numbered. Each class had then to be examined again in succession, and divided into the requisite orders and species, which were marked on the floor, till the whole herbarium was finally completed. Only two of the best specimens in each case were kept, and the rest were put aside for John, and for future barter with other botanists for rarer species. It was a heavy piece of work, "a most terrible labour," as Charles says, labour of love though it was, for this pair of humble students to attempt in the leisure hours of a single winter; but it was successfully accomplished. Many were the nights they worked far on into the morning, impelled by unquenchable love of the science, and being loth to leave uncompleted any large and troublesome class till another time, with the chance of interruption from business, and on account of the litter in which the room would be left. On this last point, our notable housekeeper was particular if not peremptory, as every tidy wife has a right in such circumstances to be. At "long last," before the "big folks" returned, the magnum opus was finished, and proudly deposited in the driest place at command—a monument of patient industry and scientific skill of which any one might be justly proud.

The history of this splendid herbarium, which with subsequent accretions really became remarkably perfect, was a sad one. It fell a victim, along with a collection of seaweeds, not to the implacable enemies of the naturalist—the moths and their destructive insect allies, for their attacks were effectively repelled by the friendly odours of camphor and other essences—but to a more insidious foe, damp, with its vegetable accomplices, the fungi. House after house in which they were compelled to live was infected to the core with this enemy of health and natural history. Notwithstanding every precaution of watching, spreading out, warming, and expelling the infected, this fine collection of dearly won treasures was gradually decimated, year after year. Every plant thrown out, poetic with glad or interesting memories and dear as a drop of heart's blood, cost a pang known only to the initiated in such studies; until now, after over forty years' constant care, not one specimen remains of the labours of all these hardworking days. It was a sadder loss to their enthusiastic gatherer then even the most sympathetic reader can well realise, and it cannot be referred to by him without emotion.

It was a loss to science also, for it would have been a valuable possession to any institution that owned it. This only furnishes another proof of the unwisdom of private persons hoarding up such treasures, whether frail as plants or hard as stones; instead of making them, in their best state, public property, for public instruction and for the progress of popular and exact science. Happily, this refined kind of selfishness is becoming less common than it has been. Both private endowments and private collections are now being more wisely and generously gifted during life to some of our numerous and yearly increasing scientific and educational institutions, for permanent preservation and for the immediate education of our people. The fate of Charles Black's herbarium should be a renewed warning of the loss to science and to self incurred by this common form of scientific selfishness, or, as in Black's case, of intense retiredness and superabundant humility.

John's herbarium was not then arranged. Before it could be attempted, the friends were permanently separated, and it was not systematically classed and named till several years afterwards, by John himself. Happily, however, it has not shared the fate of its fellow collection, being just rescued in time, to remain as an imperfect but worthy memorial of the man and his work.

Charles Black's return to Whitehouse was a mistake. Had he remained at the Botanic Gardens, he would very soon, no doubt, have obtained a superior situation, if not a high position, more worthy of a man of his character and scientific attainments. But he has always been burdened and obstructed by over-modesty and under-worldliness, and swayed by what most people would call absurd sentiment—a poor name for what in him has been something much higher and deeper.

His chief inducement to return to the Howe of Alford was the poetic desire to renew delightful times spent in friendship and science, and to walk amongst his own people along the sequestered vale of life until its close. But it was an expectation never to be realised. Matters at Whitehouse became less bearable as its mistress advanced in years, and in May, 1842, he left the Howe, never more to reside within its bounds. John was thus once more parted from his more than foster brother, happily, however, to be for a time within easy reach; but the dear, bright days and charming nights at Whitehouse never again returned.

After serving for some time as foreman with Reid the nurseryman at Gilcomston, in Aberdeen, Charles settled down at Raeden, not far from that town, in 1842, memorable for the first visit to Scotland of her Majesty and her consort, Albert the Good. Raeden is a small estate situated on what is called the Stockit Road, or Old Skene turnpike. It occupies an elevated slope commanding a very striking view of Aberdeen, with its numerous churches and chimneys—types of the religiousness and the trade that are its distinguishing characteristics—and of the open sea beyond. Its former proprietor had become bankrupt, and Black rented the whole place from the trustees except the mansion, which was let to others. He lived in a small thatched cottage close by the Skene Road, standing between it and a large enclosed garden. He cultivated that for the market. In this kind of life, he was pretty successful for four years, till the estate was bought by a Mr. Gordon, who employed him as his own gardener for two years more, till he also failed. Black left in 1848, and became gardener to Sir Andrew Leith Hay, of Leithhall, near Kinnethmont.

While at Raeden, Charles still carried on his botanical studies, and to these added several others, which he pursued with his usual ardour, especially Ornithology. In this he rapidly became proficient. In 1842, for instance, he was the first to obtain that rare bird in northern regions, the honey buzzard, which he shot near his house, the first recorded notice of it in Aberdeenshire. In 1846, when Thomas Edwards made his unfortunate and distressing journey to Aberdeen, Charles and he became very intimate, united by that instinctive freemasonry felt by all kindred souls engaged in higher pursuits. They visited each other during the whole time of Edwards' stay in town. Charles called almost daily at the deserted Exhibition, and did his best to cheer and strengthen the downcast naturalist; while Edwards came out to tea at Raeden, to his brother scientist, for sympathy and support, when the Exhibition was closed on Sundays. Before Edwards returned to Banff, he presented Charles, as a parting gift, with a beautifully stuffed specimen of the land-rail. He received in return the first specimen then discovered in the county, or in the north, of the true Egyptian locust, which Black had caught in some hay, in a field opposite his house. These two naturalists have not met since.

To Raeden, John Duncan came very frequently during the six years of Charles's stay. Every time he visited Aberdeen on business, to buy yarn or books, or on any of his botanical rambles, he made a resting-place there, generally remaining a week. Raeden was a new centre from which to extend his knowledge of the flora of the county. He brought home his discoveries every evening, and got them jointly determined, as in the old days by the Don. When weaving became dull during summer and autumn, as it always did more or less, he took employment from Charles at gardening, in which he had already had considerable practice in many places. His delight in his friend's elevating society grew with the years and daily became dearer to him.


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