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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XIX - Other Friends of the Weaver at Netherton


DURING Duncan's thirteen years' stay in the parish of Tough, his life was spent chiefly in and round Netherton, where his home and workshop were, and to that hamlet and its immediate vicinity his personal friends were mostly confined. Never much given to the cultivation of barren socialities, his intellectual pursuits had always made him greatly independent of external excitements and the pleasures of mere acquaintanceship; while his new botanical enthusiasm and its consequent ramblings tended to make him still more self-contained and solitary. Hence his friends in the district were comparatively few, and they were chiefly found amongst those of similar tastes in science, theology, or politics. In this way, also, he failed to be intimate with several persons then in the parish who possessed intellectual tastes, but of a different kind from his own. But the friends he had were much attached to him, and with them he was content.

One of these was the schoolmaster at Coulterneuk, [Called Cooterneuk.] or Newbigging, a little north of Whitehouse station. He was an intelligent, well-informed man; a great reader, being one of the newspaper club of the place; and a genial companion—"a fine body," as John said, or, as Charles Hunter antithetically put it, "a terrible nice man." Though his own education had been more limited than that of the general run of teachers—for he was originally a labourer—he was very successful in the elementary stages, and his little school was crowded with pupils. The schoolmaster was nothing of a botanist, but he was somewhat of a florist, and prided himself on the neat garden that adorned his thatched cottage, where Duncan used to work a great deal. As John said, "Forbes never gaithered plants wi' me, but I hae ta'en mony ane to him, and tell't him their navies." Being a bachelor of the sunny sort, nothing delighted the dominie more than to gather round him, in his snug parlour, a few congenial souls, whose intelligence and brightness illumined "the tenebrific scene."

Here of an evening might be seen assembled John Duncan, Charles Black, Charles Hunter, and a few others still mentioned with respect and affection by their survivors. Here the newspapers were read, burning church questions discussed (and Black and Forbes stuck to the Establishment, while Duncan and Hunter went over to the dissentients), and happy evenings passed in the flow of soul. Charles Black's irrepressible spirit of fun burst out in such genial society, and many were the practical jokes played on each other, and not least on the good weaver.

According to his custom, when the room was finer than his stout boots were in his opinion worthy of, John took them off on entering, not to dirty the floor, especially after he had been out plant-hunting in the ditches. These some one would hide, unknown to their owner. Then came the "hustle" when it was time to separate, the various plans kindly suggested to the discomfited weaver to get him home unharmed to Netherton, the final discovery of the lost sandals, and the non-discovery of the culprit. Sometimes they were found in odd places. One night, after a pleasant intellectual sederunt, Charlie entered, when parting time came, in the guise of a wandering hunchback, and paraded the room with a great bunch between his shoulders, amidst the hilarious laughter of his companions. John meantime was silently searching for his boots, carefully secreted from possible theft as he deemed them, now nowhere to be seen ; unwitting, from his short-sightedness, of the merry mischief that twinkled in the eyes of his friend. A simultaneous search was ostentatiously made by his companions, including the new hunchback, and for a time in vain. Just when it was decided that John must doff his stockings and trip home barefooted, the hunchback's burden suddenly dropped, and the missing brogues were revealed!

"O happy, happy days! O merry, merry times! with a vast o' fun!" Their memory lighted up the old man's face, touching it also with sadness, as he related the story to me, in his eighty-seventh year.

Forbes remained teaching in the same cottage long after the Disruption, and was session clerk of the parish of Tough for many years. After retiring from active labour, he continued to live there, his house being kindly granted him by the proprietor, Farquharson of Haughton, and there he died, long after his friends had been scattered far and wide.

Another friend of John's was James Black, a younger brother of Charles, then a lad, acting as farm servant at Funchrie south of Netherton, and at Bents a little to the west. He possessed much of the uncommon ability of his brother, and the same love of nature and predilection for naturalistic studies. He was full of geniality and brightness, and glowed with quiet, lambent, genuine humour, combined with much self-contained reticence. He first made John's acquaintance at Whitehouse, after Charles had returned to it with his wife and children, in the winter of 1840. When he entered the room that night, he found the trio--Charles, John, and Mrs. Black—at work on the herbarium, arranging the plants and distributing them into their various classes. After friendly greeting, the young man took his seat in silent wonderment, to watch the unusual scene, unique in his experience and uncommon in the country. John and Charles were on their stocking soles, for the sake of silence and despatch, and not a word was spoken in the process, except when John would insist on examining some specimen he was not sure of, and on protesting when necessary, which led to argument between the botanists. Night after night, he saw them at the same work, and the impressions then produced influenced him for life, and still remain vivid in his imagination.

John and James became great friends, and after Charles left the place, his brother used to be the weaver's frequent companion in his botanical rambles in the district, during the two and a half years in which he remained there. The memories of these pleasant experiences he can still relate, with unusual dramatic power and picturesqueness. One of these has already been given, when the two had the humorous encounter with the old farmer and his son, in connection with the Scrophularia nodosa. John tried hard, as he did with all the young hopeful subjects he met, to make James a botanist ; but, although James always delighted in the wild flowers in their varied native haunts and afterwards became no mean florist, he never took up that study as he did several others. He was more devoted to the observation of animal than vegetable life, and became an ardent ornithologist like Charles, and a skilful taxidermatist, stuffing birds with a taste and perfection rarely equalled in amateurs. He also prosecuted entomology to a considerable extent, caring less, however, for insects than for their winged companions of the air. But though not prosecuting Botany as a special study, nothing pleased the young man more than to accompany our enthusiast in his wanderings, and to gather specimens for him on all occasions, to be named and described.

At that time, two things impressed him greatly in connection with John. The one was the ignorance of the country folks, in general, regarding the natural objects amidst which they daily worked, especially wild flowers—an impression strengthened by subsequent observation. In going about with Duncan, he found that plants of even unusual size were unknown or unobserved by them, in the general confusion of verdure, from the want of their attention being early directed to them, and from their faculties not being trained to observe. To this ignorance, he saw, was added an intense indifference to such things, except in so far as they were of practical use in their daily life. The second point then noted by Mr. Black was the surprise, combined with contempt, with which they viewed the man who studied these common objects, and tried to direct their attention to their structure and beauty. John was in this way subjected to a good deal of ridicule on account of his peculiar pursuits. Yet, in spite of it all, James testifies that his equanimity was seldom or never ruffled, even in trying circumstances; so that in time their silly annoyances never went beyond a "fling" at the eccentric weaver, as he passed with his treasures, weeds, nasty weeds, as they were in their eyes.

After James Black left Tough, he passed through not a few remarkable experiences, was a successful man of business, and has now retired to enjoy his well-earned. leisure. He felt high esteem and affection for his old friend during their intercourse at Netherton, and these increased with after years. They met frequently at Charles Black's, at Racden, where James accompanied the old botanist in rambles round Aberdeen. To the last, John continued to visit James after he had settled down near the bridge of Dee, and their intercourse there will in due time appear in our story.

A little above the parish church of Tough and the mansion of Tonley amongst its trees, a short distance to the south-west of Netherton, lay the hamlet of the Craigh. It then contained five families, with their houses and small crofts of land, and formed a comfortable and happy community, now altogether changed from what it was forty years ago. The largest holding there, of some fifty acres,. belonged to a farmer called William Beveridge, an industrious, worthy and successful man, who improved his farm till it became one of the best in the district, and was able to follow the plough till above seventy. He had a son named after himself, a bright, vigorous boy, who in his eighth year received a severe accident that left him disfigured for life. Willie possessed rare ability in several directions, and received an education better than common. His enjoyment of external nature was intense, and he spent his early years in the closest observation of animal life, which his surroundings gave him unwonted opportunities of doing, especially of the varied bird-world on the mosses braes and moors near his home, and on the hill pastures where in summer he herded the cows. Art also claimed his attention, and the lad became famous for the fine carvings he executed with his pocket knife and for his skill as a violinist. The father wished him to aspire to one of the professions, but his son's love of nature became too enthusiastic for that, and he settled down at the Craigh, to become in time his father's successor and a famous farmer.
When Duncan came to Netherton, the boy was in his teens, and the two took to each other with instinctive attraction. The quaint weaver, with his love of nature and plants so much akin to his own, at once drew the lad's attention, and Willie became a frequent visitor at the weaving shop at Mainock's. They were soon fast friends, and they continued so, with growing respect and affection, throughout life. John made the Craigh one of his haunts, and their intercourse increased with mutual benefit, during the thirteen years in which they lived together in that neighbourhood. With his taste for mechanics, Willie had peculiar pleasure in watching John at work, hands, feet and eyes being all equally and actively engaged; while John instructed him in the mysteries of the craft. They talked about the flowers—a collection of which lay preserved on the top of the loom above his head—and other natural productions so interesting to both, for, as he tells, the weaver was then in the heyday of life, full of vigour, physically and mentally. The boy also made Charles Black's acquaintance, and was shown by him through his well-kept garden and greenhouse, and he retains the liveliest recollection of the man.

John visited his father's house, and never passed it in his rambles without calling there and being hospitably entertained. When he came to the door, he was accustomed to announce his presence with the bright exclamation "Here's the weyver! " On his return from plant-hunting on the braes of Tough, he frequently stayed for the evening. The family would then cluster round him, to look at the plants he had gathered and listen to his dissertations upon them, and his many stories connected with his wanderings, to which, Mr. Beveridge says, they were never indifferent. As neighbours dropped in—for the Craigh was a pleasant, hospitable house—Willie would take down his fiddle, and speedily, under his inspiriting strains, the lasses would fling aside their knitting and take to the floor in their wincey petticoats and short wrappers, mingling with their partners in the mazy dance. Though John, as his friend says, held in derision "the capers of a dancing-master and the light fantastic toe," yet, roused by the spirit of the merry scene, he would by-and-by rise to his feet quite abruptly. Calling to the fiddler, "Come, then, Willie, play up Jenny, dang the weyver!"' he would go through the reel with the greatest spirit, to the intense amusement of beholders.

At the Craigh, there was a well-stocked, well-kept garden, tended by the son, who made a hobby also of breeding bees. The hives were placed between a long row of gooseberry bushes, and it required no little courage to venture near them to gather the tempting fruit. John's intrepidity in regard to bees was surprising. He would coolly sit beside the hives, eating the berries and handing them to others who were too much afraid to venture near, while the swarms flew round his head in clouds without touching him. He seemed to have a special influence over them, Willie standing at a distance in astonishment, and expecting, but in vain, to see him stung. "Puir things!" John would say, "the bees winna touch onybody, if ye dinna touch them,"—an immunity largely dependent, however, on the sympathies of their companion.

Mr. Beveridge never took up the study of Botany, though his friend tried to induce him. He had always the greatest pleasure, however, in listening to all John said about* plants, as extending his knowledge of nature. He constantly had his eyes open in his ornithological wanderings, and picked up for the botanist every unusual plant he saw. One day he came upon a rarity there, the Briza media, the common quaking grass, with its ever-tremulous spikes, which grew on a marshy flat on the face of the Red Hill, above the farm of Culthibert. When he handed it to John, the weaver brightened up, as he always did on such occasions, and told him the family it belonged to and the kind of places it grew in. "Yes; but the name, John, tell me that," said William, delighted, in friendly malice, to see him at fault. John hesitated, and scratched his head. "On, man," persisted his teaser, "I never saw ye puzzled afore!" The honour of the sensitive student being at stake, a touch of temper came to his aid, and he exclaimed, "The dell a ken, ken I. A body canna hae a' thing at their finger ends!"

"Honest man," says his friend, "he could not even turn me off with some grand name, as he might easily have done." John soon found out and told all about it. He would scarcely believe it grew so near Tough, till he went to the spot, "Ann Watson's moss," and got it for himself; announcing the find in a letter to Charles Black of July, 1842, along with that of the Linmra borealis, his first discovery of the favourite, obtained "to the west of Tullynessle hills, above Dalpersie Castle."

In after years, William Beveridge distinguished himself in several departments. He became eminent, as an ornithologist, his knowledge of birds, studied personally in the fields, being, unusually minute ; as a bird-stuffer, with a power of representing them in grace of form and attitude that is acknowledged by the highest authorities to be amongst the first, of which a beautiful case of sixty-seven Aberdeenshire birds prepared by him, now in the Free Church College Museum, Aberdeen, is sufficient proof; as a carver in wood, his skill being such that he was employed for many years in the interior decoration of Balmoral by Prince Albert; and as a maker of violins, in which he introduced some improvements, the taste and timbre of his instruments being attested by experts, one of them being ordered by the Prince. He also possessed no mean skill as a violinist. Amongst other works connected with wood carving, he made neat snuff-boxes, and presented one of these, finely painted with leaf and stem all over its outer surface, and with the weaver's arms on the lid, to Duncan. John prized it greatly. Though no snuffer himself, he carried it on high occasions, and indulged his friends with a pinch.

In 1873, Mr. Beveridge removed to Aberdeen, to be curator of the Free Church College and Museum, having been compelled to leave his natal spot through the action of a subsequent proprietor, and there he still labours at his old pursuits. John visited him regularly in Aberdeen, for the two kept their old friendship undimmed to the last. Though amidst congenial surroundings, a happy family, and appreciative friends, William feels, in spite of his buoyancy and humour, like a caged mountain bird in the confinement of the city, and deeply sighs for the free and natural life of the country, in the home of his fathers on the breezy uplands of Tough.

To that parish there came, in 1836, the year of Duncan's arrival, a house-painter and fellow-townsman of his, called James Barclay, then thirty years of age. He settled down with his wife and family at the Backloaning, not far from the parish school and the hamlet of the Craigh, and there he lived for four years. Like William Beveridge, he was a born genius in several lines. Being highly intelligent, humorous, waggish, and genial, he speedily became a general favourite, both in business and social life. He was the soul of all merrymakings, where he could tell a good story, sing a capital song, and play well on the violincello. His intellectual life was equally active. He soon became a member of the Debating Club that then existed at Tough—another being Mr. McCombie, of Cairnballoch in that neighbourhood, founder of the Aberdeen Free Press. He was also a promoter of the circulating library, recently founded there. Beveridge and Barclay became very intimate, and it was Barclay that introduced Willie to fiddle-making; and stained his first fiddle. Barclay also joined a scientific plasterer called James Murray in his pursuits, amongst others the making of terrestrial globes. Beveridge also assisted in that work, and now possesses a specimen. Murray, who lived at the farm of Stonefold, was a man of great ability and higher tastes. He was also a dial-maker of unusual skill, a fine example of which stood in his garden; a mathematician, famed for his solutions of difficult problems; a land surveyor, much employed; and a worthy man.

The painter soon became acquainted with John Duncan and Charles Black, first meeting John when painting the greenhouse at Whitehouse. Barclay was at that time taking out, in parts, "Pinnock's Guide to Knowledge," and hearing of their difficulties in the want of suitable textbooks, recommended to them "Pinnock's Catechism of Botany," which John soon afterwards bought in Aberdeen. He had no special interest in Botany, beyond a strong and intelligent desire to know something of the world around him, for his tastes lay more in Art than in Nature. He had a high appreciation of the two enthusiasts, who, he said, were simply "wild" about plants, and he liked to listen to their talk regarding them. John and he frequently met at the Craigh, and elsewhere. They were often seen walking together on the public road, the one carrying a web under his arm and plants in his hand, and the other his paint-pot and brushes, while talking on botanical and other subjects. Barclay was also a student of astronomy, and saw John's "horologe," which the weaver still used.

He removed from Tough in 1840, to Mountgarrie on the Don near Alford, where he still survives, the brightest and heartiest of old men, in his seventy-seventh year. He gradually developed almost universal capacities in practical work; being a painter, clock and watch repairer, violin maker, turner, plumber, plasterer, slater, bellhanger, upholsterer, and stone-cutter. In all these occupations, he has carried on regular employment, and left successful examples all over the Vale of Alford. His house, exquisitely kept by a poetical daughter who inherits much of her father's talent, is at once a nest of cosiness and taste and a museum of curiosities.

Duncan and he kept up their intimacy to the end, living as they did latterly only a few miles apart. John used to drop in at Mountgarrie in passing, to talk over scientific and political events, and was counted by his friend "a great treat," and, contrary to the general opinion, a "wide-awake" man.

Another friend of John's was James Lamont, the farmer of Mosshead, close by Netherton, now removed to Summer-hill, New Machar, near Aberdeen. He was a conscientious, estimable man, greatly respected in the parish, and his advice was sought and valued by his neighbours. His house was one of the few much frequented by the weaver. Mr. Lamont admired John's devotion to his favourite study, having seen him, with surprise, groping on hands and knees in his search for plants in the neighbouring ditches and marshes, now all drained. He still retains the greatest respect for the man.

John continued to visit Whitehouse after Black left it, being acquainted with his successor in the garden, Lewis Scott, and with the overseer, John May, who still survives in Aberdeen, with pleasant memories of the botanist. Mr. May was astonished at his pedestrian powers, and can give details of his long evening walks, which extended late into the night. He was struck with his desire to avoid giving offence to any one, in his calls at the big house, where he used to bring new grasses and ferns to show them to his friends; and with his extreme modesty, his geniality, and his power of giving and taking a joke, combined with quick though quiet resentment of any attempt to take undue advantage of him, suppressing all such with pointed and telling rebuke.

In the parish of Tough, there seems to have existed at that time more than common intellectual activity. The circulating library, which was kept in the house of an intelligent merchant at Torries, was well selected, and contained in it, by-and-by, after some rigid opposition, such astounding innovations as Scott's and Dickens' novels. Mr. Beveridge urged John to join it in vain, for John said it did not have the books he wished. "I hae a leebrary o' my ain," he would say, "and what money I can spare will gae to increasing it; that's my way."

There also lived then in the district several very intelligent men, such as Beveridge, Barclay, McCombie, of Cairnballoch; the parish schoolmaster, Mr. Ingram, who sent forth many good pupils; the plasterer, Murray; the merchant, Matthews; the blacksmith of Torries, William Law, a self-taught and successful veterinary surgeon, who could assist the boys with their Latin exercises; the farmer of Boghead, Moses Copland, and his son and successor, who was college bred; and the genial and highly respected parish minister, Mr. Gillan, the promoter of every good object. Except the first three, these do not seem to have taken much notice of the quiet botanical weaver. As Mr. Beveridge says of him in Tough, "Few, very few appreciated the man for his talents, so as to bring him into any prominence; and being poor made all the difference in the world. He fought his battles all alone. Unheeded, uncared for, he was truly one of Nature's own children, of whom the world knows but little. I have often thought that if ever there was a flower born to blush unseen, it was John Duncan."


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