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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXI - His Botanical Wanderings in the South


FOR a great part of his life, as has been already told, John went to the harvest in different parts of the country, during the slack period of the year in weaving, to raise his finances, improve his health, and see the country. To these objects was added another after he was introduced to scientific Botany in 1836—the study of the Flora of Scotland. This he set himself systematically to conquer, as far as opportunity allowed and a strong will impelled. In pursuance of this scientific aim, he generally selected a new district every year, spending all his leisure during the harvest in gathering, deciphering, and pressing the plants. When snow began to powder Benachie, he returned home to Donside, with a happy burden of dried specimens, to add to his rapidly increasing herbarium. He also brought back with him some of the rarer and more interesting living plants he found. These he used to place in suitable spots near his house; and the banks of the Droichs-burn, where he last resided, are still crowded with such pleasant mementoes of his many wanderings.

During these visits to different regions, his main object latterly was the pursuit of his favourite science, and this wise and healthy practice he carried on year after year till he reached seventy. He was compelled to desist only by increasing age and growing infirmity, but not before he had acquired an unusually extensive and practical acquaintance with the flora of his native land, and had completed his herbarium. In this way, he traversed a great part of Scotland, visiting most places between Banff and the Border, on to Glasgow in the west. He never went into Ayr or Galloway, or into the Highlands beyond Ben Macdhui and Banffshire, which were his utmost limits to the north.

Many were the scenes he saw, strange the adventures he had, and curious the company he was often obliged to keep, in this uncommon style of studying science. These he delighted, like a wandering sailor from foreign lands, to recount to his wondering friends, but chiefly to his intimates, with humorous picturesqueness and laughing glee. Some of these reminiscences I have been able to rescue, but the greater part are now for ever gone with their hero.

His observations on men, places, and things were by no means commonplace, as, with such a seer, they could hardly be. Even in his eighty-seventh year, when I talked with him of the places he had visited, these possessed surprising brevity, point and vividness for a man so aged, after his faculties had very greatly failed. A few of them may not be uninteresting as further interpreting their remarkable author.

In Glasgow, he "saw a heap o' things," mentioning specially the active Broomielaw, the bridges over the Clyde, and a visit he paid to a weaving factory. There he was greatly taken with "Anderson's great harness loom," and the Jacquard machine in connection with it--for his interest in the mechanics and improvements of his trade was always strong and active—and he "took in his lesson pretty weel." Both here and at Paisley—"a pretty toon," where his fellow weavers Tannahill and Wilson had lived—he also examined recent improvements, recalling "the little bellie that rang up i' the riggin' at sick and sick pairts o' the figured shawl napkins "they were weaving. In these towns, also, he noticed for the first time, with commendation, the new practice of numbering the houses, which had not then been done in Aberdeen. At Dunfermline, he did not hear of Bruce's grave till he had left it, though he would have liked greatly to have visited the last resting-place of "that great Scottish chief, whom they hae guid reason to brag aboot." Here and at Tillicoultry and Kirkcaldy, he visited the weavers. They asked him if he knew what "ticking" was. "Ye're big aboot that, are ye?" said the Aberdeen workman, proud of his. county; "I hae woven plenty o't'!"

Near Dundee, he visited Claverhouse Castle, on account of its Covenanting interest; but his indignation did not shut his eyes to the abundant flowers, for "there was a guid curn [This word seems to be another form of corn; and hence came to mean, in Scotch, a small quantity.] there that are na i' the north," and, amongst these, rest harrow (Orionis arvensis). [John found this plant at the farm of Oldtown in Leochel-Cushnie, in 1872, a station unusually inland for it, and took a specimen of it to Professor Dickie. It grew in a seam of rotten granite in a field, and John thought the seed had been carried to the spot by a bird.] At Perth, he climbed to the top of Kinnoul Hill, to see the splendid view of the Tay there. When near Perth, he would "never hae been seen again, had he no borne a hand wi' the ferry boat." At Arbroath, "a gae close toon," as it certainly was then and still is, he "saw a heap o' plants on the sands." In Montrose, "a bonnie clean toonie," which it is, though too "close," like its neighbours, he got a month's work at the loom, living there when a woman was "hangit for killin' her man." "The nicht she and her mither broke his head, the toon was in an awfu' state. The mither got- aff, as it wasna proved on her, but the dochter was hangit,"the hangman saying "he wu'd be as canny wi' her as he cu'd!" John could not bear to witness the execution, and did not go to see it.

At St. Andrews, he was down in Wishart's dungeon, and saw the place where he was burned, with ever-living Covenanting enthusiasm. On the Links, he found the viper's bugloss (Eclaium vulgate), with its "very bonnie blue floor," "most stately, most brilliant of wild flowers," as it has been characterized, and with "sick a droll name." This John " rehearsed once or twice when he first heard it." [It is called Echiusn from the Greek echis, a viper; and bugloss, or ox tongue, from its bristly leaves, from bons, an ox, and glossa, a tongue. Another of the same class is called the Cynoglossurn or hound's tongue, from the Greek cyon, a dog. The Echiurn was supposed to cure the bite of the viper.] The plant, he said, "is countit a winder north here awa, but it is thocht naething o' doon yonder, whar there is plenty o't;" but he got it also in Tough. He went round by the "East Neuk o' Fife," where he saw the collieries, and where beans and peas were very cheap and were used by him as a change from the everlasting porridge. He wandered as far south as Kelso, "a sma' boro' toonie;" and Coldstream, where the inhabitants were "terrible wi' the burr," which, however, he understood, though their speech was "a bit o' a rattle." He also went some distance into Northumberland.

He generally travelled south and returned home again on foot. Sometimes the harvesters went in a party on board ship or steamer to the place where they were to be employed. On occasions, he took steamer home; but he most frequently came back by land, doing weaving on the way, and often passed through Fettercairn, and home by the old hill road across the Cairn-o-Mount, down into Deeside, and so over to the Don.

In the harvest-field, John either worked at cutting the grain with the sickle or at binding the sheaves. His usual wages were only two shillings a day. Women also were hired to go south along with the men. Once or twice, the contractor who farmed the party in which he was, ran off with the earnings of all, a loss John felt very much. In this way and by non-payment of webs, he lost "guid puckles o' money noo and nan " (now and then), for he was ower simple wi' them."

The style of life and work in such harvesting parties is well indicated by the narrative of a cousin of Mr. Beveridge, of the Craigh in Tough, who accompanied John to a harvest in Fife. The party that year was hired by a well-known contractor, John Angus, of Turriff. They assembled at Dundee, and crossed the Tay to Newburgh, in Fife, where they were met by the farmer's carts and conveyed to their destination, the Mains of Dunbog, some miles inland to the east. They arrived there about midnight, and had to take refuge for a time, late though the hour was, in an open cart-shed till their sleeping-room was prepared. This was a long hay-loft, the men being accommodated at one end, and the women at the other. The women had thus to pass through the men's division in order to reach their own, and the consequence was, that "there were some gae rum (rough) nichts " spent under these conditions.

John, of course, shared with the rest in all the labour and accommodation of the party during their month's stay at Dunbog, till harvest was finished. He had come supplied, as usual, with home-made books, formed of newspapers and grocers' tea-paper, to press and preserve the plants in. These he kept carefully protected in the big bundle containing his clothes. All his spare time was spent in exploring the neighbourhood for plants. In this work, he had many willing or curious assistants in his companions and in the farmer himself, who brought him all the plants they could lay their hands on. He counted petals and stamens and told their names, preserving all the rarer specimens for his herbarium. It was a picturesque and interesting sight to see these groups of amateur botanists gathered round the little man after the labours of the day, and engaged in such innocent, intellectual pursuits ; while many a merry laugh was raised at the grand, jaw-breaking names the common weeds that grew in the ditches and hedges were dignified with, in their eyes.

The first Sunday, John and his friend walked to Cupar to church, a journey of between thirty and forty miles in all. The Sunday following, they went to Newburgh, fifteen miles. On the next, they purposed going to Perth, but were prevented by heavy rain. In these long Sabbath walks, they gathered and preserved all the rare plants they found, and these went to swell the collection with which John returned to the north.

From this narrative, it will be seen that the temptations of the harvesters to a rough kind of life were very great, especially in regard to the relations of the sexes. Of the women he saw, John "thocht nae muckle;" and in regard to both men and women, he felt that "the best way was to keep himsel' as far as possible asunder frae them in their common intercourse with each other."

In walking from place to place, his fare was extremely simple, and his expenses were very small. As was then more the custom than now, he was generally treated with the greatest kindliness and hospitality by the farmers and others he visited along the roads traversed by him, especially in the less frequented regions. Even when he stayed at an inn, his food and lodging generally cost about sixpence, sometimes more, and often even less. His chief dish was plain porridge and milk, and sometimes a little tea at night; but to that dish, in his younger days, he had little liking. His powers of endurance, in travel and work, on this simple fare were quite astonishing.

In these primitive times of little locomotion and secluded life, such a man as John Duncan was a god-send to his entertainers, with his plants, books and horological instruments—of which he always carried several—his varied knowledge, and his intelligent and, before attentive listeners, fervent and informing talk. His simple, unaffected, homely style, quaint ways, and evident honesty of character and purpose soon gained their interest and esteem ; so that he was frequently asked to prolong his visit, and to return when he passed that way another season. Many was the eager group that gathered round this uncommon type of tramp, as he sat by the "cheek" of the ample fire, in the great kitchen of any hospitable farmhouse he stayed at, to look at the plants he carried, hear their names and properties, and examine his curious horologe, with which he knew the hours.

By such intellectual repayment, he gave ample return for the kindness he received. He also conferred many an obligation, by treating the folks for various diseases with natural simples obtained from the plants, and by teaching them how to make "teas" and "saws" and "syrups" for the cure of their common ailments.

John's experiences in these countless wanderings were interesting, varied, and not seldom adventurous. He was one day travelling amongst the hills when he lost his way, and, darkness coming down, he was forced to ask for shelter for the night at a small Highland hut. The sole inmates were a young man and his wife, both well-favoured, healthy, and bronzed with outdoor labour. They received him with hearty kindness, their looks and manner saying more than words, for they spoke little English, though fluent in an unknown tongue, the Gaelic. Having walked all day, John had tasted nothing except the crust he always carried in his pocket, and he was famishing for food. He entreated them to give him something to eat, a request they understood. To his blank astonishment, they showed him that there was not a particle of food in the house.

The kindly pair were, however, more than equal to the emergency. The good woman whispered something to her mate, proceeded to a corner of the cottage, and, seizing a small " cogie," went out into the dark. Her husband rose immediately, cleaned a large pot, and placed it empty on the fire, which he had replenished with peats, and he then followed his wife. John viewed the silent proceedings in utter amazement—increased by his thus being left alone in the picturesque hut—at the active preparations when there seemed nothing to be cooked, and at the unusual capacity of the pot, as it hung open and empty above the fire.

His host returned in all haste, with a large sheaf of yellow corn, which he had just cut with the sickle in his hand. The oats he held over the great pot, and in a short time, set them on fire. The chaff was speedily consumed in the bright blaze, and the grains dropped into .the pot. There they were quickly dried and scorched as if in a kiln, when a pair of bellows was used to blow away the charred portions of the husks. A "quern," or handmill, was then carried from the back of the apartment. This consisted of two circular flat stones. The lower remained stationary while the other was made quickly to revolve, grinding into beautiful oatmeal the hard dry grain, which was poured into a hole in the centre by the dexterous mountaineer.

By this time, his wife entered, bright, smiling, and rosy from work in the byre, carrying a "cogie" full of reaming milk. Expert as her husband, with whom she talked with what seemed to John extraordinary volubility, she cleaned a smaller pot and put it on the fire, while addressing broken but reassuring words to the interested and astonished stranger. She soon had a large dish of excellent porridge and a bowl of sweetest milk placed before her guest, all in less than an hour from his entering the breadless hut! While he enjoyed his nutritious and delicious repast, she crowned her kindly services by baking a great oaten cake, which she put before him, with a new supply of Highland creamy milk, elsewhere unknown.

John viewed the scene in wondering silence and with swelling gratitude. It was all so new, beautiful, unexpected and kindly, so eastern and biblical, so royal and abundant, in its simple hospitality and self-helpful independence. It became a favourite tale of his, and he concluded it, when he told it to James Black, by saying, that should James live to be an old man, it would be something to tell his friends that he had seen and known a man to whom all this was done, in bonnie Scotland, in the nineteenth century.

But it was not so uncommon as John thought, and is carried on even now, fifty years since that time, in some parts of the Highlands and Western Isles, where the "quern" may still be seen in use, and where a dish can be as rapidly and hospitably produced from the field, in some of the remoter corners there; as the author and some of his friends have more than once witnessed in these primitive regions.

John and James were once talking together about the modern adulterations in linen fabrics, when James remarked that in his youth, he had seen flax spun on a wheel by the fireside, a much more common sight in John's young days. John replied that that was nothing strange, for he had seen it spun with the distaff [The author has never seen flax spun by the distaff. He has, however, seen wool so spun in the Highlands more than once. He possesses a "clew" of worsted obtained from an old woman in the north of Sutherland, who spun it in his presence by means of a distaff, with the usual stone whorl at its end to draw out the twining thread.] by the young maidens in the evenings, as they sat chatting round the fire, and he had woven into cloth the yarn thus produced. He then gave a circumstantial account of a practice, in connection with this home manufacture, which gives a vivid glimpse of old-world ways, and which he asserted was once not unusual; and the narrator was truth itself.

He said the country lads and lasses used to adjourn to the barn, to talk and joke together, while the girls carried on their primitive spinning with the distaff. To do the whirling most effectively, the chaste young damsels—and he insisted strongly that they were so—used to take a position half-standing and half-sitting, and give the requisite rotatory motion to the distaff by rolling it on the bare thigh ; as it would not spin half so well on their clothes. [Mr. James Linn, of the Geological Survey, recently met an old man in the parish of Cairnie near Keith, who had seen this regularly done in his young days, and who said it was a general custom in Banffshire and the north.]

"Well, John," said his astonished friend, "I am afraid when next I read about the `blue, and purple, and fine-twined linen' of the Jews, it will get mixed up in my mind with this distaff business of yours. Bother it, man, it's outlandish and perfectly heathenish." "Na, na," replied John, "you are quite mista'en; it was custom, only custom, pure and simple." John then reminded him that they had both lived in a district where men and women forded the Don together in primitive fashion, and where also all heavy fabrics were cleaned by being trodden with the feet in a tub or a stream by kilted women—without a single suspicion or thought of immodesty in the doing of these things. "Right enough," said James, "but man is a creature, as you know, largely affected by circumstances. The river is no joke, nor the washing-tub either; but, given youth and beauty, a summer eve, and courting, all combined, with this whirling of the distaff of yours, and what then?" But John stuck to custom, to " use and wont," and held that the idea of immodesty was imported into the subject, and that, in the circumstances they had mentioned, there was not a particle of it present. Was he wrong?

Some of his adventures in the south were not without considerable danger.

One day, as he was quietly walking along the road near the East Neuk of Fife, he was accosted by two coarse-looking tramps, "rag-tag lads, nae very bonnie," whose dress and style did not reassure him. They first asked him to play "pitch and toss" with them, which he refused. Then they offered him a dram out of a black bottle they carried, which he would not taste. Becoming bolder, they threw off all disguise, and advanced menacingly to seize him. But John was prepared for them, and "putting his best fit first," as he said, told them to stand off. They then tried to trip him. John, seeing two to one, at once darted off along the road, in reliance on his fleetness of foot; and though they followed hard after him for a time, he soon out-distanced them and escaped, "running," he said, "just like a hare."

On another occasion, he fell among a fraternity certainly calculated to rouse suspicion—"a curran Hielant tinklers," the wandering gipsies of the country. They had just arrived, like himself, at a farm-steading where, from the lateness of the hour, he was obliged to remain over night. The farmer refused to provide him with other accommodation, and used him very scurvily, perhaps annoyed by the presence of his companions, or identifying him with them. To his surprise, on the other hand, the tinklcrs treated him very kindly, giving him of the brose and milk they provided for themselves; and though, in the Gaelic which they spoke, he expected them to be planning robbery or worse, while he slept in the same barn with the gang, he rose with all his possessions untouched. He got breakfast from them, and left them with a new and higher impression of the innate dignity and goodness of human nature, even with the most unlikely surroundings.


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