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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXII - John returns to the Gadie


IN 1849, John Duncan returned once more to Auchleven, to which he seems to have taken a liking, and there he remained three years. He boarded as before with Sandy Smith. John now worked at a loom in Smith's house, and not, as at his last visit, in the mill. The poor, thatched cottage was in a much more dilapidated condition than when he had left it thirteen years before. It stood parallel to the road not far from "the philosopher," in what is now an open space, for the house was removed six years ago. The kitchen was at the south end, a barn and byre in the middle, opposite the door, and the workshop at the north. There were two looms there, the one for the master, and the other for John. The divisions between the apartments consisted only of thin deals. John's loom being next the byre, he could hear "crummie" chewing her grass, ruminating her cud, rubbing herself against the wall, breathing her long-drawn sighs and snorts through the board just behind him, and, when she became impatient, drowning the clatter of the shuttle with her loud bellow; while the odours of the byre pervaded the whole dwelling. It was altogether a homely arrangement, somewhat in the primitive Highland and Irish style. But there were then no meddlesome sanitary inspectors to go poking about and disturbing the sweet scents and sanctities of such communistic arrangements.

John slept, as before, in the cold "philosopher," with the near companionship of his equine and bovine fellows and his bed and possessions were disposed as on his last occupancy of the 'same delectable loft.

In Smith's house, there was only one fire, which was in the kitchen at the far end from the workshop. In the winter time, there was nothing for our weaver to do when he got cold, but to drive all the harder at the treddles and the shuttle. When his hands became too chilled even to do that, he would then take a run to the warm kitchen, to toast them at the peat fire which smouldered on the low hearthstone.

The kitchen was also the only dwelling-place in the building, and into it were crowded the man, his wife, and a large family.

Sandy Smith was himself a pleasant, intelligent fellow, a good deal of a wag, and a capital workman, but he relished other pursuits more than his loom. Though he had no great liking for general reading or scientific subjects, he was a keen politician and a great devourer of the newspapers. Here John and he being on common ground, they used to hold long confabulations on the stirring times in which they lived. Smith was kind and happy-tempered, and allowed his eccentric tradesman full liberty to do his work as he liked. He put no check on his wanderings, knowing that he was a workman worth having, who more than made up for any lost time, and that, as he was employed on piece-work, any loss fell only on himself.

John took an interest in the family, and one of the circle that grew up round that kitchen fire, who was named after his father, [Mr. Alex Smith, of the wool mill, Knockando.] recalls his father's scientific assistant with pleasure and high respect. On John's return to Auchleven, young Sandy was a lad of thirteen, and for two years was his bedfellow in "the philosopher." He was much impressed with the man and his unusual habits and studies, and received from him permanent impulses for good. His mother and John were great friends, and he regrets that she has passed away before her abundant memories of Duncan were recovered; for she was "full" of John and his ways, and read with pleasure the account of him given in "Good Words" in 1877. John was much interested in her and her many children, and used to cheer her with advice and assistance, in her praiseworthy struggles to bring them up worthily with the lightest of purses.

Mr. Smith testifies to John's remarkable temperance in both eating and drinking, and his simple tastes, which were satisfied with the plainest fare, if clean and wholesome. He never saw him dissipate even in tea; for porridge and brose were his staple dishes, varied at supper-time with "hail," in which a big "castock," or stalk of the cabbage, was counted by him a luxury. John's appetite in the morning was something remarkable; and no wonder, for early though it was, he had already done some hours' study and work. He soon appeared in the kitchen after the house-wife was astir, exclaiming, "Is the kettle boilin' yet, Betty?"—a consummation that was crowned by John making his own brose. His achievements in eating this dish used to astonish the youngsters, for he often took it without milk, when none was to be had, and, what seemed worse, used sour, unsavoury "sowens" as a substitute, which even their keen, healthy stomachs could not stand. But, as Mr. Smith says, "John could always suit himself to circumstances"—one of the most invaluable capacities any man can possess; a training for which should form a specific aim in the upbringing of all young people, but which, alas, is less common, with our growing luxury in all classes, than in the Spartan days of which we now speak.

Duncan's methodical, careful habits in all things surprised the children, and gave them lessons for life. Every Monday morning, for instance, it was a sight to see him brush and fold up his Sunday clothes with the greatest neatness, and deposit them tenderly in his chest, the opening of which filled the room with the odour of protecting camphor. His conscientiousness in all he did, and his deep religiousness even then impressed young Sandy.

The occasional flashings of John's quiet Humour are still remembered. John used to tell his father, amongst other curious observations, that he could decide whether a man was "weel-aff or no," by the way he wore his night-cap!—for at that time, every elderly man in Auchleven wore during the day a red-striped "Kilmarnock." He said that the caps of "those who had siller stood stracht up on their heeds; "whereas the caps of those that didna hae't, hung doon at the tap," in appropriate dejection at the impecuniosity of their owners, no doubt—a generalization which his young friend thought was borne out by the facts of the case as exhibited in the village.

Mr. Smith gratefully recalls John's kindly interest in himself, while he lived at home and after he left it for his first situation at Cothal Mills. There John walked twenty miles to see him. He also took him on a first visit to Aberdeen, to show him the "fairlies" there. On the way thither on foot, he delighted the young man's heart by his sincere and childlike sympathy with his own ecstatic raptures at his first view of the sea from near Woodside.

The crowded and miscellaneous kitchen in Sandy Smith's home was scarcely a place for a student to spend his spare time in. This forced John to seek quieter and more congenial quarters. Retiring as he was, he found in Auchleven kindly appreciators who understood and respected him, especially amongst the intelligent women he knew.

Just opposite the weaving shop and face to face with it on the other side of the road, stood the workshop and dwelling of Emslie, the village carpenter. He was himself a quiet man, with no pretensions to mental parts, doing his daily work with diligence, though varying it occasionally with a quiet scamper, gun in hand, over the moors and mosses of Benachie. His wife was an active woman of great intelligence, kind and neighbourly. She was a diligent reader and good talker, and had an excellent memory, which now in her old age is full of vivid recollections of the Auchleven of the time and the strange weaver. Her intelligence is well indicated by the fact, that the Mutual Instruction Class, of which more anon, used often to meet in her house before they got a proper room, and that she used to enjoy the papers read and the discussions that followed.

John and she became intimate, and her house was one of his few resorts, for the comfort, quietness and intellectual sympathies to be found in it. Scarcely a day passed without seeing him there. When he wished a change from the weary monotony of the everlasting click-clack of the shuttle, he would suddenly appear leaning over the lower half of the shop door, which was divided into two parts, like that of a barn. He would first gaze up to the skies, and then all round, while his hand shaded his eyes, in order to see the state of . the weather. Then; making a sudden leap across the highway, for he was in the hey-day of health and spirits, he would burst into the carpenter's kitchen, as if he had flown there. He would remain for a little, talking, reading or having a romp with the children, and then return to his loom.

By Mrs. Emslie's quiet fireside, he often spent his evenings, away from the bustle of the Smiths. John's reading being laborious, he used to ask Mrs. Emslie to read to him. This she did with fluency and intelligence, while he sat enjoying the feast, and expressing his interest by frequent ejaculations of "Ay, ay," varied in tone according to the feelings of assent, surprise, doubt, or criticism the subject elicited. John's own style of reading raised her astonishment and respect, from his indomitable patience and determination to succeed. He had to spell all the longer words, and he read and re-read every sentence, accompanied by a running fire of "Ay, ay!" till he conquered both vocables and meaning. He used also to bring his books on Botany, many of them with finely coloured plates, to show and explain them to his friends; and he was so earnest and persistent in doing this, that he sometimes became a "baather," that is, a bother or bore, to the busy woman.

She was surprised how he was able, in his poverty, to purchase so many books, some of them costly. This could only have been done, she knew, by the remarkable self-denial he practised in other things, of which she was a daily witness. She speaks of John as being then bright, blithesome, and companionable amongst those he was at home with, and she cherishes the highest respect for his character and disposition, as being, intellectually, intelligent and well informed, and, religiously, "full of the grace of God;" while his enthusiasm in science was something wonderful. She looked upon him as altogether an uncommon, and, in many respects, a superior man, and used at that time to notice the peculiar form of his head, as in correspondence with this fact.

She found him unusually shy and sensitive, even after long acquaintance, and remarkably so with strangers. He was very kind to her children. They were very fond of him, and one of the first places they went to, when able to toddle about, was the weaving shop. There he used to seat them on the loom beside himself till they fell asleep, lulled by the clatter of the shuttle, when lie would carry them home in his arms to their mother and their cradle.

Another haunt of John's, chiefly in the evenings, was a comfortable cottage next door to the weaver's, belonging to Mrs. Lindsay. Her daughter still survives, about threescore, in the same pleasant, old-world home—a comely, placid-looking woman, beautifully patient and resigned under untold pangs, arising from a diseased limb, which the strongest anodynes can only partially relieve. It was a delightful nest for any one to retreat to, after the chilling toils of a winter day, with its far-projecting fireplace, great open-armed chimney inviting to kindly warmth, and the luxurious nook beside it with its comfortable seat ; while the crusie, pendant from a cord above, mingled its light with the ruddy gleam of the fire and brightened the cheerful room, which was adorned with shining plates and well-burnished pans, and was redolent of peat reek—one of those interiors that charm the heart of a painter.

There in the cosy corner by the blazing hearth, John used to sit of an evening, pleasantly chatting to the kindly inmates, or reading, in his broken but expressive style, from the newspapers or from some of his numerous books. He was also accustomed to bring his gatherings of plants to arrange and press them, and tell about them and his wanderings for them to willing auditors—for there, as in Mrs. Emslie's, the man was appreciated and his learning admired. On Sunday nights, after returning from church, often at a very long distance during those stirring ecclesiastical times, he would come to Leezie Lindsay's to read his well-worn Bible, explain its contents, or give extracts from the numerous commentaries and dictionaries which helped him to understand its difficulties. Stretched from side to side of the projecting chimney still hangs a cord plaited and tied by him thirty years ago to hold the crusie, preserved, no doubt, by the protecting creosote of the peat smoke ; and there, inside the ample chimney, still rested, at my visit, the crusie itself which used to illumine the pages of the studious weaver.

There also he kept many of his better books, for more ready reference and for protection from damp. When he read aloud at any time, no speaking was allowed or indulged in, for John liked to be listened to; and who does not in such circumstances? When bed-time came, and he had to cross the road and climb the ladder to his crow's nest, he used to carry in his arms, as a kindly companion, a large single-lugged stone jar—an old "grey-beard" still preserved, originally intended for something stronger than the hot water with which it had been filled by his friends, to make his cold couch more comfortable in the winter nights : so that John slept with a "pig." [Pig is common Scotch for a bit of crockery, derived, it would seem, from the Gaelic.]

As some sort of return for all this kindness, John never failed, when he went to Aberdeen, to bring home something for little Leezie, a sweet wee lassie, then the sunshine of the cottage, now a bright, good-looking woman. Chief amongst these gifts for the palate was that irresistible attraction to all youngsters, black-sugar, or "sugar ailie" as it is called in Scotland, varied sometimes with candy and barley sugar. He also brought more enduring toys to play with, which then somehow lasted longer than now. A pretty birdie and a white glass duck were both long extant, but are now gone. A small tin basin, one of John's gifts, is still played with by another child that runs about the same clay floor. Leezie has still blankets woven by Duncan's hand, and the bed he slept on in "the philosopher" was sewed by her kindly fingers.


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