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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXIII - His Studies and Friends at Auchleven


DUNCAN continued his intellectual pursuits in Auchleven with a glowing ardour that nothing could extinguish. He kept some books always beside him in the workshop, and these were daily resorted to in the intervals necessary in such sedentary labour. He read much also, as we have seen, in the quietude of the cosy cottages he frequented. But "the philosopher" was the chief scene of his studies. Many a time, when wakened between two and three in the summer mornings by the rumble of the passing peat carts going to the moss, has his young bedfellow, Sandy Smith, seen John already dressed and seated on the top of his chest at the other side of the den, "mumbling and spelling" at the book he was engaged on, by the light that entered through the glass-less opening in the door, through which also blew the pleasant morning breeze. As he read in an audible monotone, the listener could generally make out the subject. John went over the same sentence or passage again and again till he had mastered it; but, as Sandy says, "when it did get in, it never got out again!" This was Duncan's daily practice all through the bright days of summer.

It was a strict rule of his that no light of any kind should be used in "the philosopher," on account of the smallness of the place and the inflammable nature of the surrounding materials—a rule never once violated by himself, though sometimes broken by the boy, who got properly scolded for his indiscretion. In winter, therefore, they were obliged to ascend and descend the ladder from the road, dress and undress, go to bed and rise again, all in pitch darkness except on moonlight nights, and in constant danger of knocking their heads against the rafters, for they could scarcely stand erect even in the centre of the triangular space. On winter mornings, when it was of course impossible to read, John rose very early and went down to the shop. He worked diligently at his loom till breakfast, by the light of the weaver's oil lamp. After dinner about noon, he retired to "the philosopher." He first made his bed, and then studied for two or more hours, returning after daylight failed to work once more by lamplight. By this exemplary diligence, he traversed a wide field of reading and thought, in spite of his slow and laborious style of study. This was surely the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, if it ever was so pursued ; but the difficulties only enhanced the student's delights, which have rarely been surpassed in intensity.

When Duncan returned to Auchleven, his devotion to the stars of heaven had been greatly eclipsed by his love of "the stars of earth, the golden flowers." When William Mortimer spoke to him of this change, saying, "O Johnnie! ye've laid by the meen, and ta'en tip the floors!" "Yes," replied John, with great emphasis and practical sense, "yes, I can get my hands upo' them!" Though he could not pluck the stars from the sky, he could pluck the plants from the ground!

That was the answer of the practical philosopher John always was. It also contains one of the chief pleas for the prosecution of outdoor nature studies by the young. In these, the student can examine, handle, and dissect with his own fingers the subjects of his study, and his work consists in real handling of the objects he deals with—not in matters of distant sight, where the hands can never touch the things investigated, as in astronomy, nor in matters of faith, as in history and geography. It embodies the sound principle which commends such subjects of practical research as important elements in early education, that by their means the whole senses—by eye, car, nose, mouth touch and hand—are separately and jointly exercised along with the intellect, under skilled guidance, for scientific ends and careful induction.

John's new pleasure was to conquer the flora of his old haunts along the Gadie. As Charles Black explains, this stream is not botanically remarkable, unless for its abundant strong-smelling herbs, such as Meadow sweet and the like, whose odour still sends his heart back to Gadie side. John soon explored all its windings. He went up the pretty dell behind Castle Lickleyhead—then a picturesque ivied ruin, now a modern shooting-lodge—which adorns and centralises the view there, with Hermit Seat in the background. He climbed the northern front of Benachie and its sister peaks, from which he brought "a tall kind of girse with a big nodding head which they all laughed at"—of course, for "wha wu'd bother himsel' wi' a wheen girses?" as they sagely said.

He was often absent all day, and more than once all night, subsisting on his bag of meal and crust of bread. When he went on any of these wanderings, his master, Sandy Smith, would say, "I hae lost my man the day; I suppose he's awa' amang the floors as uswal." Few saw him return, for he could steal up the ladder to his bed above the byre, unnoticed by anybody. He always came back with a bundle of plants, and often with wet clothes and moss-coloured boots that told of many a scramble. A villager brought the news one day, that he had actually seen John away in Aberdeen, looking at the ships in the harbour, "wi' a nievefu' [Handful. The Scotch nieve or neive means the fist.] o' girses" even there; concluding with the remark, "but Johnnie never was like onybody else."

Duncan generally went alone, but sometimes he had a companion. The shoemaker occasionally accompanied him, more for the sake of his general conversation than for the weeds; and they used to talk of the stars as they came home in the dark. As William says, John delighted to discourse to others of the subjects he studied, and was grateful to any one that would listen to him about those things he held so dear. But he confesses that he got few auditors—it was too often a mere waste of good time. His speech was not very fluent, but most abundant, for "he never had ony end" to what he had to say; there was so much in his mind that lie could not express. He generally concluded any expositions to friendly ears by saying, "Oh, I cu'd tell ye a great heap, a great heap!"

John succeeded in interesting Sandy Smith's children not a little in flowers, and they used to gather them, to show them to him in the weaving shop. At these times, however busy, he would at once stop work, elated at seeing the plants in their hands, and hopeful that it would lead to their study in after years. He would then tell their names and other interesting things about them.

In order to draw general attention to the neglected wild flowers that grew in beauty all around, unheeded and unknown, John had an Exhibition of plants, once if not oftener. This was, doubtless, one of the first Botanical Exhibitions ever held in the north of Scotland, somewhere about the year 1850. It took place in the upper loft of the Carding Mill, and all were invited to come and see. His specimens, gathered about Tough and Auchleven—for he had spent above a week in getting fresh plants—were spread out on tables round the room, and young Sandy Smith was honoured, as his assistant, to hand them to the audience, while John discoursed about them.

His opening sentence was certainly startling enough—"Some people think that Botany is a beast. But Botany is no beast. Botany is the science that treats of plants." This is a curious proof of the general ignorance then existing on scientific matters; for John wished merely to correct a misconception he found prevalent on the subject. He described to them, amongst other things, the office of the pollen that stuck to their noses when they smelled a rose, and recited the story of the solitary juniper bush on the braes of Tough. In showing the water-lily, he told of his adventure in the Loch of Drum in search of it. With these and similar narratives, and striking properties, he tried to enliven the subject and interest his audience. But in spite of all his earnestness, the words did not flow so smoothly in such unwonted circumstances as they would have done to a friend on the hill-side. His auditors soon became tired of it, much more from sheer inability to comprehend such unaccustomed ideas, however illustrated, than from the want of eloquence in the lecturer. As Mr. Smith says, "every one was twice wearied before John was half done." A few left the room, but the rest remained to the end, " out of deference to the man, for he was a universal favourite."

In 1851, his fame as a botanist had so begun to spread that he received a letter of invitation from Aberdeen, asking him to assist in forming a new Natural History Society there, and to bring some botanical specimens with him to exhibit at the meeting. Whether he was able to comply with the request is unknown, but it is pleasing to learn that his merits were beginning to be recognized.

He also continued his practice of medical botany, and prescribed for ailments of different kinds. He is still remembered as being very successful in the treatment of cuts, by means of the invaluable "Healing herb" (Plantago media); and, in the cure of toothache, with Sneezewort (Aclilllea ptarmica) and with "Aligopane" (Inula /selenium), and when toothache troubled any one, "John and his aligopane" became a proverb and a remedy.

But John did not neglect his old sublimer studies of the firmament, for these he never did or could forget. They were only subordinated to nearer studies which had eclipsed the more distant. On clear frosty nights, he still examined the heavens, and set his dials behind the house. His want of Mathematics prevented his pursuing the higher parts of Astronomy, but his knowledge of the descriptive portion of the subject was great.

He gave lessons on it to a young friend of his, John Mackay, son of the proprietor of the mill, now Dr. Mackay, of Strathkinness, in Fife. , He showed him also how to construct a telescope. They were able to complete it with the help of Dr. Thomas Dick's work on the "Solar System" which was then, along with the "Christian Philosopher" by the same author, one of the first and best of popular scientific text-books. The two had many a peep through this home-made instrument at the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the surface of our own satellite.

John read some papers on Astronomy before the Mutual Instruction Class that met in the village. One of these discourses was given in the carpenter's house, on the moon and the tides, and Mrs. Emslie remembers how he was "sadlies put till't, because he cu'dna get them tae understan' him, in spite of all he cu'd say." When the Class held a soiree on entering into more comfortable quarters, John was in "grand trim," and came out quite strongly on Astronomy, as Dr. Mackay tells, though, with such celestial themes, it was feared he soon shot beyond the comprehension of his rustic audience. His cognomen of "Johnnie Meen" was now less used, however, than at his first stay in Auchleven. Dr. Mackay recalls how, on bright starry nights after the Class dismissed, led by John, they used to stand for hours gazing into the heavens and discussing the deepest problems in regard to man's future destiny—such as whether the planets were inhabited, with which of them the future state was connected, and similar abstruse but ever .interesting themes, which have exercised the hopes and aspirations of humanity since man first opened his eyes to the starry firmament.

Duncan also paid some attention at that time to Entomology, which Charles and James Black afterwards successfully pursued; and Dr. Mackay recollects an ingenious box he used, which had one compartment for his victims and another for burning sulphur, by the fumes of which he killed them. He also showed the young man the proper way of transfixing them with pins.

Duncan also studied Meteorology, and was counted a kind of weather prophet. His constantly taking observations of the state of the weather gave rise to a peculiar habit of his of looking upwards and round about, with his hand above his eyes.

But, next to Botany, Theology was then, as at all times, his chief study. He was noted as an ardent Free Churchman, and no one was more regular in his attendance at the plain, barn-like temple near Waukmill. He dressed on Sunday in a blue serge suit of his own weaving, with shining buttons, tall hat, and well-brushed boots, and sat in front of the pulpit in reverent attention. He also went on week days to missionary and Bible class meetings, which were held three miles distant, at Insch. He hoped to see in time a Free Church founded also in England, that is, he looked for a great secession from the establishment there; for, in his view, as well as in that of many others then and since, secession was held to be essential to religious freedom and progress.

He was also a diligent student of Biblical Criticism, which he pursued by the help of the numerous dictionaries and commentaries he possessed. In order that, as he said, "he micht gae to the oreeg'nal," he continued his study of Greek and made considerable progress. Dr. Mackay says that he was rather proud of his knowledge of that language, and "could spell out the words and get some idea of the meaning in Greek, in passages he wished to investigate."

He continued as anti-papal and anti-prelatic in religious sympathies as ever, and took out the ultra-protestant journal, called the "Bulwark." Its highly coloured narratives of popish errors and abuses he enjoyed and read to others. He talked earnestly on these subjects to all the young people he knew, in order to instil into them the traditional antagonism to those elements of error and religious slavery which he had so strongly imbibed with his mother's milk and teaching; which had been so deeply impressed on his own youthful heart by the braes of Dunnottar; and which, in the light of her history, he viewed as essential to Scotland's spiritual well-being.

Though highly respected by all, and perhaps more esteemed in Auchleven than anywhere else, he was very imperfectly understood by the people in general. As Dr. Mackay observes, "they were incapable of estimating his true character—at the time he lived among them, at least—for he was quite in advance of them in knowledge and aspirations. They thought him clever, no doubt," he continues, "but they could not understand or enter into the man's thorough earnestness and enthusiasm in the pursuit of knowledge."

In spite of their compelled appreciation of the man, their ideas of him were in a kind of bewilderment, which was increased by his great eccentricity. He was the only specimen of the kind they had ever seen. Many looked upon him as "daft;" others viewed him at the best as "something silly."

A farmer's son in the neighbourhood, who was then at college and afterwards became a parish teacher, used to accompany John in his search for plants, to his father's great surprise. The practical farmer, judging only by outward appearances, remonstrated with his son "for takkin' up wi' yon cretur—he's a feelI" "Well," said the son, "if he's a fool, he knows far more than folks that think themselves wiser." The lad afterwards made considerable progress in such folly, and added not a little to his happiness while he pursued it.

To a favoured few, John used to show his herbarium, his "hibernia," as one of his good friends called it—shall we say by an Irishism? This he kept with the greatest care, preserved and scented, in his chest in "the philosopher." As Dr. Mackay remarks, Duncan believed and acted on the exoteric and esoteric in philosophy. It was not every one that was deemed worthy to be initiated into scientific mysteries. The candidate must show himself imbued with the true spirit necessary for such sacred rites; according to the Horatian hatred of the "profanum vulgus," and the Christian precept regarding "pearls before swine." But when these essentials were possessed, however dimly, John was ready to become their earnest high priest, to initiate and instruct the aspirant.

His chief candidate for such honours in Auchleven was Dr. John Mackay himself. He was a lad of about thirteen years when he first made John's acquaintance, and when about twenty, became a medical student at Aberdeen University. A sincere attachment sprang up between the man and the boy. As Mrs. Emslie expresses it, young John "had a great wark" with old John, "and really loved him," and their friendship became the talk of the village. Dr. Mackay is no sorry that " fleeting years and the serious concerns of life have effaced from his memory much he could have wished to tell of his friend: elzeu fugaces . . . labuntur anlzi." He confesses that he "owes to John, in great measure, the choice of a profession," for "he helped to flame the latent desire he had to acquire knowledge."

John of course introduced the young student to Botany. At his first lessons, he dissected for him a simple flower, and explained its component parts and structure. He pointed out, explained and named the common plants in the neighbourhood, and his pupil still recalls his early descriptions of the Germander speedwell, Woodruff, Lady's mantle, the Common Fox-tail grass (Alopecaurus pratensis), and other flowers, grasses and trees, both forest and garden. They were accustomed to go to the field and hill together, John crowned with his Tarn o' Shanter bonnet. He was then, the doctor says, muscular and sinewy, and in the prime of life. They also spent many happy hours alone in "the philosopher," "going over the herbarium and books." They had long talks, too, in the weaving shop on many subjects, scientific and religious. Amongst other matters, they "quite settled the future of church and state in Scotland!" Indeed, during college recess, when the young doctor was at home, they were constant companions. Dr. Mackay gratefully acknowledges that Duncan "influenced his mind powerfully." They met for the last time in 1860, some years after John had left the banks of the Gadie.


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