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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXIV - John becomes an Essayist


ON the 18th of July, 1850, a society was formed in the village of Auchleven, called the Mutual Instruction Class.

The society was part of a vigorous and extensive intellectual movement which originated in the upland village of Rhynie, at the foot of the far-seen hill called the Tap o' Noth, and which spread thence to a large number of rural and village centres in the counties of Aberdeen and Banff. This movement was one of the earliest and most systematic of its kind in the north, and deserves to be better known. [For an account of this movement, I am indebted chiefly to the Rev. R. Harvey Smith, M.A., its founder; and to Mr. William Anderson, Wellhouse, Alford, an active promoter.] Like many other good things, this Mutual Instruction organization had a very small beginning. The Rev. Robert Harvey Smith, M.A., then a young man of some twenty summers, who had enjoyed the usual education of the district, supplemented by a few years' business training in Aberdeen, returned to his native village to prepare for the grammar school and university. He collected eleven other young men at Rhynie, and submitted to them a draft of rules for the formation of a Mutual Instruction Class, and on the 9th of November, 1846, those apostles of mutual instruction initiated, in a small hall in the village, the first " class." The hall was an upper room, to which access was obtained by an outside stair. It was seated with forms without backs, and lighted with as above the fireplace, near to which the chairman sat, behind a small table bearing writing materials and papers. The founder occupied the chair, and, after a brief address, submitted to the meeting his draft of the proposed rules. They were discussed seriatim, and adopted with some. alterations ; an essayist was appointed for the next meeting; and thus the Mutual Instruction movement began. The "class" became popular, and rapidly grew in numbers and influence.

The rules which guided the Rhynie class for many years, and which formed the basis of the rules of most of the Mutual Instruction societies, were similar to those of all mutual improvement societies, with which, happily, the world has since become more familiar—the aim being "the mutual instruction" of the members, by the reading of essays and criticisms thereupon. One uncommon and commendable regulation was the fine of a penny from each member that came ten minutes late, "unless an excuse satisfactory to the majority were given."

About a month after the formation of the Rhynie class, its founder submitted a scheme for planting such classes in the districts around, and a sort of propaganda fade, under the name of "The Corresponding Committee" of the class, was constituted on January 1st, 1847. This committee was very active and successful in establishing societies, and its visits to various centres were numerous and full of interesting incident.

Meanwhile the parent society, while multiplying classes, continued to perfect its own organization, and increase its method of influencing those in its immediate neighbourhood. A class library was formed, scientific apparatus procured for the use of the members, public social meetings were held, and annual courses of public lectures delivered under its auspices.

In the spring of 1849, the class entered the field of authorship, and published a tract entitled "An Address to Farm Servants, on their Intellectual Condition, by the Rhynie Mutual Instruction Class," the joint production of the class. It passed through two editions, was favourably noticed by the press, and created no small stir among those to whom it was addressed, as well as directed public attention to the condition of farm servants. This led to considerable discussion of this important social question in the public press at that time, and many plans were proposed for their amelioration.

At a later date, the class published a very valuable lecture delivered under its auspices by Mr. William McCombie, of Cairnballoch, already mentioned, an honorary member of the society. The delivery of this lecture, which quickly passed through two large editions, was the occasion of Mr. McCombie's first appearance as a public lecturer, a function which he frequently thereafter discharged, to the great advantage of the country and city populations of Aberdeenshire.

Early in 1849, an important step was taken by the Rhynie class for the consolidation of the l\Iutual Instruction movement. This was the formation of "The Aberdeen and Banffshire Mutual Instruction Union." This institution had 'a most beneficial influence on the various classes, combining and directing their energies, and rendering them a power in the two counties. The same hand that had to do with so many of the schemes of the Rhynie class, was active in the origination of this one. Aided by a committee, he submitted to the Rhynie class a draft of the constitution of the proposed Union, which, with slight alterations, was afterwards adopted by delegates from the various classes.

The object of the Union now instituted was to cultivate friendly co-operation in everything relating to the interests of the associated classes, and to promote these classes in favourable localities. Annual meetings of the Union took place at different centres, such as Rhynie, Gartly, Huntly, Forgue, Keith, and Alford. At these, the various classes were represented by delegates, and public soir/es held, which seem for several years to have been enthusiastic and successful, under the honorary presidentship of Mr. McCombie.

In the same year, the active Rhynie society considered the practicability of forming a Female Mutual Instruction Class. This was successfully accomplished, on lines somewhat similar to those of the other societies, combining, however, tutorial with mutual instruction. Somewhat later, evening schools for artisans and farm servants were organized by the same class.

In January, 1850, appeared the first number of a monthly periodical published by the Lynturk club. It was named "The Rural Echo and Magazine of the North of Scotland Mutual Instruction Associations."

During the next eight years, the Mutual Instruction movement made steady and satisfactory progress, training through its various agencies a host of young men, who gradually found positions of influence at a distance from the limited rural village communities where they received their first intellectual stimulus. Authors, editors, physicians, ministers of various sections of the church, and business men rose from these classes and occupied important stations at home and abroad. In consequence of this removal of their best members, many of the societies were weakened; and the populations around them being sparse, there was a lack of young men to fill the places of those removed. Hence many of the classes decreased in numbers, and under such discouragements, a few were extinguished—their very success contributing to this result.

The Union ceased to meet in 1857, and thus a most important bond was dissolved. Still, not a few societies continued to flourish, and a number even now exist under slightly changed names and conditions. Young Men's Christian Associations and Science and Art classes absorbed a certain proportion. The parent Rhynie class continued to meet, with some slight interruptions, for twenty-eight years, a Science and Art class occupying its place down to the present time.

The Auchleven Instruction Class lasted six or seven years. Young Dr. Mackay took an active part in it, and the meetings were held fortnightly in a room in the mill, kindly allowed by his father, and sometimes in private houses, till a cottage was built by Mr. Mackay, partly for their accommodation. To Mr. R. H. Brewster, long secretary of the society, I am greatly indebted for assistance and information regarding John Duncan's life in Auchleven.

A pretty good library was also formed in connection with the society. This was kept in a three-cornered cupboard, in which the librarian, young Smith, had difficulty in arranging the books. They used to hold yearly soirees in the mill. Their grandest effort in this direction took place at their entering on new premises in the cottage, when a select choir discoursed sweet music and John Duncan held forth on Astronomy. The society had also its poet laureate, for they cultivated the muses as well as science and philosophy.

Duncan was a member from the first, and continued to be so during his stay in the village. He read essays there, and took his part in the criticisms. There were several elderly men connected with it, but John was the patriarch of the society, being then fifty-six. He was a steady attender, and was counted "quite a treat" when he read or spoke, on account of his wide knowledge, quaint aspect, and unusual style of speech. In reading his papers, which he did with his face close to the sheet, he was so absorbed in his subject that he became quite oblivious to the smiles of the members, excited by his unusual earnestness and style of reading; for he laboriously spelled aloud the more difficult technical words, and, though breaking down with some of them more than once, still attacked them till they were moulded to his mind, the final result being often queer enough.

His essays were counted "clever." In the discussions that followed the papers, he was frequently humorous, if not droll, but was always instructive. His speech, till he became animated, was slow and hesitating, and the ideas evidently crowded themselves so close that the words were blocked up in their outward passage. He would generally conclude his observations, as on other occasions, by saying, "I cu'd tell ye a great deal, a great deal," though little came in spite of his sawing with his hands backwards and downwards, according to his custom when in vocal straits. To illustrate his essays, he brought collections of dried specimens, which he laboriously explained, and he wasdelighted to be questioned and listened to regarding them.

John's first paper was "An essay, or short discourse, on Botany," delivered on the 16th of August, 1850, very soon after the formation of the society. Some extracts may be interesting as showing our hero in a new phase. They arc reproduced as written, having evidently been prepared with the greatest care, errors in spelling and punctuation only being corrected. They were written in the dim light and narrow bounds of "the philosopher."

"Botany," he began, "is that science which teaches us to distinguish one plant from another; and consists in associating together into classes or groups, such plants as possess certain permanent characters in common, and in separating and distinguishing those. that are dissimilar in character and appearance by fixed rules correctly drawn from nature; thereby enabling us to distinguish the properties and uses of the multifarious and variously organized bodies in the vegetable kingdom. The purpose of this scheme, besides giving the nomenclature of Botany, is to guide the student, in the clearest and concisest manner, to an intimate acquaintance with the anatomy of a plant and the functions of its particular parts."

"When a plant is taken up for examination, it is an object to obtain several flowers, some of them fully expanded, some just opening, others whose seed-vessels may be nearly ripe, and, if possible, an entire specimen of the. plant."
After speaking of plants being characterised according to their habitats, as aquatic, marine, fluvial, palustrous, and fontinal, he divides the vegetable kingdom into the three grand divisions of grasses, trees, and the rest, and continues: "There are upwards of three hundred grasses upon the earth. [I cannot say what classification of grasses John adopts, but there are now almost 4000 known species of grasses ; that is, about one-twentieth of phanerogamous plants.] They furnish pasturage for cattle. The smaller seeds are food for birds, and the larger for man; such as corn and rye and wheat and barley for man, and oats and hay for horses." It is curious to find such a porridge eater as John practically adopting Dr. Johnson's famous description of oats—"Food for man in Scotland, and for horses in England."

"Our most important articles of food and clothing are derived from the grasses, such as bread to eat, beer, milk, butter, cheese; and leather and wool and all the advantages produced from the use of cattle would be lost without them."

He advocates the teaching of Natural History to children by the argument that, "the very first time that an infant exercises its feet upon the sward or grass, or stretches its arms in the open air, it is to chase butterflies or pull wild flowers."

After remarking that there were then "upwards of eighty botanists from one time to another," [Pritzel enumerates 15,000 publications in his "Thesaurus" (1851)!] he could not proceed without an enthusiastic reference to the greatest botanist of all in his estimation, and one of his chief heroes among men, Charles Linnaeus. "He was born," John continues, "in Sweden, in the year 1707, and laid the foundation and arrangement of the science. While yet a mere youth, he was pitched upon by the Academy of Sciences of Upsala, to explore the dreary regions of Lapland. He underwent great hardships ["hargepes" John spells it] in want of books, in want of clothes, in want of bread to eat, even patching up old shoes with the bark of trees. I have even risket my life myself in rivers and lakes [the Loch of Drum being evidently present to his mind], all for knowledge [knowelg]." After speaking of the Linnaean and Jussieuan or Natural systems, and the classes of the former, he observes that in it, the flowers of plants were used as an index to the system " much in the same way as one consults the index of a book, to find a particular chapter or page." He concludes his essay by exclaiming, that, in the study of Botany, they would find

"Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything."

He gave discourses more than once on Astronomy, but no notes of these now remain. There exists among his papers also an essay on Weaving, but whether it was prepared for this society or not, it is impossible now to say. After an introduction on the use of clothing "as an indispensable piece of decency, even though the exceeding calmness and serenity of the air might not oblige men to use any precaution against it," and on the need of clothing " which begins at the instant of birth;" he discovers the origin of weaving in "the pretty obvious expedient of interweaving the long and narrow leaves of plants of the grass kind in the form of a niat." He then gives a: history of 'weaving from the time of the ancient Egyptians, "with whom the first species of cloth invented in all likelihood originated," as did the sciences. In speaking of the once universal use of the distaff and spindle, he mentions that, at one time, he had himself woven sixty ells of sacking with yarn " spun with the rock and spindle." He traces the history of weaving in Britain from the Romans who "established a woollen and linen manufactory at Winchester for clothing their army," down to the improvements of Hargreaves and Arkwright and the modern power looms. He concludes, according to his custom, with two lines of verse, evidently, in this case, from some original source, personal or otherwise:

"'But the weaving it is renowned so,
That pure [That is, "poor," according to local pronunciation.] nor rich without it cannot go."

John read another "short discourse" before the class, on Practical Gardening, on the 2nd of April, 1852, at the opening of spring, when gardening operations were beginning.

After defining a garden as "a place separate from the ordinary fields, and protected by an enclosure either of a wall or hedge," he speaks, of course, of the occupation being "veary Anchent," of the garden of Eden, "a most beautiful and charming spot, enclosed and planted by God Himself, and hence called the garden of the Lord," and of Sire Adam, "the first man and the first gardener." After describing the hanging gardens of Babylon, he turns to the "most humble gardens they were met to consider, which opened up sources of healthful and innocent and pleasurable employment." "There is hardly a spot of earth so rugged in which the art of the gardener will not be found to produce something like loveliness in the scene; scarcely a tribe of man so rude among whom it will not create some idea of beauty, to lift up his mind to the Supreme Fountain of light and beauty and the Giver of all goodness; and there is scarcely a cottage so small that may not have the rose and the woodbine winding round its porch, and Cematis or virgin bower. I have heard that even the poorest of the weavers of Paisley and elsewhere, much to their credit, take especial pride in rearing their geraniums, hyacinths and tulips. It would thus appear that there is a sort of spell or charm about flowers, independent of fashion or the pleasures of sight and smell, which tends to soothe the spirits and compose the mind."

In practising gardening, he rightly pleads, like the scientific student he was, that, to do it properly, "the first and great object to be attained is a thorough knowledge of the constitution of plants, without which no correct idea can be formed of their proper treatment." He then gives a series of advices about gardens and gardening, showing good knowledge of the subject and practical acquaintance with its details, with which we need not trouble even the most patient reader. He mentions that Pliny describes about a thousand plants of all kinds, and asks us to compare this with Loudon's estimate of our floral wealth in the present century, which amounts to above 25,000 species. He attributes the cankering, or "clubbing," that attacks cabbages and carrots to dry ground and to drought, "which is the nursing mother of insects of every description."

"I asked," he continues, "some country people what they had growing. in their gardens. They said, 'Oh, we have nothing but green kale, but you may come and see our yard. [The common name in Scotland for a garden, being the same as the first syllable of the English word.] We were thinking to sow a pickle onion ["oin"] seed; where would we sow them?' Weel, I looked around me in the yard, and all was close with weeds. They said, 'Oh, you will delve a bit and sow the onion seed.' I said to them, 'I have not a spade.' They said, 'We have a spade.' They brought an old spade not above six inches long to me!

"I have walked by the way and have looked in over yards in country places and seen nothing but a coquiny [Evidently meaning "wheen," the Scotch form of an old Anglo-Saxon word, hwaene, a few. The Scotch is also written quhene, quhoyne, etc.] of green kale and berry bushes, growing like rasp bushes close with weeds—such as ranunculus, and couch grass (triticum repends) and galeopsis (hemp nettle) and the lamium purpureum (red dead nettle) and the staczys palustris (marsh wound-wort) and the henbit nettle (lamium amplexicaule) and the Irolcus molls, or Creeping Soft Grass. Now, they could have a good many useful ["yousefl"] plants instead of all these weeds ; such as horehound and hyssop and sage and caraway and rhubarb and scurvy grass and rue and sweet marjoram and thyme and parsley and parsnips [These plants were greatly used by John in his herbal pharmacopoeia and were cultivated by himself in his garden at Droughsburn. He practised what he preached.] and plenty of green kale, and a great many flowers of hardy annuals and biennials and perennials, of various sorts, both for use and beauty ["boiuty"]. But it is a true saying of the wise king, when he made a remark upon the slothful. He says 'I went by the field of the vineyard of the man void of understanding, and, lo, it was all grown over with thorns and nettles.' Nov, in the land of Canaan ["ceannind"] vines were as plentiful in their gardens as our green kale is in Scotland ["cotclnd"]. But I shall add little more.

"Is there a heart that beats and lives
To which no joy the spring time gives?
Alas, in that unfeeling heart
No love nor kindliness hath part.
Who round about him finds, unsought,
Fresh matter for improving thought,
And more, the more he looks abroad:
He marks and loves the present God!'"


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