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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXVI - Settlement and Word at Droughsburn


JOHN DUNCAN remained at Auchleven for three years. While he sojourned there, an event took place in 1851 which roused his highest interest, the first Great Exhibition in London, that wonderful world show—a happy prognostic of the Brotherhood of Mankind, seemingly more distant now than it was thought when its crystal dome was reared. That year also, the country lost two of its great benefactors—Robert Peel, one of John's heroes in the political world; and William Wordsworth, the greatest interpreter of the higher influences of nature on man the world has yet seen.

John had long been connected with the Vale of Alford. He had lived for years in its north-west angle, at Tullynessle, had wandered and worshipped on its north-east side, about Benachie and Brindy, and had settled above a dozen years in its south-east corner at Tough; and now, in 1852, in his fifty-eighth year, he removed to its south-west chamber, in the valley of the Leochel, and there spent the remainder of his days.

After leaving, the village of Alford at its west end, a country road runs past the parish church amidst its tall trees, crosses a small stream called the Leochel, [Pronounced Loch'-el, with the guttural ch.] which joins the Don a short distance below, and then runs along its banks, over the hills to Ballater on the Dee. The valley of the Leochel is a lesser side glen opening on the greater Vale below, covered to its crests with sloping fields, and adorned with patches of wood, meadow and moor. Farms and cottages are scattered over its slopes, generally amidst clumps of ash and plane. It breathes a pleasant pastoral quiet, soothing and sweet, especially as seen on a sunny morning in autumn, the only sounds heard being the voices of cattle and children, or the purling of a brook as it hurries to join the river below.

Four miles from Alford, where abridge crosses a stream and a house stands by the highway, a clump of trees may be observed on the right, almost hiding from view the cottages they protect. These cottages, which are discovered chiefly by their blue curling smoke, are known as Droughsburn, [Pronounced Drochs'-burn, with the guttural ch. The name is also written and pronounced Droichs'-burn. It is also locally called Dreesh'-burn.] from the little stream that drains the hollow in which they stand. They are approached by an unfrequented path skirting the rivulet, which is almost hidden by tall grass, wild mint, and luxuriant watercress. An upward walk of half a mile brings you to a garden enclosed by a dike, and overhung by numerous great willows and rowan trees. Behind the garden appears a long thatched cottage, with a smaller one beyond, standing amid the corn. The little glen soon closes in to the left, and a low hill rises. behind crowned with broom and whin. The cottages thus nestle in a tranquil little nook, in solitary but happy seclusion, away from the great world without, overarched by the blue sky, clasped by the friendly hills, and turned to the sunny south—the very home and congenial retreat of a lover of nature and flowers.

The first door in the larger cottage was the entrance to the house of a crofter; a second opened on a weaver's workshop; a third led into a barn ; and the last into a byre, with the crofter's cows. On entering the shop by the low door, beneath which you had to stoop, you found yourself in a little room crowded with two large looms, a wheel, a winding machine, and other appurtenances of the weaving craft. It was very dimly lighted by three little windows in the front and one behind, which were obscured by the dust of the loom and the webs of busy spiders.

This small workroom was Duncan's home for nigh thirty years, till he was borne to his .last resting-place in the churchyard at Alford.

The whole space of the floor was occupied with the various apparatus required for his trade, except a small part near the door, which was filled with his chests and boxes. Yet that room constituted the whole of his dwelling-place, and there he spent his days and nights. Where was his sleeping-room? There also. Close by the door stood a short home-made ladder, leaning against the wall. On looking upwards, there could be seen some planks laid across the couples of the roof at that end of the room, and extending towards the other end two-thirds of the available space above, the rest being open to the rafters. These boards formed a kind of "bunk" or cabin supporting a bed, to which the ladder led up. It contained just sufficient space for the bed and a narrow passage by its side. That was John's bedroom. Its roof was the thatch, and it was entirely without light except what came from the room below.

There, within these four low, narrow walls, lighted by these four dim windows, was included the whole of John's interior domain. It formed at once his workshop, tool-house, dwelling-place and sleeping-room, as well as his library, study and museum. There he lived and laboured, read and studied, poor but contented, yea, happy,—a workman, a student, a thinker, and a God-fearing, upright man. Is it not blessedly true, that our happiness is bounded, not by our possessions, but by our desires; and that our life depends, not on what we have, but on what we wish to have?

William Watt, the weaver who held the croft of Droughsburn, and who now invited John to assist him, was no ordinary man. He possessed literary tastes, and was devoted to general self-culture. He was one of the founders of the Alford Literary Society, in the name of which we may trace his hand; its secretary for some years; and an active promoter of the Mutual Instruction Union. About a year after John came to Droughsburn, early in 1853, Mr. Watt removed to Aberdeen, to become one of the staff of the Aberdeen Gazette, but soon after joined Mr. McCombie, of Cairnballoch, when he founded the Aberdeen Free Press, which is still one of the ablest of our provincial journals. Besides being reporter, he was one of the reviewers on the paper, and did this work with ability. He also wrote one of the Prize Essays on the Sabbath evoked by the liberality of Mr. Henderson, of Park. His health, which never had been robust, was overstrained by this new and trying work, and he died in March, 1854, in his thirty-first year. A high tribute was paid to his memory by Mr. McCombie, in the Free Press of March 31st. He was praised for his steady and enthusiastic devotion to self-education and the acquisition of knowledge, and for his discriminative taste and profound love of truth; although, as was truly remarked, he had passed the greater part of his life "at one of the most harassing and worst remunerated of country handicrafts." He rests in the churchyard of Alford, at a spot not far from where his successor at Droughsburn also now lies. [A son of Mr. Watt's is the present sub-editor of the Aberdeen Free Press; the editor is the author of the inimitable "Johnny Gibb."]

What a pity that these two uncommon weavers, thus brought together in 1852, did not longer influence each other for good! They might have mutually broadened and complemented their aspirations and studies, Watt introducing Duncan to the refinements of literary discrimination and taste, in which John's self-education was greatly wanting; and Duncan showing to Watt the strength and beauty of science, which literary men are so apt to neglect and despise. It was well that they enjoyed the short communion they had together, and John fitly succeeded one whose career was at once a warning and an incitement. William Watt, the lit/efrateur, was another of those wielders of the shuttle—cut off before he had barely proved his power—who have done honour to their craft: along with Thom, the poet of Inverurie, who had then recently died in 1848; Wilson, the ornithologist; Tannahill; the lyrist; Simpson, the mathematician; and Dolland, the inventor of the achromatic telescope. Shall we not now add to the list the name of the man whom Watt invited to his house, John Duncan? John continued to carry on Mr. Watt's work, and to board in the house, till Mrs. Watt left for Aberdeen, in June, 1853, when the business was wound up and the effects sold off. He had previously purchased the contents of the weaving shop, by private bargain, and with these he carried on work till the end. The house without the croft was now occupied by Mrs. Inverarity, a widow whose husband had been grieve on the neighbouring farm of Dorsell, [Pronounced Dor-zell', with accent on the second syllable.] and with her John boarded for nine years. When the croft and cottage were taken, in 1862, by John Allanach, Mrs. Inverarity removed to a house by.the roadside close by the burn, called Droughsbridge, where John lodged with her for six months. He then returned to Droughsburn, after a settlement had been come to with Mr. Allanach, and there he remained till his death.

For the first time in his life since leaving Aberdeen, John had at last settled down, in his fifty-ninth year, in a "hoose and haddin'," or holding, of his own. He rented the shop from Allanach for 1 a year, and paid so much for his meals. He soon established himself as home-weaver for the district, and became quickly known as a first-rate workman. He produced the usual varieties of fabrics made by "customer-weavers," as already described, and had the further and not very common advantage of being equally able to do linen and woollen goods, having learnt both branches of the trade. He supplied himself "the warp" for the cloth, "the weft," or what was woven into it with the shuttle, being provided by the customers employing him. He sometimes got his "pirns" filled by a neighbour, but latterly he filled them himself. He also manufactured a rough kind of stuff called "clooty carpet," which consists of narrow pieces of cloth, or "clouts" woven together. It is a material common in Scotch cottages, and a thrifty means of using up, when washed, the remainders of cloth and old garments useless for anything else.

He was a good judge of cloth, took a pride in doing good work himself, and liked to see it produced by others. Poor workmanship in weaving, as in all other things, he could not tolerate, and he expressed his criticisms of such in a dry, forcible and sometimes humorous way. Once, when shown a web of homespun in which he detected several faults, he remarked, "The makker o' that claith had a sair wame," [The belly, another form of the word womb.] meaning that he had not been able to move the treddles to good purpose.

It was his regular practice to carry home the cloth when woven, however far its destination. The necessary walk was wisely used by him as an alterative to his too sedentary life, and a means of prosecuting his favourite study. With this aim, he generally varied the track he took to and from a place, in order to see more of the country. He might often be observed, in his uncommon attire, moving at his usual rapid pace, in the early hours of the morning, before most folks were astir even in these early-rising districts. His well-known form, with the web under his arm, stick in hand and tall hat or broad bonnet stuck on behind, was easily observed from afar and raised the usual remark, "There goes the Droughsburn weyver, early afit as uswal!" In addition to the small payment for the weaving —for, as Mr. McCombie said, it was "the worst remunerated of country handicrafts"—he expected to be kindly but plainly entertained, by being offered a share of whatever meal was being prepared at the time. To this he was in every way fully entitled, if only for the saving of carriage in bringing home the cloth; and this he generally received ungrudgingly, from the fairness of the expectation after a long walk with such a burden, and from the genuine hospitality that has always reigned among our rural unsophisticated population. Though he had not a few bad debts in his time, he bore testimony to their being punctual payers about Alford.

When a web was finished, he carefully brushed it all over with a broad, flat feather fan he kept for the purpose, corrected all flaws, rolled it up neatly, and then tied it with cord. Being paid so much a yard for the weaving, it was necessary to measure it, and for this he required the help of some young person, generally one of Mrs. Allanach's girls. The child was rewarded for the service with some large, white, old-fashioned peppermint lozenges, of which he kept a store. She received one of them for every yard thus measured; with strict injunctions, however, not to be greedy and eat them all herself, but to be good and part them with her brothers and sisters.

To obtain warp for his webs, he was obliged to get the materials from Aberdeen, either ordering them to be sent, or more generally going to fetch them himself. In travelling to Aberdeen, he went very often the whole way there and back on foot, the distance between Droughsburn and the city being above thirty miles. Very frequently he accompanied, in his covered cart, David Miller, now dead, who was then carrier from Scuttery on the Leochel to Aberdeen; and he also rode with Charles Birse, the merchant there - both of whom were very kind to him at all times, and carried his parcels and himself without grudge and without charge. In going to town, they made a half-way stage at the inn of Liggerdale, above the Loch of Skene, where they stayed all night. They found the old man the best of good company. All this took place before the railway to Alford was opened in 1859, when there was no longer need of such slow but picturesque and pleasant locomotion.


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