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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXVII - John's Life and Habits at Droughsburn


DUNCAN'S tastes and habits during the rest of his days at Droughsburn remained the very simplest. His usual hour for rising was four o'clock in summer, and when he had a long journey to go with a web, he would set out at three. In winter, he rose about an hour later. His regular time for retiring was at seven, except when he was visiting or plant-gathering, and then he was often late enough. When he had friends calling on him, he sat up till nine. In the country, "early to bed, early to rise " was and is the rule. How far it issued amongst the people generally in the proverbial health, wealth, and wisdom is another question; but it was certainly a salutary practice, with good results in the order of statement. John's health was always very good, deflections being rectified by Culpepper's aid ; his wealth, never great, was not only sufficient for his modest wants but yielded a surplus for his relatives and for his books; and his wisdom was certainly much greater than his neighbours deemed or could appreciate.

He lived entirely in his workshop, except when he went for his meals to the kitchen, the room next his own. This was a comfortable apartment, with the usual capacious fireplace, within which the children could sit, and was practically and pleasantly furnished, like all thrifty Scotch country houses.

The Allanachs were highly respectable, well-conducted, hard-working people. They brought up a large family with credit, and were exemplary in their religious duties, holding worship nightly at home and going regularly to church every Sunday.

Mr. Allanach was what would now be called a contractor, employing others in the jobs he undertook connected with all kinds of country work, such as harvesting, draining and the like. His self-esteem was considerable, and he wished laudably to achieve as good a social position as he could, which his want of financial success greatly prevented. His style was what his neighbours thought high, and it subjected him to consequent criticism. He was considerably inclined to look down upon his simple tenant, the weaver. For John's habits and studies, he had not the smallest predilection, and he did not take any pains to try to understand the man. The result was that, though they sat at the same table and lived in such close connection, their relations were never very cordial. In Allanach's presence, John's retiring nature, which was all his life keenly sensitive to chilliness and contempt and only opened out under friendly warmth, was effectually frozen up. At best, there reigned between them a slumbering armed neutrality.

The distance between them was also increased by Allanach's treatment of Duncan's plants. John had a small part of the garden railed off for his own use, in which he cultivated what plants he pleased. In addition to this, during the nine years he had been there before the Allanachs came, he was allowed the use of the flower borders that ran on both sides of the walks. Allanach, a practical, business man who despised all sentiment, wished to have the whole of the space belonging to him devoted to such substantial growths as cabbages and turnips, and turned out all John's plants. He might as well have plucked out his eye or cut off his hand. The result was, of course, the irretrievable extinction of all sympathy between them. Altogether, Duncan could scarcely have lived with a man whose tastes were more unlike his own. Allanach was a strong, dry, plain man who contemned all John's dearest pursuits as oddities or weaknesses; and he was far too absorbed in his own occupations to feel or trouble himself in any way with this want of sympathy between himself and his tenant. To Duncan, their relations were fraught with no little pain and unhappiness, though he would have been the last to confess the cause.

But the iciness of the husband was more than made up by the geniality and warmth of the wife. She was an excellent, hard-working woman and mother, whose disposition and manner were bright, intelligent, and kindly. She appreciated and understood the old weaver, and respected his knowledge and ability. By her hearty motherliness and attention, she made his residence there comfortable, if not homelike. As Allanach was necessarily much absent in connection with his contracts, he seldom met the weaver except for a little in the evenings and on Sundays. So that John could tolerate this crook in his lot, for the sake of the kindliness of Mrs. Allanach; and thus, for nearly twenty years, he continued to live there, till the death of Mr. Allanach in 1880, and his own in 1881.

The result of this want of rapport with Allanach was that John lived a greatly repressed life in the house, kept himself more and more apart, and seldom or never blossomed out at Droughsburn as he always did in more congenial society. With Mrs. Allanach alone did he feel in any way at ease, or have any confidences; and he would talk at meals for a little, chat for some time by the kitchen fire after early supper, and occasionally read some of his books and show his plants. In other houses in the valley of the Leochel, he was much more at home, as at Mrs. Inverarity's at Droughsbridge, and Charles I3irse the merchant's, who lived up the glen at Skuttery.

But nowhere was his silent reserve more thawed and his heart more opened out than in the home of a crofter who also lived at Droughsbridge. Mrs. Webster, the good genius there, is a pleasant, couthy, warm-hearted little woman. She understood and appreciated Duncan more than most of his neighbours, and possessed the geniality and tact that won his confidence. Her husband is plain, practical, hard-working, and kindly. To their cosy fireside, John came more frequently than to any other in the neighbourhood. There he would read and talk for hours together about current events, his wanderings and his plants, and relate incidents in his past history confided to few. He would take the children on his knee, and tell them stories of his mother and his own childhood, which he seldom told to any. To Mrs. Webster, he came for many years to get his hair cut, and even when they removed nearer to Alford, he continued the old habit, in the notion that she alone could do it properly, and that her kindly fingers were pleasanter than those of others. For this bit of service, he brought his own comb and scissors, which he kept carefully rolled and tied up in paper. He had a special and unvarying cut of hair, by which it hung down equally all round over his brows, with very little shed.

To the Websters', he also used to go to read the newspapers, and talk over matters treated there. When any place was mentioned they did not know, John would consult his atlas at home and tell them about it at next visit, and sometimes bring down the book to point it out. His conversation was chiefly about his varied experiences, but a frequent topic was the history of Scotland, 'and especially of the Covenanters and their sufferings. The effect of sympathy and kindly appreciation on the reticent old man, so shy and distant with all but the friendly, is proved by this one fact, that, from Mrs. Webster, the author has learnt more of John's early days than from any other person about Alford.

In his vigorous years at Droughsburn, John kept his room, full to crowding though it was, neat and well arranged; for he was scrupulously clean, and methodical in all he did, having "a place for everything and everything in its place," if ever a man had, and every corner was utilised. The extreme care he bestowed on all he did and had, is shown by the excellent state in which his books, and especially his frail and brittle plants, have been left. Some of the books he preserved for more than sixty years, and many of the plants for above forty, in spite of all their natural enemies in dust, moths, mice and rats, all which were unusually abundant in that old thatched building, Indeed, the preservation of his specimens was marvellous under the circumstances, and proves a watchful care that is quite extraordinary.

He would allow no interference with anything in his room, doing himself everything required there, with his usual independence, making his own bed, dusting and cleaning up, and performing other offices generally done by women. He greatly objected to any intrusion, especially from children, who were naturally attracted by the curiosities there, on account of the many valuable things that lay in every corner, and he locked his door every time he went from home.

The most of his books and plants were kept in three large chests. The best of the books were carefully wrapped and tied up in several folds of paper. All the chests and plants and parcels were abundantly scented with camphor and dried native plants, such as mint and woodruff, to preserve them from the insidious moth. The insides of the chest lids were ornamented with pictures of various kinds, coloured and plain, pasted on the wood. These contained, amongst others, portraits of Queen Adelaide, William IV., Nicholas of Russia, Queen Mary, Queen Victoria, Rob Roy, Young Normal, a Highland chieftain in full coloured costume, plates of animals, and an old rude representation of Adam and Eve under the apple tree, round which the wicked serpent twined, with a quotation from "Paradise Lost" beneath.

Though John's care of his books was so great, his desire to spread knowledge was greater, and he used to lend them a good deal to his friends and the more intelligent of his neighbours; for nothing gave him more pleasure than to discourse about the subjects he studied with others, and assist them in prosecuting these in every way in his power. To prevent the loss of the books he lent, he got a small card printed at Netherton, which was pasted on each of them, and of which this is a copy; but of its author I can find no clue, though others then used the same:—

He always took pains to see his books duly returned, and was not slack to remind any one when a book was kept too long; doing so even with Charles Black.

Nothing illustrates the remarkable solicitude he bestowed on all he possessed so well as the one fact that he wore the same suits of clothes, already described, all which were of his own weaving, for at least fifty years, and that they were presentable even to the last, though much worn and out of date. He had two suits with which he went out of doors, "a better and a worse," in addition to his working dress; and during this long period, he never had any other till after the subscription raised for him in his eighty-seventh year. Besides two time-worn, tall dress hats —which were of the real old beaver, with long hairy pile—he had two round, blue, flat "Tam o' Shanter " bonnets, with great tassels on the top, which he wore in going about the house and on less formal occasions. One of these bonnets was borrowed by the Alford Mutual Improvement Society, to help in one of their dramatic entertainments. When John received it back, he gave it a good brushing, according to his wont, in presence of the member who returned it, although the man had previously cleaned it, knowing the scrupulosity of its owner.

John went regularly to church every Sunday, travelling four miles over the hill to the Free Church of Cushnie, and nothing but storm kept him at home. He always left Droughsburn in good time, to have leisure to visit or talk to a friend and pluck some of his favourites by the wayside.

The Rev. George Williams and his cousin, Dr. Williams of Tarland on the Dee, then lived with their parents about a mile from church, and both recall the old man from their early boyhood, with pleasant memories and great respect. Their homes were frequently visited by John, and there he was much appreciated and hospitably entertained. The children, glad to escape the over-restraints of sabbath keeping as then observed in the strict country, made a point of setting out very early for church to have a chat with the old botanist. They liked to hear him talking about the plants, and to repeat their grand names after him.

Though tight-laced on several religious matters, John never thought it any desecration of the holy day to admire, gather, and discourse of God's illuminated herbarium, spread open by Him on that day as widely and beautifully as on other days—plainly and attractively inviting to study, and chiding all condemnation of it. Hence his ready and willing discourse to the boys about the flowers while going to and returning from church.

With old George Williams, an office-bearer, "who had a belief in the old botanist when others were inclined to think him daft," he used also to talk about them before and after service, though many of his narrower fellow-worshippers would most likely have condemned both of them as sabbath-breakers for so doing. John always took some of the wild flowers to church with him, which the boys used to note with surprise were merely weeds, neither rare nor showy, but often the very commonest. These he would spread out on the desk in front of him, the Eyebright (Eupkrasia officinalis) being a special favourite. He did this evidently for the simple joy of seeing them, "looking at them," as Dr. Williams remarks, "just as other people look, and cannot help looking, at those they love." And in all his worship, the flowers were ever present to him, to brighten and inspire the sacred book and its glorious themes. One Sunday, shortly after being licensed, young Williams preached in the church of the village, from the text ( Matt. v. 45) "He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." John congratulated the young preacher after service, but added, "When ye ken mair aboot floo'rs, ye'll be able to preach better upo' sick-like texts."

The boys used to be amused at John's curious old-world attire on Sunday, which was "anything but gaudy." They took special note of his dress hat, "useful, though not ornamental;" his swallow-tail, navy-blue coat, "with its collar of most ample dimensions, almost burying his neck, black neck-cloth and all;" his great shoes, with their abundant protecting irons on the sole; and his immense umbrella, "a kind of combined staff and tent," they thought, "which even such winds as blow in upland Cushnie would with difficulty have turned inside out." In church, he sat in the pew just in front of them, where they could study his peculiarities with ease—and it is to be feared they attended more to him than to the minister—noting, even the "cat's-teeth" stitches of his home-made coat, as they showed themselves when he stood in prayer. They were, however, impressed, even at that age, with his remarkable reverence and attention during worship.

In reading, John's short-sightedness caused him to hold the book almost close to his face, and "even then he had to re-adjust his position afresh at the beginning of every line. But what delighted us most," the doctor tells, "was that every Sunday, just as the sermon was firmly caught between the heads and the application, John handed us his snuff-box (the finely painted one he had got from Mr. Beveridge in Tough). How kind we thought him! Taking snuff and its consequent sneezing not being considered absolutely heterodox proceedings, albeit held of doubtful propriety, John and we were allowed to repeat the proceeding once every Sunday."

After service, the old man was generally hospitably treated by some of his friends in the Howe of Cushnie, and was thus strengthened for the four-mile walk home again. In returning, he generally had some willing companions, for one or more of the boys accompanied him to the top of the hill, to listen to his discourse about the plants, old times and distant scenes, seasoned with good advice.

Solemn and scientific, dour and distant, as he looked to many, John had, as we have seen, a secret fund of jollity and humour. He derived the greatest pleasure, for example, from keeping up the innocent old festivals of our 'ore-fathers, and took an active and independent part in their celebration. He used to hold Halloween in full form, both indoors and out, inviting his friends and especially the children of the neighbourhood to assist him. He raised a great bonfire on the top of the hill behind the house, keeping watch over it himself to prevent its being kindled too soon by mischief-makers, who sometimes tried to do so. He set it on fire in the gloaming, "making a bleeze," as it was called, which was seen far and near, from its elevated central position; and round it, he made the children join hands and dance hilariously, as in the old days of Baal worship, while he blew a loud blast, from a horn he kept for the purpose, which resounded over hill and dale. In the home ceremonies, in which the whole assisted, he joined heartily in all that was done, allowing himself, according to custom, to be led blindfolded to the "kail-yard," or cabbage garden, to pull a "kail-stock," the root stalk of the cabbage. This was duly placed above the door of his shop, to determine his matrimonial fate—the name of the first woman that entered showing that of the expected future partner.

Again, at Yule, that is Christmas, Old Style, on the 5th of January, he entered into all the merry frolics of the time, and into the homely games in which both young and old engaged, such as hide-and-seek, throwing dice for pins, and the like. He also drank "sowens," and carried them to neighbouring houses to sprinkle them on the doors, the. infliction being counted a dishonour, which they tried to prevent by watching their gates with due care and endeavouring to catch the invaders—his own door coming in for its share of the baptism along with the rest.

On other occasions of general gatherings at Droughsburn and the neighbourhood, John entered into all the merriment and contributed his share, by both dancing and singing, and also by playing "the trump" or Jew's-harp, a style of music which he still cultivated; and this he carried on even in his old age. At these times, his tastes were very abstemious; though he could "take a dram" with the rest, a very little soon raising his hilarity.

In his advanced years, he once went to a soire in. connection with the parish church of Alford, of which Dr. Gillan was then minister, a man whom he had held in great respect since he had known him in Tough. This shows that his opposition to the Establishment had mellowed with age, as it did with even the fiercest dissentients. He sang one of his old songs, new to folks there:

To the girl I lo'e I'll ever prove true;
I'll ne'er wear a stain on my bonnet sae blue."

Though his voice was much cracked by this time, his singing proved effective from the intelligent heartiness with which the sentiments were rendered. His quaint appearance in his ancient garments, with his staff in his hand as he sang, is still recalled by those that heard him.


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