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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXVIII - General Studies in Later Years


DURING the twenty-nine years John Duncan stayed at Droughsburn, he pursued much the same studies as formerly.

In Theology, he was as keen as ever, keeping up his reading on biblical subjects, intelligently following the religious and ecclesiastical questions of the time, and watching, in particular, the fortunes of the Free Church and the career of its leaders with unabated interest.

His Astronomical studies seem to have been greatly swamped by Botany. He still used his dials and pocket timepiece, watched the heavens, and talked about them to interested friends.

Meteorology he still continued to inquire into and practise. From 1865 to 1869, for example, he recorded observations on summer temperature, and in 1876, in his eighty-second year, he purchased a new kind of "storm glass."

He never went into Ornithology, as his friends Charles and James Black and William Beveridge did. But with his observing eyes, in his wanderings amidst the special haunts of our rarer birds, he gathered much more than a common acquaintance with their names, habits and winning ways, for he loved and studied all God's creatures. As Mr. Deans, one of his disciples, observes, "it ought not to be overlooked that, although he may not have studied the subject technically, he was nevertheless exceedingly well acquainted with the habits of our wild animals, and especially the birds, and could tell amusing anecdotes about them."

He also prosecuted Entomology to some extent, and was often seen chasing butterflies and insects, of which he made a collection, as at Auchleven.

In Natural History, he felt great interest, and used to examine all the creatures that came in his way. He possessed a considerable knowledge of animals, and read much about them, purchasing for this purpose Charles Knight's "Natural History," a large work.

Geology he had a great desire to know, especially after he saw Charles Black's collection at Raeden, and heard of his progress in it on the Solway, "for," as John said, "there seemed to be a deal o' Geology there;" but living in the unfossiliferous region of Aberdeen, he had little opportunity of working at it. By the time he wished to do so, Charles had removed to a distance, and John had, as he said, "naebody to gae 'im a lift wi't;" and Geology is a science requiring above most, in its earlier stages, the practical assistance of a master in the field. He was therefore reluctantly obliged to abandon the subject, in spite of its intimate relation to the plants and their habits, and its continual challenge to his intelligence and love of intellectual acquisition.

Phrenology, to which he had been first introduced by Charles Black—and to which he was then vigorously opposed, according to the common prejudice—he by-and-by began to study, under the tuition of an uncommon man called John Adam, at Alford. Adam was a good antiquarian and mineralogist, whose fine collection of archmological, geological, and other specimens is now carefully laid out and preserved at Haughton House near Alford, being bequeathed by him to the proprietor.

Adam was also a keen phrenologist, and assisted John in the subject. One skull in particular was a great favourite, it seems, with them. It had been obtained at "Fecht Falls," the scene of Montrose's victory at Alford in 1645; but whether it was the cranium of one of the luckless warriors slain on that occasion, or a prehistoric specimen, which is more likely, cannot now be determined. It is described as being very flat on the top, of unusual thickness, and very large, being "as big as twa heeds." At Mr. Adam's death, his brother buried it, by order of Mr. Farquharson of Haughton, in the garden of the present veterinary surgeon at Alford—a curious proceeding with such a unique example.

John's appetite for general knowledge was still omnivorous and keen, and he had a host of books supplying for it healthy food; amongst others Chambers's "Information for the People," and "Cyclopmdia," whole libraries in themselves, and the "Dictionary of Daily Wants."

He still continued to practise gardening. He visited all the gardens in the district, cultivated the acquaintance of gardeners as hitherto, and worked a great deal in gardens. In this way, he gradually acquired a considerable knowledge of the principles and practice of garden cultivation. This had been greatly increased by his study of several practical works, and he had lectured on the subject at Auchleven, as we have seen.

One of his old friends still retains grateful recollections of his services in this respect. This is Mrs. McCombie, widow of Mr. McCombie of Cairnballoch, an old lady now above seventy, who felt a high regard for the man, and thinks that " the story of his enthusiasm for plants, to which he sacrificed his life, should do good." John first became acquainted with Mr. McCombie while living in Tough, where Cairnballoch is situated. He was then accustomed to go there to help at the harvest and to assist in the garden, and continued to do both for years after he came to Droughsburn. He also did a good deal of weaving for Mrs. McCombie. On one occasion, John came to Cairnballoch with a bundle of weeds, which Mr. McCombie asked him to name and describe. This John did, after spreading them out on a table, in the presence of the household. Amongst these was the old nurse, who stared at the homely lecturer in utterly bewildered surprise, with a look at John and his plants which the editor, when he used to tell the story, said he never would forget.

Mrs. McCombie was greatly impressed with the weaver's earnestness of character, his willingness to impart knowledge, his desire to make himself useful, his intimate acquaintance with plants, his mild behaviour to those who laughed at him on account of his devotion to them, and especially with his practical services in gardening and the information he imparted in connection with it. His instructions, which she says were not at all commonplace, she valued and has since acted on with very good results, having recently resuscitated an exhausted garden she now has by adhering to these.

Among the hints he gave, he used to advise the making of a "trinkie," or small circular trench, round about a bush which it was desired to nourish, at such a distance as that the water or manure should easily reach the spongioles or "tender parts" of the roots—surely sound gardening as well as sound science. She recalls his method of striking off young shoots from any tree, by bending a branch down towards the ground, inserting one of its twigs in a mound of earth till it took root while fed by the parent tree, and then cutting it off and planting. John did something similar when he wished to preserve a living specimen of a rare tree which was almost dead. He selected a live branch, however small, inserted it into a box filled with earth and supported at the proper level, until it took root and could be planted alone. [This method used to be also practised and advocated by the Rev. Dr. Farquharson, F.R.S., parish minister of Alford, a remarkable man, with unusual scientific attainments, at a time when such tastes were rarer in the country, especially amongst clergymen. He wrote well on several subjects in the Transactions of the Royal and other societies, and received his degree for his services to science. He lies, buried in Alford churchyard, where a monument has been erected to his memory by his admirers, not far from where the old botanist now reposes. He died about the time John came to Droughsburn.] John used also to lend his books on gardening to his friends at Cairnballoch.

But in spite of John's interest in gardening, he had little admiration for cultivated flowers — "florist flowers" he called them—as compared with wild ones; his ideas of floral beauty being greatly bounded by its presentation in a state of nature. This was well illustrated by his conduct on one occasion, as related by James Black. After James had settled near Aberdeen, he had a garden which he took great pride in tending, and in which he had some rare flowers. At John's first visit to him there, after some years of separation, he asked James if he still liked flowers: James replied that he did, especially cultivated ones: Had he any? Yes. Could he see them;? Certainly; and James led the way to the cherished garden plot. But there, contrary to expectation, nothing seemed to interest his old friend much.

Mr. Black, nevertheless, determined to charm the botanist, if beauty could charm him. He had recently received some very fine, high-priced specimens from a brother, a capital judge of these, who was then employed in the famed garden of Chatsworth, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire. Having asked John to sit down, he cut a "Fluke" and a "Bizarre" carnation, "lovely beyond compare" in his estimation, and far too costly to be cut for every one. But John was no ordinary man, and James wished to impress him with the fact that his flowers were not ordinary also, or at least to show that he himself was not, as he humorously puts it. He handed the pair of beauties to John, and, satisfied that he had done a self-denying deed that deserved recognition, he prepared his pipe, to smoke in peace while drinking in John's expected encomiums, which he silently waited to hear. When he had lighted the weed and turned round to look at his companion, judge of his surprise and chagrin to see the ground covered with the petals, the last of which he was brushing to the winds. John then looked into his face and pronounced his gems monstrosities, "monsters, naething mair nor less!" When he received the carnations, these being new to him, John had determined to discover their botanical class, and finding, as he said, stamens converted into petals and similar 'transformations of organs, he had just ended this examination when his friend looked at him, by brushing away the last flower-leaf as rubbish spoiled by man. To crown this dashing of his hopes, John tried to convince the florist that the majority of mankind had a perverted taste, to pamper which man had sought out many inventions, "sick's that floories!".

He always carried on his study and practice of drugs, treating himself and neighbours, and believing in their efficacy as proved by long experience. Amongst others, his friend John Taylor speaks with lively gratitude of John's medical services to him in 1874, when he was a farm-servant at Tillychetly, near Droughsburn. The young man was then very ill with rheumatism, and was at once called upon by the old herbalist, who prescribed for him. John continued to visit the patient regularly at the farm and, after his removal to his home, watched the progress of his treatment. He took him out to walk when convalescent, and instructed him in the cure of this trying disease, to which outdoor workers in the country are very liable on account of their exposed life.

In Politics, he remained a stanch and advanced Liberal, and his interest in them continued unabated all his life. He regularly read the newspapers, latterly the Scotsman, with remarkable zest, and followed the many new questions evolved by the progress of events with unusual eagerness and intelligence for an old man. War, free trade, chartism, and the land laws were keenly studied by him. On these and other subjects, he was decidedly ahead of the time, and many thought him radical then, though fewer would do so now; for he sympathised with most of the recent ideas now held in connection with them, which will, no doubt, be the basis of future legislation.

As Dr. Williams observes, his views of the various political events of the time, strongly biassed though they were, in his opinion, were evidently "the result of much thought and deeply rooted conviction." "It was astonishing," another friend remarks, "how he kept pace, about election times, with everyday occurrences, considering his slow way of reading and other drawbacks; but when he once got an inkling of his own side, he could cudgel many of his opponents that were far better book-learned than he."

On subjects in which he was well versed, though he never was an orator, he could still discourse with surprising fluency and power. "No one that had not heard him," says Dr. Williams, "would believe that John was such a grand orator. Yet just let him get a fair start on some of his favourite themes, and he would lecture long enough." Although he enjoyed the controversies of others, controversy was not very much in his line, on account of his ardent temperament, which made him lose patience when keenly opposed.

John's houses of call were comparatively few, and were chiefly confined to those in which there existed some congeniality of taste, reading or study. His intercourse with any one required to yield some intellectual or other higher gain, or it could not be continued. But there were some of his neighbours between whom and himself this community of sentiment existed, and whom he frequently visited. One of these intelligent friends was the shoemaker, Willie Williams, who lived over the hill near the Free Church, at the Milton of Cushnie. "Willie's shop," as the Rev. George Williams describes, "was the retreat of the neighbourhood on a rainy or frosty day, for the shoemaker was a good politician, and remarkably gifted with the gab. [That is, good at using his tongue. Gab is from the same root as gabble and gobble.] When a heel-ring or toe-bit was lost, or when time hung heavy on their hands, the neighbours would dander down to get a crack with the clever souter. A few yards along was the carpenter's shop, reigned over by John Ferries, a very intelligent, humorous and kind-hearted man, whose mother, 'Auld Nanny,' was everybody's mother. The old mill not far off, built a hundred years ago, was worked by John Taylor, a queer, comical fellow, but somewhat of a student. The village of Milton was the centre of the wit and wisdom of the parish, and few villages could boast of so well-read a shoemaker as Willie Williams, of so kind a body as Auld Nanny Smith, or so queer a fish as Jock Taylor."

The shoemaker's son, Dr. Williams of Tarland, gives a realistic glimpse of the intercourse between John and his father, interesting as exhibiting the weaver in an unusual aspect at this period, which recalls his younger days at Netherton. "John's visits to us on Sundays, as he passed to church, were almost weekly. On other days, they were not very frequent, but, when they did happen, they lasted an hour or two at a time. On these occasions, ordinary local gossip and such small matters were quite beneath notice. The sayings and doings of the highest personages in church and state were duly and deftly criticised. That my father and John did not know more about all those topics of discussion than did all remaining humanity, is a sceptical after-thought on my part, not justified by my opinion then or any doubt or hesitation •on theirs. Could I give you a picture of the two worthies when thus engaged, you might place it side by side with Tam o' Shanter and Souter Johnny.

"Of controversy, there was little or none. When it happened to be my father's turn to speak and when the theme was exceptionally important, he would for a minute or two give over work, and let off such an oration as would have done honour to any Yankee stump platform. John, sitting up close to him and occasionally wiping the gathering perspiration from his forehead, the result of excitement roused by the topics in hand, would then make a similar performance. For myself, I was practically a nonentity. They would no more have thought of listening to me, even if I wished to interfere, which I did not and could not, than of listening to a two-year-old child. Yet it would have been difficult to say which of the three enjoyed the affair most. That they did so most heartily was very evident. Their faces, now beaming with intelligence as they clearly unravelled some knotty point, then bursting with derisive laughter as they exposed some silly, stupid Tory, and anon stern as any black-capped judge when they foreboded some dire calamity about to burst on the country, clearly showed that they enjoyed a mental treat of the most varied description. My father was an extensive reader, and so was John. The weekly Aberdeen Free Press was their newspaper oracle, and the editor, Mr. McCombie, only a lesser deity to them.

"Altogether, they were a noble pair, mightily pleased with their own gifts and acquirements. It was only on such occasions that John would come out. At other times, he seemed very quiet and unobtrusive. At best, his eloquence was not of the thunder and lightning order: it was always tempered with more reserve than were the statements of his companion. Still, both were about equally forgetful of the fact that there are two sides to a question. Nor was it needful, in the circumstances, that they should temper their remarks to suit a fastidious taste. Being alone, they could argue to please themselves.

"The excited state of public opinion caused by the Disruption of '43 also furnished them with ample materials for discussion. By way of variation, when John had to describe some person, place, or event bearing on the point at issue, he would graphically narrate the circumstances under which he acquired the information. That he did well. I only wish I could reproduce a specimen, but memory fails me."

The Milton had, of course, its grocery or general store, to supply the home necessaries of the district. This was kept by a highly respectable, kindly man called George Williams, already spoken of as entertaining the weaver when . going to church, now farmer at Holmhead in the neighbourhood. As his son, the minister, says, "He got more of John's company when in the village than any of the rest, for he believed out and out in the man. He was often laughed at because he thought John a hero, when almost all his neighbours were inclined to call him `daft.' As he had a notion of flowers without knowing much about them, many, many were the plants he brought home in his walks round about Cushnie and in his journeys on business, to be laid°aside for John to see and tell about."

Alford was not behind the rest of the county in intellectual activity when Mutual Instruction Classes were first founded in 1850, for in September of that year it instituted a branch, called the Alford Literary Society. This lasted for a good many years, and showed great vitality during its existence. It no doubt inspired and benefited its members, and helped to do what an enthusiastic secretary stated to be one of its objects—to prove that "the far north might merit the credit of sending to the south something else than snow." When first founded, it was thought to be a daring if not dangerous innovation on old ways, and the members were supposed "to be rather go-ahead." For a time, they were not a little ashamed to let it be known that they belonged to the Society. But they persevered, and their early efforts are still represented by the existing Alford Mutual Improvement Society. They not only read papers, but initiated and carried on for a time a course of lectures, one of which was given by the Rev. Dr. Gillan, and another, in 1852, on animal magnetism, by Professor Robertson Smith, then a young man fresh from college. One of the central meetings of the Union also took place in Alford, in 1855, under their auspices, and was very successful.

John used to attend their meetings, which were held in Peter Clerihew the smith's barn, at the Muir of Alford, a little above the parish church. At his first appearance, he said he "didna come there to ask questions nor to teach," which rather misrepresented himself, seeing that he had done so much teaching in his time. Contrary to his practice at Auchleven, he took little part in their discussions, no doubt greatly on account of his advancing years ; besides, their subjects, being chiefly literary, were not so much in John's line. They do not seem to have asked him to write on any of his scientific specialities, nor to have known that he had any gift in that way or had done work in it already; and he was not the man to tell them. John thought, and perhaps correctly, that in their discussions there was often more sound than substance; but in this criticism, he forgot that it is one of the aims of such societies to train to the effective regulation of sound,—in other words, to learn how to speak, in which John himself was much behind, having had no such opportunities in his neglected youth.

For general gossiping, John had neither relish nor time, and he was not slow to express his strong contempt for it; vastly preferring his books, plants, and pilgrim staff to such empty pastime, even when innocent. As Mrs. Webster bears witness, in all his abundant conversation at her fireside, he "never spoke ill o' his nee'bours ; never abused ony body wi' his tongue."

At my first visit to him, I asked him if his neighbours did not visit him. He said that they did at times, but he did not care very much for their calls, for most of them wasted his time and were rough with his plants. "Then," said he, "the maist o' them can speak o' naething but nowt! [Cattle, the same as the English neat, as in neat-herd, or cow-herd.]—o' nou't but nowt!"

The whole style of the man, and his strong objection to mere gossipy talk, forcibly suggest his likeness in this respect to Wordsworth, as given in his admirable poem on "Personal Talk," much of which expresses very happily the feelings and habits of the botanist as well as of the poet.

To John, truly -

"Better than such discourse, did silence long,
Long barren silence, square with his desire."

To him also in his lonely life, as to the poet, with special emphasis, books were -

"A substantial world, both pure and good:
Round these, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
His pastime and his happiness did grow.
There found he themes, a plenteous store,
Matter wherein right voluble he was."


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