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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXIX - His Botanical Studies in Old Age


THE study of Botany was still the dominant pursuit of Duncan's life. From his new centre, he searched the whole country far and near, to discover new plants and new stations. For ten or twelve years after he came to Droughsburn, he still went to the harvest in the south as in former days, selecting new districts for exploration, completing his herbarium, increasing his knowledge of the Scottish flora, and adding to the plants he grew in his garden.

In gathering plants, he used no vasculum, a modern luxury he never possessed. In want of it, he had various homely but effective substitutes. A common one was the overhanging interior of his "Tam o' Shanter" bonnet; but a better was the top of his tall black hat, the plants being kept in position with his big coloured handkerchief. In fact, he never came home without his hat being more or less filled with plants. Not unfrequently, in saluting a friend or entering a house, his bashfulness caused him to forget their being there, and they would stick on the crown of his head, or fall to the ground, or be pulled out with his handkerchief when Lhe used it, or otherwise cause him intense confusion. The grasses were less easily managed than the smaller plants, and he used a special appliance for them, a thick round rod about a yard long, cut from the wood with part of the branches still adhering, along which he laid the stalks, wrapping them round with cloth and tying the whole with string. When carried under his army this had the appearance of a gun in its cloth case, and caused him on more than one occasion to be seized as a poacher. Near Fyvie, he was thus caught redhanded, as it were, by a too eager gamekeeper, who, when he saw what the offending weapon was, looked, John said, "as if his nose were bleedin'."

When he wished to be still more careful, he used a pair of large double boards, bound at the back and tied together with a string in front, like a portfolio, which enclosed the requisite drying and pressing paper. This was the veritable "Rattray's Botanical Chart" which Charles Black had presented to him. He prized it accordingly, and showed it to me, with affectionate pride, as Charles's last gift to him when they parted many years before.

His travelling fare in the way of provisions remained throughout as primitive as in his younger days—oatmeal for "croxdie," bread and cheese, or plain oatcake, washed down with water from the mountain brook, seasoned with nature's relish in the shape of water-cresses, a keen appetite and simple tastes. He still occasionally spent the night in the open air as circumstances required, even when above seventy. One day, after doing this, he entered the train at Banchory for Aberdeen, and met in the carriage Mr. Deans, who had also been botanising in the district. They, of course, exhibited to each other the specimens they had gathered. In taking out his from the back pocket in his long blue coat, John had the misfortune to pull out with them his simple lunch, cake and cress, wrapped in paper, which dropped on the floor of the carriage, greatly to the amusement of the passengers and his own painful embarrassment. John, nevertheless, "gathered all the crumbs and wrapped them up again as if they had been grains of gold."

To the last, he had a peculiar pleasure in using the technical as well as the common names of plants, which he did with the ease of long habit. During his later years, some of them were beginning to escape him; and he had frequently to pause in order to recall them, and, not seldom failed in the more specific names.

When I visited him in 1877, I asked him how he was able to learn and remember the great Greek and Latin words botany was so full of "Ow, ye see," he explained, "I had aye a gweed memory. But when I got a noo plant and fund oot its name, I used to'write it doon on a bit o' paiper, and lay it on the wab afore me as I wis wirkin', to glance at it noo and nan and say it ower to mysel', withoot disturbin' my wark. I hae seen a gae lot o' thae words lyin' afore me at the same time on my loom. And then when I took a waalk, I wu'd tak' them oot o' my pooch, and lairn them as I gaed alang. [Amongst his papers, there remain a large gathering of such memoriter pieces of paper, containing the names, etc., of plants.] But it wasna very tnuckle trouble, for I had a gweed memory, and I was aye usin' them, ye see, wi' the plants."

There we have several of the secrets of true education —in writing down the words to be remembered, using the eye, frequent looking, abundant and varied repetition, the learning only the names of real things as they were required and these things possessing a lively interest, concentrated attention on one object at a time, and continually employing the words in practical work.

His use of classical terms, as might be expected, was defective in pronunciation and quantity, and even in spelling in his herbarium, which showed that he must often have written them down from memory and not transcribed them. In saying these words, he would often crush out a syllable or two, and otherwise transform them; but they were nevertheless recognisable by one acquainted with the science. He seldom travestied them as unlearned gardeners and others often do, who call Rhododendrons, for instance, "Roderick Randoms," or "Rosy Dandrums;" the Lysimachia, "Lizzie Mackie;" the Gloire de Dion rose, the "Glory to John;" and the like! Some of his transformations were sufficiently funny and smile-provoking even after familiar use, which only confirmed the original defects; but most of them were obvious transformations—as, "Atropia beldonia" for A tropa belladonna, "Petcris aquilinia" for Pteris aquilina.

The mirth the big names caused to his ignorant neighbours did not arise in their case, of course, from the errors he made, but simply from their uncouth foreign sound to their unaccustomed ears, and from their humour being tickled by dignifying the common weeds with such "crabbit," "lang-nibbit" names. Those whose learning enabled them to detect his false quantities and other mistakes in classical words, were rarely likely to laugh or sneer at the unlettered old man, but would be all the more impressed with the strong will that had not been deterred by the terrible technicalities that crowded his chosen science. There were exceptions, however, when bran-new classicists from college made fun of the old man's blunders—certainly not at his expense.

Trusting to his remarkable memory, he had never written down the localities or dates when he discovered his plants—a great loss in regard to the rarer ones, only partially made up through John Taylor's labours. When asked why he had not done so, he said, "I didna need; I ken bravely whar they a' cam' frae." Certainly he could recall the times and places with remarkable ease, and, no doubt, correctly. He could also tell the circumstances under which most of the plants were discovered, and any special experiences he had in obtaining them. Indeed, this was one very good means of getting at John's past life, which he could latterly give chiefly by way of reminiscences suggested by his plants. Each one had become to him the centre of many happy, humorous or hard memories; and thus, dry and dead and broken, as they were in their worm-eaten receptacles, they were all living to him, and were surrounded by him with the sunshine and the shower of his past life. In taking a walk with him, you had merely to direct his attention to the plants you passed, and at once you opened springs of living memory which flowed without stint from the old man's heart. In this way, his past life latterly was greatly linked with the wild flowers, and a stranger could get at his history mainly through their companionship.

John's interest in flowers continued intense to the very end, being truly a' ruling passion, strong even to death. Many proofs of this could be given, but one will suffice.

In July, 1878, shortly after my account of him appeared in "Good Words" of that year, a lady from England drove to Droughsbridge at the foot of the burn, and walked up to the cottage to see the old man, whom she found at home. He gladly showed her all she wished, his books and plants, and the garden, and was unusually bright and cheerful. The lady was much charmed with her visit, and expressed a desire to possess a specimen of the Linnoa Borealis, or the Two-flowered Linnaea. This is a pretty, little, perennial plant, with long, branched, thready steins and sweet pink twin bells, creeping in the northern woods. It was selected by the great Swedish botanist as an emblem of his own once lowly life, and was named after him, and used by him as his crest. It is rare in England, being found, it is said, only in one spot there; but it occurs in several places in the north of Scotland. It is much sought after for its rarity and beauty, and on account of its poetical and scientific association with Linnaeus. It was a special favourite with John for these reasons, especially the last.

Charles Black first discovered it, identifying it from description, one day when casually passing through a fir wood between the Manse and Bridge of Alford, and he announced the discovery to John with great exultation. John afterwards found it at other spots in the Vale. The nearest station to Droughsburn was on Manabattock Hill in Tullynessle, north-west of the Bridge of Alford; [He first found it there in 1842, "to the west of Tullynessle, on the hills above Dalpersie Castle," as already mentioned, p. 206.] and that being the very time of its flowering, which occurs in June and July, he promised to obtain a specimen for his visitor, if at all possible. Accordingly next day, the old man, then in his eighty-fourth year, set out on this arduous journey of twelve or more miles, not counting the climbing of a thousand feet of hill—keen in heart as ever, but now sadly slow on foot as he felt at every step—to obtain the desired flower. The day did not promise well; but, undaunted by even worse prospects than that, he walked across the bridge of Alford and up the old familiar road to Tullynessle. He called on a friend, Andrew Mitchell, who lived at Gallowford, at the foot of Manabattock, where he rested for a time and received some refreshment, remarking that he had found himself "some slow for a while, but he would need to brush up," for "hope sprang eternal" in the old man's breast.

When he got well up the hill, a dreadful storm of thunder, lightning and heavy rain descended upon him and speedily drenched him to the skin. Still he held on, searching over all the spots where he had found it before. But all in vain: the shy favourite was nowhere to be seen, and he had reluctantly and with a heavy heart to retrace his steps homewards, defeated—a rare sensation with John in such explorations—and he felt the disappointment to the very core.

Yet, with all the strenuous eagerness of youth in an aged body, he could not thus lose the day, and recalling that another rare plant used to grow on the south side of the hill, he determined to go in search of-it. The midnight shades were now descending amidst the pouring rain, but it was midsummer and darkness would be short. So he climbed the eastern shoulder of the hill to the source of the Culhay Burn, for the plant grew somewhere along its bed. This stream flows there between steep banks covered with brushwood in places, and the old man had to grope his way down its channel in search of the prize he sought. But as this dirty work would have soiled his old blue coat, he took it 9 off in the drenching pelt, and in his shirtsleeves, clambered down the burn and along a neighbouring dike till he found it! The self-denial and ardour shown in the whole circumstances were extraordinary at his age; but it was only a last proof of the inextinguishable resolution and enthusiasm that had made him what he had been Like the keen old soldier he was, the man died as it were in battle, with his armour buckled on and sword in hand.

He reached home early next morning, wet to the skin, his stockings in holes, and his feet swollen and blistered. Though worn and exhausted in body, he was sadder in heart, because obliged to confess that he had failed and was not now what he had been. [John Taylor informs me that he knows six other stations for this rarity in the Vale of Alford.] His friend, John Taylor, found him that morning in this depressed condition, and consoled him by telling him that the I innoa did grow on the hillock of Dalpersie, lower down than where he had been. John-brightened up at once on recalling the place, and with a flash of the humour of earlier days said: "I'm like the fishers that `toiled a' nicht and caught naething.' There hae I been howkin' and glowerin' a' nicht for't and hinna fund it. But noo I'm tell't it's on the very hill I was at! "

The young botanist went for the plant and brought it to him, cheering the old heart beyond expression. But, sad to tell, the lady never returned to inquire for or claim the plant that had cost him so dear. It was almost like a blood-stained blade, for he never got over the exposure of that stormy night on Manabattock Hill.

In front of the cottage at Droughsburn, on the sloping bank between it and the burn that gave it its name, was the large and fertile garden already mentioned. It faced the south and was enclosed by a stone wall, having a row of four rowan trees before the door, with bushes along the fences on both sides of it, and willows and geans at the foot next the burn, planted a little before the time John came. That part of the garden immediately in front of the workshop was railed off for John's special use, and there he cultivated a large number of plants, chiefly wild, as well as those required for his drugs. It was entirely under his own care. For years, it was kept with the greatest neatness, and without a weed. He spent a good deal of time there, getting up at three o'clock on summer mornings to tend it. Nothing could exceed his delight in working amongst his flowers, especially the wild importations from nature. The natural result of such attention was that his little plot was a treat to be seen, and gained the admiration of all that visited the place.

It contained plants from all parts of the country, brought north during his wanderings. The garden thus became to him more than a place of beauty and utility—it grew countless memoriters of by-gone days and distant scenes. The space he had was too small for his needs though every corner was occupied, and he had to utilise the banks of the stream that ran at the foot of the garden for the flowers suited to such a situation. In this way, the course of the burn for the half-mile down to the road was adorned with plants of various kinds, many of them brought from far,, which brightened the scene and scented the air; for the odoriferous mints were specially luxuriant. Many of these foreign visitants were carried down into the Leochel by the stream that fed them, when it was in spate, and thence into the Don; and thus their banks in many places will long retain these mementoes of the wandering botanist. When talking with a friend of this practice of his, John said that they would grow in memory of him long after he had passed away—and no doubt they will, sweet and appropriate memorials of the loving hand that planted them.

Amongst others, foreign to the place, that now flourish along these streams brought down from his garden foot, are the Great Hairy Willow Herb (Epilobium hirsutum), large and shrub-like, with its downy leaves and handsome purplish flowers, brought by him from the banks of the Clyde; and the Mimulus ringans, [This plant is also very abundant on the banks of the stream above Keig, that runs by the road side from Auchleven. Did Duncan plant it there also, in his many walks along that well-beaten path?] or "Monkey Flower," a garden outcast, not native, though a variety of it, the Mimulus luteus, the yellow mimulus, has been reckoned as naturalised.

For some years before his death, John became quite unable to look after his favourite plot, which, from its superabundant vegetation, soon got into wild disorder, an eyesore and grief to its aged attendant. By the time he passed away, it was a tangled mass of weeds, the saddest wreck of what it had been ; and its protecting fence was broken down. It still contained, even in August, 1881, a large number of his old favourites, now rampant and disordered.

In forming and tending this wild-flower garden, as in other respects, John Duncan resembled that remarkable man, Robert Dick, baker in Thurso, geologist and naturalist, the tutor of Hugh Miller, and the instructor of Sir Roderick Murchison in the geology of Caithness, by means of the flour he was using. Dick used also to have, in a little glen between Thurso and Reay, a kind of natural garden of native plants, gathered during his many excursions over the country, and watched over by him with great assiduity —also now all gone to ruin.

John Duncan in his zeal may, by this habit of his, disturb future botanists, who may find it difficult or impossible to account for the existence of certain plants by the Don and the Leochel, so far from their usual or only stations. This announcement of one of his innocent habits may prevent future discomposure of the botanical mind on this matter, and render unnecessary any ingenious theories of the flora of Scotland and Aberdeenshire.

In 1866, Charles Black sent John a portrait of Linnaeus, presented to John by Mr. James Linn, now of the Geological Survey of Scotland, who had heard of his character and studies through his friend, and respected him greatly though he never saw him. This portrait John prized much as a gift, but more for its subject, speaking of it frequently and showing it to friends and visitors.

In 1871, at the annual show of the Alford Horticultural Association, on the 24th of August, two prizes were offered by the Rev. Andrew Christie, an able botanist, then parish schoolmaster of Alford, now minister of Kildrummie up the Don. One was for "the best collection of dried and mounted specimens of indigenous flowering plants, gathered by the exhibitor during the last year, in their native sites, within the district embraced by the Association, correctly named and arranged according to the Natural System:" and the other for "the best collection of grasses, indigenous, and correctly named and arranged as above." John sent in a collection of plants arranged according to the Linnoean system, and of grasses arranged as asked, and gained both prizes. The collection contained, amongst others, the Bitter Sweet (Solarium dulcamara), which Mr. Christie says is not indigenous to the district, and which was from John's garden, having been brought by him from a distance. Of these honours, John was naturally and reasonably not a little proud, pleased also that the wild flowers were being patronised even in this small way.

He gathered and named a selection of the cryptogamic plants of the district the following year, but did not present them for competition, on account, he said, of the smallness of the prizes offered, which he held to be an evidence of the little value put on such things in the Vale. Prizes of the same kind were subsequently offered, but he did not again compete. The two prizes gained were a praiseworthy and energetic thing for an old man of seventy-seven to win, and he seems to have rested satisfied with this proof of his capacity and knowledge. [Some of the plants Duncan cultivated may be mentioned as interesting relics of a wild-flower and herb garden, taken down on the spot by me along with John Taylor: Evergreen Alkanet (Anchusa sempervirens), brought from Cushnie House, naturalised and rare; Spurge Laurel (Dajhne mezereum), with beautiful clusters of red berries; White Dead-nettle (Lamium album), both common and varie


 


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