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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXX - The Misunderstandings under which John Lived


NOTHING is to be had for nothing in this world. One of the highest-priced commodities here has always been liberty, and not less costly the liberty of differing from one's neighbours, of dissenting, however slightly, from the established form of the personal, social, religious or scientific creed. For severer degrees of deflection, the penalty has been suffering and death. In lighter matters of manner, habit and pursuit, the price must be paid as certainly and as fully as in heavier, in misunderstanding, misrepresentation, contempt and other forms of petty social persecution.

This our eccentric enthusiast found to his cost all his days, of which proofs have already been given. Having had the temerity to leave the ancient paths trodden by his ancestors and neighbours in certain directions, he had, of course, to walk alone or with the few that were as brave or as foolish as himself, and to bear the gibes of the crowd who frequented the beaten track. And John Duncan had to pay his full share of these social penalties, which he did with meekness and dignity.

Nothing more impresses an observer of mankind, in this connection, than the urgent need that exists of having the things of everyday life interpreted to the mass of men. Familiarity not only breeds contempt of even the greatest elements that surround and support them, but shuts their eyes to their nature and importance. It thus becomes one of the functions of science, to interpret to the blind the true beauty and dignity of the commonest objects they hourly use, as working under universal law; of education, to teach the real character and relations of common things; of religion, to show that there is nothing "common or unclean," as under the Great Father's love; and of poetry,

"To clothe the palpable and familiar
With golden exhalations of the dawn."

Not less is there the same need of interpreting to the great majority of mankind, the men and women they daily-meet in the house, on the highway, or at the market; and this is all the more necessary if their neighbours have pursuits differing from their own. The best of men have often been misunderstood all their days, or viewed in a false light, or ignorantly persecuted, from this sheer inability of their fellows to look beneath the mere outer surface of things, as well as from the co-existing want of that blessed charity which "hopeth all things and thinketh no evil."

Such facts in the experience of mankind receive abundant illustration in the history of John Duncan, and few have passed through life whose real character and pursuits were more hidden from their contemporaries than this scientific weaver. Many things led to this result. His eccentricities challenged criticism ; his unusual studies were pursued at a time when science was little followed by any, and still less by the poor; and - his seeming simplicity provoked the stings of the witlings of the country side: while his self-contained nature, and his satisfaction with his own quiet joys, made him independent of the opinion of his neighbours; his silence and innate reticence prevented explanation when such might have been serviceable; and his constitutional pride and small love of approbation would not allow him in any way to court popular favour. But be the reasons, internal and external, what they may, the fact remains that the man walked through life, understood and appreciated by few, and misinterpreted, if not despised, by most. And, poor good soul, he was contented so to live, blessed by the charms of the higher life he led, and of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. He never looked, there can be no doubt, for any reward beyond what he daily received, the delights of his own thoughts and pursuits; nor did he ever dream of any compensation before he went, or after he was gone, by having his life interpreted to the world in a book, as Cromwell looked forward to having justice done to him.

What were some of the causes of this misunderstanding?

First, his odd appearance, solitary studiousness, and unusual, old-fashioned habits inclined his neighbours to think and speak of him as an "odd," "queer," and "curious creetur." Then, his gazing at the distant stars and "pottering" about the ditches and hedges, mosses and mountains, for what they contemned as weeds, caused them to wonder at and despise the man that spent his time on such things, and to count him "silly" or "no very wise"—a phrase which in Scotland means not fully comjios mentis,—or at least as "having a crack" about him; just as Robert Dick's wise contemporaries at Thurso looked upon him as "the mad baker." As one of his friends who used to accompany him in his rambles says: "When John began botany, he was looked upon as a half-wit about Tough, and persistently attacked by hundreds who were in every way his inferiors, except perhaps in personal appearance; and the poor man had to endure no end of 'chaff." But John's philosophy was such that he "never once saw him lose his temper" under the stings of these small flies, whose attacks were most numerous when he first began to botanise. By-and-by they became less so, as they got accustomed to the novelty and found the object of their petty attentions imperturbable to their attacks, or too clever for themselves. Ere long his unretaliating meekness and remarkable enthusiasm in what seemed to them thankless studies, gained their increasing respect. On John's removal to new districts, he had to undergo the same misunderstandings and to conquer a place in their esteem, and in the end he always achieved a high one. But even then and to the last, in regard to his studies, which were a puzzle to them, he was reckoned by most of his neighbours as at best an innocent phenomenon.

His uncommon style of dress, and near-sightedness, combined with his constant habit of poking by the highways and hedges as he passed along, caused even the children to notice him and count him queer. One day some boys were returning from school at Tullynessle, when one of them shouted out in alarm; "A madman! a madman!" At once they all scampered over the dike for protection, to wait the advancing terror. It was only John who was taking home a web under his arm, and beguiling the time by looking for plants in the bottom of the roadside ditch. One of the youngsters, John Taylor, who afterwards became a disciple of his, knew John, having previously seen him at the same work, and relieved his companions by telling them that it was only "the Droughsburn weaver."

His quiet unpretending look made many think that his knowledge was much less than it was. Four young gardeners from the Barn Yards of Fyvie, who knew something of plants, determined to test the weaver on one occasion. Coming to John with a large collection of native flowers, they tried him first with the more common, advanced to the rarer, and ended with several new to themselves. John not only named them with ease, but showed the way to discover those they did not know, and gave their properties and habits. They told him of their conspiracy, confessed themselves beaten, and complimented him on his knowledge and practical skill.

A friend of the Rev. Mr. Williams long refused to believe in John's "jaw-breakers," and stoutly affirmed that he gave plants "thae lang-nibbit names oot o' his ain heed;" and he was only a specimen of many more. John one day met him when he was complaining of a pain in his interior regions, and told him of the efficacy of the root of the Tormentil (Potentilla to-mentilla), which obtains its name from its potent curative powers in certain "torments," or pains. The man was induced to try John's prescription, and experienced satisfactory results. When speaking on the subject shortly afterwards to Mr. Williams, he remarked that the grand name of the plant he could not vouch for, his scepticism even then asserting itself; but as to its effects, he could and would stand up for them, concluding with the confession, "Man, John hens mair ner ye wu'd think!" When Mr. Williams told John of this man's conversion, he replied, "It's hard-won knowledge."

Even at the Milton of Cushnie, where, in the houses of Mr. Williams' father and uncle, the old weaver was more appreciated than in many places, he and the other children who liked and respected him, looked upon him as "a great curiosity." Influenced by the common talk about the man, they thought he invented new words for the plants as he liked. On Sundays and other times when they walked with him, they used to ask him the names of the same plants "over and over," in order to test his consistency, like the great little critics they were, as Dr. Williams tells. These, nevertheless, John never tired of repeating to them, "as solemnly and willingly the twentieth time as the first." He seemed to think them earnest students, but anything they did learn, they confessed, was "by mistake;" and they rather made fun of the big words and "threw them about at each other," remembering such sonorous vocables as Veronica beccabunga and Veronica cizam edrys Iong after they had forgot the plants they designated.

In his encounters with ignorance and prejudice, John had most trouble with his farmer and ploughman neighbours, for he lived amongst them 'and met them yearly in the harvest field. The notorious tendency of their class to play practical jokes and make fun of what they do not understand, got abundant scope, as they thought, with the odd weaver and his queer ways. From long intercourse and not from mere prejudice, his opinion of his tormentors was not very high, calling them generally "Johnnie Raws," a description he first heard from Charles Black, who said it was originally used by a curious beggar that wandered over the country in his young days. This man, who dressed like an officer in the army, was most mannerly and unusually smart and intelligent, rewarding his entertainers with exhibitions of his dramatic powers, when he cleverly delineated several characters, amongst others "Mr. Polite," and "Mr. Rompish," not sparing his bucolic friends, the "Johnnie Raws." They often tried their dull wit on John in various ways, but seldom got the best of it,—asking him the names of the plants when they met him on the road, or called at his workshop as they sometimes did, and then laughing and ogling to each other when the sequipedalian syllables fell from his lips, but leaving him, not seldom, a flee i' their lug." [That is, with a sharp retort that stuck to them,—a good example of the striking metaphors in common use amongst the people.]

When John called one day on James Black long after he had left Tough, he was asked if he continued to be annoyed by the small witlings of the country as he used to be. John replied that he was still a little troubled, but not nearly so much as before, and told some stories of how he had played them out. One of these is worth relating, both for itself and as a proof that there was much more acuteness and humour in the quiet, meek-looking man than, to the very last, many would credit him with; and this he also told to myself with dramatic power and circumstance.

While collecting plants one evening on the braes above Tough, John was met by a number of farm servants, who thought they would get some fun out of the weaver about the "weyds" he was carrying in his hat and in his hand. He showed them amongst other things a sprig of juniper. They said they knew this plant quite well, and that it grew "etnach [This is the name of the juniper in various parts of the country, and is a bit of Gaelic—etin being the Gaelic name of the plant.] berries." But one lad " kent a buss, a great big buss, an' nae leevin ever saw a single berry on't;" and all the others knew the same bush well. John at once saw a chance of both amusement and rebuke, if it should turn out to be a female plant. Ho asked if there was only one bush, and was told that there were none for miles around but itself; at least they had never seen any. After learning that this bush, which had thus become famous in the neighbourhood, was not far off, he asked them to lead him to the place, as he wished to see it. So off the whole party marched to the spot.

They soon found the juniper, a solitary female plant, as he expected, in full bloom; and there and then he resolved to read them a lesson and "prove his ability as a man and a botanist, who knew something of nature and nature's laws," as James Black remarks. John said, "Nae doobt, ye think yoursel's clever chiels, but cu'd ony o' ye mak' that buss bear fruit?" "Na, faith, na, John," they all exclaimed, "we canna dee that; nor cu'd ye, 'less ye hae mair airt than yer ain, man." John asserted that he could and would; and then, stretching out his hands over the bush, he muttered several words in the manner of a magician, which his astrological lore had made him familiar with, and ended by declaiming—"Thou shalt bear berries for once!" The young men were more than amused, they were astonished at the little man's whole style in a vein so serious and unexpected, but they drowned their surprise in laughter. John arranged with them, however, that at a certain time at the beginning of winter, of which he would apprise them, they should all reassemble there, to witness the fulfilment of what he had said. There they parted as the sun set, and though trying to think it a good joke, the young bucolic critics felt their merriment some what restrained, as if " coming events cast their shadows before."

Next day, having to visit Insch beyond Auchleven in connection with his work, John went to a locality he knew, crowded with juniper, where he selected a large branch from a male plant on which the pollen was ripe and unusually abundant. This he carried all the way by the winding footpath over "the back o' the hill," across the bridge of Don, and home to Netherton, with the pollen safely preserved—no easy task on those breezy heights, over so long a distance. Next day was bright and sunny, and he bore his tender burden to the solitary bush on the hill. When the sun was in all his glory, shedding, refulgent, the necessary light, heat and electrical influences—for as John remarked, "the plants are creatures o' licht, and all their little transactions are done in open day, having no evil to hide"—he shook the pollen-laden branch above the open flowers below, sprinkling them skilfully with the all-potent dust. When he visited the spot alone some time after, he saw the complete success of his bold experiment, in the formation of a host of baby berries.

In due course, when the fruit had reached maturity, he summoned his tormentors, who had forgotten all about their encounter with the botanist, to witness the result. Their surprise may be better imagined than described. As they stood speechless and astounded at the sight—for, as John said, " they were na up till't, and, fat was waur, they wi'dna be instruckit."—John concluded the drama by solemnly declaring, that the bush never would bear another berry; and sure enough it never did. The story got wind in the district, raising John in general estimation as a botanist, if not as a magician, with powers that were "no canny," and doing much to silence future aggressors.

Speaking of the subject afterwards, in the Society at Auchleven, he said that, when he saw the successful action of the pollen, "it gave him more happiness than if he had fallen heir to a kingdom."

But John was depreciated by not a few who should have known better; and about Alford, from first to last, he was less understood than at Auchleven and elsewhere. In the Howe of Cushnie, for instance, there flourished, for some years, another branch of the Mutual Instruction movement. In accordance with his desire to act as propagandist for his own studies and help in all intellectual pursuits, he offered to read a paper, of which we have seen not unworthy specimens. But, as one of the members informs me, "the secretary had the greatest possible difficulty in putting him off. The services of a lecturer from a distance were sometimes secured, and John was very, very anxious to give us a lecture. Our trusty secretary, however, would not hear of such an outrage, and had to coin divers excuses that would not hurt the old botanist's feelings. It was a pity," he continues, "that he was so conservative and so zealous for the honour of our society. We ought to have accepted John's offer, and heard him lecture on the subject regarding which he could have enlightened the best of us: but 'a prophet is not without honour save in his own country,' especially if he be a carpenter there, or a weaver!"

A prevalent charge that John's study of plants brought against him was, that he was idling his time by doing such useless things. Now, if there was one thing more than another true of the man, it was that he was not only industrious but hard-working at his trade. When he indulged in botanising at any time, the hours thus spent were fully made up by extra work at another time, either taken from his sleep or his leisure. When his neighbours saw him outside gathering plants during the day, that looked to them like spending time at play, when he should have been at work "like other folks;" but they did not see him hard at his loom early in the morning or late at night, when they were under the blankets. Though he thus laid himself open to be misjudged as he was, he was too proud, too self-contained, too careless of their opinion, or too conscious of right, to stoop to explain.

The one great test to which every pursuit such as John indulged is subjected by the worldly wise, with their narrow foot-rule, is, "What is the use of it? "—or, as they express it in Aberdeenshire, "Fat's the ees o't?" By this is meant, not true utilitarianism, the broad range of use, but the narrow, hardening test of its value in hard cash, worldly advancement, or personal advantage. John's enthusiasm for stars and plants being judged by this criterion, he was found wanting.

If there is a part of the country where this narrow utilitarian rule of thumb is more constantly applied to everything than in most places, it is the county in which John passed the greater part of his life and pursued his thankless researches.

The real feelipg in this meagre estimate of Duncan and all such students was that which is so inimitably expressed by Dr. Douglas Maclagan in his clever satire of "the Battle o' Glen Tilt;" [Written on the extraordinary attempt of the Duke of Athol to prevent Professor Balfour and some of his students from passing through Glen Tilt, on a botanical excursion, in August, 1847, before John left Tough, in 1849.] which humorously describes an unsuccessful attempt by a great lord, in 1847, some time before John left Tough, to stop a party of botanists for trespass, in an excursion through the Grampians, over ground John knew well. Of John, his contemporaries were ever ready to exclaim, as of his fellow botanists;--

Some folk'll tak' a heap o' fash
For unco little en', man;
An' meikle time and meikle cash
For nocht ava' they'll spen', man.
That chap wu'd gang a hunder' mile
For what was hardly worth his while
And a' to poo
Some girse that grew
On Ben Mac Dhu
That ne'er a coo
Would care to pit her mou' till t"

What's the use of it! That question could be answered abundantly even in its narrower aspects, putting aside the higher pleasure and profit of these pursuits. But John once gave a reply which should have melted the heart of the hardest, had they known his history, and of which we who know a little of his hidden tragedy, the secret grief of his life, can feel to some extent the real pathos. When asked why he went after the flowers so much as he did, and what benefit they were to him, he replied that they might be no benefit in that sense; but they took, it his mind, and he thought that, if it had not been for them, lie would have gone wrong altogether. We now know something of what is implied in that answer; and it surely, in itself, is a reply more than sufficient to silence the everlasting query that assailed his cars—"Fat's the eese o't?"

But is it not sad that this question, good and right and wise as it is when truly viewed, should be asked and answered on the poor level on which it generally is? Is it not time that our educators of all kinds, in the school, the pulpit and the book, should try more earnestly and actively to raise the standard of judgment, of the application of this true experimentum crucis of all work and study? Is it not a grave censure upon our boasted educational and ecclesiastical agencies, that this question should so long and so late have remained on the low platform on which it still stands?


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