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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXI - His Disciples and Sympathisers at Droughsburn


THOUGH thus self-contained and self-absorbed, overmodest and retiring, and much misunderstood by his neighbours in general, Duncan's influence over others was by no means small. Of this we have already seen proofs in the progress of our story, and it will be interesting to .adduce others in his later years.

He was never more truly delighted than when communicating knowledge, *and, with the spirit of the true lover of science, he was constantly trying to gain proselytes. But, in the prevalent state of education and opinion in regard to such pursuits, his success in making converts to Botany was not very great; and even with a more public-spirited, less retiring man, could scarcely have been greater as things then were. To John at times, notwithstanding his large hopefulness and knowledge of his own endeavours, his life in this respect sometimes seemed to have been spent in vain, though it was very far from being so. At my first visit to him, when, in talking on this subject, he deprecated such influence over others, Mrs. Allanach kindly broke out in his behalf: "Noo, John, I maun tell on ye; ye hae had scholars, and a wheen o' them. There was my ain son-in-law, and that clever loon doon the road there, noo a grand teacher awa' in Ingland, wha baith used, mony a day, to come to you wi' their bits o' floors and girses; and many a lauch I hae had at ye a', as ye stud at the door there i' the gloamin', lookin' at the unco' things and gabbin' over them to nae end!"

The first of John's disciples here referred to was John M. B. Taylor, already mentioned. He was a farm-servant in the Vale of Alford, and for a time at Tillychetly on the Leochel, opposite Droughsburn. He first made the botanist's acquaintance in 1871, when he saw his herbarium. At once he felt, as he says, "a peculiar charm in the man and his studies that struck a high-sounding chord in his nature." In May, 1872, he took some schoolboys to the rare weaving shop, when the old man delightedly showed them his plants and described their peculiarities and discovery, till it was time to leave. John then accompanied them homewards, according to his kindly practice, and the young folks •indulged on the way in the unwonted pleasure of gathering the wild flowers by the roadside, and bringing them to be named by John, who spoke also of their medicinal properties. At parting, he talked earnestly to the ploughman of the joys of Botany, the charm it had been to himself in his loneliness, the contentment it had imparted in his lowly life, and his delight in solitary wanderings in search of his favourites, all uttered in what seemed to the young man a vein of "true poetry."

Taylor was now thoroughly "bitten" with the subject, and set himself to its systematic study under John's guidance. He commissioned his tutor that autumn to bring him a text-book from Aberdeen, which he did with pleasure, "Brook's Introduction to the Linnwan System." He visited the weaver at all spare hours, and went systematically into the study by reading books which John lent him. When John gave him the loan of any book, he was accustomed to say, "Noo, Johnnie, lad, dinna be over wed-fashioned wi't ; be ill fashioned. Look in atween the brods and see fat's in't. There's some fowks sac weelfashioned wi' books that they never open them."

In the mid-winter of 1873, John went to his garden and brought his scholar a Christmas rose, saying, "Tak' that i' yer han', and gin ony o' the ploughmen chiels speir fat it is, say it's Helleborus nib er, and ye'll sta' them wi' sic a name."

The following summer, Taylor made his first collection of plants, of considerable number, which he named and arranged according to Linnaus. He now paid weekly visits to Droughsburn. His delight in plants so increased that, to have as much time as possible with the botanist, he used to leave the farm at once without supper when work was over—a bowl of milk and bread being, however, placed by the kindly kitchen-maid to wait his late return, in the hay-loft where he slept.

At these visits, they used to hunt for plants in the long summer nights, John telling their common and technical names, peculiarities of structure, and medicinal and other properties, and seasoning his talk with much fun and humour, stories of his adventures, and good advice. This pleasant intercourse continued for several years, and Taylor says he never brought a plant to John which he was unable to name and describe. John's remarkable memory struck him, as it did all that knew him, with his familiar knowledge of the localities where he had found plants. One evening, John and he set out to search for a certain species at some distance, but by the time they reached the spot, darkness had come down, and nothing could be seen. The eager old botanist, nevertheless, knew the place so well, though he had not been there for a year or two and though the plant had just appeared above ground, that he found it---after groping in the dark on hands and knees—and presented it to the lad.

The botanical garden at the cottage was a frequent means of instruction and study, and every plant there was-examined and .described.

Taylor's progress was rapid and secure, and all holidays, of which he had only two in the year, were devoted to science. In time, he formed a more complete herbarium. To extend his knowledge of the flora of the country, in 1875 he spent some time in Forfarshire, where John's. intimate knowledge of the country and the stations of plants= there proved of the highest service to him. Since then, Taylor has advanced in Botany, and now possesses a very good knowledge of it, both practical and theoretical. He has accumulated a collection which includes, it appears, most of the flowering plants, ferns, and grasses of Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine, as also species from the north of England, where he has also botanised.

His studies have not been confined to Botany. He has gathered specimens in Archoeology, Geology, and Mineralogy. In 1869, he began Phrenology, which he studied both practically and theoretically for years, in books and on the heads of his friends. From 1871 to 1876, he made a series of Meteorological observations, in which John was much interested. He also studied Astronomy with great. earnestness, securing assistance and 'encouragement from the old star-gazer; and. in 1872, he made observations in the Vale, for the "Astro-Meteorological Society" of London. Since that, he has gone more or less into several branches of Natural History, as shells, insects, and animals, of which he has a good selection. He has passed the Science and Art examinations in Botany, Geology, Animal Physiology, and Practical and Theoretical Chemistry. Altogether, he has developed, under the extraordinary difficulties that beset poverty and lowly condition in the country, remarkable aptitude and enthusiasm for the natural sciences. As he gratefully acknowledges, he received his first and deepest impulses towards these from John Duncan.

Some years ago, he abandoned farm labour, and gave a realistic account of his experiences in a book called "Eleven Years at Farm Work: a True Tale of Farm-Servant Life from 1863 onwards." In 1876, after marrying a daughter of Mr. Allanach's, whom he had met in his visits to Droughsburn, he removed to Aberdeen. There lie was engaged for some years in several employments, and occupied his leisure in writing for the newspaper press and in prosecuting science.

He is now assistant in the Public Library of Paisley, having been recommended to that post by an Irish professor, who examined his private collections. It is to be hoped that his scientific knowledge and enthusiasm will ere long be utilized in connection with some museum or other similar institution, in which he would be an undoubted gain. His affection and respect for Duncan are deep and permanent. From the first, he perceived the genuine worth and ability hid beneath the unpromising exterior of the old weaver. From Mr. Taylor, I have gained more regarding John than from any other friend.

In the Vale of Alford, there lived another farm-servant, a friend of Taylor's, but somewhat older, called William D. H. Deans. With exemplary diligence and perseverance, under trying difficulties and ill health, he went to Aberdeen University—the nursing mother of thousands of her able but humble sons—and in due time took his degree. Though adorned with academic honours, he did not forget his old friends in the Vale, but, amongst other kindly services, used to assist his struggling companion, Taylor, in his neglected education; guiding his English studies, correcting exercises for him by post, and introducing him to Latin, to help him in botanical nomenclature. Deans determined to devote himself to teaching as a profession, in which lie had engaged during his college course.

In 1868, while conducting a school at Lethenty, in Fyvie, in Aberdeenshire, he was introduced by the parish minister, the Rev. Gavin Lang, [Now of Inverness.] to an earnest botanist, the Rev. William Lytteil, [Author of "Landmarks of Scottish Life and Language," 1877.] then officiating at a church near the Cross of Jackson, who possessed a good herbarium, specially rich in grasses and ferns. Under him, Deans began Botany both in the book and in the field. In order to help him to do it in proper form, he bought Balfour's "Outlines" of the science, and a vasculum. That summer, he returned to his mother's house at Alford, and began its independent study. In coming home one evening after seeking for plants, he met a neighbouring farmer, who, when he saw his unwonted vasculum and its contents, said: "Weel, Willie, man, ye su'd gang up tae the aul' weyver abeen the burn, for he's near wud aboot plants and floo'rs; and some o' the fowk up yonder say he's whiles up gin four o' the mornin', wan'erin' aboot the stanks and dike-sides aifter them." This was the first time he had heard of John, though the weaver had then lived sixteen years by the Leochel! Willie at once conceived a strong desire to become acquainted with him, especially when he now learned his enthusiasm and success.

Shortly after this, while at Alford cattle market, Deans observed, as he writes, "an aged man standing in the centre of the fair, neat, clean, dressed in a blue home-spun coat with a large collar and brass buttons, and leaning upon a large blue umbrella." Assured, from descriptions he had got, that this was the botanist he sought, he introduced himself to John, who received him with a kindly smile, saying, "Ay, laddie, fat dae ye dee and far dae ye bide?" The young man, having satisfied him on these points, told him how he had been working at Botany for five or six weeks, and said he would be greatly obliged for his kindly assistance in the . science. They at once entered into earnest confabulation, personal and botanical, and John finished with some counsels about the plants and a warm invitation to meet him next day at Droughsburn.

With a collection of wild flowers in his hand, William entered the weaver's. curious domain at the appointed hour, and found him at his loom, the clatter of which had guided him to the door. John at once ceased work, and with wonted care, spreading a sheet of brown paper on the web at which he was working and a newspaper over that, asked him to lay out his plants there. Then, after arming himself with "Hooker and Arnott" and "Dickie," he reseated himself at the loom, while the young student sat by, and they began the examination of the specimens. This was a long but interesting process, names, structure, properties, and adventures being variously intermingled. John's odd pronunciation of the technical terms at once tickled the ears of the collegian, just fresh from university benches. The writing of the names from` his dictation was "downright Thracian," as he says, John trying the spelling letter by letter, but giving it up, and asking him to "look at the buik." In due time, Deans secured the names of the plants he brought, and got instructions in regard to gathering, drying, laying down, and other mysteries of practical Botany. When he left, John accompanied him up the hill above the cottage, naming and describing all the plants they saw, till they reached the summit. There he sat down beside a marsh,. and asked his companion to "look aboot'm." The place was covered with the purple flowers of the Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), John's pronunciation of the Latin being exceedingly amusing. When this had been examined and commented on, John asked the hour; bade him good-bye, and hastened homewards down the hill, shouting back to his young friend not to be Long before coming back again.

A day or two after this, John himself called at Mrs. Deans' house, about six in the morning, saying he would return about seven that evening. He travelled a long distance to his former haunts at Keig and Tough, delivering to customers some "cloutie coverings" he had finished, but duly appeared on the road near the house at the hour named. The young student, who had been looking out for him with pleasant anticipations, at once went to meet him, and found him brisk and blithe, with a fine flower of the White Ox-eye (Cirysantlaelnum leucantlzelnum) stuck gaily in his button-hole—and a beautiful flower it is, commonplace as it is counted, surpassing many of our lauded garden asters. Holding up a parcel he carried, he exclaimed, "Sal, lad, I hae something here for ye!" As they walked towards the cottage, John directed his attention to the flower in his coat, and described the structure of the composite order, of which it is a very good, clear example. While tea was being prepared by the good mother, John, ever careful of the fragments of time, asked the lad to show his recent gatherings and get them named till the kettle boiled. After tea, which revived him greatly, being somewhat worn out by his long journey, the naming was resumed. This was accompanied by a varied commentary, scientific, social, and personal, all interesting and picturesque, as suggested by the plants. When this was finished, he opened the parcel he had himself brought, and described specimens of the rarer kinds, which he promised to "divide wi'" Willie after he had pressed them, when he came up to see him at the Droichs burn.

At subsequent visits, botanical investigations were continued, the mysterious boxes—shown only to the worthy—were opened, the books looked over, the herbarium untied, weaving described, and early memories of his life related. As their intimacy grew, they met twice or thrice every week. They botanised together all over the country round Alford and along the banks of the Don. Under John's direction, Deans also visited many of John's early haunts; amongst others, Castle Forbes, Monymusk, and Benachie. John often visited Mrs. Deans' cottage on Sunday evenings, to have a cup of tea and talk with her son. At such times, his conversation never touched on Botany, but was confined to religious, political, and social themes, in which he wished to interest the young student. lie used to deplore "the decay of modern preaching," and to bemoan the general run of sermons as "a rigmarole of ecclesiastical phrases"—a criticism, it is to be feared, too often merited.

In time, Mr. Deans left for a school in Stoke-on-Trent, and he is now head master of a successful upper-class school at Clifton, near Bristol; being the "grand teacher awa in Ingland," referred to by Mrs. Allanach. He recalls his ancient botanical tutor with gratitude and appreciation.

Droughsburn is situated on the large farm of Dorsell, which lies on the slope of the valley above the road skirting the Leochel, and was then leased by Mr. McCombie, the celebrated cattle-breeder of Tillyfour up the Leochel, brother of the editor. To Dorsell, in i866, there came to learn Scotch farming, a young Swede, about thirty, called Hans J. Samson, belonging to Gothenberg. He was pleasant, intelligent and bright, had been well educated, being able to read Latin, and was a general favourite. He took lessons in English from the Rev. Andrew Christie, then schoolmaster of Alford, now parish minister of Kildrummic on the Don, and he could use the language very creditably.

The rough ploughmen with whom Hans worked used sometimes to visit Duncan, having encountered him on the road and met him at harvesting; and they laughed at his eccentricities, and especially at the droll names he gave the weeds. They told Samson about the botanical weaver, and accompanied him one evening'to the weaving shop, to get some fun, as they said, out of "the queer cretur." But their merriment received an unexpected check from their companion. To their surprise, he entered earnestly into all that was said and shown by the old man. They never returned with him there, as it was evidently useless for their purposes; for the Swede was "tarred wi' the same stick" as the man of weeds. He took to John immensely, studied Botany with him, and visited him frequently. John spoke highly of him to me, and had great pleasure in his company, delighted as he was at all times to gain a convert to his beloved science. They made some botanical journeys together, and became great friends during the year the young Swede remained on the farm. As John said, "Hans was unco' fond to hear about the floo'rs and their names, and to talk about his great countryman." At the mention of Carl Linn6's name, he "would hae jumpit shortly," John said; that is, he would start from his seat with enthusiasm. He made considerable progress in Botany, and could by-and-by decipher a plant with a little help from his aged tutor.

The purpose of Mr. Samson's bucolic companions was thus pleasantly frustrated, in a way that issued in pleasure and profit to himself, and helped to cheer the old man's latter days with the too rare joys of sympathy in his solitary and misunderstood pursuits. Samson left Dorsell for England, to prosecute his agricultural studies under eminent farmers there.. He then returned to Sweden, but his subsequent history I have been unable to trace.

Dr. Williams' memories of John and his plants are pleasant and appreciative, recalling him from earliest boyhood, when he used to come to church, as already told. "How he loved Botany," he exclaims, "and how he enjoyed it, few could believe. Truly, in that respect, John Duncan was a most remarkable exemplification of what the humblest student of nature may become. To a botanist, a visit to John's out-of-the-way abode was quite a treat; and I have a lively recollection of John at home. Of course, one would find him weaving--a process that was to me new and interesting. The first visit, therefore, began with a demonstration in weaving. Thereafter, with evidently no reluctance, John went over with me pile after pile of his laortus siccus. Every specimen had its history, noted in his memory. The local floral resources he had exhausted, and could tell where any rare specimen was to be found. If he had it to spare, he seemed to have great pleasure in parting with a specimen, nor was he slow to give away a sample of a rare plant. Thinking medicinal plants suitable for me, as a medical student, he gave me a specimen, which I still possess, of Atropa belladonna, Deadly Nightshade. He called it 'Atropia Beldonia,' but what did it matter, though he occasionally mispronounced these neck-breaking names? Time to spare for interested visitors John seemed to have in abundance.

"That first visit was to me a rare treat, and is still vividly recalled. The man himself, compared with his circumstances and surroundings, was perhaps a greater rarity than his rarest specimens. Many a brown study have I had of him and the curious place he worked in. Then, John always saw his friend a good way along the road, when the visit was ended, bidding him `haste ye back.'"

Dr. Williams' cousin, the Rev. George Williams, from -whose reminiscences of the botanist we have already gleaned, also recalls him from childhood, where he came to church and used to speak to the children and to his father about "the lilies of the field how they grow." Afterwards, while he was attending college, John tried to induce him to begin the serious study of plants. "He brought me," Williams says, "a book to help me in the subject. He pulled a buttercup to pieces, and explained its parts very carefully and minutely. I resolved to begin discovering for myself the names of the commonest wild plants. I began with Ragweed; but, alas! the florets of the disc, which I mistook for the petals, and the florets of the ray for the stamens, would not correspond with the book. I tried another of the Composita,, with like results. I got disheartened, and returned the book to John, at the same time telling him that I had no time for Botany. I think lie was vexed. If I had told him my difficulty, he would have been so glad to remove it and to instruct me further; but I did not, and so my technical botanical studies ended.

"I called one day on John at Droughsburn," he continues. "We discussed the weather, crops, and church news. In a few minutes, John had dragged me to his wonderful patch of cultivation—his garden. He told me a great deal about the plainest-looking weeds. Amongst other things, he plucked a bit of common Yarrow (Achillea millefolZum), and told me that the plant was once called `Eerie,' as lasses used to take it and put it in their breasts as a charm, repeating this rhyme..

'Eerie, eerie, I do pluck
And in my bosom I do put;
The first young lad that speaks to me,
The same shall my true lover be.'

"I suggested that `eerie' might be a corruption of 'yarrow;' or that it might be the Scotch word `eerie,' meaning timorous, because the girl would go tremblingly and timorously to pluck and place the charm in her breast. John at once exclaimed, ' Oh, man, that's it! '

" He had a plant called `Humility,' or Aaron's Beard, [Saxifraga sarvzentosa, a Chinese species of Saxifrage, having flowers like the other known as "London Pride" (Saxifraga umbrosa), a Lusitanian species, now wild in some places in Britain.] which he said was so called because it threw out long tendrils which hung down over the margin of the pot where it was suspended. `But,' added John, `Aaron's beard was nae larger than Moses' beard, as far as we ken;' and then he quietly repeated the first verse of the psalm..

'Like precious ointment on the head,
`Which down the beard did flow,
Even Aaron's beard, and to the skirts
Did of his garments go.'

'So you see,' he continued, `Aaron's beard went down to the skirts o' his garments.' I think the old high priest sank considerably in his estimation when I pointed out that it was the oil, and not the beard, which flowed down to the skirts.

"I was speaking to him one day about the colours of flowers, and mentioned that the sweet scents and pretty petals attracted insects, whereby the flowers were fertilised. 'Ay,' said he, `they're attractive to wee flees as well as to us. But some o' the flees are killed by them.' This led him to describe the irritability of the stamens in some plants, and he ended by saying, `There's nae moray o' them sac cruel, though.' I replied, `they all hang out their colours and give out their sweets for a selfish end.' 'Na, na,' he replied, `they're jist like the lads and lasses, dressin' themsel's bonnilic to get a sweetheart;' and he went away, laughing heartily at the conceit.

"We were talking one day, on the way from church, about the death of an acquaintance, when he very solemnly remarked, 'Floo'rs come up oot o' the caul' grun' gradually in spring; man will be raised up suddenly full blown." The remark was in accordance with the generally hopeful view the old man took of things."

On another occasion, Mr. Williams was passing Droughsburn and met the old botanist near the cottage. "It's a fine day this," said John. "Yes, John, a very fine day." "But we're sair necdin' rain," John went on. "The flees are busy nibblin' awwa' the neeps." "Does rain kill them?" asked his young friend. "Na," replied John, "I dinna think that; and even gin it did droon them, they're sae breedy that ac generation o' them, greedier than the last, wu'd spring tip wi' the first blink o' sunsheen. The rain maybe doesna kill them, but it gars the neep grow till it gets ower hard for the beesties' teeth." "What havoc farmers suffer from these small creatures!" remarked Mr. Williams. "Ay, ay," consented John; "gin they were as big as hares, we cu'd gae oot an' shoot them wi' guns and trap them like rabbits; nae game laws cu'd prevent that. But they're sae sma' cattle ; catchin' them winna pay ony mair nar clippin' the soo."

"Is work brisk just now, John?" "Oh, weel," replied he, "I've aye plenty to dee. `Swift as a weaver's shuttle' is an auld sayin'; but ye canna keep the guidwives frae grumblin' awa' and ca'in' me lazy ; just as gin they hadna ac steek o' cla'es to cover their backs wi' till I tak' their wabs tae them." "Are you not often wearied, doing the same thing over and over again?" "Ow, na," briskly returned he. "The wark wud be gey an' wearisome gin the min' were tied till't. But the min's free like the shuttle, and sae it can rin aboot here and there, back and fore, ding dang."

Here Mr. Williams mentioned the names of the greatest African traveller and a distinguished Aberdeen philosopher, who had -either been weavers or connected with weaving in their early days, and thereby shed honour on the loom. "Just sae," consented the old weaver, proud of his trade, "oor wark mak's us greater by ord'nar'; or a gey sicht less." "And you have turned to plants and flowers," pursued Mr. William, "to keep your mind green?" John brightened up at the mention of his favourites, but with his usual deprecation of personal praise, quietly assented; "the smell and sicht o' them drives the dust o' the shoppie oot o' the lungs, nae don't." "I wish I knew as much about Botany as you do, John," vainly sighed the young man. "Ye micht soon ken a hantle [Literally a handful, hence a considerable quantity.] mair ner me, gin ye wu'd set yersel' till't. Thae lang names pit me oot files, but ye wu'd ken the meanin's o' them and min' them better." "The scientific terms and meanings are almost of no use," rightly remarked his friend, "until the things meant are known." "Weel, weel," wisely and encouragingly urged the real educationist John was; " pu' and look, read and speir, and never fear!"

He then began to show Mr. Williams some of his favourite plants, "bits o' floories" as he called them. "This .ane," he went on to explain, "I got at A," mentioning the name of the place where he had obtained it. "That ane I pu'd and brocht hame frae B. Here's ane ye winna see ilka day; I had a gey ca'in' afore I got my neeves, on him. I wis he may grow doon here; but the snell air and mountain dew suit his constitution best. I got him awa' up on the hill 'o' C. This wee bit thingie's nae thrivin'. I got it in a hedge at D. Weel, weel, they're a' wild, as ye say, but I'm tamin' them; killin' some o' theml;nae doo't i' the process, but kind to them a'. Here's a girse I carried frae E; there's lots o't near your hoose." And so the good old enthusiast went on, showing and speaking of what was dear to him and must be interesting, he thought, to every one that heard him.

Then the conversation drifted to other matters, and amongst these, the affairs of the Cushnie Free Church. Of a preacher they had lately heard, John observed, "He mak's awfu' moo's; I liket him better when I didna leuk at'm." The old man accompanied the young minister along the road, as he was wont, and after a hearty "good-bye, and haste ye back!" he returned to his quiet hollow.

The medical students from Aberdeen, in their botanical excursions, used sometimes to call on John, and he has led them on occasions to the spots where the rarer species grew. But " puir fallows," said he, "they cu'dna stand my walkin' at a'; they had ower thin boots. But fat cu'd you expect frae thae young loons?"

The Rev. David A. Beattie, the first Free Church incumbent at Cushnie and John's minister for eight years, used to visit him frequently, and was much interested in his uncommon parishioner. "In his lowly home," he says, "he was all sunshine when conversation led to his favourite study. I remember once, after speaking to him of Christ as the `True Vine' and His culture of the branches (John xv. i), how he warmed to the theme, and, ere I left, took me to see his little plot of rare plants, a wonderful and miscellaneous 'gathering from all parts. There he showed his full acquaintance with the blossoms that smile on us in the garden and on the wayside, and he gave abundant evidence of his conquest over botanical terms, which showed hint to be an earnest student, ardently scientific while intelligently devout. As a botanist, he showed unwearying diligence in collecting facts and noting phenomena; but he did not search merely for cold, abstract, inexorable laws, but owned the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley. He grasped his Bible tightly while repeating along with me the words `All flesh is grass—but the word of the Lord endureth for ever.' His love of Botany as a specialist was great, and every discovery bearing on it filled him with delight."


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