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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXII - His visits to Aberdeen - Friendship and Eccentricity


SINCE leaving Aberdeen, in 1824, John Duncan was accustomed to visit it several times a year, to obtain yarn for weaving, and attend Militia drill for some weeks at a time. Before the Alford railway was opened in 1859, he walked the whole distance to and from the city, except when conveyed by kindly acquaintances. In Aberdeen, there were several good people who appreciated the man and relished his visits. He frequently stayed overnight there, and, business done, devoted the whole of his time to inspecting second-hand bookstalls, purchasing books, and calling on friends, but chiefly in extending his knowledge of the flora of the surrounding country.

At these visits, he was greatly astonished at the rapid growth of the town and the numerous changes effected on it since first lie knew it in 1816, and he used to entertain and surprise his friends with remarks on these changes, and with descriptions of the city as it stood at the beginning of the century; for his reminiscences of such things were interesting, vivid, and permanent. When he stayed in town over Sunday, he devoted the day to hearing good preachers, "the dons," "the guid han's," as he called them, especially after 1843, going often three times to church is and he could give off long after "great screeds" of the sermons he had heard, and describe the orators with humour and point.

From 1842 to 1848, his visits to the city were more frequent and extended than at any other time, for Charles. Black then lived at Raeden, and there John used to stay several times a year; for the two friends could not remain long apart while they lived in the same county.

By none was the weaver more welcomed than by Charles's brother, James, who retained the most genuine friendship for him since their wandering together on the braes of Tough, in the thirties. James had been long settled near or in Aberdeen, where he was successful in business, being able ultimately to retire and live in its neighbourhood. To him, John's visits, with his old-world style and stories and his intense enthusiasm, were always peculiarly interesting, as studies of human nature in the man himself, and bright glimpses of the happy past. As. he often repeated in reference to them

"They brought him back the holms and hooves
Where sillar burnies shine,
The lea-rig where the gowans glint
We pu'd in auld lang syne.
Oh, born o' feeling's warmest depths,
0' fancy's wildest dreams,
They twined wi' monie lovely thochts,
Wi' mony Io'esome themes!"

"Many and varied were the floweries," he says, "that did glint in John's path and mine, and fresh and lovely the banks of the sillar burnies, pregnant even yet wi' monie lovely thochts, and furnishing me still wi' inonie lo'esome themes."

As a letter writer, James is picturesque, pithy, and entertaining, and he became a pleasant medium of communication between John and Charles, to both of whom the use of the pen was always more or less a piece of task-work, making their personal communication by post comparatively rare, though pretty regular.

When John came to town, he of course donned his best suit. If his attire was odd in the country, in the town it was simply outy, especially during his latter days, drawing all eyes even in the city crowd, and frequently causing embarrassment to his friends when in his company. Certainly, as James says, his like was seldom or never seen in Aberdeen in recent years, with the quaint dress already described—his home-made, home-cut ancient coat, with high neck and brass buttons, latterly well-nigh fifty years old; his trousers, short at best, rolled up half-way to the knee; his great heavy tacketed boots; his very tall dress hat, older than the rest and worn with use, set sloping on the back of his head; his "Sarah Gamp" blue umbrella under one arm, and a large bundle under the other, and generally with a collection of plants otherwise disposed. The whole formed a tout ensemble of an uncommon kind. It was certainly no small trial for any one to accompany its wearer, especially if he were at all sensitive to the ogling glances, constant stares, and mirthful faces encountered all along the street. As for the man himself, he seemed quite unconscious of his own appearance, and moved along the peopled pavement with as glorious obliviousness as if lie had been walking "ower the moor acnang the heather."

Of the effect thus produced by John's

"Outlandish ways and dress
On which his neighbours laid such stress,"

like the Pied Piper's, Mr. Black gives some amusing examples. James lived in various parts of the city, and always duly instructed his old friend in regard to any change of residence, and directed his attention to the precise situation of his house. John, however, could not remember the exact number, and on coming to the locality had always to make diligent and numerous inquiries at all the neighbours till he succeeded in his search. To John, his friend was still the same as he had been at Netherton, neither more nor less than plain "Jamie Black." No matter that he had risen in the world, and was the manager of an establishment in which many hundreds were employed, and where he was invested with autocratic power; to the old weaver, braid Scotch was more than all modern stuck-up courtesies, and so Mr. Black remained and was spoken of by him to all and sundry, strangers, employees and friends, as "Jamie."

One day, John had cone from Alford and walked to the Loch of Belhelvie, some miles north of Aberdeen, for some plants he wished to get there. Tired, footsore, dusty with long travel, and bespattered with the mud of his scramblings, he returned to Aberdeen to seek out his friend. He was clad in his usual picturesque garb, with hat at proper slope and rolled-up trousers, carrying a bundle of plants, and trailing behind him a thick sheaf, seven feet long, of the tall Reed Grass (Arundo plzra,, mites), which he had found at the loch. Arrived at the street, he duly inquired at every door for "Jamie Black." No one knew such a person, or protested they did not, amidst gathering mirth, as increasing numbers stood in their doorways to watch the curious inquirer. To and fro the old man went, vainly seeking for his unknown friend, saying he did live there the last time he called, and gradually becoming bewildered in the search. Happily, he was noticed from Mr. Black's house, and one of the daughters was sent out by the mother to bring home the old man, amidst the ill-concealed smiles of the whole neighbourhood; and in John was hurried, grass, bundles and all. Mr. Black was then from home, but on his return, heard the whole scene fully rehearsed by the ladies, amidst their mingled indignation and merriment. As Mr. Black, in relating the story, pertinently asks, Who does not try, at least in public, to forget the name his mother called him by?

On another occasion, some years after, John had been walking a great distance as usual, and came to James's house carrying two immense bundles. He was utterly exhausted, and looked the very picture of age, except that he was not hoary, being brown, shrunk, and dry as a mummy. He was clad "in the same garments as he had worn forty years before at Netherton," as James told Charles when writing to him on the subject. After dinner, though much refreshed, he still looked fatigued, and his friend determined to do the kindly and heroic and to brave all public criticism, by carrying one of his bundles. These were large, done up in faded coloured handkerchiefs, wound about with innumerable strings. Being as round and as unindented as eggs, they were clearly outsiders, and had to be carried under the arm, and even then with difficulty.

Boldly enduring the suppressed giggling of the young ladies at home, James sallied forth into public gaze with his unconcerned companion. As they had to walk some two miles from one of the suburbs to the head of Union Street, through a crowded locality, James thought it better to take a back road, once the entry into the city, but now greatly deserted. This John did not like, it appeared, but he overcame his annoyance so far as to notice the changes that had taken place in the road, and talked of them to himself, James catching the words "changes" and "highway." Surmising that he referred to his taking this by-road, as his own conscience suggested, he said, "Oh, I did not take the high-road, John, thinking you would like the retired path better." John made no reply. At length, at a special spot, he stopped and said, "We now stan' on what was ance the king's highway to a' the sooth o' Scotland, and on and on to London city." "Bless me, John!" replied his friend, "how do you know? I thought you were never here before." "Oh, John kens that, and meikle mair than some fowk think," tartly answered the old man. And back he would go to the high-road, because nearer to his destination, till James was forced to yield.

Up the main street thereafter they marched in this picturesque style, under the gaze of all the folks, to whom Mr. Black was well known. Being none of Pharaoh's lean kine, the perspiration stood in beaded drops on James's face, flushed with more than mere travel and the burden he bore. John, getting tired, wished to rest for a while, and, regardless of his friend's protestations, sat down on the window-ledge of a large grocery. James stood beside him like a standard-bearer, but with less dignity, his virtue fast oozing out in spite of his inward calls to stand to duty and prove to his fellows that he at least was not like other men ! It was sufficiently trying to be ogled at as they trudged along, but it became insupportable when a smiling crowd, first of ruthless city arabs and then of older people, gathered round them at the shop window. John himself was utterly oblivious of the sensation he was causing, and it was with very great difficulty, and only after frequent urgings, that he was prevailed upon to rise. His martyrised friend accompanied him to Union Street, till, utterly beaten out with his load and discomfited by his gathering feelings, he was obliged to leave him, after seeing him fairly on his way. James returned home a sadder and wiser man, determined never to sacrifice himself in the same way again for even the dearest friend ; and realising with new vividness, as he says, how much human beings are but the creatures of circumstances, and greatly how he, in particular, had been cast very much in the common mould. In telling this experience, he exclaims, with humorous truth-

"Breathes there the man with soul so dead,"

as not to take a red face under such circumstances? Is the reader one of these?

In 1864, John once more, and for the last time, met his dearest friend. Charles had never seen him since 1849, when they parted on the banks of the Gadie. He had since then spent some time in Ayrshire, near Dairy, whence he had removed, in 1858, to Arbigland on the Solway. After years of longing, he succeeded, in 1864, in paying a hurried visit to the north, to see the friends and scenes of youth. He stayed with his brother at Stoneywood, on the Don, a few miles from Aberdeen, and there James invited the weaver to meet him. John came with alacrity, and the two par nobile fratrum, spent several dear hours together, after fifteen years' long-drawn separation.

John arrived before his friend. When told that Charles was just coming, the effect on him was electrical and remarkable. He stood all eager attention, with that peculiar alert and expectant expression seen, as James Black remarks, in dogs on the hunt when prey is instantly looked for; while his countenance seemed to glow like a saint's with inexpressible joy. Mr. Black had observed such a light on the human countenance only once or twice in his life, indicating a state best conveyed by the word beatitude. "I have seen," he says, "the eyes glow like a dull, lambent flame, while all the face seemed to emit light. I have seen this at farewell partings, and, to some extent, in the countenances of lovers and mothers when much moved. But I never saw it more marked in healthy life than I did in the face of John Duncan when momently expecting my brother to appear." [This beatific glow is a known fact, under strong human emotion, and has attracted the attention of psychologists, poets, and other observers of the finer and rarer forms of human expression.]

When they met, Charles was much affected, and even quiet, undemonstrative John could not hide the moisture in his eye, while his voice discovered deeper unexpressed emotion. They sat and talked long and earnestly of the dear old days, with their joys and sorrows, their studies and wanderings; of their subsequent experiences, the new plants they had gathered, and the new subjects they had entered on. They parted in affectionate sadness and with small hope of meeting again, with their gathering years; for John was now seventy, and Charles lived far off on the borders of England. They never did meet, though the elder survived for seventeen years; but they continued to correspond to the last, united by deathless friendship.

Charles Black had long wished to have a portrait of his old friend, and this desire increased greatly after their last parting, in the fear that he might pass away before such a memorial could be secured. He accordingly wrote to his-brother to try to get John to sit for his photograph, hoping that his brother's friendly adroitness would effectually overcome John's natural timidity under such unaccustomed conditions, and his inevitable objections to the necessary preparations and actual process. James by-and-by got him to consent to gratify Charles, for whom, as he used to say, he "wu'd hae dune onything—for Charlie was nae common freend." Accordingly, in September, 1866, in his seventy-second year, an appointment was made for John to come to Aberdeen for the purpose; but, as James told Charles, had he not had a liking for John's portrait himself, he feared that, fond as he was of pleasing his brother, he could not have gone through the ordeal of bringing the matter to a successful issue. "John was an awkward fellow," he observes, "in the street; but in a photographic studio, he was absolutely unmanageable and absurd."

John came to town one Saturday, bringing Mr. Black a collection of grasses, tied with hundreds of thrums to a strong willow wand, according to his good custom with such long specimens, still in the hope of inducing his friend to begin systematic Botany. On parting that day, they agreed to meet on Monday morning at nine o'clock, at Prince Albert's statue, at the end of Union Bridge, John spending the Sunday with other friends.

Punctual to the moment, James found him at the appointed spot; but as the photographer's place was not yet open, and James had some business engagements in the forenoon, they agreed to meet opposite the saloon at two. When he arrived at the hour, he found John already there. He stood with his bundle stuck on a railing above him, his staff between his knees, some silver coins between his teeth, some half-crowns in one hand, while he held a florin in the other close to his eyes, evidently to see if it was a half-crown or not. When accosted, he at once turned round, with his usual irresistible reticence, and pocketed the whole in all haste. Then facing his friend and quietly saying, "Ay, Jamie, ye hae come," he took down his bundle; and they moved in silence to the place of execution, as it evidently seemed in John's eyes.

Charles had enjoined his brother to have John taken in his usual attire and style, with umbrella and bundle, as he used to see him in the old days at Whitehouse, so as to get as far as possible a realistic and speaking momento of the dear old man. John had of course put on his best, which, in default of better, was the old familiar suit. But he did not bring the big blue "tent;" and, in the wish to appear as genteel as possible on such an important occasion, the bundle he had provided was not a quarter of its usual dimensions, and without its generally super-abundant cordage. The parcel could not now be well increased in size. It was with great difficulty, also, that he was prevailed upon to accept James's fine umbrella, having a lurking fear,—regardless of appearances though he outwardly seemed—of being made "a sicht o'," and only did so on being assured that it was absolutely necessary "to please Charlie."

They entered the studio. There John had to be reassured as to his looking decent and in order, and insisted on his friend tying his neckerchief in a better fashion than he could himself, a thing James was very .both to do, as he wished to have him taken as naturally as possible. All was at length duly prepared ; but now came the ordeal. The poor man had no idea whatever of the nature and meaning of photography, but would, of course, never confess his absolute ignorance. With great difficulty, James got him properly posed by the wall, his head fixed in an iron support. He stood erect, with umbrella in one hand, bundle in the other, resting on the edge of a writing-table, on which was placed his long hat; his hair hanging over his brows somewhat in its usual fashion, though less rough than desirable. John stood, as he wrote to Charles afterwards, "in heavy marching order;" his regret being, he said, that he was tired, having travelled a great deal that day, and that his shoes were brown with the dust of the street! The dear, good creature! he desired to appear to the very best advantage before his distant friend.

When the artist began to settle his apparatus in front of his subject, John became deadly pale from what seemed real apprehension. He evidently took the instrument for a kind of cannon or other deadly weapon ; for the position no doubt suggested to the old man that of a soldier before the cannon's mouth. He winked inordinately as he looked towards the camera, at the artist's request; licked his lips, as if in nervous anticipation of some explosion; and finally, when the cap was removed after the command to be steady had been given, he turned away, and refused to stand!

In great concern, he went up to his friend, exclaiming, "Dear me, Jamie, what dis it a' mean?" and pointing to the instrument, "what is that?" It was at once explained. But what was to be done? The first plate was spoiled, and the photographer was non-plussed, if not annoyed. By dint of further explanation, assurance, and coaxing, John was induced to stand once more. Another plate was prepared, John took his position, less culprit-like than before, and the photograph was obtained before he was aware. When told that it was all over, he went up to James and asked in real earnest, "But, Jamie, when am I to be drawn?" "Dear me, John, you are already taken!" But John would not believe it, and continued to speak his doubts by repeating, "Na, na! na, na!"

When the artist reappeared to say that it was quite successful, John went up to him very gravely, to give orders about the number he wished. "I'll tak' three; ay, I'll tak' three—nae vzair, and I'll tak' them wi' me!" evidently intending one for each of the brothers and the other for himself. "Beg your pardon, sir?" said the photographer. "Ay, three, and wi' me," replied John. The gentleman could not understand, and still repeated, "Beg your pardon?" while John continued, " Ay, ay! only three, and Wi' me;" till Mr. Black explained the matter to both.

The likeness thus with difficulty secured was very satisfactory, much more so than could have been anticipated from the unpromising beginning. Of course, the fine umbrella, `yell-crossed tie, and small square parcel were not from the life; but the face was clearly taken, the light falling well on the countenance, which, however, showed traces of weariness and of John's distrust of the whole process. Otherwise, it gave a fair representation, it seems, of the man as he then appeared in his seventy-second year.

John was photographed again in full homely guise in 1878, twelve years after, when he was eighty-four, while seated in front of his own garden at Droughsburn, clad in his weaving dress, after he had become famous.

Charles Black was delighted to receive the likeness of his friend, and wrote to him in acknowledgment. [The admirable etching that forms the frontispiece, is taken partly from both portraits—the head and face from that secured in 1866, and the body from that of 1878.]

That same year, 1866, a great meeting took place in London, on the 22nd of May—an International Botanical Congress, which it would have immensely gratified the old botanist to have seen; as showing that the subject he loved was rising in dignity and worthily taking its place beside the advancing sciences of the time, since it began to take steps in the true direction under his early master, Tournefort.

A friend he never failed to visit in Aberdeen was William Beveridge, in whose father's house at the Craigh, he used to spend the bright evenings on the braes of Tough. When Mr. Beveridge succeeded his father in the farm and developed his genius, and had become the broad-hearted, kindly man he is, he used to relish John's visits exceedingly, after John had settled down at Droughsburn, and used to cross the hill to see his old friends round Netherton. As he says, "I knew far better then the value of the man, and always laid aside work when he came, to get the good of him ; though, alas, I never profited equally to the many opportunities I had after all." After William removed to Aberdeen, in 1873, and became curator of the Free Church College there, his heart was still in the dear Vale of Alford. He never took to city life, he sadly says, for the green fields and wild nature were always more to him than all the art of man. The sense of injury received at his harsh severance from the home of his fathers still frequently disturbs him, and he feels and ever will feel, as he expresses it, "like a tree transplanted after it is old, which still holds on a kind of life, but never regains the freshness and vigour of its original situation."

Hence John's visits were all the more prized by him in Aberdeen, and "his honest face was like a blink of sunshine in the dust and din of the city," as he gratefully expresses it. John as fully enjoyed his pleasant society, and used to speak of his friend with high esteem. To both, the dear and delightful memories of the past, which they used to "con with meikle care," were singularly refreshing, and welled up into the poetry of life, an invigorating and strengthening charm. Then William could show his old friend many things new and interesting to him, which he could not have done in Tough. He had still a very fine garden, that recalled the old one at the Craigh where John used to sit with strange immunity among the clustering bees; and there John could always walk, admiring its floral beauties. The college museum,  which contains the splendid collection of Natural Science specimens, one of the best and most valuable in the country, munificently gifted by the late Mr. Thomson of Banchory, was to both the centre of wonders stranger than fiction. There John was most fascinated and astonished at the exquisite examples of the flora of the Coal Measures in the geological department; being "perfectly overpowered," as his companion tells, "when he looked upon these examples of the mighty past, in the flora that bloomed millions of years ago."

Behind the museum, was the workshop of its curator, a melancholy reminiscence of the beautiful one he had left behind him at the Craigh, where John had often seen him at work, sadly recalled by both. Then the evenings were spent in the cosy parlour, amidst the bright and happy faces of the home circle, when the music of the past was reproduced by his friend with bow and violin of his own making, to chase dull care away and recall the days of other years.

Latterly, John's old-world attire and unconventional ways rather disturbed the ladies in the households of the friends he used to visit, as violating the proprieties of city life, to which the sex are so ardently devoted, and the want of which they find it difficult to condone, when they are not strong and pronounced enough to shake off the bondage in special circumstances, as in John's case. Of "the proper," one of the first articles in the female creed—standing even before "the right," shall we say?—the ancient weaver had not the dimmest glimpse even in the city, and it certainly was not a little trying to feminine nerves to receive so outre a visitor, whose appearance could not fail to draw the public eye in a way far from soothing to feminine notions regulated by the social demands of "the genteel." On occasions—but these were few—the petty annoyances thus created found expression in remonstrance, which was in the old man's eyes certainly unexpected, if not a good deal painful, and which he was not slow to mention to his male friends with indignant surprise and rebellion when it occurred. But these were mere passing clouds, easily dispelled under the warm sunshine of the heart with which he was nevertheless received, and under which he blossomed out in sweeter perfumes and opened the drooping bower of his sensitive affections.


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