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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXIII - John's visits to Aberdeen - Friendship and Botany


WHEN Charles Black was for a short time foreman in Reid's nursery in Aberdeen, in 1842, ever true to the higher influences he wielded over all he met, he set himself to the intellectual improvement of the apprentices, and helped them in grammar and arithmetic, as well as in botany. Amongst these was a lad with higher tendencies than his companions, called James Taylor, seventeen years of age, who then gained his first permanent impulses towards the studies he afterwards prosecuted; for, as he confesses, " It was Charles Black who created in myself and others a ,desire to know plants and a love for Botany." [As Mr. Taylor says, "Charles BIack was a centre round which not a few aspirants gathered."] Along with some others, he also began Latin, assisted by a young man who knew something of that language. He went the following year to the Grammar school, where one of the masters, Dr. Beverley, took a fancy to the lad, which afterwards ripened into lasting friendship, and helped him greatly in his studies. In time, James went to the University, and amidst difficulties specially known to Aberdeen students and bravely Conquered by them, went through his Arts course and entered on Medicine. Here he became "prosector" to Dr. Redfern, then lecturer on Anatomy in King's College, Aberdeen. From various causes, largely connected with want of means, though befriended by the professors, he was unable to complete his curriculum and take his medical degree. In 1856, after he had married, he went to the Arctic seas as medical officer in a whaler. He did so for five years, and endured the necessary privations less for the money thus gained than for the fascination he felt in examining the Natural History of these little-known regions, especially the Botany of both land and sea, flowering and cryptogamic. The results of these indefatigable explorations were afterwards published in the Linnwan Society [Vols. x. and xi. Mr. Taylor wrote on the flowering plants himself, and Dr. Dickie, of Aberdeen, on the alga.] and the New Philosophical Journals, and formed then the most valuable contribution to Arctic science yet made, as testified by the highest authorities, who edited his collections. Many specimens were new to the Arctic flora, and one lichen was named Tayloria, in acknowledgment of his services.

Mr. Taylor was employed for some years at Kew Gardens, then under Sir William Hooker, arranging and naming the multitudinous specimens there; and to the museum, he presented his large collection of Arctic lichens, mosses and flowering plants. His investigations into the flora of Aberdeen and the neighbouring counties have been very thorough. Dr. Beverley and he, among other works, were the first to make public exhibitions of Fungi in Scotland, efforts that have ripened into the formation of the Cryptogamic Society of Scotland and its popular exhibitions. But Taylor's study of science has not by any means been confined to Botany. It has embraced a wide range of Natural History, especially Ornithology, in which his knowledge is very great, and, concerning the northern counties, more or less exhaustive. For many years, he published, in the local papers, an extended and interesting series of notes on scientific matters in the north, which not only contributed to popular instruction when these things were greatly despised and generally unknown, but which should be of permanent value.

For some time, Mr. Taylor cultivated the farm of Allanvale, near the bridge of Dee, on which his ancestors had dwelt for nigh three hundred years, and which is now included in the Duthie Park, recently munificently gifted to the city of Aberdeen.

In 1874, he removed to Clashfarquhar, not far from Portlethen, about ten miles south of Aberdeen, on the estate there belonging to the University, for which he undertook its management. Amidst his hard and varied agricultural labours, he still cultivates science with enthusiasm. He keeps fully abreast of its rapid progress, and has been an active member of the Natural History, Microscopic, and other societies in Aberdeen, to which he has from time to time contributed a host of papers.

Mr. Taylor used often to meet John Duncan at Raeden, where he also visited Charles Black, and since then he has ever remained one of his most attached and appreciative friends. John became a regular visitor at his house at Allanvale, called before his time Scrapehard. [Mr. Taylor named it Allanvale after the proprietor, Col. Allan.] The house was then a small cottage, comfortable but confined, now only represented by two willow trees that grew near and a mineral well close by, once much frequented by the Aberdonians. Mr. Taylor was of great assistance to Duncan in the earlier years of his botanical studies. John never came to see him at Allanvale without a large gathering of new or difficult plants, which he wished to show or get his friend's assistance in deciphering. All these had to be carefully examined, identified and named, and Mr. Taylor was often exhausted by the protracted work involved, while John seemed eager and receptive as at first. When the more lengthy technicalities were told him, he would say, "I winna mind a' thae names; let's hear that ane again." He would solve the difficulty by taking out a slip of paper and asking it to be written down, and pronounced again and again while he carefully looked and repeated it; often concluding with some bit of practical psychology, as "ye see, the mind winna keep a' thing." But, as Mr. Taylor says, John's "memory and identification of plants and names were always strong;" though strange technical and foreign words were difficult to him, as to most.

Mr. Taylor watched John's gradual and sure progress in the science, and has a high opinion of his knowledge of plants and of the general flora of Scotland. They used to assist each other in discovering new species and new stations, informing each other of these when found, gathering for each and making exchanges, as all true lovers of plants delight to do. Thus John, for instance, brought Mr. Taylor the Rest Harrow (Ononis arvensis) when he first found it at Oldtown of Leochel, about a hundred yards from the farmhouse, the first specimen his friend had seen from a station so inland and elevated or from that district. [See p. 225. Duncan also got it at vIamsel of Monymusk.]

Mr. Taylor recalls the time when John, having greatly conquered the common plants, began the more difficult Carices or rushes, willows, and grasses, and, about 186o, the still more occult cryptogamic plants ; and he admired the remarkable ardour with which John prosecuted the study of all these thorny departments of the subject. Mr. Taylor was deeply impressed, if not astonished, at his growing mastery of Botany, for John groped his slow but steady and irresistible way amidst difficulties very few have had to cncounter. As he says, "John's love of plants, his struggles, and his own characteristic ways of doing his botanical work were of no common type." Mr. Taylor's yearly return from the Polar seas, during the five years he went thither, was an event always earnestly looked forward to by his old. friend, in order that he might inspect the new and strange treasures he brought back; duplicates of the plants being always gladly presented to him, and delightedly received and added to the herbarium at Droughsburn.

Mr. Taylor went occasionally to the Vale of Alford to see John and his plants. He accompanied Dr. Sutherland [Dr. Sutherland, who was a promising scientist, afterwards entered the service of the Oriental Steam Navigation Co., and died young, in South Africa.] —a young Aberdeen physician, and an earnest botanist, who wrote several articles on the subject—when he traversed the region, gathering materials for the new edition of Dr. Dickie's "Flora" of i86o. Sutherland had heard of Duncan through Mr. Taylor, and the two friends called at Droughsburn, got many new localities from Duncan, afterwards embodied in the book, and visited several of the habitats of the rarer species under John's guidance. A letter from Mr. Taylor in i8 5 still exists, preserved by John, giving a long list of plants he wished John to bring him, including grasses and ferns, and telling him, to cheer the enthusiast, that Botany was thriving at that time among young men. Mr. Taylor has many reminiscences of the old man and his studies and difficulties, which have been utilised in the present history.

One day he gave John specimens of a species since famous for investigations into their carnivorous powers, the rarer Spathulate and Great English Sundew (Drosera inter-media and Anglica), which he did not then possess. When he did so, he told him of a still rarer find then recently made by Mr. John Sim (a capital general and cryptogamic botanist, now of Gateside, in Strachan), the Limestone Polypody (Polypodium calcareum), or Rigid three-branched Polypody, a rare fern almost confined to limestone regions, and requiring a calcareous soil, as its name shows. Mr. Sim had discovered it in an old limestone quarry opposite the gate of Scotston, in Aberdeenshire, where he was then farmer and gardener. As Mr. Taylor had but a single specimen, he could not give one to John, but he described its locality. John left the house, and returned the same evening with the plant in his possession, having at once set out for the spot, some ten miles off. He had found the quarry and its rare inhabitant, and returned with it in joyous triumph, as he had often done before. John had a remarkable facility, his friend observes, even in his advanced years, of discovering plants under unlikely circumstances, when he once went in search of them.

After Mr. Taylor's removal to Clashfarquhar, in 1874, John visited him twice, old as he was. As letter-writing became more and more irksome in his later years, he generally came unannounced. His last visit was paid in June, 1877, in his eighty-fourth year. At Aberdeen, he asked the guard to put him out at Portlethen Station, which was kindly done. The station-master directed him to the farm, about two miles distant, near the coast. He walked so far on the way, when, coming to a cottage which resembled the old residence at Allanvale, he entered it and sat down, saying, "Ay, ay, I hae come mair than forty years to this hoose, but I winna come lang noo!" Poor old body! he had then become occasionally absent-minded, especially when in any way exhausted. When the woman of the house spoke to him, he recalled himself and rose up, exclaiming, "I doobt I'm wrang." He showed her a letter of Mr. Taylor's, and asked her to point out his farm. She did this very kindly, and the old man went resolutely but feebly on his way. When he came near Clashfarquhar, which it requires some little geography to reach by the by-roads that approach it, he was espied by one of the children, who knew him and ran home to tell her mother. He soon entered the house, holding his hat in one hand, the letter in the other, and some plants under his arm. Seeing the kindly beaming face of his hostess, who went to welcome him, he sat down, completely overpowered; gratefully exclaiming, "I'm at hame nooI" This was in the low-roofed, thatched cottage, now deserted for the finer house since erected.

After getting some refreshment, Mr. Taylor not being then at home, the keen old man could not rest, but wished to see the new country in which he was. Mrs. Taylor took him round the farm. He was proud to see them in such a large holding, and described the nature of the soil and what crops it was likely to produce. He then walked some distance to the shore alone, and returned with a bunch of flowers he had picked up, saying he was "clean deen." Mrs. Taylor induced him to retire to rest for two hours, after which he rose much refreshed.

During his visit, he accompanied Mr. Taylor along the bold rocky coast, which here rises above the boiling surf far below in splendid cliffs and caves, jutting capes and isolated stacks, that exhibit the grandest scenery. It recalled to John his own boyhood, and similar scenes round dear, unforgotten Dunnottar. Old as he was, he could still stand above the beetling precipices without fear, and walk along the narrow footpaths that skirted their crests which, to unaccustomed eyes, it requires a steady nerve to do; though he could not now venture down to their base, as he would once have done. Mr. Taylor took him to the Burn of Daff, to see a rare Scottish species new to John, the Sea Wormwood (Artemisia maritima), which he had discovered in 1875. [He had previously found it, in 1862, at the only other spot where it grows in that neighbourhood—on the burn sides near the village of Cove to the north.] He also showed him, amongst others, the Frog Orchis (Habenaria viridis), along the shore near Downies. This is a picturesque fishing village lying between Clashfarquhar and the sea, which also recalled John's early memories of Stonehaven and Cowie and their interesting people.

For the aged traveller, who however walked astonishingly well for his years, the distance was too far to go north to the other fishing villages of Portlethen, and Findon locally called "Finnan," whose name is known, all the country over, from its excellent smoked haddocks. These are prepared in all the villages along this wild coast, off which the fish are caught by the brave and hardy fishermen. The old botanist returned to his friend's house, delighted and strengthened by all he had seen; and he left the next day, "much improved," as he said, by his pleasant visit.

After John Taylor, his young Alford disciple, had removed to Aberdeen, John used regularly to visit him, to encourage him in his studies and get details of his progress and discoveries. The plants gathered by the young botanist were always carefully examined, and their localities noted, Duncan directing him to spots where he had found certain species. When John heard of others new to himself, he was sure to visit the place and return to his young friend's room in the evening with a specimen. There he was refreshed by needed rest and a cup of tea. Mr. Taylor's employment then led him at intervals into the north of England, where he gathered plants, returning to Aberdeen, like John, with an interesting bundle of new species. These were eagerly examined by the old man, who got duplicates, while he was entertained by accounts of the country and the people, which recalled his own wanderings in the same regions.

Amongst those whom John visited in Aberdeen was the late Dr. Dickie, Professor of Botany, whose work on the Aberdeen flora had been of such eminent service to him and Charles Black. He first called upon him regarding some plants, shortly after he began Botany, and was very kindly received, and asked to return when he came to town. John always did this if he had anything rare or difficult to show or consult about. He frequently took tea with the kindly professor, mentioning this with special gratification. He received gifts of botanical works from him; amongst others, "Lindley's School Botany," which he used to show to friends with some pride; for appreciation of his solitary studies was most grateful to the quiet man, by whomever bestowed, and it was all the sweeter from an acknowledged master of the science. John also brought the Doctor specimens of all his rarer discoveries.


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