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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXIV - The Author's First Visit to Droughsburn


FROM what I had heard of Duncan from Charles Black, whom I had known intimately for years, I conceived a strong desire to visit the old man and make his personal acquaintance.

Though too long prevented from gratifying my wish, in September, 1877, I saw the Vale of Alford for the first time. In company with a friend, the Rev. Thomas Bell, the minister of Keig, a botanist and entomologist, and a guest of his, the Rev. Mr. Johnstone, of Stranraer, I paid John the long-desired visit. Mr. Bell had called on him before, and was greatly interested in the man. I was quite unknown to him even by name, and my coming was altogether unexpected. On account of his sensitive reserve, only the minister of Keig and myself entered the workshop at first. We found him seated alone at his loom, in the streaming sunlight, behind the gauzy screen of threads and sticks, and busy with his shuttle as it made its merry music. The aged weaver, thus all-unconscious of our entry, formed a picturesque sight that would have made a pretty composition in lights and shadows. That one glance fulfilled the hope of years and raised the liveliest anticipations. After finding his way with some difficulty up the narrow passage between the looms and the winding-wheels, the clergyman advanced towards John, gave him friendly greeting, and introduced me as one who had come a long distance to see him. He looked very old, and well he might, for he had entered his eighty-third year, and his vigour, remarkable though it had been, had now largely abated. His head was uncovered, and we could see that it was not yet bald, the hair, only a little mixed with grey, falling from the crown all round and hanging over the brow. At once he ceased his weaving, and replied to the minister with evident pleasure, excusing himself for not returning his last visit, on account of the recent bad weather. The presence of a stranger seemed to create some shyness, as he turned to say that he was glad to see me ; but the mention of his friend, Charles Black, at once stirred a pleasure that raised a bright smile and lighted up his eye and countenance. That name had evidently struck a deep chord and wakened distant memories, for he was silent and absorbed for a little; but it charmed away at once and for ever his constitutional reserve. We soon got into active conversation, as I told him of Charles and his many tales of their past lives, and my own long wish to see a man so great a student of plants and so dear to one I so much esteemed.

After talking for some time, he returned to his loom, according to his custom, to reflect in silence on what he had heard, and to save time, for he generally talked to his friends amidst the clatter of the shuttle. He worked slowly, but with great regularity, earnestly watching the progress of the web and scanning the threads to notice any defects as it grew under his hands. Old as he was, he was "gleg o' the e'e," [Quick-sighted and keen, applied to any of the senses, but chiefly to sight.] as he said, and seemed to miss nothing; for all at once he caught an error in the warp, leant forward over the beam, put his head and arms through the cords, and tied the break with smartness and success. His hands were withered and wrinkled, the fingers bent, and the joints thick and knotted with long tying of threads and digging of plants. It was astonishing, for a man above eighty, how well he did that trying work.

By-and-by the third visitor was introduced. His entrance seemed for a little to cause a return of his natural shyness, for John shortly turned again to his web. He felt no doubt as if he were being interviewed, but the sunny countenance and pleasant humour of the new-comer speedily put him at his case.

Pointing to the "pirn" wheel, which stood opposite the loom where he was working, I asked, "Who fills your `pirns' for you, John?"

"Ow, I dee't mysel'! " said he, with some surprise at the question.

"Dear me!" said I, for it is not usual for the weaver to do this work; "is there no woman to do it for you?"

"Na, na!" replied he, "no, for this mony a year. Besides, I dinna need their help, and I manage awa' bravely mysel'; so that I am independent o' them. I like to be independent," said the little man, and his voice and look told this better than words.

"And do you wind your own warp too?" continued I, turning to the tall warping machine t that stood opposite his loom.

"Ay, ay! " said he briskly; "I do the hale thing mysel' frae beginnin' to end. I get the spun threed frae the women that employ me, that's a'; and frae that I manage a' the lave wi' my ain hands, till it's made into claith and ta'en hame ready for use. Ye see, sir," he went on, "when I becam' a weyver, I made up my mind to be ane, and to maister the hale affair—and I did it; and tho' I say't mysel', fyow cu'd beat me." There the old man revealed the stuff that had carried him through his hard life and harder studies.

As we were pushed for time, we expressed a wish to see his collection of plants. John rose with alacrity, and went to the other end of the room, near the open door, which shed there a much needed gleam; for the small dim panes, overshadowed with trees, admitted only a diminished light, except where the sun shone directly on the loom. When he stood up, he appeared exceedingly round-shouldered and bent, the effects of years and the stooping required by his work and studies. He was clad in moleskin trousers and vest with sleeves, without a coat, and with a coloured napkin loosely tied round his neck. He wore the usual small white apron of the weaver.

At the end of the room near the door, stood his boxes and chests and parts of old looms, and on the top of these lay a mass of papers and some books. These papers contained dried plants. They were sadly covered with dust and "stoor," and had evidently not been moved for some time. The plants were contained in rough, home-made foolscap volumes of white and brown paper and newspapers. I opened several of the books, while we all looked on. The specimens were laid down in the usual manner on the front of each page, but they had been much disturbed, and sadly showed the extensive ravages of moths. When I crushed some of these destroyers with an expression of annoyance, he remarked, "Weel, weel, it's a peety, but I canna keep them clean noo, as I ance did, I can tell you. But," added he, with a quiet smile, "they were ance leevin', the puir things"—referring to the plants —"and they're leavin' again, ye see!" thus hiding his pain at the loss of his treasures behind a touch of humour. But they could scarcely have been other than wasted, even in better circumstances for preservation, for many of these plants had been gathered by him forty years before.

I was so saddened and disappointed at the sight of what I had looked forward to see with keen anticipation as a rare and valuable collection, that I could not continue the inspection, and asked if these were all; hoping that they were but duplicates and waste specimens, and that the best were still to come. [I found afterwards that we only saw a small part of his better herbarium containing the specimens now in Marischall College, which he never opened out unless there was ample time to examine it.]

Key in hand, he opened one of the chests close by the door and revealed a more cheering sight—a large number of books in very good condition. The under side of the lid exhibited the coloured pictures and printed matter he had pasted there to brighten the box and increase his pleasure when he consulted his library, herein partly contained. After turning over several books, at which we casually glanced, he produced two parcels carefully wrapped up in paper and tied with many strings. One of them enclosed a good and pretty large collection of the Grasses, in a book well bound in canvas and interleaved with blotting paper. The plants were fastened by cross strips of paper to each page with all the care of a practised hand, and duly inscribed with their technical names. The whole volume was neat, clean and carefully preserved, and the plants were classed according to order and species. The other parcel comprised the general wild plants of the neighbourhood, scientifically arranged and pressed with like care and neatness. These were the collections prepared for the Alford Horticultural Show in 1871. He showed them with quiet pride, and had kept the tickets announcing the honour then achieved. Our praise of these collections raised the old man's spirits, somewhat depressed, as ours also had been, at the state of the other plants, and greatly gratified him. New animation seemed to inspire him, and his face wore a brighter and more youthful expression that was pleasant to see. After the general misunderstanding under which he had lived all his life, the presence of sympathetic spirits, students of his favourite subject, and the praise of admiring eyes, were like water in the waste to the thirsty wanderer. The carefulness with which he handled these finer plants was very great. Though I turned them over with all tenderness, he could not restrain himself from nervously saying more than once, "Tak' `tent' noo; tak' 'tent.' ["Tent" means attention and care, and is derived from the same root as attention, tendo, to stretch.] See ye dinna hort them!" as he bent keenly over me, while I turned the leaves.

"But that's no a'," he said, after we had finished looking at these two volumes. He then lifted some other books from the chest, till he came to a larger parcel, which he ,delivered into my hands, with animated countenance, saying, "Look there noo, and see fat's there!" We had no notion of what was within, but John's proud bearing and beaming countenance raised our expectations.

I unloosed the string that bound it, unwrapped the paper, and found a similar string and wrapper inside. This I untied and uncovered, and again a third string and wrapper appeared. Once more untying and unfolding, I only exposed a similar protection within. "Dear me, John!" exclaimed I, "what have you here? Is it your silver plate, or a grand presentation, or what is it?" "Oo, just gang on," replied John, "and ye'll ken in due time!" He evidently enjoyed the lengthened process of revealing the mystery, and chuckled to himself with a growing humorous glee. After the fifth cord and wrapper had been removed, there was revealed—a book! It was manifestly a favourite with John, and must enclose something better and rarerthan we had yet seen. And it did. It was a collection of the Cryptobamia of the district, the obscure mosses and their allies, one of the hardest sections of the botanical field for any one to decipher, however expert and skilful.

As our Galloway friend remarked, the book was certainly well named Cryptogamia, for it was hidden as in a crypt, fold within fold, and buried under many a tome deep down in the bottom of a chest! John enjoyed the joke with evident relish, and still more our spontaneous and unrestrained expressions of surprise when we opened the -volume and saw what it contained. It was a victory to the dear old man to gain such rare praise from appreciative students of the flowers, as sweet in its way as when he first discovered the Li;rnaw. Was it vanity or childishness Lobe so elated over so small a matter? God send us all such vanity and simplicity!

The plants had been carefully pressed and neatly fastened on and named, and were scented with camphor to preserve them from the moths. We were truly surprised how an old man, his study of the cryptogams being recent, had been able to make out such obscure species; for they require the most minute and even microscopic examination. They certainly formed no mean monument of his enthusiasm and of his love and knowledge of the science. [John used to say truly that the llieracia, the Hawkweeds, and the Salicaceo, the Willows, were "eneuch to fleg a young botanist."" The Cryptogamnia might have "flegged" one so aged.] The precious collection was sympathetically examined and then closed, as carefully covered with its multitudinous wrappings, and then restored to its old hiding-place in the bottom of the box, below its protecting companions.

Our time had now expired, and leaving John to put away the books, we turned to say good-bye in the doorway. But the old man would not permit us to depart so coldly, but, with the true feeling of the worthy host and gentleman, conducted us, bare-headed as he was, to the gate at the bottom of the garden; and, cordially shaking hands with us all and thanking us for the visit, which he said he had enjoyed, he bade us good night.

On the following day, I made my way alone once more to Droughsburn. The weather was fine, the Leochel flowed down its quiet valley in the bright sunlight amidst the ripening corn, and the retired nook where John lived, with its willows and rowans, seemed more removed from the outer world than before. I found him outside in his own little plot, bare-headed and bent but hale and bright, having come out for a rest from toil, for nothing cheered and restored him like the flowers. The enclosing dike was crested with honeysuckle in bright blossom and sweetest scent; and the Woody Nightshade, with its lurid flower, rose prominent above the rest. John gave me cordial welcome and a warm shake of the hand, and seemed in excellent but quiet spirits. After some remarks on the plants, we entered his house, and seated ourselves opposite each other between the two looms. He placed himself with his back to the front windows, through which the sunbeams streamed and prettily touched his head and eager, intelligent face. He was brighter and more communicative than on the previous day. My relations with his bosom friend, Charles, had evidently opened to me his solitary and silent heart, and I enjoyed the glow created by memory and friendship.

As he sat, he told me in considerable detail, amongst other things, the story of Linnmus, suggested by some subject we had mentioned, characterising him as "a gran' chiel, [Or chield, a young man, often used with endearment. Pronounced cheel or cheeld; the same word, likely, as the English childe, as in "Childe Harold." It occurs frequently in the old ballads.] an awfu' clever man, wha had to fecht his way up frae naething, for they were to mak' 'im a shoemakker." Thus, in delightful Doric, which somehow sounded strange regarding one so associated with bristling technicalities, he told of the early struggles of the great Swede—his going to college, assisted by "a kind and bonnie lass," to whom "the only return he cu'd mak' was by-and-by to mar'y 'er ; " his journey to Lapland; and his afterwards rising to dignity and renown.

"Do you not feel lonely," I asked, "thus living by yourself, your family gone, and Charles so far away?"

"Na," said he, "only noos and naps. ["Nows and thens," the English "now and then."] Ye see, I hae my newspaper, for I aye get that, and my books; and there's aye the bonnie floo'rs to look at. Oo na! I'm no lanely!"

"Do you ever get tired, working so hard, now that you are getting so old?"

"Some," said he. "But then I just rise and gang aboot a bit, and oot to the gairden to see the floo'rs for a wee. And a body, ye ken, maun just begin again!" continued he, with cheerful practical philosophy; "but I aye likit to wirk."

We continued our talk on many topics mentioned by me and suggested by incidents and associations as they occurred. He discoursed pleasantly and fluently—of God's use of poisonous plants for the cure of diseases; of the most useful of plants, the potato, belonging to the dangerous order of the Deadly Nightshade; of his own medical practice by use of herbs, and of the successes he had had with them in his own and others' experience; of the Loch of Drum, and his dangerous adventure there; of his searching for the Bladderwort in Tillyfourie Moss; of his methods of learning and remembering the difficult technical words in Botany; and similar bits of science and reminiscence, described in capital Scotch, and seasoned and .illustrated with apt saw or sentiment from his rich "proverbial philosophy." When I told him anything that greatly surprised him, he burst out in simple tones of wonderment, exclaiming, "Od be here, man! Ye dinna say sae?"

As we thus sat talking, the bright sun was shining outside and streaming pleasantly through the cords and beams of the loom. I wished much to get John out into the field, that I might see more of his habits and let the flowers do their office of suggestion, and I proposed that we should take a walk. He was ready at once to go, and was evidently willing to devote the day to me, as, certainly, I was to him. He rose, put on his broad bonnet, and, shutting the door of his dwelling, staff in hand, he led the way up the hill behind the house. He walked at a smart pace, with short steps, leaning forwards on his staff, which was put down on the ground with each foot, being apparently required to support him. The way was rough, there being no proper path except the field or dike side, but he would not accept any assistance even in difficult places, as when getting over the dike, climbing fences, or pushing through the tall broom on the steep hill slope. "Na, na, I dinna need ony help, sir, thank you. I can manage awa fine." Yet, tottering as they seemed, his steps, though short, were firm and smart, and he moved onwards at a good rate. He could still take long journeys, going, for instance, some four miles over hill to church, which he still attended very regularly; and undertaking to visit my friend, the minister of Keig, next summer, a promise which involved some sixteen miles of a walk! "I only need a little time noo, ye see," he explained. "I ance didna, for I was a smart walker i' my day, and can do something till't yet. Mony a fit I hae gane, I can tell ye."

He led me first to a quarry of twisted Silurian slate; there largely developed; for in the valley of the Leochel, we were west of the granite upheaval of Alford and Benachie. We then ascended to one of the prehistoric cairns so common in the north. It was circular and some twelve yards in diameter, once surrounded with tall standing stones, some of which still remained, and covered with sloe bushes and vegetation—known as " the Captain's Cairn." John told me that the cairn was once high and large, but, with much indignation, that the stones had been removed to build the factor's dikes--a not unusual fate for such antiquities during the blind Vandal period of our history, scarcely yet gone by. He gave the usual local explanation of such remains, that some great captain or chief had died in a great battle that took place there. Rising through wet bog and tall broom and whin, which completely hid us from view, John led manfully upwards, though it was hard upon him. He would nevertheless move on alone, evidently believing, to the last, in "a stoot heart to a stey brae," [A steep brae Qr hill slope. From the Gaelic, and occurring in many names of places in the Highlands, as the Braes of Lochaber, of Portree, etc.] as he had always done in more things than in hill-climbing. The Grass of Parnassus catching his eye as it grew in the vet places of the hill, he called on me to look at "that bonnie snaw-white floorie!" in tones of truest appreciation as well as in words of correct description. When shown by me the backward movement of the sensitive stamens of the Rock Rose (Heliantlaemum vulgare) after the base of the style has been titillated, which is certainly very striking, he exclaimed, in childlike wonder, "Ay, man, ay! so it does! The cretur has sense!" He was exceedingly taken with the phenomenon, [This property, which he knew, as John Taylor informs me, he had forgot for the time. We have several British sensitives, with active and striking powers, such as this one ; the barberry stamens ; the open stigma of the mimulies, which smartly and firmly closes when touched, especially under sunlight; and the spurred spores of the horse-tail, which move like long-legged insects, as seen under low microscopic power.] and frequently repeated to himself, "Ay, man, ay! ay, ay!" as if pondering over the sight and its suggestive relations.

We climbed at length to "the croon o' the hill," where he wished me "to see the view." It certainly commanded a splendid prospect, looking down, on the one side, across the fine Vale of Alford, with Benachie at its far extremity; and on the other, away to the south, over a sea of rounded, rolling hills, like heaving waves on a calm day in mid-ocean, the taller peaks of the Grampians rising beyond, still adorned with gleaming patches of snow and surmounted by the fine top of Loch-na-gar. We rested there for some time, enjoying the far-stretching scene and the warm sunshine. He talked fluently of the various plants and places and features of the hill and landscape, which afforded him abundant matter for remark ; and I exceedingly enjoyed his interesting communications and picturesque speech.

Near the top of the hill, there is a shallow loch or marsh, where he had found some good water plants. He pointed out the site of a wood, now cut down, on the other side of the valley, just opposite, where he had discovered the rare Pyrola secuiada, or Serrated Winter-green.

That short saunter with the old man revealed him more than ever, and I enjoyed it immensely. I was delighted to see him out in the field, under the blue sky, and amidst the plants he had loved so long and so well. I felt how pleasant and instructive a companion he must have been in his younger days, when mind and body were full of his enthusiastic vigour.

We wandered slowly down the hill again towards the burn, he leading the way, and entered the cottage. We were welcomed by Mrs. Allanach, a striking-looking old dame, with abundant traces in face and figure of the tall, handsome and good-looking woman of earlier life, though now bent with rheumatism and needing a staff. The house was kept sweetly clean, both "but and ben," [In the kitchen and the better room, for there are but two in such cottages. The words are derived from be-out and be-in, the better room being reckoned the inmost one or sanctuary.] by the youngest daughter, a growing pretty girl, active and bright-smiling, who bade fair to reproduce her mother's youth.

We sat in the cheerful kitchen chatting for some time with the vigorous old lady, who is a splendid talker in first-rate Scotch, while the young housekeeper prepared a meal for us in "the best room." Mrs. Allanach told me that the last year had made a "terrible odds " on John, and that he was now not like the same man, as if natural decay were rapidly beginning to tell upon him. She was sorry I had not seen and known him in his more active years. At length, John and I retired to "the other end," where a homely but substantial meal was neatly laid down on a snowy cloth, consisting chiefly of the home produce of the field and the byre. We did full justice to the viands after our appetising walk, seasoning our rustic meal with "smooth discourse and joyous thought."

After finishing, we once more entered his own room and went over his books, which I wished much to see, and which he was justly proud to show.

The day had passed with a strange speed to me, and, as evening was now drawing nigh and I had a long way to return, I was reluctantly obliged to go. Staff in hand, he accompanied me down the burn, that sang its evensong beneath the cress and scented mint, and along the highway some distance towards Alford. The sunshine was bright and warm, and the valley of the Leochel was filled with a calm sunset light, as we walked on together, pursuing the pleasant talk that had winged the hours with such delight to me and happiness to him. I told him how I had enjoyed the time I had spent with him; how it had realised a happiness I had looked forward to for years; and how, seeing he looked so well, I hoped ere long to come again to Droughsburn, before he passed to his long home. I told him that I should write his friend, Charles, of my visit and all I had seen and heard. This visibly affected him, and touched a chord that trembled on his lip and gave a pearly-brightness to his eye. He assured me that he had enjoyed the day, and would remember it, for he now had few to visit him, and fewer to understand and sympathise with his pursuits; and he sent his best remembrances and many messages to Charles. We shook hands, warmly and parted. I went back to the outer world of work, and he returned to his solitary labour and study and contentment, in that retired hollow among the hills.


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