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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXVI - John's Herbarium presented to Aberdeen University


DUNCAN'S extensive collection of plants still lay decaying and useless in the old weaving shop at Droughsburn. The most of his specimens he had already named; but the localities, widely scattered, had never been affixed. These he knew himself with his remarkable memory, and many of them had been taken note of by John Taylor during his, frequent visits. It had often occurred to his botanical friends to have the now rapidly deteriorating gatherings carefully examined, and fully named and localised, while his now failing memory could be relied on. It was a great and difficult task, involving much time, patience, and care, as well as technical knowledge. It could not be successfully carried out by any outsider, however capable and willing: for the silent man would reveal nothing except to one in close and sympathetic intimacy; much less would he allow any but such a friend to touch them. Always jealous of the least interference with them by any hands, however tender and knowing, except his own, he was now more careful than ever that they should be violated by no one, unless under his own eye and direction. They were truly dearer to the fading botanist than the prized hoard of the veriest miser.

Happily, however, amongst his friends there were more than one that possessed the requisite intimacy, and knowledge as well as will, for the delicate, difficult and long-continued work. His friend James Taylor, of Clashfarquhar, at last determined that it should be done, having already gradually approached the shy old student on the subject. It was not an easy thing to manage, for the proposal was associated, not only with an upturning of all his receptacles, but with a confession of decay and near decease which his unusual vitality and keenness made painful, even when he was far above fourscore. In 1880, Mr. Taylor determined to act before it should be too late, and wrote to John to that effect. He had also sounded him on the wisdom of presenting them to the Aberdeen University, as both a fitting and honourable memento of his own long devotion to science and an incentive to others to taste its undying joys. This idea pleased the old man vastly. As he had abundantly shown, nothing gave him more pleasure all through life than to extend the number of the lovers and students of science ; and this would be a very good means of doing so, which he hoped would be more fruitful of good result than had been his own endeavours. James Taylor communicated his ideas to John M. B. Taylor; and among all John Duncan's friends and disciples there was none with the necessary knowledge who would be more willing to give the time and trouble required for the work. To John Taylor, it would truly be a labour of love, for the sake of the man, the plants and the science.

On the 17th of April of that year, the two friends paid a visit to Droughsburn, where they found the old man pretty vigorous in mind and body, and happy at seeing them. During that and the following days, the whole of the gatherings of nigh fifty years were brought to light from all the recesses and chests in the old shop, and not a few of them for the first time for many years. These researches showed an immense accumulation of botanical materials, but also sad inroads, by moth and decay, on even the finest and rarest specimens. It was, however, truly surprising how well preserved they had remained as a whole, considering their age and the confined and unpromising circumstances under which they had been kept so long. It was found that, when properly selected and arranged, they would form a collection not unworthy of the knowledge and enthusiasm that had gathered them, and the University to which they would be presented. His friends expressed their gratification to the old botanist, and thus increased his joy, which he expressed in a way childlike in its reality and beautiful to see.

James Taylor returned home that evening, after seeing all things put in order for their transfer. John was too exhausted with the labours and excitements of the day to accompany his friend along the burn side, but deputed that office to the younger man. John shook hands warmly with his guest in the doorway, being evidently much affected; and they parted for what proved to be the last time. John then lay down to rest, and rose refreshed when John Taylor returned from seeing his friend off to Aberdeen. After entering the shop, where John received him, he was surprised and touched when the old man went to one of his chests, and taking his copy of Dickic's "Flora," impressively handed it to him, in a way that conveyed more than his words, saying: "There, Johnnie, I'm to gee ye that. See that ye'll get on noo. Ye ken Botany, and ye're noo to tak' my place." His young friend was much moved. He received the volume as a proof of a friendship he prized and the highest incitement to further study, and gave his aged tutor the desired pledge. It was one of those moments in a man's history that live for ever in the memory and heart, and deeply sway the after life, as the young man strongly felt.

John Taylor remained at Droughsburn for three days more, gathering together the whole collection and adding to the names and localities, which his use of short-hand enabled him to do with rapidity. Old John felt the greatest pleasure in getting the herbarium gathered and packed up for transport, and in thinking of its destination and future influence, even although it involved parting with the treasured possessions of half a century.

His gift of the plants to the University, though tinged with the sadness of parting and the decay and death it signified, was a spontaneous, free-will offering for the sake of his beloved study, made without one thought of reward or even desire of praise. He frequently spoke of the gratification it gave him to think of the use they would be to the students; that "they micht see them and ken them," and thus be induced, more of them, to love the wild flowers and study the science that described them. During their examination, the sight of many of them recalled dear memories, which roused latent humour, stirred old merriment, and also struck long-silent chords of sorrow. Amongst others, when the leaf of the water-lily was turned up, he again referred to the day of danger in the Loch of Drum, where he nearly lost his life—an incident which seems to have made a lasting impression on the man, as it was calculated to do, and which he mentioned to me again some time before his death.

When they were all finally bound up and packed carefully in a great corn-sack, which they filled, he looked proud of their bulk, and referred merrily to the burden they would be to John Taylor to get them to Aberdeen. They recalled, he said, a similar burden of plants which formed the herbarium of Dr. Murray, [Dr. Murray was once a medical practitioner in Alford, near which he lived, at Smithyhill, and seems to have been a man in many respects much before his time. He was imbued with a pure love of science, especially Botany, and his "Northern Flora" was a praiseworthy effort to catalogue the plants of the north of Scotland at an early date. His memory is still warmly cherished in the Vale, where stories are told of his scientific enthusiasm. His herbarium, which was examined by Dr. Dickie, was bought at his death in 1837, by the Haddo House gardener, who afterwards went to Australia, but it has since been lost sight of. Can any one throw light on its history? A short account of Dr. Murray in the Aberdeen Herald, from the pen of his friend, Dr. Templeton, of Aberdeen, was all that appeared of this uncommon man and scientist.] author of "Northern Flora;" when, after his death in 1837, they were borne by the carrier to Haddo House, where the gardener then lived who had purchased them.

During these days, he went over his books with Mr. Taylor, and also his letters, pointing out where they were, in view of his decease. Uncovering his grey hairs, he spoke solemnly of his death and his desire to be buried in Alford with a decent funeral. He made his friend promise, if possible, "to put some queer stane on his head," to mark the spot where he should be laid; and he indicated one of a species of volcanic boulders, widely scattered over the district, locally known as "heathens." [These boulders are of a special kind of diorite, containing, as Mr. J. S. G. Wilson, of the Geological Survey, informs me, in addition to the usual constituents, another mineral not yet determined. They form a remarkable stream in Aberdeenshire, stretching from their parent source in the Highlands of Glen Bucket. Such stones are so called because found on the wild heath. From the same word, we have heather, the heath plant; and the heathen, as remaining pagan in the wilder country after the towns were Christianised.] This was the only desire for fame, posthumous though it would be, John had ever spontaneously expressed. The wish thus uttered by him to have an honourable grave, even in his poverty, was at once natural, simple and pardonable, and it is common amongst the very poorest everywhere, and not least in Scotland; as in the case of Widow Smith in "Jonas Fisher," ["Jonas Fisher: a Poem in Brown and White," by the Earl of Southesk. A remarkable book, traversing a great part of the religious and social problems of the day.] who would have died in perfect peace but for one thought that vexed her mind—to have, if it were His will, "a decent funeral." Like her, John Duncan

"Wanted neither help nor food,
But one thing his whole heart did crave:
That, saved from pauper's lot, his corpse
Might rest within a decent grave."

John also presented his friend with some other volumes in memory of the giver, saying, "I hae had my day o' them," and he accompanied the gift with his best counsels and dying blessing as from a father to a son, which intellectually and morally he had been. He advised him, with special emphasis, to continue and extend his study of Nature, which had been fraught to himself with so much blessing; for he had been able above many

"To recognize,
In Nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of our purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of our hearts, and soul
Of all our moral being."

He also sent two volumes as a last gift to James Taylor.

When John Taylor left, bearing the precious and heavy load of plants on his strong shoulders, John brightly called it "a gcy bir'n," as he viewed it with sparkling pleasure, subdued by sadness. The old man accompanied him to the stile, staff in hand, as in the old days, though without the old vitality. He then shook hands with him three times in succession, with a look and pressure of deep emotion, and then turned away in silence and with a full heart.

It took John Taylor all his leisure till December to complete the selecting, arranging, localising, cleaning, and cataloguing of the immense collection. The specimens had been classed and named by John according to the Linnĉan system, to which he adhered throughout. Mr. Taylor re-arranged them and made a list of the whole according to the Natural System also. It was a very laborious piece of work, which could only have been done by one who viewed it really as a loving labour.

John Taylor reports that of the 1428 species that form the flora of Scotland and England, John's collection, dilapidated though it was, contained, when it came into his hands, 1131 specimens, and, of course, had once included many more, if not most; that John was familiar with most or all of the others; and that of the 65o species mentioned in Dickie's "Flora" as belonging to Aberdeen, Banff, and Kincardine, he wanted only a few specimens. A large number in his herbarium were utterly destroyed by moths and other agents, and others were so deteriorated that they were useless for preservation. After careful selection, as presented to the University, the collection contains some 750 species, divided as follows:-

1. A general collection of about 500 species, arranged according to the twenty-four classes of Linn2eus, including ferns, in various books.

2. A book containing an almost complete collection of species, about i 50, representing the flora of the Vale of Alford, many being rare.

3. A book of about 50 specimens of the grasses of the Alford district.

4. A book of about 5o specimens of the cryptogamic plants of the same district, chiefly mosses and lichens.

The first (1) was from his general collection, gradually decimated, by more than forty years' keeping in many cases, though added to as years rolled on. The two next were those shown at the Alford Horticultural Show in 1871. The fourth (4) was the collection he made the following year, which was then all named, but which he did not present for competition.

The dates of the specimens range from about 1836 or 1837, when he began Systematic Botany, till 1871. The books containing the general collection are formed chiefly of coarse grey or brown paper, parts of newspapers and blotting paper, all stitched in home-made covers, which are formed generally of sheets of paper pasted together. In examining them, it was found that the moths had done least damage to the plants kept in blotting paper, and slightly more to those in newspapers, but that the destruction was almost total in those preserved in thick grey paper. Tea paper, as used by grocers, John found a very good preservative, and be utilised it in his later collections, which are well laid down.

The old newspapers that enclosed his early gatherings are interesting memorials of the times in which he began botanising. The Aberdeen 7ouurnal frequently appears, from 1839 onwards. Here are some numbers of the llberdeen constitutional obtained from Charles Black, who took it out at Whitehouse, as a Conservative. - There is a copy of the Scotsman of 1840, price 4½d. This is a leaf of the Scottish wrist. That is a fragment of the memorable but fleeting notices of the day, containing a list of the opposers of intrusion in the Formartin district of Aberdeenshire, who pledged themselves to leave the Erastian church. And so on; each new page revealing glimpses of the past, civil and sacred, religious and social, and of the numerous movements, now matters of history, that characterised the middle of this century.

By the end of December, John Taylor had completed his labours on the herbarium, and steps were then taken for its presentation to the University of Aberdeen. This took place on the last day of 188o, Mr. James and Mr. John Taylor representing John Duncan; and Dr. James Trail Professor of Botany, the University. The herbarium was accepted by the professor, who, after examination, expressed a high opinion of its value, and deposited it for safe keeping and exhibition in the Natural History Museum of Marischal College. There it now lies, and there it is to be hoped it will long be preserved, as a very imperfect but not unworthy monument of botanical study and rare scientific enthusiasm in humble life; not only a means of practical instruction, but, from its unique history, a strong impulse for good, both scientific and moral, to every student that may have, the privilege of examining its widely-gathered contents.

Accounts of the presentation appeared in all the local and in some of the metropolitan papers, with a sketch of the botanist's life, written chiefly by John Taylor. Some of the local journals included a detailed list of the rarer species, drawn up by the same hand. The ceremony was certainly as unostentatious and simple as it well could have been. It was, nevertheless, quite in keeping with the character and studies of the man that had presented the collection. Surely it was one that meant more than met the eye.


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