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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXVII - Public Appeal made on his behalf, and its generous results


This presentation of the herbarium and the subsequent accounts of the man revealed the painful fact of his being a pauper. It was only then that I became positively assured of his depressing financial condition. At once, I prepared an appeal in his favour, which appeared on the 5th of January in the chief newspapers in Britain, and which was speedily transferred to others in all parts. In this appeal, notice was directed to the man as "one of those silent enthusiasts that are an honour to our country, earning daily bread by incessant toil, but filled with a pure love of nature and science, the joy of which had been its own reward; for, unlike many enthusiasts, he never let the flowers still the music of his shuttle." It was pointed out that he had pursued the study of science "amidst difficulties, discouragements, and trials more than common, with a beautiful devotion that had been as honourable as it was pure, telling the world nothing of his labours, and utterly unknown till dragged into notice in 1878." I also gave some particulars of his life and studies, and spoke of his accepting pauperism rather than the pain of making money by the sale of his beloved plants and books. I pointed out that "he then lived widowed, simple-minded, independent, pious, and happy, but, in absolute poverty, at last obliged to accept a pauper's dole;" and concluded with an appeal to the scientific and generous to help, at such a season, "with their superfluities, which to him would be abundance, to lift him above such pain and shame—heavy on an independent, sensitive heart—before he should pass away for ever, and we should be only able, instead of bread, to give him a stone."

The response was immediate and generous, subscriptions being spontaneously sent from all parts of the empire, including India. These gifts were still further increased after I gave an account of him in Nature, on the 10th of January. That scientific serial at once took up the case in the warmest way, solicited subscriptions, and, besides numerous sums sent direct, collected through its own office above 70.

Many of the chief journals also advocated the cause in the strongest terms. Amongst many others, the Times referred to him as "a remarkable Scotchman, whose knowledge of Botany was scientifically thorough and wonderfully wide;" and to his need of seeking parish relief, through sheer decay, as "peculiarly galling to one who had hitherto led 'so independent a life." The Pall Mall Gazette spoke of him as one who was "as remarkable in many respects for his devotion to the study of nature as either Edwards or Dick;" and as "a hard-working, spare-living man, who had denied himself every luxury save that of studying Botany;" and said that "to the appeal there ought to be a prompt and generous response." The Glasgow Evening Times, in an earnest, well-written leader, urged its readers to listen, "amidst the clatter of politics and the rush of business, to the world's still small voices, calls, and claims, many of which were too often allowed to utter themselves unheard, or, if heard, to remain unanswered," saying that this was a clamant example. It referred to his herbarium as "a noble work ... many a patent of nobility and many a pension having been conferred for a less valuable and less dignified piece of labour;" but it did not fear that "many a comforting message would be sent to the brave old botanist." The People's Journal, which is extensively read by the humbler classes all over Scotland, specially took up the case, declaring that it was "incumbent upon all who desired to honour worth of character and to reward work well done, to see at once that provision was made for the free-hearted donor of the herbarium, who had no thought of reaping any advantage when he presented it to the University."

Most of the subscriptions were accompanied with the kindest, most appreciative and, in many cases, very touching words of sympathy and admiration. Her Majesty sent "the poor man" a donation of 10, as having been "interested in his story and work." Several of the nobility subscribed; amongst others, the Duke of Argyle, who gave 10 saying that "the subscription ought to be zealously supported by all who are interested in the pursuits of science, and who honour the high moral and intellectual qualities for which John Duncan was so distinguished." The Dowager Lady Stanley of Alderley not only subscribed herself, but successfully brought the case before her numerous friends, recommending it to "the many who love science, and the still greater number who admire virtue." Many distinguished scientists contributed. Amongst these, were the late veteran, Charles Darwin, who wrote as "a fellow-botanist;" an eminent professor of Botany, as "an old botanist like himself," sending him the kindest of letters; another, as "a fellow-worker in natural science; and others in like strain—a distinguished emeritus professor in Aberdeen contributing " as an old weaver."

The words of kindness were warm, and as varied as the writers. One hoped "he might be spared for many years to enjoy, not charity, but the willing gifts of admiring although unknown friends;" another gave in "sympathy for the worthy veteran; "another contributed " in memory of a brother botanist and for Christ's sake;" anothc, "admired his steady, persevering industry as beyond all praise," and wished he were "a richer man to do more;" another sensibly " came to the conclusion that he was one to be helped as well as admired; "another thought "he had set a noble example of perseverance in the cause of science;" another was "thankful for the opportunity of contributing;" while still another "would like to see the good old man and shake his hand." Mrs. Alfred Morrison, of London, affected by "the touching story of the fine old man," of whose falling on the parish it was "piteous to think," sent 30 and the present of a handsome easy-chair to comfort his declining years.

Some of the letters were not a little curious. One benevolent lady, who was sorry to hear that one who was, like herself, a great lover of nature, was in want of aid, said, "he must promise to spend her gift in getting ten barrels of coals, a pair of warm blankets, some clothing, and the balance in good food." Another contributor sententiously observed that "if the prophets and others sent for our instruction are not now stoned, they are apt to be starved, even in this generation." Another gave five shillings "to keep the wolf from the door till once his position was known to the public, of whom none could have a poorer opinion than the writer; for whoever tries to uphold fallen humanity tries a most difficult task—hog won't eat hog, dog won't eat dog, but man will devour his fellow-man in true cannibal fashion;" and concluded by asking John to " read the thirty-seventh psalm, and to trust with implicit confidence in the Great 'I Am,' and when plenty comes in to supply your every want, as doubtless it -ill, thank God first and man next."

The manner in which some of the subscriptions were gathered was also interesting. Families interested in botany and the botanist united together in personal gifts, from the oldest to the youngest, as in Lord Claude Hamilton's. Some public works and offices joined in small subscriptions, which together became considerable, such as the Addiewell Chemical `Yorks. Aberdonians in several places sent joint presents to their countryman. One gentleman in Glasgow fastened one of the leader appeals to a sheet in his office, which drew many an unreluctant coin from his visitors. Other kindly hearts in various parts, near and distant, became generous beggars amongst their friends. Not a few who contributed large amounts desired to be nameless. One wrote from a sick bed, making suggestions for increased subscriptions, which happily, from the prompt fulness of the gifts, it was unnecessary to adopt. Several newspapers acted as recipients of moneys, the Aberdeen Tree Press and People's 'ournal being specially active.

Several societies took an earnest and praiseworthy part in increasing the fund and honouring the man. On the yth of January, the evening of the day when the appeal appeared in the Edinburgh papers, the annual meeting of the "Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine Association" took place, at which the case was advocated, and above 5 collected on the spot. In 1878, after the "Good Words" story appeared, the Largo Field Naturalists' Society, one of the most active and successful Field clubs in the country, at once elected John an honorary member—the first honour of the kind received by the old man, who was intensely ;ratified. After the appeal, it sent a handsome subscription to the fund, and watched its progress and appropriation with the greatest interest; Dr. Laing, of Newburgh, its indefatigable president, being greatly attracted by " the self-taught botanist," and delighted at this means of perpetuating his memory. The Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club also at once elected him an honorary member, with every expression of admiration and a donation of 5. The Banff Field Club speedily followed with the same honour and similar assistance. In February, the Edinburgh Naturalist's Field Club circulated an urgent appeal to the members, containing my letter to the Scotsman, which resulted in a substantial sum. The Ross-shire Educational Institute quickly subscribed above 3. In March, at the monthly meeting of the Aberdeen Natural History Society, Mr. John Taylor gave an interesting account of his scientific father, illustrated by the exhibition of his it nogman "or sun-watch, and the herbarium itself. On the motion of the president, Professor Struthers, supported by Mr. James Taylor, "as an old friend of thirty-five years," Duncan was cordially elected an honorary member, "as an honour to him, but still more an honour to themselves."

In all these endeavours to give deserved recognition to a man who, as Professor Struthers then said, had "cultivated science, working at the loom, with the Yes angusto domi pressing upon him," it is remarkable that the active Edinburgh Botanical Society did not join in bestowing honour on such a student of the science which it is one of its functions to foster. The veteran Professor Balfour, its founder in 1836, who took a warm interest in Duncan, at once brought the matter before the council of the society, with a view to his being elected; but his motion was overruled in his absence, on the curious plea that Duncan neither was a member of the Society nor had contributed to it by paper or otherwise! Such a rule would for ever preclude any society from honouring even the most distinguished; and, surely, the sooner it is rescinded, the better for the society and the science it represents. A still more surprising instance of silence, where the earliest and most active efforts might have been and were expected, as was publicly expressed at the time in local journals, with indignant astonishment, was that of the. University of Aberdeen, to which the herbarium had been generously and unconditionally gifted by the more than penniless student, but without one thought of fame or reward. But so it was and so has remained. Nothing has been said or done in the matter either by the Faculty most concerned, or by the Senatus that should have supplied its neglect.

These simple details are given as not only interesting to admirers of the humble and silent student, thus late but not reluctantly acknowledged by his fellow-men; but as showing that a sound heart does exist in humanity, notwithstanding its apparent callousness, amidst the over-eager race for power, pelf, and self-indulgence, and that it requires only to be fully informed and truly touched in a deserving cause, to well out into most substantial and generous sympathy. The appreciation of the honours thus bestowed, as felt by the old man himself, was simply inexpressible. They were valued a thousand times more than the comforts by which they were accompanied, and became a well-spring of quiet blessedness in his declining days and on his dying pillow, that it must charm every contributor to have had an opportunity of bestowing on such a susceptible, uncomplaining and grateful heart.

The subscriptions were chiefly sent through the author, but many were transmitted direct to their aged recipient himself. He was then, however, far too weak to attend to them, or even to sign the receipts ; and they were very kindly taken charge of by the Rev. James Gillan, parish minister of Alford. He acknowledged them all to their thoughtful donors, and was kindly indefatigable in everything connected with the decaying old man, as were also several others in the neighbourhood. In all, the handsome sum of above 320 was subscribed.

On receiving the first earnest of this pleasant harvest from admiring friends, steps were at once taken by Mr. Gillan and Mr. Reid, the kindly Poor Inspector, to increase John's personal comforts in the cottage, and to supply the more generous fare required for his increasing infirmities than the little he had ever allowed himself, even in his robust years. He was removed from the workshop, where he had slept till then, to the best room in the cottage. This apartment was lined with wood and otherwise improved, and a new bed was erected in it for his use, close by the fire. He was clothed in a new warm suit, the first he had received for fifty years; a comfortable arm-chair was purchased, and everything was done to add to his comfort that money could procure or kindly hearts suggest. His parochial dole at once ceased ; and the parish doctor, who had been attending him with all kindness, now became his personal feed physician, an uncounted joy to the late receiver of hated but helpful relief. His capable and kindly nurse, Mrs. Allanach, whose husband had been removed from her about a year before, and who had been attending him during his weakness for a very inadequate sum paid by the Board—larger, however, in the special circumstances of both, than was generally allowed—had her allowance suitably increased to a satisfactory amount. All debts due by John, before and since he had given up work, were fully discharged; and the old weaver sat in his own cosy chair, by his own bright fire, once, more a free and independent man, owing nothing, as he had done for fourscore years.

To prevent possible difficulty at his decease, or the unworthy dissipation of his estate, a Trust Deed was formally drawn up, disposing of his effects in detail, and trustees, present and permanent, were appointed. [The trustees are Robert O. Farquharson, Esq., of Haughton, near Alford, chairman of the School Board of Alford, and his successors in that office; the Rev. James Gillan, of the parish of Alford, and his successors; the Rev. William G. Brander, of the Free Church of Alford, and his successors; William Anderson, farmer, Wellhouse, near Alford; James Reid, Inspector of Poor for Alford; James Taylor, of Clashfarquhar; John Al. B. Taylor; and the author. The number of trustees never to be less than five.] The whole was duly signed by John on the 15th of April, and the deed registered and deposited in official keeping, the original in Edinburgh, and an extract in Inverness.

By this deed, the provisions of which were cordially concurred in by the old botanist and lover of nature and science, the whole sum that remained after his death, together with any other moneys realised from his effects, was to be invested, and the interest devoted, for all time, to the formation of a scholarship or scholarships, or, in the absolute discretion of the trustees, to the purchase of prizes, all to be called after his name, "for the encouragement of the study of Natural Science, especially Botany, among the youth, both boys and girls, of the parishes of Alford, Leochel-Cushnic, Tullynessle, Tough, and Keig," in the Vale of Alford. The trustees are empowered to fix "the amount and number of each scholarship, scholarships, or prizes, and the conditions, rules, and regulations on which they shall be awarded;" and, what is a wise provision, too frequently omitted in such educational endowments, "to alter, vary, or modify the same from time to time, as the trustees may think necessary for adapting them to growing improvements in education in the future, with a due regard to the purpose for which the scholarships or prizes are instituted."

In carrying out these most praiseworthy intentions of the deceased scientist, the trustees, at a meeting held immediately after the funeral, determined, at present and for some time to come, to devote the proceeds of the existing fund, which is above 200 to the foundation of annual prizes, offered to each of the schools in the above parishes—first, for the best collections of native plants in the district, gathered and named during the year by the candidates, male or female, in order to encourage practical botanising in the field; and, second, to the successful candidates after. examination on Botany, according to the three years' course laid down in the Specific Subjects of the "Revised Code" for Scotland, in order to encourage a theoretical study of the science.

It was further generously and wisely enacted in the Trust Deed, that John Duncan's large library of valuable scientific and other books should be made over to the parish of Alford, for the promotion of the same purposes in connection with science; and that their present custody be given to the Alford Mutual Improvement Association, and after it ceases to exist, to the School Board of the parish; a few books only being reserved, to be presented by the trustees as souvenirs to intimate friends.

It is devoutly to be hoped that these incitements to practical work and study will rouse interest in subjects painfully neglected in our schools, the pleasure of which will alone be a great reward, apart altogether from their higher results; and introduce the youth of the district in which John made his own happy triumphs, to the delights of scientific research and a knowledge of the beauties of nature around them, to which the untrained eyes of their fathers were blind.


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