The Life of John Duncan Chapter XL - Duncan's
Characteristics and Character
IT will now be well to gather
the scattered threads of our presentation of the man, and weave them into a
closer web, while inserting additional colours to complete the fabric.
Physically, John Duncan
inherited an excellent constitution, being remarkable healthy, "teuch," as
he said of himself, and unusually enduring; and he was never laid up with
sickness all his days. In stature, he was short, being at his best only five
feet seven. Muscular and spare, he was never "what you call a heavy man," as
he remarked—a style of body which his abstemious habits, great activity, and
much walking preserved to the end. His general appearance, especially in his
later years, was what was reckoned "odd," even in his own time, as has been
frequently noted, and his peculiar, old-fashioned garb increased the
quaintness of his aspect; so that latterly, in the streets. of Aberdeen, he
drew the attention of passengers as a kind of Rip Van Winkle of the early
century, just reawakened to the modern world.
His head was larger than
common, and indicated unusual capacity of both thought and feeling. [Its
dimensions, as taken by his friend John Taylor, who is a practical
phrenologist, were 22 inches in circumference, 5½ inches. from the car to
the top of the forehead, and 78 inches from the ear to the crown. The
measurement from the ear to the occiput or top of she back is not to be
depended on, from the accident by which it was broken. (See p. 74.) The
average measurements in this country are 20 to 21 inches in circumference, 4
19/20 from ear to top of forehead, or individuality, 5 18/20 from ear to top
of head; the last two, according to George Combe, being the average of
twenty representative specimens.] It showed the projecting brows of the keen
observer, the broad forehead of the thinker, the lofty crown that betokened
kindliness and piety, and the breadth between the ears that indicated
immense energy and power of work. His countenance was striking and pleasant,
and his firm features proved him to be a man of strong, nervous temperament,
keen, clear-sighted, and active, full of the vigour and resolution that
command success, with the quiet shrewdness and humour of the Scottish
peasantry; while the deep-set eyes, their colour hidden by the penthouse
brows, looked as if they could see much where most would see nothing.
His extreme shortsightedness
interfered all his life with his proficiency as a reader, and to some extent
with the prosecution of his . botanical studies, necessitating in these more
stooping and groping than would otherwise have been required. But, as is
often the case with nearsighted people, he never needed to use spectacles,
and his eyes remained good to the last; so that he could read the smallest
print with ease till he was eighty-seven, and never used any other than a
very small-print pocket Bible. [The "Paragraph Bible" issued by the
Religious Tract Society, the print of which is sufficiently trying even for
young eyes. The possession of a copy of the Scriptures with the modern
innovations on the old verses and the like, shows also his intelligent love
of progress in even such conservative religious subjects.] This continued
nearness of sight had also another interesting aspect, for it prevented him,
notwithstanding his enjoyment of nature, from ever seeing and enjoying the
general aspects of a broad landscape, whether of earth or sky, with their
special beauties. In fact, it rendered him blind for life to the pleasures
of expansive scenery, a sore deprivation to a man who loved nature so
deeply. This was, no doubt, one reason for his preferring Botany to
Astronomy, seeing that long sight is all-in-all for the stars, whereas with
plants, he could bring the subjects of his study as close to his eyes as he
His tastes were throughout
severely simple. He was always content with the very plainest fare, limited
to the lowest scale conceivable for bare subsistence. Like Chaucer's model
parson, "he cowde in little thing han suffisance;" nay, as Dryden,
describing the same good man, says, he "made almost a sin of abstinence." Of
meat, he ate little all his days, for it then was much more costly and
uncommon than now ; and he never saw it except when visiting his
better-to-do friends. At home, the staple food of his life was plain water
brose and porridge, sometimes with milk, but often without, taken not seldom
three times a day. In the field, it was a piece of bannock or a little
oatmeal, and water from the mountain stream, seasoned with nature's own
savour in water-cress and appetite, as has been told. Even tea, for the most
of his life, he never used, but rather despised as a womanish luxury; and it
was only when the infirmities of age made some stimulant desirable, that he
began to relish it.
Could anything be more
natural, unsophisticated, and primitive? And yet, on such fare—hardly more
than the widow's "handful of meal in a barrel and a little oil in a
cruse"—this man lived an unusually long and active life of both work and
thought, and enjoyed the highest health and vigour. In this respect, his
experience is a fresh testimony to the fact which modern scientific cookery
is demonstrating—that a simpler, more vegetarian diet would be healthier and
better for us all.
Yet with all this plainness
of food, or perhaps because of it, his appetite was unusually strong, and
remained so to the last. He was, as one of his young friends at Milton
observed, "a hale-stamach man," that is, a man with a whole or healthy
stomach. His simplicity of taste, notwithstanding this strength of
digestion, is well illustrated by an incident related by James Black.
John ate, as a rule, Mr.
Black observes, whatever was placed before him heartily and contentedly, and
one thing only at a time, never mixing meat and potatoes together, for
instance; and James had often to resort to artifice, to avoid giving
offence, in order to get the due proportions observed. This want of
preference sometimes made his friend think that his sense of taste was
defective, an idea that was increased by his general "hard and horny"
aspect; and tempted, as he confesses, by him who sat "squat like a toad" by
the ear of mother Eve, he determined to test it one day when John came late
to dinner, and he himself was left free to experiment.
There was a bottle of pickles
on the table. "Will you have some pickles, John?" asked he. "Oo, ay,"
replied John, "I carena. Pickles? What's that?" Not being able to answer
precisely, James merely said, "Mixed pickles, John; very nice indeed!" " Oo,
ay," returned he; "weel, I can eat onything, wi' ae single exception—honey;
I canna manage honey." In a trice, James forked out some of the biggest
pieces he could find and put them on John's plate. Now came the moment to
solve the problem, whether John had any taste in that queer,
leathery-looking mouth of his. If that lump of cucumber nearest his hand, so
green, so cold, so intensely acid, does not result in at least a wry face,
the thing is settled in the negative.
Once, twice, thrice—missed;
meat every time. John had got on to the war, the Russo-Turkish war then
raging, and he was a keen "bag-and-baggage" man. James began to think of
doing something to help him to express himself and lead to his taking the
cucumber; when lo, he spits a great lump of gherkin on his fork, whole, as
he lived! But no. "Confound the Turks!" said James; "take your dinner, John,
or it will be spoiled." But the exhortation was unheeded. Waving his hand
above his head, fork, gherkin and all, John tried to give vent to his
indignation. As James feared he might notice the pickle there, he struck in,
"Quite right, John. I would sweep the last sinner of them out of Europe,
sweep every harem and mosque of them, and sweep the very earth on which they
trod—sweep and make such a dust till you couldn't see your finger before
you, and the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn were coloured like clay bree! "
John held up his hand with the gherkin before him, and, bringing it down
firmly on the table, he summed up his friend's harangue in a single word, so
John gazed at the orator with
a look of admiration, and evidently satisfied that his heart was in the
right place, promptly popped the entire pickle into his mouth! Now came the
proof that what James had taken for leather or something like it was not
leather at all, but a live membrane, just like yours and mine. One squeeze,
and John's mouth filled to overflowing with water, which oozed out all
round. He raised the edge of the tablecloth; looked to the floor, meaning to
drop it; noticed the carpet; shut his eyes, shuddered visibly, and bolted
it! A moment's silent pause after this feat, and then, turning over with his
fork the remaining pieces on the plate and closely examining them, he asked
what that stuff was called. James answered, with all gravity, "Mixed
pickles, John." "Mixed?" replied he, in perplexity. "I think it is mixed.
But what is it mixed wi'?" "Well," explained James, "they consist of various
kinds of vegetables, mixed together and pickled." "Oh! It disna mater,"
returned John. "That's twa things noo, then." "What two things?" persisted
his friend. "Honey and that stuff—I can eat nether. Dae ye eat muckle o'
that yersel' noo, Jamie?" queried John. "Well, not much," replied James.
"Na, I was thinkin' sae!" chuckled John, as he attacked his dinner and the
Turks again. When he finished, he examined the pickle bottle and its label
with silent criticism, and seemed finally to come to the conclusion that
such fierce condiments were actually in use amongst civilised nations.
His extreme poverty induced a
marked peculiarity—namely, an exaggerated estimate of the value of money.
This seems a paradox in one who had so little of it and pursued it less, and
whose whole life seemed to be a .despising of it for higher things.
Nevertheless, it is true. His labour at the loom was so unremunerative, even
with so capital and laborious a workman in the prime of life, and every mite
he saved represented so much hard toil and daily self-denial in expenditure,
that he placed, and couldn't but place, an inordinate value on even a few
shillings. He once told James Black of "a great loss" he had sustained
during a harvest in the Lothians, when a rascal borrowed from him and
decamped. " How much was it?" inquired James. "A lot, a great lot o' money,"
he replied. Being curious to find out how much it really was, but knowing
John's wonderful reticence, he bluntly asked him to state the exact amount.
"Nearly a paper note," warily returned John. "Perhaps fifteen shillings?"
suggested his friend. "Oo, a lot mair than that," he earnestly replied.
"Seventeen and six?" "Ay," said John, impressively and sadly, as if again
realising the pain of the theft; "ay, ilka bawbee o't ! Think o' that!" And
James did think of it, and with surprise and pain, as he says, and to this
day still recalls it, for it was an incidental but striking revelation of
Yet, dear as money thus
become to him — and may none of us ever know the dire need that forced in
poor John such natural but excessive estimate—he could not hoard it, as some
natures would have done in the circumstances, or gather it to increase his
comfort, or invest it in a house and holding of his own, as some of his
friends did. Like them, he did invest his savings, but in something very
different—in what was dearer to him than all other possessions, in his one
dissipation, the tools of his intellectual trade, in books ! This sheds a
strong side light on the value he put on books, on the strength of his
intellectual appetite, and on the pure necessity mental food was to him. As
he said at our last interview, "I cu'dna keep frae buyin' buiks." It also
increases our astonishment, shared by his neighbours, at the large library
he was able to acquire under such narrow circumstances, which was
surprisingly extensive even by middle life. But it is the old story over
again, of the will finding a way.
John's temper was naturally
warm, if not keen ; but it was generally held in good control, even in
argument, till that waxed too hot, when he would strike out in some
characteristic expression. As to his command of temper, Charles Black is
very decided, and similar testimony is borne by other friends. In his later
years, when the infirmities of age weakened his self-restraint, he began to
manifest impatience and give way to bursts of crossness as we have seen; but
these were generally evanescent, and passed away with the weakness that
caused them. It ,speaks highly for his moral strength, that, possessing
naturally fervid combative feelings impatient of opposition, and having
passed through those peculiar domestic trials that affect temper perhaps
above everything else, he should have maintained throughout life the
generally even disposition he did. His treatment of his wretched wife under
her continued persecution of him for so many years, is a monument to the
man's philosophy and forbearance, which nothing but a strong will, sustained
by high moral purpose and powerful self-control, could have achieved.
His kindliness of heart was a
marked characteristic; as one of his friends said, "he wi'dna do hairm to
onything." When staying at Netherton, after carrying a web to a "gude wife"
near Monymusk, he was returning through the heather according to custom,
when his attention was drawn by the piteous screams of a poor hare that had
been caught in a hidden snare. John, "whose heart was all compassion even to
the lower animals," as Mr. Beveridge, who relates the story, remarks, cut
the string and let poor poosie go free. On returning home, he told the
adventure with much feeling; but, instead of praise, was met with
contemptuous upbraidings for his sheepishness in letting off "the bawd;"
surely, when it was in his power to make the pot play brown, he might not
have been so silly! John indignantly retorted that, besides being dishonest
and a crime requiring to be hidden, it would have been pitiless cruelty to
kill the poor beast, which they should never get him, at least, to do,
whatever they might say or think.
There lived at Netherton, in
a cottage near the weaving shop, an idiot lad, who, like many such weakly
children, was the apple of his mother's eye. At intervals, this poor
creature would crouch for days, gazing into the fire and. refusing all food.
Duncan took a kindly interest in the harmless soul, and they became fast
friends. Jamie would sit for hours beside John, amused by his drollery,
while he watched the wonderful play of the loom and was soothed by its
music. Nothing roused John's fiercest anger more than any attempt, however
slight, to make fun of his simple and serious companion, which many tried to
do in those rougher times; and he would at once seize on the first thing
that came to hand and throw it at the offender, after warning, in order to
punish him severely, if he did not at once desist. All which and like
friendliness and protection won the very heart of the innocent.
When John was forced to stoop
to pauperism, the parochial board kindly ordered, for several years, a
distribution of six hundred-weight of coals to the paupers in mid-winter—a
grateful boon, especially in the cold workshop at Droughsburn. This he only
once accepted in full for himself, kindly and characteristically asking it
to be given, except one hundred-weight, to a poor imbecile who had long
lived in the neighbourhood, and whom he deemed more needy than himself—a
simple but beautiful action, in its degree recalling the noble self-denial
displayed on the field at Zutphen: "thy need is greater than mine!"
He was noted for his obliging
helpfulness on all occasions, and he was prepared at any time to walk long
distances to assist his neighbours in every way he could. Many was the
patient he cured, many the garden he dressed, many the tree he pruned, the
pleasure of the deed his sole reward. Charles Black expressively says that
in natural kindliness, "John Duncan was 'a man after God's own heart."'
It was also a pure delight to
him to share his stores of knowledge with all that showed the least desire
to receive them, a pleasure that rose almost to the strength of propagandism.
As one of his Auchleven friends remarked, he was "grateful and proud to be
listened to," and he felt "obliged to you if you paid attention to him." His
desire to lead the young to higher things was a beautiful trait constantly
acted upon, and a proof of high moral health.
His gratitude for benefits
received, however small, was sincere and intense. Mrs. Emslie, of Auchleven,
says that it was something extraordinary; and that it was generally
expressed in the simple words, "Ye're very kind, very kind," but uttered in
such a tone of over-gratefulness, as it seemed to her, that it made her
refrain from offering him even a cup of tea so frequently as she would have
He was honest to the very
core, and no pain was greater to him than that of getting into debt. In
spite of his small wages from an increasingly poor and decaying trade, he
owed no man anything till he was compelled in his destitution to fall on the
parish. So sterlingly upright was he in all things, that, as Mr. Brewster,
the secretary of the Auchleven Society, put it, "he was above, far and away
above, even using any other person's information without full
acknowledgment." At my last visit to John, in speaking on the subject and of
a case in which he had suffered by its violation, he exclaimed, "O honesty,
honesty! I do like honesty!"
His orderliness in all he did
would have made him be counted a martinet by most. This was apparent in the
neatness with which he kept his property in the confined space where he
lived. In all his transactions in trade, he cultivated thorough business
habits, regularly keeping a ledger and rendering accounts for everything he
weaved—a proceeding uncommon and quite unnecessary in the work of a country
His tidiness in person and
dress and his care in the preservation of his possessions were something
quite remarkable, as has already been seen in the way he brushed and folded
his clothes. The fact that he possessed and used the same suits for fifty
years, and preserved them presentable to the end, requires no comment. His
desire to keep his dress from possible harm reached the eccentric: as when
he walked almost constantly with turned-up trousers, even in the critical
city; and when, on entering a carpeted room, he always dusted even a
drawing-room chair with his napkin and blew off any possible remaining dust,
before depositing his precious hat upon it, old and worn though it
was—oblivious that the lady of the house might be of opinion that it was his
hat that required brushing and not her chairs in her best room! The success
is simply beyond praise with which lie preserved the frail contents of his
herbarium, without any of the means now abundantly available to botanical
students—under such miserable and seemingly impossible conditions, amidst
the constant and virulent attacks of insects, specially potent in such
confined thatched cottages, their choicest nurseries and habitations.
John's unusually reticent and
retiring disposition made him, to a great extent, shy and distrustful of
strangers, and indeed of all but his intimates ; so that he seemed to
outsiders "a terrible distant cretur," as Mrs. Allanach felt even to the
end. He never blossomed out, never opened his sensitive affections, except
amongst his most trusted and congenial friends; and it was only then that
the real depth and kindly warmth of his heart made itself fully felt. This
backwardness in the presence of others checked the outward expression of his
feelings even to his friends, unless when strong emotion compelled
utterance, as at my last interview with him. At these times, such
exhibitions surprised and pained himself, as they always do beings of that
type, especially in Scotland ; feeling as if the holy of holies had been
forcibly violated and opened to vulgar gaze.
His natural secretiveness had
also been greatly increased by the bitter need he had, during the most of
his life, of hiding the domestic griefs which preyed on his heart, and which
might have led to questionable indulgences to hide them from himself, had he
not possessed higher resources. Even his best friends were sometimes
disappointed and pained by this want of emotive utterance, except when he
was much moved. James Black, between whom and John—though radically
dissimilar in many respects—there existed a true and lasting friendship, and
whose warmth of nature is a dominant characteristic, used to feel pained by
this chilliness of outward manner in meeting him. "He never," he complains,
"came spontaneously forward to shake hands. I had every time to lay hold of
his and do all the pressing and shaking, while he neither aided nor
resisted. And such hands! So stout, so rough, so gnarled, so funnily put
together! Warm, clean, and dry, but otherwise as lifeless and meaningless to
the feeling as a small bunch of early horn carrots! Had they been flowers
and his digits petals, John would have described his thumbs as reflex. His
fingers seemed to have no tips; whatever he laid hold of, he grasped far
back towards his palm. I have felt," he continues, "hands that pressed
warmly, hands that throbbed and quivered as if they would impart some
thought or wish unspoken—for there are persons, like Adam Bell, in whom
every hair seems alive,—but John Duncan seemed, in saluting, to be
preoccupied as far as his feelings were concerned, and to look on the
transaction as an unmeaning ceremony. He did not even say `Good-bye' in
parting, but only a simple, careless-seeming `'bye."'
Yet with all this apparent
outward callousness, his feelings were truly deep and strong. They rose on
occasions to the poetic, as when he was silently and electrically beatified
on meeting Charles Black for the last time; though even then his manner
belied his heart.' But this reserve did not surprise Charles, who is
infected with a similar undemonstrative reticence, and hates everything like
"fracas." He knew, as he said, "John's very heart," believed in and felt the
reality, and the outward expression in manner passed as nothing in his eyes,
or as but the bashfulness of a lover. Such men as John and Charles are quite
unable to express their feelings by external signs of hand or habit, though
they show it in the eye and in a hundred silent ways; thinking the
sacredness of the heart as desecrated when thus made "a public show of," as
Charles often says. In everything connected with the emotions, including his
religious feelings, John was, as a friend expresses it, "undemonstrative, if
not taciturn." Yet this external coldness was only the upper soil, hiding a
deep fountain of feeling, that welled up at times even to tears.
"Frequently," writes the Rev. J. M. Shirreffs, his second minister at the
Milton of Cushnie, "he appeared to be much affected in church, and I have
often seen him quietly weeping there."
In walking with his friends,
the same still reserve pervaded his action. "At these times," as James Black
relates, "we talked, in general, but little ; John ever busy amongst the
herbage, muttering names and properties, now plucking a plant and putting a
piece into his mouth to try its taste, and then handing me a leaf or other
part, say of Wood-sage, with the remark, 'If that binna fale, ca' ye me
knotty-stick!' It was bitter indeed, as I felt, and I could have called him
`knotty' out of spite. Then, in the ditch by the roadside, he would talk to
himself and me, calling out Myosotis, Veronica, and a host of similar
technicalities, accompanied with admiring expressions like `bonny blue
floories,' and the like.
"John," he continues, "was my
human protoplasm, man in his least complex form. He seemed to be a survival
of those 'rural swains' who lived in idyllic simplicity, as pictured in our
pastoral poetry, and whose even tenor of existence our modern complexity
renders impossible. As for his goodness, his pure simplicity of nature," he
observes, "I never saw any evil in him. I do not say there was none, but I
say, in real earnest, that I never saw any in the good, inoffensive soul."
While they were resting one
day during a botanical ramble in Tough, and James was indulging quiet
reflection on many matters suggested by the bent enthusiast, John awoke him
from his reverie by some remarks on the medicinal properties of digitalis,
which he had in his hand. Just then a man appeared on the road, naked down
to the waist. He walked sideways, with one arm raised to the level of his
shoulder and pointing forwards, and the other slanting downwards behind him.
On he came, without observing them, his whole features contorted as if he
were oppressed by some hidden, overwhelming power. He passed them,
unconscious of their presence, and held on his strange path in the same
silent and constrained attitude till out of sight. When he disappeared, John
burst out spontaneously with the lines of Addison, uttered in the most
"When When all Thy mercies, O
My wondering soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I'm lost
In wonder, love, and praise."
He then discoursed of reason
being God's greatest gift to man, saying how thankful we ought to feel to be
thus "clothed and in our right mind," and asking his friend if he had ever
viewed the possession of decent dress as a proof of sanity.
John inherited a good deal of
naive mother-wit, combined with no little latent humour, though his sallies
in this direction were considerably checked by his reticent nature and stern
religiousness. He liked to give common things characteristic names, calling
the teapot, for instance, "crook-moo'," and the kettle, "the black duchess."
During the Disruption excitement, when his contempt of the Erastian
"Moderates" who remained in the "Auld Kirk" for the sake of "the loaves and
the fishes," was keenest, he used to remark that "fyow o' them cared to gang
to Auchterless, but when they did change, they likit aye to gang to
Auchtermair!"—Auchterless [Part of the pun lies in the first syllable also,
"aucht" being Scotch for "possessed." The name of the place is Gaelic.]
being the name of an Aberdeen parish frequently punned upon in this and
John had several humorous
stories which he used to tell in genial society. When he observed any
exhibition of silly pride, accompanied by super-fineness of speech, he told
a story of a Scotchman in humble life who went to Jamaica and became rich.
On returning home, he treated his former acquaintances with supercilious
hauteur, and, despising his mother tongue, used only the finest English at
his command. He pretended not to know even the names of any of the common
objects of the farm where he had been brought up. Pointing one day to a
"riddle" or sieve for corn, he asked its name with a grand air; but before
he could receive a reply, happening to trample on it, he turned it sharply
on its side and caused it to give himself a severe blow on the front part of
the leg. The pain made him at once forget his fine Attic accents, and the
native Doric burst out in the vigorous exclamation, "Damn the riddle!" which
at once exposed his hollow pretensions,. amidst a general titter. When any
one put on airs and affected an unnatural polish, John would quietly remark,
"Ay, just bide a wee, and ye'll sune hear him `damn the riddle!'"
On asking a friend to accept
a suit of his own weaving,. made from native wool prepared by the fireside,
he recommended the home-made cloth by saying, "Ay, man, there's a bane in't
even aifter it's gaylees dune; far better than the. Galashiels sey, though
no just sae brave"—an apt way of putting the facts regarding good home-spun.
In talking to one of his disciples, John said that there were two things at
the very least that a good botanist required, though these were not all:
"Tae wit, a .gweed memory and to be licht 'o fut"—that is, good at walking;
to another friend, he remarked that Botany needed "a gweed e'e and a gweed
understandin"'—the four requirements constituting, no doubt, a capital
equipment for the successful study of flowers.
Although he seldom spoke of
his unhappy married life, he once told a young friend whom he was
counselling to thrift, and to whom he was talking of the influence of "sillar"
in the world, this experience of his relations to his ill-conditioned wife.
Weaving in Aberdeen becoming scarce at one time, he was obliged to take
employment at a distance as a labourer, in order not to "fa' ahent," that
is, not to get into debt, which he abhorred. When he returned home, his wife
sat sullen by the fire without asking him to come near it. John stood in
silence for a time at the door, until shame compelled her at last to speak.
"Weel, man, ye've won hame?" said she. "Ay, hive I," returned lie, "and
three poun' ten i' my pooch!" "Hae ye, man, though?" exclaimed his wife, at
once brightening up, in more friendly tones. "Come in by." In telling the
tale, John concluded by saying, "Af'n hae I mint on that sin sync, Willie.
Fin ye hae plenty o' sillar, fowk'll aye bid ye `come in by'!"
John was never very smart at
repartee, his whole style being too staid and slow for such rapid
coruscations of the moment, though the steel of opposition did occasionally
strike real fire out of him. In argument, he could "give a good cut" to an
opponent, as "I hae aft'n felt," Charles Black says; and as many of those
who tried to make fun of himself and his plants also did to their cost, as
we have seen. John looked to most, as James Black justly observes, like a
harmless pill that you could easily swallow, though it generally turned that
you were in the power of "a marvellously potent little agent." But hard
hitting was not much in John's line; he was too subdued and kindly for
that—dealing more in quiet, humorous replies when occasion offered.
Charles Hunter met .him one
day near the Free Church of Keig, as he was returning to Netherton after
some absence, carrying a bundle on his back, his oil jar in one hand and his
weaver's lamp in the other. "Here ye are again, John," said Charles, "and wi'
yer lamp i' yer hand." "Ay," replied John, with an arch gleam in his eye,
"but I'm no like the foolish virgins; I hac my oil tae!" He once engaged to
work with a friend near Woodside, who, as market gardener, employed several
hands. One of these was a professional gardener from Ellon, whose incapacity
in his trade struck John very forcibly. "That Ellon man o' yours," said he
one day to his employer, "has been terribly honest wharever he served his
apprenticeship." "How? " asked his master, not catching John's meaning.
"'Cass," returned John, with a sly twinkle, "he has ta'en terrible little
Sometimes his humour almost
approached the grim.. He was speaking one day to a friend about some
vigorous botanists who, having gone a-plant-gathering on Sunday, had on that
account incurred public censure. "Weel," says. John, who sympathised with
them in spite of his sabbatarian creed, "if you chaps gang tae hell, they'll
no be easy to bin'; and the fiends 'ill need to dish them up in eyrons, and
even then they'll float and stay the storm. A gey fyow o' sick like wou'd
mak' even hell bearable! Mind on Sodom, which e'en ten gweed men wu'd hae
Like all old Scotchmen of any
individuality, John: always spoke in broad Scotch, except in reading a
formal paper, when technical terms required to be used, or in talking on
religious subjects, when Biblical or theological language became
appropriate. He used, of course, the broad Aberdeen or Kincardine Doric,
very recherche' and fine, with the genuine flavour of the old pure speech in
word and phrase. His expressions were always clear, pointed and forcible,
and generally piquant and picturesque. Like all old men who have had a
varied experience, he frequently illustrated and clinched what he said with
appropriate anecdote, proverb, sentiment, or verse from a song. In speaking,
to me one day, for instance, of a greedy fellow who would part with nothing
even to a friend in need, he said he was
"Like the wife o' Glenshee;
He likit better to get than to ga'e."
Not seldom the words he used
were unconsciously poetical. When we were crossing a little burn together,
he wished me to notice "hoo bonnily the watter trinkled!" Once, in referring
to the "bad harvest" of 1811, when he was in Drumlithie, he characterised
the following year, which had abounding plenty, as "rinnin' ower!" In
speaking to him, I wished greatly to take more notes than I was able of his
telling Scotch and naive remarks, but that would have stopped the natural
flow of the words for in such talk, as in a quotation from a poet, the chief
value lies in the exact expression, the ipsissima verba, of the moment,
which the speaker himself could scarcely repeat and with difficulty
Solemn and retiring as John
looked to all outsiders, he could beam amongst his friends, as we have seen.
On these occasions, he took an active part in all the frolics of their happy
meetings, and often added to the general harmony by singing a song. He could
sing several songs, and his want of voice, which was, as Charles Black
expresses it, of a "heather and dub " order, was more than made up by his
vigorous and sympathetic rendering of the sentiment. Amongst others, his
favourites were "The Blaeberries" already mentioned, "Johnnie Cope," "Scots
wha hae," "John Anderson, my Joe," and "Auld Lang Syne."
Strangely for the ardent Scot
he was, though singing more than one of his songs, John had no great favour
for Burns, and he never possessed a copy of his poems. In this respect, he
represented the prejudices of the stricter religionists of the country, to
whom by nature and training he belonged. Here he was the very antipodes of
his friend, Charles Black, who had, as John said, "an awfu' notion o'
Robbie," and even in the Whitehouse days, had learned most of his poems by
heart. Charles used to quote him on all occasions with felicity and ease,
sometimes in the poet's freer utterances, to John's surprise and horror,
duly expressed in strong remonstrance. John liked many of Burns' pieces, and
had a great appreciation of "Man was made to Mourn," which Charles used to
recite well ; John feeling that it admirably expressed the soul-hidden
sorrow through which he had passed, though he did not relish the
anti-Calvinism of the poem.
When I asked him his opinion
of the poet, he said he liked him "nae that ill, only he just didna tak'
sick a notion o'm as Charlie, for Robbie was terrible ramsh whiles;" that
is, he was too rough and outspoken at times for his taste, as he is even to
admirers not of the unco'-guid order, when he utters his over-mastering
virility. To Charles, he frequently characterised the poet as "a filthy
loon," his offences against decorum overbearing, in John's intolerant
puritanism, his eminent merits in other departments.
This want of poetic
appreciation of Burns is related to a defect in John's constitution, a
certain deficiency of poetical feeling. In this also he formed a marked
contrast to his greatest friend, to whom, as Charles says of himself, poetry
with all it signifies forms half his life. John purchased few books of
poetry, though he had some general collections and the works of individual
poets. Yet it is certain that he was not wanting in appreciation of the
poetic aspects of nature, especially as connected with flowers, in regard to
which his feelings rose, beyond question, to poetic strength. He also
possessed some poetic sensibilities, often uttered in appropriate and
deep-felt words, of which examples have been given. Indeed, it is quite
impossible for any one to love and study the floral world with John Duncan's
intense enthusiasm without being inspired with a great deal of true poetic
feeling; for, as Cowley asks regarding flowers
"Where do we finer strokes and
Of the Creator's real poetry?"
Charles Black's opinion was
that he had "not a particle of poetry in his composition;" but this opinion
was formed thirty years ago, before John had developed deeper and broader
tendencies. The truth on this subject seems to be, that John's original
endowments in imagination and the related intellectual and emotional
faculties that constitute the poet were comparatively small, and that his
appreciation of poetical literary form was narrow, though he had a real
enjoyment of its rhythm and expression as exhibited in the simpler forms of
poetry, and especially in song and ballad; but that his abundant and
life-long intercourse with the beautiful and wonderful in nature
increasingly inspired him with poetical sentiment, especially when, in his
later years, he caught glimpses of the deeper problems of the universe. He
used to enjoy natural descriptive poetry, for example, especially when
connected with flowers, and a favourite piece of his was Mrs. Heman's poem,
"The Voice of Spring," beginning "I come, I come! ye have called me long,"
which he often carefully transcribed on paper and used to quote. But his
very devotion to other pursuits, combined with the practical tendencies of
his nature, prevented his ever taking up poetical literature as a study. As
John said himself, he "hadna time for sick things."
In this connection also, his
perception of the beauties of art, especially high art, was very small, as
expressed in painting and especially in sculpture. His life had never
introduced him to these, and thus far artistic taste had never been kindled
in him. He did not despise them: he never saw them. James Black, for
instance, had some pretty examples of the artistic in his house, but these
never once seemed to attract John's notice. His perception and love of the
beautiful were strictly limited to its presentation in wild nature, and
there they were real and delightful as far as they went.
His capacity for true
friendship was unusually deep and lasting. It flowed in a narrow stream, but
its concentrated energy was all the more powerful. His love for Charles
Black was pure, unselfish, genuine, and undying, far "passing the love of
woman," as Charles says. It became a clear, perennial fountain of joy that
flowed unstinted through the quiet wilderness of his life, like the divine
stream that accompanied ancient Israel, refreshing, strengthening, and
cheering him; as necessary and as blessed to him as the Nile to the land of
the pyramids. In his silent, self-contained, and comparatively solitary
existence, this union with one man—the "friend of his bosom, this more than
a brother"—to whom he tendered the worship of his deepest heart, was more to
him than troops of friends; and, in his forced and painful widowhood, dearer
and better to him than wife and child. Its intensity and purity were
something quite uncommon, and revealed a largeness of soul found only with
the few, and in hearts of finer mould. It stirred the very springs of life
with more than even the overmastering fervour of early love, and was a
permanent holy passion that burnt on his dying pillow and was extinguished
only by death. What this affection was to him in his silent heart of hearts
was revealed, as by a momentary lightning flash, in the beatific effect it
had upon the self-suppressing man at his last meeting with Charles. All this
reads like a bit of old romance or a passage from a modern novel, though it
was but the literal truth. It recalls, at least, in no mean degree, the
world-famous friendships between men celebrated in history and poetry.
And Charles's love for John
was as deep and tender, as permanent and full of blessedness. He frequently
says, "Naebody would credit the love I had for John." It still wells out at
all times and in all forms, and it has become all the more sacred now that
it has been hallowed by the grave. "The dear old man !" as Charles recently
wrote to a friend; "he was the lealest and truest friend I ever had. If I
said, `Rest his soul!' would I be sinning?"
Is the capacity for such
romantic attachments between man and man dying out amongst us, amidst the
shallow sentiments, artificial stimulants, and prevalent philistinism of
modern society ? Let us be thankful of this new proof that such beautiful
love can and does still exist.
Of Duncan's deep and earnest
religiousness of nature, we have already had abundant proof. It was an
abiding and essential element in his life, all the truer that it was too
holy to be talked about in rude, every-day speech, though expressed in
silent action. Sombre and puritanic, and in some respects stern,
uncompromising and Covenanting in its character, as his training, early
influences and natural earnestness made it, his religion was a living,
regulating power and a vigorous element of strength in his solitary homeless
life with its hidden sorrows, and had proved a stable support and the source
of strong and energising moral power and dignity.
All the clergymen who knew
John bear the same strong testimony to his sincere and abiding devoutness.
The opinion of the Rev. David A. Beattie, his first pastor at Cushnie Free
Church, is that of all the rest, though less decided than others. "He was,"
he says, "a regular attendant on the ministry, and always in his place when
weather permitted. His attentive and reverend appearance as a worshipper in
the house of prayer is still vividly present to me. His full countenance and
placid eye are like a picture before my mind. I found, when visiting him,
that he was always ready to listen to divine things, and would add a remark
or two of his own which showed that he had a manifest personal experience of
the power of the gospel in his own breast. I don't know when the
incorruptible seed of grace was dropped in his heart, but it seemed to be
there, and during my acquaintance with him, it appeared to spring and grow
up and show fruit in a humble childlike walk. He was like one of a class of
lowly plants whose evergreen freshness pleases the eye at all seasons. I did
not witness the bud of his early promise, but I saw the vigorous root grow
stronger and thrive before its transplantation to a better clime."
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.