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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter VI - The Journeyman Weaver during this first Freedom


JOHN DUNCAN remained only a short time in Johnshaven. Rejoicing in his new freedom, dear to all young people, and dearer to him from the previous slavery, he began to move from place to place, to see the country, extend his experience of men and things, and improve his skill in his trade. Smitten with a desire to see and be near his mother, he returned to his native town, where he lived for some two years, winning his own bread and helping her. He found Stonehaven considerably extended since he had left it five or six years before, and very much, since he had become a herd on the neighbouring braes. The new town had begun to show the spacious style in which it had been laid out by Captain Barclay's father, and it was evidently only a question of time that the Links would soon be entirely absorbed, and the new town overshadow the old, draining off its best people and gradually abandoning it to the poorer population that now occupies it.

John prosecuted his studies with growing fervour, his greater leisure giving him increased opportunities, fully prized by the keen young weaver. Now that the miserable influences that had stunted his physical and mental growth had been removed, he began to feel a return of the vigorous elasticity of youth. His desire for mental acquirement was a rising appetite, certain in time to become dominant. He lived very simply, if not sparely, though healthily, in order to be able to obtain the tools for intellectual work—the much-coveted books. In Stone-haven, he began the formation of the large, well-selected, and, for the very poor man he always remained, costly library which he gradually accumulated, and the possession of which became one of his ruling passions.

He traversed the cliffs and pleasant neighbourhood of Stonehaven with enlightened eyes, in search of the herbs he was now able to distinguish and name, with the help of the great Culpepper. These he concocted into the various wonderful preparations therein detailed, which were to charm away all disease frail flesh is heir to, and he began to acquire some local fame as a herbalist. Such a man could not, however, rest satisfied with the mere memories of the borrowed volume he had seen at Drumlithie. He must have his own text-book, and after months of extra work, for wages were very low, he became at last the proud possessor of a copy of his own, which cost one pound—an immense sum to a lad so poor, just out of his apprenticeship, and having his mother to assist. But it was the old story of a will and a way, and another proof of the omnipotence of true resolution. The book on which John spent so much was a remarkable one, no less than the "Bible of the Herbalists," then a very numerous sect scattered all over the country, which received an enthusiastic apostle in the young weaver. His belief in the system which formed his first introduction to scientific inquiry, remained unbroken to the end, and was strengthened by his practical mastery over it and the good it did in his hands.

From the knowledge of the heavenly bodies required in Culpepper's astrological system, John was early led to the study of astronomy, which for many years, as we shall see, became one of his special pursuits. This issued, by-and-by, in his studying several cognate subjects, such as astrology, dialling, meteorology, and calendars, of which more anon. In 1815, the first year he returned to Stone-haven, he bought a copy of "Orr's Belfast Almanack," an old calendar which still holds its own among the people; and from that time till his death, for sixty-six years, he purchased an almanack annually, some of them high priced, and finally possessed a complete suite of these, which he presented to one of his disciples, Mr. John Taylor, who was following kindred studies.

That year, also, Stonehaven took a worthy share in the national celebration of the victory of Waterloo and the overthrow of Napoleon, in which John Duncan, with his hatred of tyranny, recently intensified at Drumlithie, took an active part. In that village, he had also acquired a taste for politics, and an interest in the great questions of social progress then increasingly agitating the country, and he now began regularly to read the newspapers and keep himself conversant with the rapid march of events.

About this time, his mother removed from Stonehaven to Aberdeen, where she resided in the Hardgate. There she made a living, as hitherto, by harvest work, washing and dressing, and other domestic employments, like the hardworking, careful woman she was. John either accompanied or soon followed her to the same city, and continued his kindly attentions to his mother, visiting her regularly and paying her rent, a large demand on his poor purse, till her death, about 1830, above fifty years of age.

In 1816, when Duncan removed to the granite capital of the north-east of Scotland, Aberdeen was not then the large, fine city it now is, but a comparatively small provincial town, with narrow streets, grouped chiefly round St. Catherine's Hill. The ideas of what then constituted a street are still preserved in the name of Broad Street, which is little better than a winding lane, leading to the University of Marischall College—the old building erected by Earl Keith in 1593, for the present handsome structure was not built till 1837. The splendid thoroughfare of Union Street, now one of the good streets of Europe, had just been begun, about 1812, by the construction of the high bridge across the Den Burn. All south of it, where now stands the spacious and substantial city between it and the Dee, was then green fields, where Duncan gathered herbs in the dewy morning.

John's travelling at that time, and long, long after, was performed altogether on foot, a mode of locomotion then almost universal amongst the mass of the people, who thought nothing of thirty or forty miles, a day. He was always a splendid pedestrian, excelling most men in the smartness and extent of his journeys. He approached Aberdeen by the old Brig of Dee, then half its present width, passed over the narrow, parapet-less bridge spanning the Ruthrieston Burn close by, one of the oldest bridges in the district—now deserted, but over which went the traffic of hundreds of years—and he entered the town by the low road that ran through the Hardgate, and crossed the Den Burn near its mouth at the harbour. Long years after, he used to recall, with a kind of melancholy pleasure, the old condition of things, more than half a century before, remarking that, "like himsel'," all sublunary things must change.

Besides a desire to see the world, one of John's reasons for coming to Aberdeen was to perfect himself as a weaver. As he afterwards told me, he made up his mind when he became a weaver to be one, and to master the whole subject; and he was the man to do it. Aberdeen was even then the seat of a great manufacturing trade in cotton, linen, and wool, carried on in numerous large factories, which employed, at that time, more than three thousand hands, out of a population, in 1821, of under forty-four thousand—a very large proportion of the adults. The weavers then formed a powerful corporation in the city, and wielded great influence. They could be seen, as in Drumlithie, standing in the streets in wordy confabulation, arrayed in their clean white aprons, the badge of their trade, of which they were justly proud.

At first, John entered the Iarge weaving factory of Leys, Masson and Co., who had immense establishments where the busy thoroughfare of Market Street now stands, and at Broadford, then a suburb of Aberdeen, but now enclosed in the city. Their great works, which included a foundry, were considered among the largest of the kind then in Scotland. Here famed linen and cotton cloths of various kinds were produced; and things were so carefully managed that, as John used to say, they had very little waste in their productions—"there wasna muckle i' their pob," that is, in the fluffy refuse of flax that remains in the manufacture; ending his observations on the subject with the sentiment, that when we do any piece of work, we should do it so thoroughly as "to leave little in the pob." The firm had also a bleach-field at Rubeslaw, now well known for its granite, where "green" linen yard was bleached white, from which light-coloured cloth was produced—the first time John had seen it. His old master Pirie had once tried bleaching, but the vitriol, a necessary agent in the process, dangerous in the hands of the unskilled, only burnt his yarns, and his fingers in more senses than one, and he gave it up.

Until now, John's work had been greatly confined to linen cloth of various kinds, though he had had some practice, even at Drumlithie, in woollen stuffs, especially wincey, which consisted then of strong linen warp, across which was woven woollen thread or weft of different colours, hence known as "linsey-woolseys." In order to obtain more practice in this kind of work, he by-and-by entered a woollen factory at Windmill Brae, where winceys and other woollen fabrics were woven. In a short time, he was able to keep up with the best of them, as he used to recall with pride, and soon became a superior weaver of winceys, blankets, carpets, and the like. In proof of this, a story is told of him, by one of his Drumlithie friends, which at once proves his skill as a weaver and his strength of will as a man—a lifelong characteristic, greatly hidden beneath his quiet, shy exterior. He was once engaged in a shop, in which Pine's son, Duncan, and a weaver called Sandy Hadden, worked along with him. Hadden wore a woollen vest of an uncommon fancy pattern, then more difficult to produce with existing appliances than now. While talking together on weaving matters, Hadden challenged John to make a similar piece, wagering a good deal that he could not do it. They parted for the evening. Next morning, John produced the. cloth required, woven to pattern. He had worked at it all alone during that night!

Some of the woollen goods, then woven entirely by the hand, were very trying to the weaver, and looked much more so to the unaccustomed on-looker, from the extreme exertion and watchfulness they required. Such were some of the patterned broad-loom winceys, which were double the common width, and were woven in a special large or "broad loom," the pattern being produced by means of the Jacquard machine, invented in 1790. In these, the shuttle had to be deftly thrown from hand to hand extended at full stretch, through the moving warp, operated on by numerous treddles below, over which the nimble feet of the weaver moved with unerring accuracy, though of necessity out of sight. These cloths John used to weave at this early date in Aberdeen, which still retains its ancient fame for winceys, though they are now made chiefly of cotton and wool.

There also lived in Aberdeen, during the whole of John's stay there, another weaver, poor and lame, but full of the lyrical afflatus, who afterwards became famous, William Thom. Born in that city in 1797, he was three years John's junior, and worked in a cotton factory in Belmont Street, removing thence to Dundee in 1831. It was not, however, till he returned, in 1840, to reside at Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, where he first began to publish, that he burst into fame as the "Inverurie poet." After a brilliant, but meteoric, career, in which he was thrice feted in London, he died in 1848 at Dundee, where he now lies buried. There is no proof that Thom and Duncan, fellow-weavers though they were, ever met. Nor is it very likely that the quiet-going John Duncan moved in the same circle with the jovial "Willie Tam."


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