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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter VIII - Home-Weaving, Harvesting, Soldiering and Scenery


JOHN DUNCAN remained in Aberdeen for nearly eight years, six of them in a house of his own. Nothing of very great public importance had occurred during that period, except the growing agitations to improve the social and political condition of the masses. Like the class to which he belonged, John was a keen politician, keeping himself fully abreast of all these questions, perusing the newspapers of the time with the greatest zest, as he did to the end of his life, many of the copies he then possessed still existing as protections to his botanical specimens.

In 1816, when he arrived, there took place the immense popular November meetings in the Spa Fields in London, where some 30,000 persons assembled to vote an address from the distressed manufacturers; the riots that occurred a few weeks afterwards causing great injury to property, Watson, the leader, escaping to America, and one of his friends being subsequently hanged. In 1817, there rose the scare of sedition, set on fire by the notorious Green Bag and its dangerous contents laid before Parliament, with the consequent suspension of Habeas Corpus and prohibition of all popular gatherings, from the fear of treasonable intentions, which the state of the country had increased. In 1818, Queen Charlotte died, and in 1819, the best of British queens was born. In 1820, "the first gentleman of Europe " took his seat in the royal chair, inaugurating his reign by the cruel trial of his ill-used wife; and in 1822, his visit to Edinburgh turned the heads of the Scotch people, and, not least, that of the Great Wizard himself. But only the faintest ripples of such splashings of the social and political sea reached the canny north-east of Scotland, though there they were watched with the deepest interest by local politicians like our hero, as significant indications of coming popular progress. In 1824, the brilliant, volcanic, but powerful "Manfred " died, an event that caused more than usual sympathy in Aberdeen, whose interest in poetry was certainly not very strong; for his mother belonged to the county, and in and round the city her son had passed some of his early days and gained many of his happiest inspirations.

In the same year, John Duncan left Aberdeen to wander over the country which stretches in sight of the mountain that towers so grandly in Byron's poetry, the dark Lochnagar. After his wife's conduct had so rudely shattered the sweetness of home, he at once broke up his house and fled from the scene which had witnessed his misery and her disgrace.

He now commenced a new phase of his life, by adopting a special variety of his trade, that of country weaver. Hitherto, since completing his apprenticeship, his work had been confined to towns, where he had weaved more or less in factories for the home and foreign markets. Now he was to become a household workman. His varied experiences from Drumlithie to Aberdeen had given him full insight into all sorts of work connected with his trade, both linen and woollen; so that he was now prepared to execute skilfully any kind of cloth he might be called upon to make.

Understand precisely, good reader, what kind of weaver John Duncan was now to become; for during the greater part of his life, he was an example of survival, which gives him additional interest. In this respect, as in many others, "old times were breathing there," with him, as with Wordsworth's Roman matron in humble life. He entered a class, now exceedingly rare in Scotland, though for generations, before the steam-engine and kindred inventions had extinguished so much of the past, universal in the country. They wove what was known as "homemade" or "hame'art-made" cloth, from the materials being prepared in the homes of the people, as distinguished from the manufactured goods of the factories; and they were therefore designated "home" and "country" and "customer" weavers.

In the olden days, when each parish, hamlet and glen had to be largely self-dependent and self-producing as to food, clothing and other needs of life, the weaver was as necessary a personage in the community as the smith and the carpenter, the minister and the schoolmaster. The father and sons sheared the sheep of the wool; the daughters prepared and spun it into thread at the birring wheel, and the thrifty mother, in the intervals of household work, either wove it into cloth herself (facts that still survive in the fine old words "spinster" and "wife"), or sent it to the weaver, called then by the nearly obsolete term of "webster" or " wabster." He received the thread thus spun by the hearthstone, wound it into warp, wove it into cloth of the kind and pattern desired, and sent it home again to the "customer," whose person and family were thus protected both by night and day, from the summer's heat and winter's cold, by these substantial home-produced stuffs.

It was this ancient order, with the poetry of Penelope and the sanctity of Scripture round it, that John Duncan now entered. It was this by-gone period of Scotch thrift, Scotch independence, and Scotch home life that he represented to the last, long after it had almost died out through the country. His life thus affords an interesting glimpse into the past, of a state of society admirable and beautiful in its time, with features of excellent industrial and moral quality, which the steam-engine and modern improvements have banished for ever.

Another very commendable feature in, this country life was this. During the autumn, when work in country districts became slack, from the general occupation of the people with the harvest, it was a common custom for weavers, as well as carpenters, smiths and others, to enter the harvest field, and take an autumn campaign in cutting down the standing army of cereals ; and it often formed part of the engagements of such labourers to be allowed to "gae to the hairst." Many went to the south and hired themselves on the larger farms there, returning at the end of the season with the fruits of their labours in heavier pockets. It was a practice at once healthy, remunerative and informing; for they saw the different parts of the land and extended their knowledge of the world. Of course, these were the days of the sickle, when the scythe was little used, and reaping machines had not been dreamt of in the north. The strange harvester that had taken shape in the quiet Forfarshire manse of Carmylie, and was first produced in what is now reckoned a rude embryonic form, by its clerical inventor, the Rev. Patrick Bell, in 1826, two years after John Duncan left Aberdeen, was long viewed with suspicion by conservative agriculturists, and did not become general for many years afterwards.

Of this health-giving field of labour John now took yearly advantage, gaining strength, money and knowledge, gathering medicinal plants, seeing new regions, making new friends, and gradually dispelling the malign effects of the sorrows through which he had recently passed.

Besides taking harvest yearly, and wandering in search of herbs, John varied his sedentary life by going at intervals to Aberdeen, to buy yarn for his work and books to satisfy his increasing intellectual thirst.

For many years, also, he went annually to Aberdeen to be trained as a soldier. About 1824, the time he broke up his house, he seems to have joined the militia, to relieve his mind from heavier thoughts, and swell his small purse. That being a time of wars and rumours of wars, even after the once omnipotent war-scourge had been caged in the rocky Atlantic isle to die there in 1821, this home force was then regularly drilled, in full complement, for a considerable period after peace was restored. During the French wars and long after, the ballot was in force, as it still can be in any emergency. Every able-bodied male was eligible to be drawn between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five; with certain exceptions, such as peers, professors, clergymen, parish schoolmasters, apprentices, etc., and, in Scotland, every poor man having more than two lawful children, or property under fifty pounds. This militia service being irksome to many persons, associations were formed, in each district throughout the country, for the accumulation of central funds to pay the requisite bounty to volunteers when any of their members wished to be relieved from duty, the general sum being five pounds, but, during the French wars, rising not unfrequently to forty.

John Duncan was once balloted, and twice offered himself as a volunteer for others, receiving for this the additional bounty of five pounds—a great sum to a poor weaver; helping him to meet the expenses of the daughters' upbringing, and buy some desired volumes from the old book shops in Aberdeen, which he used regularly to frequent, and where he picked up many a rare volume and pamphlet. From a letter addressed to him as "Private soldier, Aberdeen Militia," in 1825, he must have joined before that date. The militia were then drilled twice a year, once in early spring and again in the end of summer, a month at one time and six weeks at another, though, in times of peace, the militia require to be only twenty-eight days in the field. The commander of the corps was Colonel Gordon of Cluny (the father of the late John Gordon, Esq., of Cluny), known as the richest commoner in Scotland, a vigorous but kindly and popular officer, who, by the over-free use of his tongue when excited, could be "a gey coorse fellow whiles," as our soldier said. In 1826, John offered himself as substitute at Pitcaple on the Uric, in the parish of Chapel of Garioch, and in 1831—the year Thomas Edwards became a militia-man in Aberdeen, —he was attached to the "Aberdeen Militia regiment or battalion for the parish of Keithhall." In all, he continued connected with the service for some twenty years.

John liked the life and training, and made the most of them, attending to orders, and never having to get extra drill in the awkward squad, as he used to tell with pride. The effects of the drill upon the little man appeared in his firm step and erect bearing, traceable even in old age. Long after he had ceased soldiering, he used to shoulder a stick and show his paces in martial form before his more intimate friends. The solitary exhibition, in which he represented in his own person at once officer, private and battalion, gone through with great vigour, was, it seems, a sight to see, raising many a kindly laugh.

Drill was carried on in the courtyard of the barracks, and, when weather was favourable, on the extensive links that skirt the sea near Aberdeen, the scene where the "mad" Edwards rushed out of his ranks, in 1831, to chase a butterfly. Many of the men were very rough, but not a few were, according to their companion, "smug eneuch," that is, smart enough. He met much kindness from every one, he said, and the sergeant became a great friend of his, doing him good service when his wife troubled him about one of her children. Flogging was then not uncommon in the militia; indeed, it was not till 1814 that an enactment was made, authorizing courts-martial to inflict imprisonment instead of the lash! On more than one occasion, John witnessed its infliction, and he saw three men flogged in one day, for being intoxicated and giving insolence to their officers during drill. But he affirmed that a well-conditioned man was well treated in the militia, and had a good opportunity of doing well.

John used to relate some of his experiences as a soldier. The first time he saw a balloon was at an inspection, when one was sent up from the barracks, on the Queen's birthday, carrying a cat in the car, and bearing it south across the Dec. The crowd drawn by the spectacle was very great, and John was in danger of being crushed. On another occasion, he suffered more seriously.

Riots were then of frequent occurrence in the larger towns, chiefly through political excitement, and Aberdeen was no exception. A serious riot occurred there in 1802, at George the Third's birthday, when the soldiers were called out to quell the mob; another took place in December, 1831, when they burnt down Dr. Moir's Anatomical Theatre, one of the first of its kind in the north, generally known as the "Burkin' House," from the universal scare against anatomy excited by the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh, in 1828. It was in a Meal mob which took place before this, that Thom, the poet, was apprehended, and, while in prison, wrote his first poem, which was thus, as he calls it, "jail born," beginning,

"They speak o' wyles in woman's smiles."

At one of these birthday celebrations about this period, in which the rabble thought themselves entitled to license, and often indulged it to the danger of their quieter fellow-citizens, John went like others to see. The fun soon degenerated into serious disturbance, which raged round the town house and harbour, and the military had to be marched from the barracks to drive back the mob. John somehow got entangled in the crowd just as it was charged by the soldiers. One of them struck him with the butt end of his gun, saying with a fierce oath as he felled him to the ground, "That's deen for you, at ony rate!" It was a serious moment, which might have proved fatal and rendered this history unnecessary; for, apart altogether from the blow, he might have been trampled to death. John never related the . story without great seriousness and thankfulness at his escape. "Man," said he, "Whan I was fell't to the grund, I thocht I was nae mair. But on my hands and knees, like a cat, I managed to creep oot o' the mob." Happily his head was greatly saved by his thick militia cap, but even with it, he received a deep and painful wound which took long to heal. In this riot, several persons suffered severely and many were lodged in jail. John used to conclude his narrative with the natural remark, "I hae aye keepit oot o' mobs since syne." By this fierce blow, which might have been more disastrous, the occiput bones of his head were damaged, and he bore the deep mark to his dying day.

The district in which Duncan passed the remainder of his days, the extended period of fifty-seven years, was that part of middle Aberdeenshire that surrounds and is finely dominated by the far-seen and famous hill of Benachie. Though under seventeen hundred feet in height, it has the style of one of our greater mountains, from its isolation, contour, and volcanic-looking crest, which give it the picturesque name it bears, signifying in Gaelic, the Ben of the Pap, a not uncommon designation of mountains in the Highlands. It exhibits on every side a striking aspect, and from some points looks a splendid object in the landscape, catching the eye and centralizing the view from a long distance, all over this part of the country. It is a hill of which Aberdeenshire is justly proud, and it is celebrated in sweet song. It is the synonym of home and country to every one born under its shadow, the mention of the name drawing tears to the eyes of those long banished from it, as in the case of John Duncan's friend, Charles Black. To these two men it became, as Charles says, "what Lochnagar was to Byron," the sacred mountain of their lives, illuminated and consecrated by the halo of a thousand memories.

Benachic forms the centre of the great granitic outburst which rises through the Silurian rocks of middle Aberdeen. On the west, it looks into the fertile hollow of the Vale of Alford, of which the Benachic range is the eastern boundary. This range runs north and south, from Benachic, which forms its bold northern end, to Correnie Forest, where it overlooks Strath Dee. It is closely and in many places wildly wooded, except at its two extremities, which are bare and commanding. It is cut through from east to west at two points—by the River Don, which drains the Vale of Alford and seeks its narrow way through a curving glen that forms a huge rent right across the hills, from Castle Forbes to Monymusk; and by the more elevated glen of Tillyfourie, close and steep, through which the Alford Valley Railway has been carried—the river and the rail dividing the range into three nearly equal portions, and then meeting at both sides of the chain. The whole forms a fine series of hills, surrounded by countless scenes of uncommon beauty, commanding wonderful prospects of the level country below, and richly rewarding the geologist, mineralogist, and botanist who explore their hidden recesses, and not less the archeologist and historian who examine their interesting remains and historic sites. Benachie is to our story what Arthur's Seat is to Edinburgh, the Acropolis to Athens, or Mont Blanc to Chamouny.


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