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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter IX - His early life as a Country Weaver


FOR a short time John lived in the distant village of Aberchirder—known locally by the sweeter name of Foggieloan, or the Mossy Glade—away in the middle of Banff, on its elevated plateau overlooking the Deveron, not far from the church of Marnock, soon to become famous in Disruption times. Returning from Banffshire, he took up his residence for some years, between 1826 and 1832, at a place bearing the pastoral name of Longfolds. It lies on the plain immediately to the east of the Benachie hills, opposite the point where the Don bursts through them, a few miles north of Monymusk. It is in the middle of a beautiful, well-wooded, well-cultivated district, full of fine scenery, backed by the ever-charming mountains, which are headed by the fort-crowned Mithertap, as the crest of Benachie is piquantly styled, with its lower shoulder bearing the sonorous title of Craig-na-thunder.

It was a fine region to settle down in, the centre of much that is picturesque and interesting, and John was the very man to take full advantage of it. Here he made his first acquaintance with Benachie. He ascended to the cyclopean hill-fort on its top, and gazed on the country round, which was to become his home for life and the final resting-place of his bones. Close at hand, flowed the clear stream of the Don, skirted with noble trees and adorned with many a beautiful domain. A few miles distant, nestling amid parks of the baronial House of Monymusk famous for its reliquary, was the village of the name, with its ancient priory, its quaint, square old tower, its druidical circles and famous sculptured stone. About a mile farther south, hid amidst its extensive woods, stood old Cluny Castle, where his friend Charles Black was then, unknown to him, an apprentice gardener, from 1832 to 1834, from his nineteenth to his twenty-first year; the present imposing palace not being erected till 1836. Farther east, rose the old Flemish, turreted Castle Fraser, one of the finest specimens of the kind in Scotland. All these places, and many more that beautify the country, were speedily examined by Duncan, and the whole region, hill and hollow, fully explored.

One day, in returning home after one of his excursions in search of Culpepper's herbs, when daylight was on the wane, he thought he would lessen the distance by taking a short cut through a wood. It was strictly protected by the game-keeping laird, but, at that late hour, it might surely be risked ; and he entered the forbidden domain. He had not gone far when he spied the proprietor coming towards him at a curve in the path, without himself being seen. At once wheeling right about, he began to retrace his steps as if going in the opposite direction. He was immediately hailed, peremptorily called upon to stop, and roughly questioned as to his being there. John pleaded to be excused and to be allowed to proceed, on account of the lateness of the hour and the distance he had to go; but in vain. With several forcible expletives, he was told to return the way he came. This, with seeming reluctance, he at last did; and then tripped along with a merry heart in the very direction he wanted! In after years, when in high glee, he used to tell the story of how he had been too much for "the sanshauch [Aberdeenshire for "proudly disdainful," said by Jamieson to be from a Gaelic word of the same sound, meaning morose.] crabbit bodie o' a lairdie."

On a similar occasion, in the same neighbourhood, he was treated with more kindliness by the proprietor of Monymusk, also a great game-preserver, but, moreover, a lover of flowers. John was seeking for plants in a young wood, through which ran an old footpath, recently shut up. He thought himself secure from discovery in such a quiet corner, and felt, no doubt, that science ought to cover a multitude, if not of sins, at least of trespasses. But what was his surprise, when raising himself after groping for some herbs, to observe the very man he wished least to meet there, approaching on horseback, and too close for him to escape!" What do you want here, sir?" at once greeted his ears. John replied that, seeing there was a road that way, he thought he might follow it. The proprietor told him that it was now shut up, as he might have known from having to climb the fence. John replied that he would be obliged if he would show him the way to such and such a place, naming the one he wished to reach. This the proprietor agreed to do, won over by his mild manner, and, while conducting him, entered into conversation with him regarding the plants he was carrying. When he learnt the purpose of his trespass, the gentleman gave him full liberty to traverse any part of his forest without fear of challenge.

One of John's reminiscences here gives a vivid glimpse of the social life of the time. At that period, soap, it seems, was little used by the common people, from its being too expensive! John used to tell that, in many houses in which he lived, he got no soap to wash himself with; but instead of that, if he wished it, he could have the outside husks of corn when ground, known as "seeds," from which the nutritive gruel called "sowens" and a thin paste required in weaving were made. When rubbed in the hands with water, they raised a kind of saponaceous lather. This substitute he was generally unable to use, on account of the pain caused to the skin by the sharp-pointed scales, and he was fain to do without it. Several of his friends bear the same testimony, in the experiences of their youth, to the general want of what now seems a necessary of life. When John was calling one day on a farmer who lived above Monymusk, before he entered the house, he actually heard the rasping noise of the man shaving himself within! He had no soap on his face, and was shearing the stiff bristles of an old beard with a blunt razor, on the bare unmoistened surface! "Dear me!" exclaimed John, in real surprise; "wid ye no be better to use some sape to shave wi'?" The farmer, turning round, as the water trickled from his eyes with the sheer pain of the operation, replied, in unfeigned astonishment at such extravagance, "Na, na; sape's daar!" which, in the broad Aberdeen vernacular, signifies "no, no; soap's dear."

Another part of the same neighbourhood where he worked at the loom for some years, was on the north shoulder of Cairn William, which guards on the south the passage of the Don through these hills. Here he stayed at two places. One of them was the elevated farm of Cornabo, [Pronounced Cornabo, with accent on the last syllable.] seven hundred feet above the sea, commanding a glorious view across the well-wooded glen of the Don to Benachie, which reared its grand bulk right opposite. The other was at the mouth of the Slack Burn, which runs near it, at Milldourie, in the deep hollow below, where this stream joins the Don. Close by Milldourie, along the clear flowing Don, which is there enclosed in a narrow Highland glen, and between it and Monymusk, lies the beautiful spot known as Paradise. It was laid out in 1719, more than a hundred and sixty years ago, as a beautiful garden in the French style, with fruit and flowering trees, interspersed with forest timber, which were disposed according to a well-arranged plan, and it must then have formed a fair and fruitful scene. It is now only the skeleton of what it was, the forest trees alone remaining. The larch, spruce, and oak are unusually splendid, and are said to be unequalled in the north of Scotland. One circular group close by the river, enclosing seats for rest to pilgrim visitors, looks like a Temple of the Winds, with its encircling gigantic colonnade, amidst glorious umbrageous arbours, sheltered and secluded from the outer world by the towering mountains.

This was a favourite haunt of Duncan's, who used to describe it in after years as a wonderful spot, far more beautiful in his time than it is now. The wood on the hills round about was also more extensive than now; the present proprietor's grandfather having planted, it is said, fifty million trees in fifty years—a wise sower who has enriched his children by the superabundant harvest. Not far from Paradise, on the way to Monymusk, are the picturesque ruins of Pitfichie Castle, often passed by the brave little weaver in the dark, as he returned from herb-seeking rambles, despite its howlet cries and haunted chambers. Many a time, under the tall trees, did he watch the stars, brighter from the deepened blue of the sky as seen through the dense foliage, while he moved homewards to Milldourie ; these bright celestial letters being, as we shall see, as familiar to him as those of books, for he was now an ardent star-gazer. It was as sweet a secluded spot to live in as could well be found or imagined, dear to a solitary thinker like him; and it has long been cherished by the tourist and the pleasure-seeker as a retreat of unusual silvan and mountain beauty. It shelters, as such a spot is certain to do, not a few of our rarer plants; but at that period, John sought for plants merely for their secret virtues, though he returned to its botanical treasures a few years later, when his vision had been purged to clearer sight after meeting with Charles Black, at the other side of Cairn William.

One of his employers here, who had a weaving shop in connection with the farm, not unusual then, was a miserly old farmer, notorious in the district for his excessive greed. To save a bawbee, he was ready not only to scrimp his men, but to pinch himself to a degree incredible even in the annals of parsimony. He used to serve his ploughmen with the sourest of buttermilk, and when it was so far gone as to be refused by them with no muttered curses, his like-spirited housekeeper would come to her master, saying, "We'll better gae that buttermilk to the weyvers, for our men winna sup it." "Just sac," replied the churl; "and if they winna tak' it, I'll sup it mysal'!" continued "the nasty greedy glide," [The gled, an old Anglo-Saxon word for the kite.] an opinion with which John would righteously and indignantly conclude the tale.

In these places by Don side, John was pursuing several studies, of which more anon. Of these there was one in particular which he was strenuously endeavouring, with his hardening fingers, to conquer—the mysteries of "pokers, hooks and hangers," for it was only now that, by help of a copy-book, our student learnt to write. There is no evidence that he had done this before his thirtieth year, being contented for ten years with the newly discovered delights of reading. His copy-book now lies before me, as then written by him in August, 1830, that is in his thirty-sixth year. It contains a very good setting, by some skilled hand, of capital and small letters of various sizes, ending with the well-written, encouraging line, "Take care, and you'll write well." John's care is evident on every page, and his success, in view of his late beginning, encouraging and creditable. He also does a double stroke of scholastic business by writing out his Latin exercises—for he had attacked even the language of Rome—as a means of caligraphic practice.

What a curious commentary was all this private, studious toil, under the shade of the groves of this Paradise by the Don, on the beneficent curse of labour pronounced on our too feeble, unlettered progenitors in the Paradise on the Hiddekel! How long was it, it may be wondered, before the curse took the form of framing pothooks on papyrus by the young Jubals and Jabals of the pre-diluvial days ? To poor John, the Adamic ban, like the bitter herbs of Culpepper, became a blessing, and the best antidote to rankling sorrows.

When he left the banks of the Don, after residing near Monymusk for some years, he travelled farther north, by the great road that skirts the east side of Benachie, on to the banks of the Ythan, to a carding-mill at Rothie and a wool mill at Fyvie, where weaving was carried on. There also he was in a beautiful neighbourhood, for he seems always to have settled at places remarkable for natural attractions. There he frequented numerous scenes of loveliness and grandeur in wood, water, rock and keep: the wild den of Rothie; the ruins of Formartine Castle, on the precipice overhanging the struggling Ythan ; the Braes of Gight, the patrimony of Miss Gordon, Byron's mother; the villages round Fyvie, with the old churchyard where lies "Tiftie's bonnie Annie," of ballad broken-heartedness ; the site of the Mill o' Tiftie, where she lived with her cruel kindred; and the big baronial Castle of Fyvie, with its interesting story, of which John got a copy—altogether a region of great natural beauty, poetry, and romance.

Here John made the acquaintance of a worthy man, George Caughrie, then gardener at Rothie Norman, through whom he increased his acquaintance with plants, and whom he used to visit in after life. All his days, he made a point of gaining the friendship of gardeners wherever he went. They worked amongst the plants he now increasingly loved ; they also furnished him the means of obtaining herbs not indigenous to Britain, but required in his widening pharmacopoeia, and of practising his predilection for garden work, in which he used much to engage, and which became a pleasant alterative to his sedentary life.

He generally settled down for some time wherever he got weaving. He was reckoned a very good workman, and his employers often gave him a higher rate of wages than common. As Mr. Adams, of Rothie Mill, wrote him in 1841: "There are several who do not give this rate of wages, but I want good work, and I know you can give me that. Only, what I make for myself is one penny under the above rates." His simple tastes, quiet industrious habits, general intelligence, and unobtrusive well-regulated life always made him a favourite; so that he was generally asked to return, and was written for, if any particular kind of cloth was wanted.

Moreover, he set himself, with his usual earnestness and intelligence, to be a thorough master of his craft, both practically and theoretically. He studied the mechanics of the loom, and followed the rapid progress made in these through the extension of machinery. With this aim, he purchased at an early date, "Essays on the Art of Weaving," in two parts, by a namesake of his own, "inventor of the patent tambouring machine," published in Glasgow in 1807-8; "The Weaver's Assistant," by Alexander Peddie, published in 1817; and "Murphy on Weaving," a learned treatise with engravings, published in 1831, which he afterwards got strongly bound for regular use.


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