THOUGH thus self-contained
and self-absorbed, overmodest and retiring, and much misunderstood by his
neighbours in general, Duncan's influence over others was by no means small.
Of this we have already seen proofs in the progress of our story, and it
will be interesting to .adduce others in his later years.
He was never more truly
delighted than when communicating knowledge, *and, with the spirit of the
true lover of science, he was constantly trying to gain proselytes. But, in
the prevalent state of education and opinion in regard to such pursuits, his
success in making converts to Botany was not very great; and even with a
more public-spirited, less retiring man, could scarcely have been greater as
things then were. To John at times, notwithstanding his large hopefulness
and knowledge of his own endeavours, his life in this respect sometimes
seemed to have been spent in vain, though it was very far from being so. At
my first visit to him, when, in talking on this subject, he deprecated such
influence over others, Mrs. Allanach kindly broke out in his behalf: "Noo,
John, I maun tell on ye; ye hae had scholars, and a wheen o' them. There was
my ain son-in-law, and that clever loon doon the road there, noo a grand
teacher awa' in Ingland, wha baith used, mony a day, to come to you wi'
their bits o' floors and girses; and many a lauch I hae had at ye a', as ye
stud at the door there i' the gloamin', lookin' at the unco' things and
gabbin' over them to nae end!"
The first of John's disciples
here referred to was John M. B. Taylor, already mentioned. He was a
farm-servant in the Vale of Alford, and for a time at Tillychetly on the
Leochel, opposite Droughsburn. He first made the botanist's acquaintance in
1871, when he saw his herbarium. At once he felt, as he says, "a peculiar
charm in the man and his studies that struck a high-sounding chord in his
nature." In May, 1872, he took some schoolboys to the rare weaving shop,
when the old man delightedly showed them his plants and described their
peculiarities and discovery, till it was time to leave. John then
accompanied them homewards, according to his kindly practice, and the young
folks •indulged on the way in the unwonted pleasure of gathering the wild
flowers by the roadside, and bringing them to be named by John, who spoke
also of their medicinal properties. At parting, he talked earnestly to the
ploughman of the joys of Botany, the charm it had been to himself in his
loneliness, the contentment it had imparted in his lowly life, and his
delight in solitary wanderings in search of his favourites, all uttered in
what seemed to the young man a vein of "true poetry."
Taylor was now thoroughly
"bitten" with the subject, and set himself to its systematic study under
John's guidance. He commissioned his tutor that autumn to bring him a
text-book from Aberdeen, which he did with pleasure, "Brook's Introduction
to the Linnwan System." He visited the weaver at all spare hours, and went
systematically into the study by reading books which John lent him. When
John gave him the loan of any book, he was accustomed to say, "Noo, Johnnie,
lad, dinna be over wed-fashioned wi't ; be ill fashioned. Look in atween the
brods and see fat's in't. There's some fowks sac weelfashioned wi' books
that they never open them."
In the mid-winter of 1873,
John went to his garden and brought his scholar a Christmas rose, saying, "Tak'
that i' yer han', and gin ony o' the ploughmen chiels speir fat it is, say
it's Helleborus nib er, and ye'll sta' them wi' sic a name."
The following summer, Taylor
made his first collection of plants, of considerable number, which he named
and arranged according to Linnaus. He now paid weekly visits to Droughsburn.
His delight in plants so increased that, to have as much time as possible
with the botanist, he used to leave the farm at once without supper when
work was over—a bowl of milk and bread being, however, placed by the kindly
kitchen-maid to wait his late return, in the hay-loft where he slept.
At these visits, they used to
hunt for plants in the long summer nights, John telling their common and
technical names, peculiarities of structure, and medicinal and other
properties, and seasoning his talk with much fun and humour, stories of his
adventures, and good advice. This pleasant intercourse continued for several
years, and Taylor says he never brought a plant to John which he was unable
to name and describe. John's remarkable memory struck him, as it did all
that knew him, with his familiar knowledge of the localities where he had
found plants. One evening, John and he set out to search for a certain
species at some distance, but by the time they reached the spot, darkness
had come down, and nothing could be seen. The eager old botanist,
nevertheless, knew the place so well, though he had not been there for a
year or two and though the plant had just appeared above ground, that he
found it---after groping in the dark on hands and knees—and presented it to
The botanical garden at the
cottage was a frequent means of instruction and study, and every plant there
was-examined and .described.
Taylor's progress was rapid
and secure, and all holidays, of which he had only two in the year, were
devoted to science. In time, he formed a more complete herbarium. To extend
his knowledge of the flora of the country, in 1875 he spent some time in
Forfarshire, where John's. intimate knowledge of the country and the
stations of plants= there proved of the highest service to him. Since then,
Taylor has advanced in Botany, and now possesses a very good knowledge of
it, both practical and theoretical. He has accumulated a collection which
includes, it appears, most of the flowering plants, ferns, and grasses of
Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine, as also species from the north of England,
where he has also botanised.
His studies have not been
confined to Botany. He has gathered specimens in Archoeology, Geology, and
Mineralogy. In 1869, he began Phrenology, which he studied both practically
and theoretically for years, in books and on the heads of his friends. From
1871 to 1876, he made a series of Meteorological observations, in which John
was much interested. He also studied Astronomy with great. earnestness,
securing assistance and 'encouragement from the old star-gazer; and. in
1872, he made observations in the Vale, for the "Astro-Meteorological
Society" of London. Since that, he has gone more or less into several
branches of Natural History, as shells, insects, and animals, of which he
has a good selection. He has passed the Science and Art examinations in
Botany, Geology, Animal Physiology, and Practical and Theoretical Chemistry.
Altogether, he has developed, under the extraordinary difficulties that
beset poverty and lowly condition in the country, remarkable aptitude and
enthusiasm for the natural sciences. As he gratefully acknowledges, he
received his first and deepest impulses towards these from John Duncan.
Some years ago, he abandoned
farm labour, and gave a realistic account of his experiences in a book
called "Eleven Years at Farm Work: a True Tale of Farm-Servant Life from
1863 onwards." In 1876, after marrying a daughter of Mr. Allanach's, whom he
had met in his visits to Droughsburn, he removed to Aberdeen. There lie was
engaged for some years in several employments, and occupied his leisure in
writing for the newspaper press and in prosecuting science.
He is now assistant in the
Public Library of Paisley, having been recommended to that post by an Irish
professor, who examined his private collections. It is to be hoped that his
scientific knowledge and enthusiasm will ere long be utilized in connection
with some museum or other similar institution, in which he would be an
undoubted gain. His affection and respect for Duncan are deep and permanent.
From the first, he perceived the genuine worth and ability hid beneath the
unpromising exterior of the old weaver. From Mr. Taylor, I have gained more
regarding John than from any other friend.
In the Vale of Alford, there
lived another farm-servant, a friend of Taylor's, but somewhat older, called
William D. H. Deans. With exemplary diligence and perseverance, under trying
difficulties and ill health, he went to Aberdeen University—the nursing
mother of thousands of her able but humble sons—and in due time took his
degree. Though adorned with academic honours, he did not forget his old
friends in the Vale, but, amongst other kindly services, used to assist his
struggling companion, Taylor, in his neglected education; guiding his
English studies, correcting exercises for him by post, and introducing him
to Latin, to help him in botanical nomenclature. Deans determined to devote
himself to teaching as a profession, in which lie had engaged during his
In 1868, while conducting a
school at Lethenty, in Fyvie, in Aberdeenshire, he was introduced by the
parish minister, the Rev. Gavin Lang, [Now of Inverness.] to an earnest
botanist, the Rev. William Lytteil, [Author of "Landmarks of Scottish Life
and Language," 1877.] then officiating at a church near the Cross of
Jackson, who possessed a good herbarium, specially rich in grasses and
ferns. Under him, Deans began Botany both in the book and in the field. In
order to help him to do it in proper form, he bought Balfour's "Outlines" of
the science, and a vasculum. That summer, he returned to his mother's house
at Alford, and began its independent study. In coming home one evening after
seeking for plants, he met a neighbouring farmer, who, when he saw his
unwonted vasculum and its contents, said: "Weel, Willie, man, ye su'd gang
up tae the aul' weyver abeen the burn, for he's near wud aboot plants and
floo'rs; and some o' the fowk up yonder say he's whiles up gin four o' the
mornin', wan'erin' aboot the stanks and dike-sides aifter them." This was
the first time he had heard of John, though the weaver had then lived
sixteen years by the Leochel! Willie at once conceived a strong desire to
become acquainted with him, especially when he now learned his enthusiasm
Shortly after this, while at
Alford cattle market, Deans observed, as he writes, "an aged man standing in
the centre of the fair, neat, clean, dressed in a blue home-spun coat with a
large collar and brass buttons, and leaning upon a large blue umbrella."
Assured, from descriptions he had got, that this was the botanist he sought,
he introduced himself to John, who received him with a kindly smile, saying,
"Ay, laddie, fat dae ye dee and far dae ye bide?" The young man, having
satisfied him on these points, told him how he had been working at Botany
for five or six weeks, and said he would be greatly obliged for his kindly
assistance in the . science. They at once entered into earnest
confabulation, personal and botanical, and John finished with some counsels
about the plants and a warm invitation to meet him next day at Droughsburn.
With a collection of wild
flowers in his hand, William entered the weaver's. curious domain at the
appointed hour, and found him at his loom, the clatter of which had guided
him to the door. John at once ceased work, and with wonted care, spreading a
sheet of brown paper on the web at which he was working and a newspaper over
that, asked him to lay out his plants there. Then, after arming himself with
"Hooker and Arnott" and "Dickie," he reseated himself at the loom, while the
young student sat by, and they began the examination of the specimens. This
was a long but interesting process, names, structure, properties, and
adventures being variously intermingled. John's odd pronunciation of the
technical terms at once tickled the ears of the collegian, just fresh from
university benches. The writing of the names from` his dictation was
"downright Thracian," as he says, John trying the spelling letter by letter,
but giving it up, and asking him to "look at the buik." In due time, Deans
secured the names of the plants he brought, and got instructions in regard
to gathering, drying, laying down, and other mysteries of practical Botany.
When he left, John accompanied him up the hill above the cottage, naming and
describing all the plants they saw, till they reached the summit. There he
sat down beside a marsh,. and asked his companion to "look aboot'm." The
place was covered with the purple flowers of the Common Butterwort (Pinguicula
vulgaris), John's pronunciation of the Latin being exceedingly amusing. When
this had been examined and commented on, John asked the hour; bade him
good-bye, and hastened homewards down the hill, shouting back to his young
friend not to be Long before coming back again.
A day or two after this, John
himself called at Mrs. Deans' house, about six in the morning, saying he
would return about seven that evening. He travelled a long distance to his
former haunts at Keig and Tough, delivering to customers some "cloutie
coverings" he had finished, but duly appeared on the road near the house at
the hour named. The young student, who had been looking out for him with
pleasant anticipations, at once went to meet him, and found him brisk and
blithe, with a fine flower of the White Ox-eye (Cirysantlaelnum
leucantlzelnum) stuck gaily in his button-hole—and a beautiful flower it is,
commonplace as it is counted, surpassing many of our lauded garden asters.
Holding up a parcel he carried, he exclaimed, "Sal, lad, I hae something
here for ye!" As they walked towards the cottage, John directed his
attention to the flower in his coat, and described the structure of the
composite order, of which it is a very good, clear example. While tea was
being prepared by the good mother, John, ever careful of the fragments of
time, asked the lad to show his recent gatherings and get them named till
the kettle boiled. After tea, which revived him greatly, being somewhat worn
out by his long journey, the naming was resumed. This was accompanied by a
varied commentary, scientific, social, and personal, all interesting and
picturesque, as suggested by the plants. When this was finished, he opened
the parcel he had himself brought, and described specimens of the rarer
kinds, which he promised to "divide wi'" Willie after he had pressed them,
when he came up to see him at the Droichs burn.
At subsequent visits,
botanical investigations were continued, the mysterious boxes—shown only to
the worthy—were opened, the books looked over, the herbarium untied, weaving
described, and early memories of his life related. As their intimacy grew,
they met twice or thrice every week. They botanised together all over the
country round Alford and along the banks of the Don. Under John's direction,
Deans also visited many of John's early haunts; amongst others, Castle
Forbes, Monymusk, and Benachie. John often visited Mrs. Deans' cottage on
Sunday evenings, to have a cup of tea and talk with her son. At such times,
his conversation never touched on Botany, but was confined to religious,
political, and social themes, in which he wished to interest the young
student. lie used to deplore "the decay of modern preaching," and to bemoan
the general run of sermons as "a rigmarole of ecclesiastical phrases"—a
criticism, it is to be feared, too often merited.
In time, Mr. Deans left for a
school in Stoke-on-Trent, and he is now head master of a successful
upper-class school at Clifton, near Bristol; being the "grand teacher awa in
Ingland," referred to by Mrs. Allanach. He recalls his ancient botanical
tutor with gratitude and appreciation.
Droughsburn is situated on
the large farm of Dorsell, which lies on the slope of the valley above the
road skirting the Leochel, and was then leased by Mr. McCombie, the
celebrated cattle-breeder of Tillyfour up the Leochel, brother of the
editor. To Dorsell, in i866, there came to learn Scotch farming, a young
Swede, about thirty, called Hans J. Samson, belonging to Gothenberg. He was
pleasant, intelligent and bright, had been well educated, being able to read
Latin, and was a general favourite. He took lessons in English from the Rev.
Andrew Christie, then schoolmaster of Alford, now parish minister of
Kildrummic on the Don, and he could use the language very creditably.
The rough ploughmen with whom
Hans worked used sometimes to visit Duncan, having encountered him on the
road and met him at harvesting; and they laughed at his eccentricities, and
especially at the droll names he gave the weeds. They told Samson about the
botanical weaver, and accompanied him one evening'to the weaving shop, to
get some fun, as they said, out of "the queer cretur." But their merriment
received an unexpected check from their companion. To their surprise, he
entered earnestly into all that was said and shown by the old man. They
never returned with him there, as it was evidently useless for their
purposes; for the Swede was "tarred wi' the same stick" as the man of weeds.
He took to John immensely, studied Botany with him, and visited him
frequently. John spoke highly of him to me, and had great pleasure in his
company, delighted as he was at all times to gain a convert to his beloved
science. They made some botanical journeys together, and became great
friends during the year the young Swede remained on the farm. As John said,
"Hans was unco' fond to hear about the floo'rs and their names, and to talk
about his great countryman." At the mention of Carl Linn6's name, he "would
hae jumpit shortly," John said; that is, he would start from his seat with
enthusiasm. He made considerable progress in Botany, and could by-and-by
decipher a plant with a little help from his aged tutor.
The purpose of Mr. Samson's
bucolic companions was thus pleasantly frustrated, in a way that issued in
pleasure and profit to himself, and helped to cheer the old man's latter
days with the too rare joys of sympathy in his solitary and misunderstood
pursuits. Samson left Dorsell for England, to prosecute his agricultural
studies under eminent farmers there.. He then returned to Sweden, but his
subsequent history I have been unable to trace.
Dr. Williams' memories of
John and his plants are pleasant and appreciative, recalling him from
earliest boyhood, when he used to come to church, as already told. "How he
loved Botany," he exclaims, "and how he enjoyed it, few could believe.
Truly, in that respect, John Duncan was a most remarkable exemplification of
what the humblest student of nature may become. To a botanist, a visit to
John's out-of-the-way abode was quite a treat; and I have a lively
recollection of John at home. Of course, one would find him weaving--a
process that was to me new and interesting. The first visit, therefore,
began with a demonstration in weaving. Thereafter, with evidently no
reluctance, John went over with me pile after pile of his laortus siccus.
Every specimen had its history, noted in his memory. The local floral
resources he had exhausted, and could tell where any rare specimen was to be
found. If he had it to spare, he seemed to have great pleasure in parting
with a specimen, nor was he slow to give away a sample of a rare plant.
Thinking medicinal plants suitable for me, as a medical student, he gave me
a specimen, which I still possess, of Atropa belladonna, Deadly Nightshade.
He called it 'Atropia Beldonia,' but what did it matter, though he
occasionally mispronounced these neck-breaking names? Time to spare for
interested visitors John seemed to have in abundance.
"That first visit was to me a
rare treat, and is still vividly recalled. The man himself, compared with
his circumstances and surroundings, was perhaps a greater rarity than his
rarest specimens. Many a brown study have I had of him and the curious place
he worked in. Then, John always saw his friend a good way along the road,
when the visit was ended, bidding him `haste ye back.'"
Dr. Williams' cousin, the
Rev. George Williams, from -whose reminiscences of the botanist we have
already gleaned, also recalls him from childhood, where he came to church
and used to speak to the children and to his father about "the lilies of the
field how they grow." Afterwards, while he was attending college, John tried
to induce him to begin the serious study of plants. "He brought me,"
Williams says, "a book to help me in the subject. He pulled a buttercup to
pieces, and explained its parts very carefully and minutely. I resolved to
begin discovering for myself the names of the commonest wild plants. I began
with Ragweed; but, alas! the florets of the disc, which I mistook for the
petals, and the florets of the ray for the stamens, would not correspond
with the book. I tried another of the Composita,, with like results. I got
disheartened, and returned the book to John, at the same time telling him
that I had no time for Botany. I think lie was vexed. If I had told him my
difficulty, he would have been so glad to remove it and to instruct me
further; but I did not, and so my technical botanical studies ended.
"I called one day on John at
Droughsburn," he continues. "We discussed the weather, crops, and church
news. In a few minutes, John had dragged me to his wonderful patch of
cultivation—his garden. He told me a great deal about the plainest-looking
weeds. Amongst other things, he plucked a bit of common Yarrow (Achillea
millefolZum), and told me that the plant was once called `Eerie,' as lasses
used to take it and put it in their breasts as a charm, repeating this
'Eerie, eerie, I do pluck
And in my bosom I do put;
The first young lad that speaks to me,
The same shall my true lover be.'
"I suggested that `eerie'
might be a corruption of 'yarrow;' or that it might be the Scotch word
`eerie,' meaning timorous, because the girl would go tremblingly and
timorously to pluck and place the charm in her breast. John at once
exclaimed, ' Oh, man, that's it! '
" He had a plant called
`Humility,' or Aaron's Beard, [Saxifraga sarvzentosa, a Chinese species of
Saxifrage, having flowers like the other known as "London Pride" (Saxifraga
umbrosa), a Lusitanian species, now wild in some places in Britain.] which
he said was so called because it threw out long tendrils which hung down
over the margin of the pot where it was suspended. `But,' added John,
`Aaron's beard was nae larger than Moses' beard, as far as we ken;' and then
he quietly repeated the first verse of the psalm..
'Like precious ointment on the
`Which down the beard did flow,
Even Aaron's beard, and to the skirts
Did of his garments go.'
'So you see,' he continued,
`Aaron's beard went down to the skirts o' his garments.' I think the old
high priest sank considerably in his estimation when I pointed out that it
was the oil, and not the beard, which flowed down to the skirts.
"I was speaking to him one
day about the colours of flowers, and mentioned that the sweet scents and
pretty petals attracted insects, whereby the flowers were fertilised. 'Ay,'
said he, `they're attractive to wee flees as well as to us. But some o' the
flees are killed by them.' This led him to describe the irritability of the
stamens in some plants, and he ended by saying, `There's nae moray o' them
sac cruel, though.' I replied, `they all hang out their colours and give out
their sweets for a selfish end.' 'Na, na,' he replied, `they're jist like
the lads and lasses, dressin' themsel's bonnilic to get a sweetheart;' and
he went away, laughing heartily at the conceit.
"We were talking one day, on
the way from church, about the death of an acquaintance, when he very
solemnly remarked, 'Floo'rs come up oot o' the caul' grun' gradually in
spring; man will be raised up suddenly full blown." The remark was in
accordance with the generally hopeful view the old man took of things."
On another occasion, Mr.
Williams was passing Droughsburn and met the old botanist near the cottage.
"It's a fine day this," said John. "Yes, John, a very fine day." "But we're
sair necdin' rain," John went on. "The flees are busy nibblin' awwa' the
neeps." "Does rain kill them?" asked his young friend. "Na," replied John,
"I dinna think that; and even gin it did droon them, they're sae breedy that
ac generation o' them, greedier than the last, wu'd spring tip wi' the first
blink o' sunsheen. The rain maybe doesna kill them, but it gars the neep
grow till it gets ower hard for the beesties' teeth." "What havoc farmers
suffer from these small creatures!" remarked Mr. Williams. "Ay, ay,"
consented John; "gin they were as big as hares, we cu'd gae oot an' shoot
them wi' guns and trap them like rabbits; nae game laws cu'd prevent that.
But they're sae sma' cattle ; catchin' them winna pay ony mair nar clippin'
"Is work brisk just now,
John?" "Oh, weel," replied he, "I've aye plenty to dee. `Swift as a weaver's
shuttle' is an auld sayin'; but ye canna keep the guidwives frae grumblin'
awa' and ca'in' me lazy ; just as gin they hadna ac steek o' cla'es to cover
their backs wi' till I tak' their wabs tae them." "Are you not often
wearied, doing the same thing over and over again?" "Ow, na," briskly
returned he. "The wark wud be gey an' wearisome gin the min' were tied
till't. But the min's free like the shuttle, and sae it can rin aboot here
and there, back and fore, ding dang."
Here Mr. Williams mentioned
the names of the greatest African traveller and a distinguished Aberdeen
philosopher, who had -either been weavers or connected with weaving in their
early days, and thereby shed honour on the loom. "Just sae," consented the
old weaver, proud of his trade, "oor wark mak's us greater by ord'nar'; or a
gey sicht less." "And you have turned to plants and flowers," pursued Mr.
William, "to keep your mind green?" John brightened up at the mention of his
favourites, but with his usual deprecation of personal praise, quietly
assented; "the smell and sicht o' them drives the dust o' the shoppie oot o'
the lungs, nae don't." "I wish I knew as much about Botany as you do, John,"
vainly sighed the young man. "Ye micht soon ken a hantle [Literally a
handful, hence a considerable quantity.] mair ner me, gin ye wu'd set yersel'
till't. Thae lang names pit me oot files, but ye wu'd ken the meanin's o'
them and min' them better." "The scientific terms and meanings are almost of
no use," rightly remarked his friend, "until the things meant are known." "Weel,
weel," wisely and encouragingly urged the real educationist John was; " pu'
and look, read and speir, and never fear!"
He then began to show Mr.
Williams some of his favourite plants, "bits o' floories" as he called them.
"This .ane," he went on to explain, "I got at A," mentioning the name of the
place where he had obtained it. "That ane I pu'd and brocht hame frae B.
Here's ane ye winna see ilka day; I had a gey ca'in' afore I got my neeves,
on him. I wis he may grow doon here; but the snell air and mountain dew suit
his constitution best. I got him awa' up on the hill 'o' C. This wee bit
thingie's nae thrivin'. I got it in a hedge at D. Weel, weel, they're a'
wild, as ye say, but I'm tamin' them; killin' some o' theml;nae doo't i' the
process, but kind to them a'. Here's a girse I carried frae E; there's lots
o't near your hoose." And so the good old enthusiast went on, showing and
speaking of what was dear to him and must be interesting, he thought, to
every one that heard him.
Then the conversation drifted
to other matters, and amongst these, the affairs of the Cushnie Free Church.
Of a preacher they had lately heard, John observed, "He mak's awfu' moo's; I
liket him better when I didna leuk at'm." The old man accompanied the young
minister along the road, as he was wont, and after a hearty "good-bye, and
haste ye back!" he returned to his quiet hollow.
The medical students from
Aberdeen, in their botanical excursions, used sometimes to call on John, and
he has led them on occasions to the spots where the rarer species grew. But
" puir fallows," said he, "they cu'dna stand my walkin' at a'; they had ower
thin boots. But fat cu'd you expect frae thae young loons?"
The Rev. David A. Beattie,
the first Free Church incumbent at Cushnie and John's minister for eight
years, used to visit him frequently, and was much interested in his uncommon
parishioner. "In his lowly home," he says, "he was all sunshine when
conversation led to his favourite study. I remember once, after speaking to
him of Christ as the `True Vine' and His culture of the branches (John xv. i),
how he warmed to the theme, and, ere I left, took me to see his little plot
of rare plants, a wonderful and miscellaneous 'gathering from all parts.
There he showed his full acquaintance with the blossoms that smile on us in
the garden and on the wayside, and he gave abundant evidence of his conquest
over botanical terms, which showed hint to be an earnest student, ardently
scientific while intelligently devout. As a botanist, he showed unwearying
diligence in collecting facts and noting phenomena; but he did not search
merely for cold, abstract, inexorable laws, but owned the Rose of Sharon and
the Lily of the Valley. He grasped his Bible tightly while repeating along
with me the words `All flesh is grass—but the word of the Lord endureth for
ever.' His love of Botany as a specialist was great, and every discovery
bearing on it filled him with delight."