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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter XXIV. Characteristics

Robert Dick died early. Yet he had lived more than most men. He had worked hard to obtain knowledge. He had worked hard for the love of science. He did not work for his honour and glory. He gave freely to others, without any thought of, reward. In this respect he was entirely self-sacrificing.

We have said that his youth was unhappy. His mother died when he was a boy, yet he remembered her to the day of his death. After that he suffered injustice which threw a shadow over his future life. There was no gentleness about his bringing-up. Eor relief he went to the fields and the mountains, and fell in love with the beauties of nature. The taste never loft him.

The tears of childhood soon dry up, and then begin the sighs of manhood. But Dick, though brought up to a life of hard work, was never daunted. He tried to make the best of his life, such as it was. When he settled at Thurso, he again threw himself into nature. Though baffled in his affections, he forgot his sorrow in his strivings after knowledge. His natural disposition, though thwarted, was never soured.

The sea was his delight. He wandered along the shores, and found things rich and beautiful and full of wonder. Though he wandered about solitary, he had no time for melancholy dreams. Every flower melted him, every star touched him, even every beetle engraved itself upon his mind. He was a reverent man. Unbelief is blindness, but his mind was all eyes, and his imagination was full of light, and life, and being.

The earth became to him, in a measure, transparent. It drew him out of the narrow sphere of self-interest. Everywhere he saw significances, laws, chains of cause and effect, endlessly interlinked. He could not theorise about what he saw. He wanted the true foundation— facts. “Let us have facts,” he said, “real, certain, unmistakable facts; there can be no science without them.”

Geology was at first a great mystery to him. It seemed to him, as it really was, a revelation of the physical conditions of the by-past world. The rocks near Thurso spoke to him of a time when the Coccosteus, large and small, covered with berry bones—the Osteolepis, with enamelled bony scales—the wrinkled ganoid Holoptychius, the gigantic Asterolepis, covered with star scales—had ranged at will over the length and breadth of Caithness.

All these had, at some remote period, been destroyed by violent death,—either by a sudden retirement of the sea, or by a sudden uplifting of the land. Platforms of death rose one above another, story above story, the floor of each bearing its record of disaster and sudden confusion. Wide areas of seas were depopulated, but the dead fish remained. They were left in the mud. The mud and fish became Caithness flag—now the support of a large population. “Thus Thurso itself,” said Dick, “is built of dead fish.”

But that time passed away, and the sea went rolling over Caithness. Ponderous glaciers went grating along the mountain sides of the Scaraben range, grinding its rocks down into clay, and strewing the deep-sea bottom with gigantic boulders. Amongst the boulders and boulder clay, which forms a large part of the county of Caithness, Dick found the numerous marine shells which have been described in the previous pages.

All this was very mysterious to Dick. The preoccupancy of the seas by the fishy tribes, and the present joint tenancy of the land by man and the lower creation, were two striking facts which strongly impressed his imagination. Might not this be the first cycle of the geological manifestation of the globe; or rather the first of a series of cycles, at whose close the existing races of living beings, and the gorgeous fabrics of national vanity, shall yield their haughty relics to the sport and desolation of the elements,—when new heavens and a new earth shall replace the ruins of a world?

Although Dick devoted a great part of his spare time to botany, it was to geology that he devoted so large a share of his attention. It was MantelTs Wonders oj Geology that first attracted him to the subject; then Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise, and after that Hugh Miller’s Old Red Sandstone. He had already found the fossil bones of the Holoptychius, the gigantic ganoid fish of the Old Eed, before he became acquainted with Hugh Miller. He sent the specimen to Edinburgh, and received Hugh’s warm acknowledgments. The correspondence between them at length ripened into a warm intimacy, and Dick continued to send to Miller, as long as he lived, the best of his findings among the fossil fish of Caithness. “Indeed,” says Mr. Peach, “Dick was Hugh’s greatest benefactor, and gave him more solid assistance than any other person.”

Dick was one of the most unselfish of men. He made every one free to his stores of knowledge. He gave freely, without any hope of reward. He had no jealousy, no mean rivalry. Though he hammered and chiseled for fossils, sometimes at the risk of his life, he sent everything that was valuable to Hugh Miller— everything that was calculated to establish his views, and to turn his gathered treasures to account in the establishment of scientific truth. “ But for him,” says one of his friends, “and his sedulous and faithful attachment to Hugh Miller, in the capacity of ‘lion’s provider ’ (as was sometimes jocularly remarked between themselves), the Footprints of the Creator might never have been written; or at least, being written, the great culminating points in the argument would have been shorn of their force and power; and the principal facts, and the greater portion of the descriptive geological groundwork of the volume, would have been wanting.” By Mr. Dick’s specimens of the then unknown fish, Hugh Miller was enabled to identify the great Russian

Chelonichthys with the Asterolepis of the Caithness beds, and to reconstruct to a certain extent this monster of the primeval seas. Agassiz says that the remains of the Asterolepis found by Mr. Dick at Thurso indicate a length of from twelve feet four to thirteen feet eight inches. It was the occurrence of this monster among the vertebrates at such an early period of the world’s history, that gave Hugh Miller the key-note to that elaborate argument, by which he endeavoured to controvert the development theory of Oken, Lamark, and the author of the Vestiges of Creation.

Mr. Dick not only provided the fragments by means of which the structure of the Asterolepis was wrought out—especially the small medium plate in the cranial buckler, immediately over the eyes, which Professor Sedgwick immediately recognised as “the true finish,”— but he discovered the peculiar dental apparatus of the palate of the Dipterus,and he detected the ichthyodorulite of the Homocanthus, which, though already found in the Old Red, were not previously known to exist in Scotland.

Hugh Miller was always most ready to acknowledge his obligations to Robert Dick. “He has robbed himself to do me service,” said Hugh Miller. And yet Dick was so modest and unassuming, that he shrank with the utmost sensitiveness from everything like publicity. He had no idea of making himself famous. On the contrary, he “blushed to find it fame” that he had gone out of the ordinary track and done anything worthy of being recorded in scientific books. He was willing, like Keats, that his name should be “writ in water.” “I am a quiet creature,” he said to Hugh Miller, “and do not like to see myself in print at all.” When Sir Roderick Murchison made the eulogistic speech about him at Leeds, he said, “That speech has got me into a great deal of trouble.” And when Mr. Peach went to the British Association at Aberdeen, Dick said to him, “Pray, do not mention me; if anybody asks about me, say that I am well; I want to be let alone.” “His unassuming modesty,” said Sir George Sinclair, “was as conspicuous as the wonderful amount of his knowledge.”

It would be hard to imagine a more devoted lover of science, or a more ardent and unselfish seeker-out of knowledge for its own sake. His success in this respect lay in his earnestness, his enthusiasm, and his persistent perseverance. Though a solitary man, the ardour and purity of his devotion to science saved the health of his moral and mental nature, and enabled him to live to the end of his days, cheerful, happy, and human-hearted. His pursuits elevated his nature, and bore him up against the petty annoyances of the world.

The amount of voluntary labour which Dick imposed upon himself, in pursuit of his favourite sciences, is something incredible. Every nook and cranny of the county was familiar to him. The bleak bluff rocks of Dunnet Head were as familiar to him as the shores of Thurso Bay. The hills of Morven and Scaraben were his playgrounds. In summer time, and even in winter, he wandered far and near, always alone. He walked by night to Preswick and Dunbeath in search of the boulder clay and its marine shells. He wandered up Strath

Halladale in the moonlight, and came home, across th6 hills, by Braalnabin, to Thurso. Or he would walk across the country, over bog and mire, to Morven top, and he hack in time for his day’s baking. He hammered among the rocks at Murkle Bay until the moon shone clear in the water. He clambered up and down the rocks at Dunnet Head in search of ferns. In the early mornings, in spring, he went up the banks of the Thurso river to see the flowers unveiling themselves before the light of sunrise. The hills about Reay were among his favourite haunts. There he transplanted the ferns which he had brought from Dunnet Head, so that they might he cheering the wandering botanist when he himself, as he said, was “ out of time.”

Labour was an absolute necessity for him. “I find it utterly impossible,” he said, “to be idle. There is nothing for me but regular labour. If I cannot find any ordinary work to do, I must invent some extraordinary work. I could not be, and would not be, what the world calls a gentleman—that is, standing idle—even though I were paid for it. The mind must be employed, even though what occupies it is doomed to come to an end and pass away into nothingness, and we ourselves with it.”

The intellectual labours of men such as Dick are often spoken of as the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties; but they are also the pursuit of knowledge under pleasure. We forget the delight which accompanies the discovery of a new fact, and the enlightenment of a mind thirsting for knowledge. This was one of the greatest pleasures of Dick’s life. We forget also the elevating and purifying effects of searching after truth. In pursuing knowledge, he was merely serving his higher nature.

Nor did he ever make a parade of what he knew. He was modest and retiring. Others sought him, not he them. He thought, like Newton, that all that we know was as but mere shells on the sea-shore, compared with what must ever remain unknown. And yet those who were admitted to his intimacy were surprised at the amount of knowledge he had acquired.

“It was impossible,” says Dr. Shearer, “for one coming into the merest casual contact with him not to catch up some portion of his own vivid enthusiasm in natural science; and no man was ever better fitted by nature as a luminous and gifted expounder of scientific truth. His conversation was so rich that one always came away surfeited.”

“He combined in himself rare powers of original research, and an amazing industry in the pursuit of truth, with a sweet and winning eloquence which was all his own. His collection of the British Flora is almost unique in its completeness. Looking at the difficulties he encountered in collecting it, his herbarium is an extraordinary tribute to his diligence, skill, and long-continued perseverance.”

Dick diligently applied himself to the study of all that lay around him. He noted with wonderful accuracy the lie of a country. He marked upon the map that he carry about with him the faults, and dips, and dislocations of the strata; thus correcting the statements of previous geologists. He was not satisfied with accepting the statements and adopting the conclusions of others. He would not take anything for granted that he could see and observe for himself. When his views as to the nature of the fossil fish, as explained by Hugh Miller, were disputed by scientific men, he said, “Why can’t they leave their books, and come here and see for themselves?”

Nor was he in a hurry to connect himself with those who traced a harmony in all respects between the cosmogony of the Hebrew Scriptures and the indications of geological science. “We think,” he said, “that we have deciphered the writing on the selvage of the great volume of the earth; and, lo! we proceed to erect our fragmentary knowledge into a science, and to show its correlation with all the other departments of truth.” Again, “Let us watch for facts, and wait.” Knowing that Nature herself must ever harmonise with truth, he endeavoured to trace out the workings of the Almighty in the little spot of earth to which he was confined, with lowly and reverent adoration, and with simple, childlike delight.

The number of fossils that he collected was very great. With his usual generosity, he made over a considerable part of them to Hugh Miller. Another portion, containing some of his best specimens, was sold to Mr. Miller of London, for the purpose of paying his debts after the shipwreck of his flour. The remaining fossils were found in his museum after his death,

The fossils sent to Hugh Miller are now to be found in the Museum of Science and Art at Edinburgh. The collection is marked, “Eossils used by the late Hugh Miller to illustrate his works.” The whole of those marked “Thurso” were found by Robert Dick, though his name does not appear on any of them.

But his herbarium also exhibits the best proofs of Robert Dick’s industry, judgment, and tenacity of purpose. The collection was made over to the Thurso Scientific Society, by Mr. Alexander, of Dunfermline, Robert Dick’s nearest surviving relation. To tell the truth, this extraordinary collection has been very much neglected. The herbarium consists of about two hundred folios, full of botanical specimens. The grasses and ferns, and in fact all the plants, are beautifully preserved. They are carefully gummed on to their respective sheets, and in the case of the Caithness plants, the habitat is always given. The manner in which they are arranged shows the eye of the artist. The mosses are unfinished. We have by us the hook which he carried in his side-pocket, still full of the mosses which he was collecting and gumming on at the time of his death.

The herbarium seems to have been thrown into a corner, and laid on the floor. It is full of living moths, and their grubs have already made sad havoc with the collection of grasses in which Dick took so much pride. The Scientific Society of Thurso ought surely to do something to put the collection in proper order. The respect which they entertain for Robert Dick requires this to be done. They will never again possess such another botanist to collect and arrange the plants and grasses, and ferns and mosses, of Caithness.

A few more words about Dick’s character. We have said that he was a solitary man. He was for the most part alone with himself. He communed much with his own thoughts. He always made his long journeys on foot alone. “No good work,” he said, “could be done in company.” He had few real friends; and his relatives were far distant.

Under such circumstances, and with such a nature, Dick was in imminent danger of losing the health of his spirit and the just balance of his character. Such a man is often driven to brood on himself; or sell his life to miserable, miserly money-making; perhaps to drink or self-indulgence. But Dick did none of these. His love of knowledge and science saved him. Besides, he was childlike in his nature. He had the wonder of a child; he had the feelings of a child. He was always merciful to children. He was blameless, simple, cheerful, in all that he did.

Though he was naturally a man of retiring manners, he was by no means unsociable. He had a great deal of human nature in him. To those who knew him best, he was cheerful and social. He had a vein of innoi'Ont fun and satire about him; and he often turned his thoughts into rhyme. Sir George Sinclair said of him, “His temper was naturally cheerful, and even facetious. His comely and animated countenance beamed ^iih intelligence and good humour. His estimable fld faithful attendant, who resided with him for the long period of thirty-three years, never heard a hasty word drop from his lips, or saw his bright countenance clouded by an angry frown. The grateful tears which she has so plenteously shed attest the kindly tenor of his domestic life.”

Professor Shearer also adds—“He was held in honour for his scientific attainments by a growing number of the inhabitants, and by the small number of young men whom the little town used to send to the universities ; while, by the working men generally, the purity of his life and the independence of his character secured for him a respect, which, to my own knowledge, was never once broken. His moral character was never called in question.”

Charles Peach, who knew him so well, said of him, “His character was thoroughly without blemish. He never said an ill word of any one; and never repeated anything to another’s discouragement. I regret,” he adds, “that so many of his curious and original discoveries have been lost, because he made no communication of them to others, and had a special aversion to what he called ‘ blowing his own trumpet.”

Dick continued poor to the close of his life. He was content to be poor, so long as he was independent, and free to indulge his profound yearnings after more knowledge. Though he attended carefully to his business, he was not successful. He was ruined by competition. The shipwreck of his flour reduced him almost to beggary. But he never told his Thurso friends of his losses. He was the last man to “send round the hat.” Like Burns, he was “owre blate to seek, owre proud to snool.” When his customers left him, he said to one of his friends—“Well, they might not have done it. I have wrought long for them, and I have served them well; hut it cannot be helped now.”

Charles Peach, not knowing of his losses, once said to him, that “he would soon be able to save enough money to retire, and give himself up wholly to scientific pursuits.” A gloom fell over his countenance. “Oh no!” said he, “I shall never do that.” But he added, “Notwithstanding the opposition that has destroyed my trade, I am still here—a baker after all!” And he smiled at the efforts which had been made to strangle him.

Sir George Sinclair, perhaps not knowing his struggles to live, said after his death—“Mr. Dick’s honourable desire to earn his livelihood by his own exertions, and the unremitting diligence with which he attended to matters of business, without allowing scientific pursuits to interfere with his daily and respectable calling, have long since attracted my cordial admiration. He was always at hand when wanted; and, like Johnson’s estimable friend Lovatt,

“No summons mocked by chill delay—
No petty gains disdained by pride;
The modest wants of every day
The toil of every day supplied.’ ”

It was fortunate for Dick’s memory that he left no debts unpaid. Everything that he owed was paid in full; though little was left for his faithful friend Annie Mackay.

When I went to Thurso, I expected to obtain a good deal of information from her about her old master. But she could give me very little. She could not speak for tears. “He was my good and kind maister!”—that was nearly all that she could tell me. But she showed me Dick’s house and the bakehouse behind,—now divided into separate tenements.

Little more need be said about Eobert Dick. The “unco guid” said hard things of him. They drew a religious moral from the painfulness of his death. Poor self-satisfied creatures! One of Dick’s sayings might apply to them. “Some men,” he said, “make an image of God after their own hearts, and not after the image of their Maker.”

Yet all who knew Dick intimately spoke of him as a thoroughly religious man. His was one of those deeply reverent natures that are essentially religious, though not cumbered about with forms or ceremonies or sectarian differences. Indeed, one of the things that drove him from the church was the quarrels of those who were ministers in it. Professor Shearer, of Bradford, says, “My own opinion is strongly that in this man were combined singular powers of thought and the greatest devotion to natural science; and at the bottom of all, a truly devout and earnest spirit.”

Another says, “I had a conversation with him on this solemn subject; and I believe ‘his right hand touched God’s ’—to others it might be in the dark; but Eobert Dick knew it. He studied his Bible diligently, and, like all his other studies, his whole soul went into it. He held his Sabbath worship in his own house alone. Whether we look to his upright, frugal, temperate character as a man, or to his wonderful labour and perseverance in his favourite studies, it is difficult to say which most to admire. But I admire above all his loving and reverent spirit.”

Robert Dick’s life tells its own moral. His manful perseverance in encountering the difficulties of life ; his steadfastness, his honesty, his purity; his highmindedness in carrying on his business affairs; his energy and devotedness in cultivating his higher nature;—all these command our admiration.

Thus the man of the humblest condition may at the same time do honour to his calling and elevate the condition of his class. By the diligent use of his snare time, lie may even add many new facts to the constantly enlarging domain of science. In the case of Dick, how little time was misspent, how much knowledge was gained and communicated,—and all with so much humbleness, modesty, and unselfishness! It is by men such as he that the character of a country is elevated to the highest standard, and raised in the scale of nations.

“Whilst the institutions and customs of men,” says Professor Sedgwick, “set up a barrier, and draw a great and harsh line between man and man, the hand of the Almighty stamps His first impress upon the soul of many a person who never rises above the ranks of comparative obscurity and poverty. Hence arises a lesson of great importance,—that we should learn in our walks through life, in our mingling with the busy scenes of the world, a lesson of practical wisdom, of kindness, of humility, and of regard for our fellow beings.”

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