Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XIV - John's Introduction to this "Alter Ego"

NOT far from Netherton, and at the time of our story nearly opposite to it, is the entrance to the mansion and grounds of the Farquharsons of Whitehouse. The house is one of those substantial, old-fashioned, long and narrow buildings, with broad, plain front, sunk flat, and outside staircase to the hall, that were common at the beginning of the century, before modern taste and pretension had risen in country architecture. Standing amidst a fine, sloping park of splendid trees, some of them old and striking, on an open terrace high above the surrounding country, it commands a grand prospect towards the south, over the hollow of Tough to the top of Corennie Forest and the woods of Craigievar, behind which rises the fine peak of Lochnagar. Well-stocked flower plots beautify the front, and a fine enclosed garden faces the sun to the left. The outlook behind is still more expansive, where from a farm close by, rightly named Prospect Hill, an unrivalled view may be had over the whole variegated Vale of Alford, terminating in the Buck of the Cabrach and Ben Macdhui.

It was then the custom, and so continued long after, for the Aberdeenshire county families to have their chief mansion on their property in the country, where they spent the summer months, and a town house in Aberdeen, to which they removed at the beginning of winter, to enjoy the festivities then fashionable in this London of the north-east of Scotland. Mr. Peter Farquharson, of Whitehouse, was a quiet, plain, unpretending man, whose father, an Aberdeen lawyer, had bought the property and built the present house, a little to the west of the ancient site. He made little stir in local or public affairs. Mrs. Farquharson, his wife, was of a different type, with pronounced character, great ability, immense vigour, and impetuous temperament, whose fame still survives in the county. She was imperious in style, and difficult to serve, sometimes changing her domestics several times a year, but withal kindly and good-hearted, if not generous. When she did take a fancy to a good servant, she became his staunch friend when he required one. Under her rigorous rule, domestic government was, to say the least of it, peculiar, and service was trying.

To Whitehouse, in the year 1834, there came, to look after the garden, a smart, good-looking young man of twenty-one, who had just completed his apprenticeship at Cluny Castle near Monymusk, and now entered on his first independent situation. The new gardener was called Charles Black. It was a trying place to start life in, but Charles was no common lad, and would succeed where most would fail. Although so young, he speedily proved himself a superior workman—whose fame, in this respect, still survives in the district—a faithful servant, and a kindly, peace-loving high-toned man. He gained the good will, if not the respect and friendship, of his imperious mistress, and - what was still more unusual—not only remained at Whitehouse nearly four years, but returned to it again after he had married.

Charles Black was born on the first of July, 1813, at the Mains of Pitcaple, on the river Ury, not far from the site of the famous battle of Harlaw. He received a fair education, as schools then went, till he reached his thirteenth year. According to universal custom there, he then took service, first as herd-boy, like Duncan, and afterwards as farm worker, till he was nineteen. Like our hero, however, he thirsted for work more intellectual than clodhopping, and became an apprentice gardener at Cluny Castle. There he remained for two years, gaining great skill in his trade, and leaving it rarely accomplished in its mysteries. His natural endowments were uncommonly high. Ever since boyhood, amidst huge difficulties too long here to tell, he had sedulously cultivated his intellect and character. His determination and self-denial for this end were exemplary, of which one instance is typical. Receiving no wages whatever as apprentice gardener, he used to get a shilling every fortnight from his father for pocket-money. This he spent, not in purchasing any of the luxuries natural to a boy who had few of them, but in taking out, in parts, "Mackintosh's Practical Gardener." That was then one of the authorities on the subject, a great book that cost two pounds, procured in order to extend his theoretical and practical knowledge of his craft.

But this was but one step in the professional ladder which he had determined to mount. He must know the science of Botany, on which it stood. No matter that the subject was at that time comparatively little known or studied in the country, and scarcely heard of amongst his fellow gardeners ; no matter that existing text-books on it were technical, unpopular, difficult, and costly, and that Botany—as far as simple exposition for private students went—was a sealed book; no matter that he was dissuaded and mocked by his fellow workmen, and had to pursue the thorny subject practically alone and unaided—he began it, and, amidst discouragements that would have daunted most young men, he succeeded. Happily for his after thoroughness as a botanist, he attacked the subject in its true scientific form from the first.

With the assistance of a fellow apprentice, who soon chose more flowery paths, he purchased, for half a crown, "Rattray's Botanical Chart." This presented an intricate tabular view of the whole science according to the LinnŠan system, being intended as a resume for advanced students. It was a. terrible cheval-de frise of technicalities for a young novice. Though feeling it to be "a sickener," as secretly confessed, and viewing it with wonder and fear but with growing curiosity, he resolutely commenced the study of Botany. For the time being, Rattray was beyond him, but he gained insight into the subject through two simpler textbooks he soon after obtained, "Lee's Introduction to Botany" and "Galpin's British Botany." So rapid was his progress, that, although he went to Cluny in November, he had actually deciphered, unaided, his first plant, the Draba versa—the common whitlow grass—in early spring, flourishing as it does from January to June. But by the time he completed his apprenticeship in two years, he had pretty well mastered Lee and Galpin, and even the formidable Rattray became intelligible. This book he afterwards gifted to John Duncan, who preserved and prized it to the very last.
Charles had also made some progress in the formation of a herbarium before he came to Whitehouse, and during the year and a half he was there before John knew him, he had extended it greatly, and increased his theoretical and practical knowledge of the science. He also received great assistance in the discovery of local plants by the publication, in 1835—the year after he came to Whitehouse—of the first edition of the very book he required at this stage. This was the "Flora Aberdonensis," which afterwards developed into the "Flora of Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine," [This is a capital local guide, and the pattern of what a local Flora ought to be in plan and exhaustiveness, and in full acknowledgment of obligations.] by George Dickie, M.D., Professor of Botany in Aberdeen, who has just died in honoured age, after doing admirable service to science in the north of Scotland. Aided by this new guide, Charles made rapid progress in conquering the plants of the district, and in discovering new localities.

Since 1836, when he first enters our story, Charles Black has passed through varied experiences, traversed many scenes, and studied many subjects. He still follows the aesthetic occupation of gardener, away down on the shores of the Solvay, within sight of the Cumberland hills. Like the great poet that lived amongst these, and gained there those "impulses of deeper birth" that have made him immortal,

"He is retired as noontide dew,
Or fountain in a noonday grove;
And you must love him ere to you
He will seem worthy of your love."

Yet, unobtrusive and censurably retiring as he has always been—and quite unknown till lately dragged into notice, four years ago [In "Good Words" for 1878, in which I gave a sketch of John Duncan and his friend.] —he is, as I then said of him, with bare truth, an excellent botanist, knowing intimately all our native plants; a good geologist, possessing a large gathering of fossils, and intelligently versed in the literature of geology and its far-reaching problems; a capital ornithologist, knowing all our native birds by plumage, flight, cry, and egg, and having a very complete collection of British eggs; a fair numismatist, with an unusual collection of coins, home and foreign, ancient and modern, for a working man; an omnivorous reader, especially in theology and natural science; in short, an ardent lover and student of beasts, and birds, and insects, and plants, and not less of mankind.

Such is a glimpse of the man to whom John Duncan was introduced at Whitehouse, in 1836, which curiously was also the year of the foundation of the Edinburgh Botanical Society. Though twenty years his senior, possessed of strong individuality and unusually varied knowledge more or less scientific, and chastened by sorrows the young man never knew, in making Charles Black's acquaintance, John came—and soon felt that he came—under the dominion of a nature stronger than his own, and capable of moulding him powerfully and permanently for good. This is saying a great deal of a man then so youthful. But his strength had been already proved in his study of Botany, and the skill he had acquired as a gardener in so short a time; and his geniality, tact, and character had been shown in his discreet and harmonious management of affairs at Whitehouse. His after history, were it written, would be more than sufficient evidence that the homage and affection which John yielded him from the first were securely placed and wisely directed—a power felt by all who have come into close contact with Charles .Black. Notwithstanding the unattractive aspect of the one, and the vigorous, hilarious immaturity of the other, these two men felt drawn to each other by that instinctive alchemy which, at rare intervals, welds two diverse natures together. They entered into an unspoken covenant of friendship of the diviner type, which remained undimmed till the death of the senior, and still survives in the old age of his friend.

At the close of the spring of 1836, shortly after he had settled at Netherton, John Duncan ascended the hill to Whitehouse, bearing a letter of introduction to the botanical gardener, from his friend William Mortimer, of Auchleven. William had known Charles Black when he was a farm servant, and when he himself was an apprentice shoemaker at Raehill on the Gadie, near Oyne. John had donned his best, to do honour to his expected friend. He had on his usual kenspeckle dress, with trousers turned up half-way to the knee, and his high-crowned hat, set at John's own angle on the back of his head. He certainly looked, Charles Black said, "a queer fish." From his extreme near-sightedness, general stoop caused thereby, and strange but striking countenance, lie also conveyed the impression, at first sight, of "surely being half daft." The Whitehouse family were expected shortly from Aberdeen, and the gardener was busily superintending some workmen in putting to rights the walks and woods, half-way down the avenue. John had gone right up to the house through the tall trees, looking for herbs. Not finding Charles there, he was returning home again along the winding walk to the lodge, when he came upon the sorting party.

Advancing to their leader, he abruptly asked him, "Are you Charlie Black?" After answer in the affirmative, he said, "Weel, I hae a letter for you." While the workmen scanned the little man with amused glances, John fumbled in his blue coat pocket and at last brought out a piece of newspaper, in which, with accustomed care, the important epistle was wrapped, and handed it in silence to Charles, who waited with some curiosity the issue of the interview. The letter told that the bearer, John Duncan, a friend of William's, had come to reside in that neighbourhood, having obtained employment as a weaver, and that, like Charles himself, "he was a great lover of plants."

With a searching look at the quaint personality thus introduced to him—one of a class unjustly contemned by most but themselves, and not least by servants in gentlemen's houses—and in spite of a mental criticism that he looked "a very queer customer to study plants," Charles said, with all hearty kindliness, that he was glad to see him, and would be happy to render him any assistance in regard to "the floors."

Had he done anything to Botany already? Did he know any of the plants? John said he did—a good many. In real surprise, after his own hard experiences, Charles asked what books he had used to discover them. He had used "Culpepper." The mention of this book, associated in Charles's eyes with quackery, herbs, saws, and bottles, stirred no little contempt in the mind of the young student of the grand Linnaean system, pardonably proud, if not secretly vain, of his accomplishments. But he quietly replied that he did not think any one could do much to Botany with such a book as "Culpepper."

Roused by gratitude to his old master and proved good offices, and put somewhat on his mettle regarding his own acquirements, John smartly retorted that he could do something to it; and spreading out his fingers, crooked with tying threads and digging roots, as if he were in the act of laying hold of the plants, he affirmed that he could go there and then, if he liked, and put his hands on them.

This was only the simple fact, as we know; for John's knowledge of wild plants, though not scientific like Charles Black's, was real and thoroughly practical, as far as it went. He could name a plant when seen, find it when he wanted it, and knew far more about their uses than his friend then or ever did; for Charles had an over scorn, as many good men still have, for herbalism and its empirics.

The gardener replied that he had no doubt he might, but that he had a far better and surer way of finding them out than by Culpepper's pictures—by means of Botany. "Ay?" said John, in astonishment; for the possibility was new to him, and seemed at once to open up a bright vista of future knowledge of the plants he had loved so long. He at once eagerly inquired if Charles had a book to guide him in the work. He said he had. What was its name ? Charles mentioned "Galpin's British Botany," and asked if he would like to be shown the way to use it, which he would be happy to show. John answered decidedly in the affirmative, and, in his tone and throughout the conversation, revealed glimpses of the ability and power that were hidden beneath his quiet, unattractive, smile-provoking exterior.

That one "Yes, I wu'd " was the turning point in John Duncan's life; his first introduction to the happy severities of pure Natural Science; and the birth of a new enthusiasm, that was henceforth to be the labour of his leisure, the solace of his sorrows, and the sweetener of his life till its close, after forty-five years of rare devotion to science for its own sake.

John asked to be shown through the garden, a pleasure he had always cultivated among his numerous gardening friends. Being busy with his men, and desirous of finishing up matters before the coming of "the big folks," Charles said that he could not attend upon him at that time, but that he would be glad to see him the following evening. They parted, and John held on his way down the avenue to Peter Marnock's, with hopeful wonderment in his silent heart, as to what sort of man his new acquaintance would prove, and still more what kind of thing this new science of Botany was; and he viewed the familiar flowers he passed with new anticipations of more intimate knowledge.

I-low much, how very much, is summed up and concentrated in certain moments of the lives of all men! The tide of Duncan's life had just swelled to that auspicious height that leads on to fortune, in its highest sense. Had he cast his own horoscope, by aid of his astrological studies, he would have found that he had reached that critical epoch when the omnipotent influences of the past eternities —with a reality and dominion that astrology never dreamt of—had effected that conjunction which ruled his destiny, as it does those of us all, the humblest equally with the highest.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus