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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter II - The Unlettered Herd-Boy and his only Education

BUT amidst all this admirable outdoor education, what of the school, when he came of age to attend it?
At that time, the parish school of Dunnottar, near the Covenanters' churchyard, was the chief educational seminary for the town. The schoolmaster was Mr. Dawson, a man of great force of character, who, against much opposition, compelled the reluctant heritors to erect the teacher's house apart from the school, one of the very few instances of such healthy separation then to be found in the country ; for the rule was to include both under one roof, the school below and house above, low-roofed and ill-ventilated, and so it generally continued to be in Scotland till the passing of the Education Act, in 1872. In Stonehaven itself, an adventure school was kept by a Mr. Melvin, who, possessing neither the official prestige nor the sternness of the parish dominic, attracted scholars by other means. As in all such cases, the result was the fiercest rivalry between the two temples of learning, with those frequent "bickers," or organized fights between scholars, which have been immortalized by Scott as engaged in by him when at the High School of Edinburgh, not thirty years before. These encounters were often fierce and dangerous, the one side trying to chase the other across the Carron, which flowed between the schools, as a kind of Rubicon or challenge stream, and to drive them back to their barracks on either side. Into these educational quarrels every youth in the town entered, and these John Duncan, peace-loving though he was by nature, frequently witnessed and took part in, which would by no means be a poor one for a boy of such active, mettlesome spirit.

These scholastic experiences were all that the boy ever had of school life. He never was within the walls of either seminary as a scholar. As in George Stephenson's case, the school did nothing for John Duncan. School going was then sadly uncommon, to an extent we can scarcely credit now, and a large proportion of our poorer classes entered active life utterly unlettered. Bad as it was with boys, it was worse with girls, few of whom in the humbler ranks could even read at all, and fewer still could write. John's mother would seem to have been able to do neither, for if she had been, such a kind mother would not have allowed her favourite son to grow to manhood without knowing a single letter. But so it was.

In addition to the bad custom of the time, extreme poverty was the main cause of this neglect in John's case. With all her industry in plying her wires daily, and in wielding the sickle when the corn grew yellow, the good woman was barely able to win enough for her boy and herself. In questioning John about his want of schooling, he generously and fairly never once breathed a whisper against his mother, mentioning its prevalent neglect, which made his case far less singular, and her extreme indigence as the true causes.

So great, indeed, was the poor woman's need at times, that the thoughtful boy did what he could to add to the narrow store, by running little errands, and by gathering rushes along the burn sides and mosses. From these rushes he extracted the white pith, to form wicks for the old-fashioned house lamps called "crusies," then in universal use. These wicks he sold in small penny bundles "about the size of two ounces of twist tobacco," as he used to tell to some little children he was intimate with, when he wished to encourage them to be kind and helpful to their mother. This bit of kindly assistance to his mother he carried on for years while quite a child, wandering far and near by the streams and mosses in search of the requisite rushes, and bringing the green bundles home to be stripped. The early intercourse with nature necessary for such work, was his first practical introduction to the flowers that became the passion of his later life, and, no doubt, sowed the seeds of after love for natural studies; and the common rushes ever afterwards carried to him the peculiar charm of earliest happy association and wild wood wandering, with dear. memories of assisting his poverty-stricken parent.

On account of the pressing needs of home, when he was scarcely ten years old—the same age as James Ferguson, the astronomer before him, and David Livingstone after him—the brave little lad had to give up all his thoughtless but delightful plays, into which he had entered with such zest, and face the stern realities of life and bread-winning, by going to service. Like Ferguson at Keith, and Dr. Adam of Edinburgh High School at Forres, he was sent to herd at several of the farms in the neighbourhood, lodging with his employers, but coming home to his mother when he could. While thus engaged, we catch occasional glimpses of the life he led and the varied experiences through which such a youth had to pass in the rude farm life of that time.

In the first place he went to, his treatment was very harsh. He was then a simple-looking lad, shy and retiring, and his real vigour was hidden under a cloud of bashfulness which enveloped him more or less all his life. Being more inclined to bear than to fight, he was of the very type that invited the unkindly attentions of the youthful tyrants of his own age, when he came across their path; and the extent to which rough practical joking was then carried amongst farm servants, as told in many a narrative, is now simply incredible.

Poor Johnnie, for example, got his thick hair filled with the chaff of barley, which has often been made an instrument of cruel trickery. The pain caused by its stiff sticky beard is very irritating, and it is impossible to rid the hair of it unless with the assistance of another, which John found in his mother. What was still worse, they filled his head with those unclean parasites from which his watchful mother had kept him free, as she had now again to do. But his treatment was otherwise bad. Though drenched with rain while tending the cattle, he was not allowed to go near the fire after they had been stalled in the evening ; and he had often to retire as he was to his comfortless couch in an outhouse, where he poured the water from his shoes, wrung his wet stockings as dry as he could, and had to put them on again in this state next morning. His usage, however, was not everywhere so cruel, and he always gratefully recalled the kindness of a good old woman he herded to, who treated him more like a son than a servant, dried his wet clothes when he returned after a rainy day, and altogether provided the shy, awkward but thankful lad with the luxury of a comfortable home. Thus, in his very first start in the practical work of the world, little Johnnie got more than a glimpse of both sides of the shield of life.

The places where he was thus employed as herd were, happily for him, close by Dunnottar Castle. Being naturally thoughtful, which home straits had strengthened, he could now gaze with growing interest and intelligence on its ruins—whether they stood in gaunt isolation on their sea-washed rocks on sunny days, or gleamed weird-like through driving mist and rain, as he remained at his post, when they seemed to the boy like companions in suffering. Though unable to read for himself the strange story that haunted their walls, he drank it with avidity as heard from the lips of numerous narrators during the long winter evenings, or as told him by some kindly companion while they sat together on the braes above, or by his friend the keeper who lived close by. With the keeper's help, he studied the ruins thoroughly, and became intimately acquainted with their every detail. [John's knowledge of Dunnottar seems to have been minute and correct, and he used to speak with great respect of Dr. Longmuir's contributions to its topography and history.]

But in all their long, changeful and fascinating story, what charmed his young imagination most was, not the halls where royalty had rested; not the place where the Scottish crown, sword, and sceptre had lain, and whence they had been cleverly borne to the neighbouring church of Kinneff ; not even the stirring story of Wallace and his gallant capture of the castle when he struck so grandly for Scottish independence—all which, and much more equally stimulating, made his blood leap, and was recited by him with fervour to the end. But it was the "Whig's Vault," on the edge of the cliff, where the Covenanters were immured, with its crevices in the wall to wedge their hands in, and the still more terrible hole below, in which the crowded wretches took turns in breathing opposite a crack at the base of the wall! Nothing coloured his whole existence more than the inspiring story of the struggle for Scottish religious freedom, which entered deep into his inner heart in after life, and infused his piety with the uncompromising fire of the old Covenanters

"The stern undaunted will,
And the scorn to receive, from a despot's decree,
What should flame up with power from the hearts of the free!"

as Professor Blackie sings when inspired by the same theme. And there is no doubt that the deep Scottish enthusiasm roused by this chapter in our history, has done more than aught else to nourish high-souled independence and religious fervour in the country. It was undoubtedly no mean privilege for this boy to be brought under its influences and in daily sight of the scenes where some of its saddest but grandest tragedies had been enacted.

So felt John Duncan, and when last I saw him shortly before his death, seventy years after he had been the herd-boy at Dunnottar, when his strong vitality was slowly ebbing away, he spoke with undimmed ardour of these early days and the life-moulding impressions they had produced. The very motto of the Keiths, inscribed on the torn and faded banner borne at fatal Flodden, and now preserved in the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh, was a guiding maxim and high impulse for life: VERITAS VINCIT. And round few places in the country has Scottish history more revolved than Dunnottar, as even a slight glance at its eventful story will prove ; and for a lad or man there is nothing more educationally valuable then to have a visible and inspiring centre round which to group his historical knowledge, especially if it is illumined by the poetry of the past and the glamour of youthful enthusiasm.

Here also, on these sweet-scented braes with their rich and varied flora, clothing their crests, clinging to their crevices and hidden in their darksome caves, was intensified another of the strongest impulses of his life—his love of wild plants. In conversing afterwards on the subject, he could not tell when he began to be interested in flowers. As he said, "I aye liket the bonnie things;" but he always looked back to the cliffs of his early days as generating his deeper affection for them, and surrounding them throughout life with a bright poetical halo. As he correctly put the matter himself, "I just took a notion to ken ae plant by anither when I was rinnin' aboot the braes. I never saw a plant but I lookit for the marrows o'd (that is, for those similar); and, as I had a gweed memory, when I kent a flower ance, I kent it aye." In this early activity of the faculty of comparison, the essence of all true thinking, involving, as it does, that of discrimination, lay the foundation of his future scientific success. Of his unusual memory, we shall find abundant proofs by-and-by. So vivid was his recollection of the plants he had seen there in these early days, before he had begun in any way to do more than admire their colour and scent their fragrance, that during his later scientific studies, when he discovered a new plant, he could recall with perfect accuracy the spot where he had seen it years before on the shores of the Mearns. Thus, very shortly before his death, the doctor gave him some drops of Hyoscyamus niber, or common henbane. After learning what it was, the old man brightened up, and at once mentioned that he had seen it in his youth, within the walls of Dunnottar, one of its stations in the north, although he had seldom found it since, and never in the Vale of Alford—the memory of these happy days then irradiating his countenance with a sunset glow.

But how strange the contrasts of life! Here was a lad, nearly fifteen years old, intelligent and inquiring, all on fire with the desire to know—who was totally and literally unlettered, ignorant even of the alphabet—herding in the land where Knox had pleaded and laboured, so that no parent of whatever condition should "use his child at his own phantasy," but bring him up in "learning and virtue," the children of the poor to be supported at school "until the Commonwealth have profit of them;" and in sight of the castellated home of that enlightened nobleman, George, the fifth Earl Marischall, who, in 1593, munificently founded and endowed the college in Aberdeen that bears his honoured name, with its numerous bursaries to assist such youths as he!

As his active mind gradually opened, and his natural intelligence craved appropriate food, the boy began keenly to feel his painful disabilities in thus being unable to read, and to desire their removal. To go to school now, in his extreme poverty, was clearly impossible. What was to be done ? However willing, his mother, unhappily, was unable to satisfy him in this new thirst. He could not teach himself ; for up the threshold steps of the temple of learning we must all be led by another, however independent we may become after having entered its portals. But as yet there was no kindly hand to conduct John Duncan to the golden gate.

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