Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duncan, John (1794-1881)

DUNCAN, JOHN (1794–1881), weaver and botanist, was born at Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, on 19 Dec. 1794. His mother, Ann Caird, was not married to his father, John Duncan, a weaver of Drumlithie, eight miles from Stonehaven, and she supported herself and the boy by harvesting and by weaving stockings. The boy never went to school, but very early rambled widely over the rough cliffs, and procured rushes in the valleys, from which he made pith wicks for sale. From the age of fifteen he went as herd-boy in various farms, receiving cruel treatment, which increased his natural shyness and developed various peculiarities. During his boyhood he acquired a strong love for wild plants. In his own words, ‘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.’ He could always in after life recall the precise spot where he had seen any particular plant in boyhood, though he might have only seen it again after many years, and never have known its name or scientific position till then.

In 1809 Duncan was apprenticed for five years to a weaver in Drumlithie, a village of country linen-weavers. His master, Charles Pirie, a powerful ill-tempered man, who had almost conquered the celebrated Captain Barclay [see Allardice, Robert Barclay], and also carried on an illicit still and smuggled gin, was exceedingly cruel to his apprentice; but his wife, who had some education, inspired the boy with the wish to read, and he at last acquired moderate skill in reading, though it was always difficult for him, probably through his extreme shortsightedness. He did not learn to write till after he was thirty years of age. Meanwhile his love of nature continued, and was further stimulated by obtaining the loan of Culpeper's ‘British Herbal,’ then in great repute among village herbalists. He thus learnt to name some plants for himself. In 1814, however, when his apprenticeship had still some months to run, his servitude became so intolerable that he ran away and returned to Stonehaven, where he lived with his mother for two years. By dint of extreme care, for wages were very low, he managed to save 1l. to buy a copy of Culpeper, and he became master of its contents and of herbalism, which he practised all his life. From Culpeper, too, and the astrology it contained, he gained an introduction to astronomy, which he afterwards studied as deeply as his means permitted. In 1816 Duncan and his mother removed to Aberdeen, where he learnt woollen-weaving. He married in 1818, but his wife proved unfaithful, and, after deserting him, continually annoyed him and drained his scanty purse. In 1824 Duncan became a travelling or household weaver, varying his work with harvesting, and taking a half-yearly spell of training as a militiaman at Aberdeen for nearly twenty years. He became an excellent weaver, studying the mechanics of the loom, and purchasing ‘Essays on the Art of Weaving’ (Glasgow, 1808), by a namesake, the inventor of the patent tambouring machinery, Peddie's ‘Weaver's Assistant,’ 1817, and ‘Murphy on Weaving,’ 1831. He also devoted himself to advancing his general education by the aid of dictionaries, grammars, &c., proceeding also to acquire some Latin and Greek. He gradually purchased Sir John Hill's edition of the ‘Herbal,’ Tournefort's ‘Herbal,’ Rennie's ‘Medical Botany,’ and several works on astrology and astronomy. He never possessed a watch after he left Aberdeen, but became an expert dialler, and made himself a pocket sun-dial on Ferguson's model. Indeed, from his outdoor habits of astronomical observation he was nicknamed Johnnie Meen, or Moon, and also ‘the Nogman,’ from his queer pronunciation of the word ‘gnomon,’ which he often used. For many years he lived in the Vale of Alford, under Benachie, and devoted himself chiefly to astronomy and botany. His loft at Auchleven, under the sloping roof of a stable, was aptly dignified by the villagers as ‘the philosopher's hall,’ or briefly ‘the philosopher,’ a name it retained for many years after he left it. At this period, when not yet forty years old, he had a striking and antiquated aspect, dressed in a blue dress-coat and vest of his own manufacture with very high neck, and brass buttons, corduroy trousers, generally rolled halfway up to his knees, and white spotted neckcloth, a tall satin hat, carrying a big blue umbrella and a staff, and walking with an absorbed look. These clothes, scrupulously guarded, lasted him fifty years. He was extremely cleanly and abstemious, his bed, board, washing, and dress not costing him more than four shillings a week. In 1836 he made the acquaintance of Charles Black, gardener at Whitehouse, near Netherton. They became fast friends, and greatly helped each other in the study of botany. They formed large collections of every attainable plant for many miles round, preserving and naming them, and spending the greater part of many nights over their study. Sir W. J. Hooker's ‘British Flora’ they only managed to see at a local innkeeper's, whose son, then deceased, had had the book presented to him. In 1852 Duncan at last became the possessor of the innkeeper's precious volumes for one shilling, when they were sold by auction. It may be judged that in his botanical pursuits no obstacles, except deficiencies of early training and opportunity, were too great to be overcome by Duncan. The story of his studies, as told by Mr. Jolly, is a rare lesson in perseverance and a remarkable picture of pure love of nature and of genuine knowledge for their own sake. Without adding definitely to science, Duncan lived emphatically a high life in extreme poverty and obscurity, only emerging once as far as Edinburgh, where the botanical gardens, in which his friend Black was then engaged, afforded him wonderful delight. His herbarium unfortunately, though most carefully guarded, succumbed largely to dampness and insects, but in 1880, when he presented it to Aberdeen University, it still contained three-fourths of the British species of flowering plants, and nearly every species mentioned in Dickie's ‘Flora of Aberdeen, Banff, and Kincardine,’ including collections of almost all the plants growing in the Vale of Alford, for which he had received prizes at the Alford horticultural show in 1871. He never made any more prominent public appearance than as a reader of essays before a mutual instruction class at Auchleven. After 1852 Duncan lived in the village of Droughsburn, performing every office for himself except the preparation of his meals. He was a regular and devout church-goer, being an ardent Free church man, but always took some wild flowers to church and spread them on the desk before him from pure delight. He acquired considerable knowledge of animals, purchasing Charles Knight's ‘Natural History,’ and in later years he studied phrenology. He was a zealous liberal in politics. In 1874, from failing health, the old man was obliged to seek parish help, a deep humiliation to him. In 1878 Mr. W. Jolly of Inverness, who had visited him in the preceding year, gave an account of Duncan in ‘Good Words,’ which brought him some assistance; but he had kept his poverty scrupulously from the knowledge of Mr. Jolly and other friends, and it was not till 1880 that a public appeal was made on his behalf, which produced 320l., with many expressions of sympathy which cheered Duncan's declining life. He died on 9 Aug. 1881 in his eighty-seventh year, having left the balance of the fund raised for him to furnish prizes for the encouragement of natural science, especially botany, among the school children of the Vale of Alford.

Duncan was about five feet seven in height, muscular and spare, large-headed, shortsighted, and altogether odd-looking; but to a keen observer he appeared a man of powerful mind and great energy and determination. His love of books and large relative expenditure upon them was only matched by his true kindliness of heart and marked generosity to the weak. When in extreme need he gave up his allowance of coal for some years to an imbecile he considered more needy, and he found means to be a true helper of many around him. Orderliness, cleanliness, honesty, with great reticence and shyness, were among his prominent characteristics. His intimate friend, James Black, wrote of him: ‘John was my human protoplasm, man in his least complex form. He seemed to be a survival of those rural swains who lived in idyllic simplicity.'

[Jolly's articles in Good Words, April, May, and June 1878, reprinted in Page's (Dr. Japp's) Leaders of Men, 1880; Jolly's Life of Duncan, London, 1883, with etched portrait.]

G. T. B.