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The Life of John Duncan
Scotch Weaver and Botanist with Sketches of his Friends and Notices of the Times
By William Jolly (1883)


This is the simple tale of the aged botanical weaver of whom some account was given in "Good Words" 1878, since reprinted, in 1880, in H. A. Page's "Leaders of Men." His pitiful case, when he was compelled to fall on the parish through no fault of his, was also brought before the country by the author in January, 1881. The appeal then made was generously responded to by spontaneous contributions from admirers in all parts, including Her Majesty the Queen; general interest was roused in the man; his case was advocated by the press, not excepting our highest journals; and accounts of him, appeared in various places, notably in Nature, which warmly espoused his claims and gathered subscriptions.

The more the author inquired into John Duncan's story, the more did he perceive that, in many respects, it was remarkable, and in several, unique. It revealed a man of pronounced individuality, full of striking and admirable elements, exhibiting great natural ability, high moral character, singular independence, self-helpfulness and modesty, pure-hearted love of Science, and enthusiastic devotion to its study amidst no ordinary disabilities and hardships, during a long life of nearly ninety years, such as would add another worthy name to the long roll of honourable examples of "the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties;" all combined with circumstances of uncommon interest and picturesqueness, arising from varied experiences, rare capacity for the highest friendship, peculiar modes of study, Spartan eccentricity of life, and deepest joy under most unlikely conditions. It was strongly felt that the whole formed a noteworthy chapter in "the simple annals of the poor", of plain living, high thinking, and earnest working, that would be capable of exercising a strong influence for good, intellectual and moral; and of recalling us, amidst our growing elaborateness and luxury, to the essential simplicities of happy life, and the blissfulness of higher pursuits, so apt to be crushed out in the too absorbing struggle for bread, self and position.

Hence the present book.

The work would have been incomplete if it had not contained sketches of his numerous friends, several of whom, as will be seen, were of uncommon clay; and also notices of the times in which he lived, in the early part of the century, in a northern, old-world region with social and other characteristics as peculiar as its native Doric.

The author's best acknowledgments and thanks are hereby gratefully tendered to the many friends of John Duncan and himself that have freely and kindly supplied materials for this history.

November, 1882.


  • Chapter I - Duncan's Birthplace and Early Training
    Stonehaven at the end of last century; John Duncan's unwedded mother; his birth; his father; picturesque boy life in town; attractions in the country round; Geology of Stonehaven; cliffs and caves and adventures there; Dunnottar Castle. 1794-1804.
  • Chapter II - The Unlettered Herd-Boy and his only Education
    Schools in Stonehaven then; "bickers" between them; Johnnie never at school; reasons why; his mother's poverty lessened by his selling rushes; becomes a herd-boy at ten; cruelty and kindliness; Dunnottar, its scenery and memories and their influence on him; his love of flowers and nature generated; his life-long memories of his youth; how is he to become able to read? 1804-1809.
  • Chapter III - Weaving and a Village of Weavers at the beginning of the century
    Bucolic life then; weaving and its effects; weavers as a class at that period; the loom in its relation to natural studies: Drumlithie, a typical weaving village; his reception and appearance; daily life there; its flax-spinning and weaving; its intellectual activity and simple tastes. 1809.
  • Chapter IV - The Apprentice Weaver under the Shadow - Tasting of Tyranny
    Maggie Dunse, his new mistress: Charlie Pine, his pugilistic master; his questionable pursuits; his tyranny at home: the apprentice runs away; "the bad harvest" of 1811: his mistress's character and high influence over John; her sudden death; cruelty increased thereafter. 1809--1814.
  • Chapter V - The Apprentice Weaver in the Sunshine - Entering the Temple of Learning
    John's character and appearance then; taught the letters in his sixteenth year; his private female tutors—Mary Garvie at the fireside, Mary Brand in the workshop, Mrs. Pixie at home; his style of reading; writing not yet begun; at an evening school; his new studies; begins Medical Botany: his amusements; his escape from tyranny. 1809-1814.
  • Chapter VI - The Journeyman Weaver during this first Freedom
    Returns to Stonehaven; his studies and life; Herbalism and Culpepper; Astrology and almanacs: removes with mother to Aberdeen; his walking powers then; the city and its manufactures then; learns woollen as well as linen weaving; the weaver William Thom. 1814—1818.
  • Chapter VII - Unhappy Domestic Experiences
    Meets and marries Margaret Wise; her character and treatment of him; their two daughters; his home broken up; his wife's future history; the secret sorrow of his life; its effects on him: his daughters' upbringing and history; "Heather Jock," his son-in-law, and John's relations to him; and to his wife's son, Durward. 1813-1824, and onwards.
  • Chapter VIII - Home-Weaving, Harvesting, Soldiering and Scenery
    Public events during his stay in Aberdeen; becomes a country weaver; home-weaving described: harvesting at home and at a distance: joins the militia; life at barracks in Aberdeen; experiences during training: the scenes of John's future life; Benachie and the Don. 1824 onwards.
  • Chapter IX - His early life as a Country Weaver
    Settles near Monymusk on the Don; scenery round; wanderings for herbs; unkind and kind proprietors; soap dear and little used; stays near Paradise on the Don; Paradise described; stinginess and buttermilk; learns to write about thirty; goes to Fyvie; scenery there; his friendship with gardeners; his succ of th weaving and study of the art. 1824-1828.
  • Chapter X - His Studies at this period: Elementary Subjects and Herbs
    Politics in Aberdeen; Writing; Meanings and Etymology; Grammar and Arithmetic; Latin and Greek; Geography and history: Herbalism; Culpepper and his "herbal"; Sir John Hill and Tournefort; John's knowledge of plants; his opposition to doctors; his own medical practice; examples of his employment of curative plants; of his practical uses of plants; of his picturesque knowledge of them: his study of Astrology. 1824 onwards.
  • Chapter XI - His Astronomical Studies: "Johnnie Moon."
    Culpepper and Astrology; begins Astronomy; his midnight studies; is counted "mad"; studies Dialling and makes dials; his mode of knowing the hours; his pocket horologe desstudie; studies Meteorology; known as "the star-gazer," "Johnnie Moon," and "the Nogman"; John a true "nogman." 1824-1836.
  • Chapter XII - Life and Star-Gazing at Auchleven and Tullynessle
    The classical Gadie; the village of Auchleven on it; John settles there; his bedroom, "the Philosopher's Hall"; weaving; Astronomy in an ash-tree; Willie Mortimer, the village shoemaker; John's aspect and habits; counted "silly"; his character: stays at Insch; "the starmannie" there: removes. to Tullynessle in the Vale of Alford; his master, Robbie Barron; his workshop and bedroom; Astronomy there; his telescope and dials; midnight on the mountains; frightens a good woman at night; his life at Muckletown; how looked on there; frequents it to the last. 1828-1836.
  • Chapter XIII - Settlement at Netherton, and Village Life there
    The Vale of Alford and the Don described; Netherton in Tough; John settles down there; his new home and work; his new master, Peter Marnock John's life there; Charles hunter, the shoemaker; Sandy Cameron, the tailor; Willie Davidson, the innkeeper; John still persecuted by his wife. 1836.
  • Chapter XIV - John's Introduction to this "Alter Ego"
    The mansion of Whitehouse; Mr. and Mrs. Farquharson; Charles Black, the gardener; his early life and botanical studies; his character and later studies; John's introduction to him; Botany or Culpepper?; the crisis in John's life reached. 1836.
  • Chapter XV - Their First Botanical Studies
    Charles's first impressions of John; their friendship; John begins Scientific Botany; his first gatherings: their self-denying enthusiasm; their wider excursions; Benachie and its plants; "the winter of the big storm" of 1837-38; their peripatetic philosophising at the gates of Whitehouse; John's midnight walk of thirty miles to the Loch of Skene; the happiness of their joint studies. 1836-1838.
  • Chapter XVI - Difficulties, Dumps and Dimples in their Joint Studies
    Difficulties in deciphering plants; the Grass of Parnassus made out; their want of text-books; their studies in the inn at Mayfield; Hooker's Flora and its history; "Flora" and "Bacchus": opposition in the kitchen at Whitehouse; the irritable housekeeper; her persecution of the botanists Charles's hilarity and tricksiness with John; John's boots and bonnet stolen; debates and bumps; high jinks and games; John's Jew's-harp; their friendship and intimacy. 1836-1838.
  • Chapter XVII - John's early Experiences in his own Botanical Rambles
    Botany becomes a passion; his explorations on the Don; his enthusiasm the astonishment of his neighbours: finds the Bladderwort in Tillyfourie Moss; does not want a better road; "the man maun be daft!": the Water-lily in the Loch of Drum; John nearly drowned; he wins the plant; its after history: finds the Royal Fern and the Moonwort: his ardour and endurance; often out all night; his Spartan fare; his walking powers; trespassing and gamekeepers; the "Scotchlarchia Joseph's ear!" and bucolic stupidity and contempt. 1836-1840.
  • Chapter XVIII - Further Intercourse with Charles Black
    Charles marries and removes to Edinburgh; John visits him there; in the Botanic Gardens; his "thief-like" examination of the plants there; fishes for the "Water-soldier" in Duddingston Loch; the sights of Edinburgh he visited; evenings with his friends there: the Blacks return to Whitehouse; Charles's great herbarium arranged; their curious mode of doing it; the history of the herbarium  the Blacks remove to Aberdeen; Charles Black and Thomas Edwards, the Scotch naturalist, meet; John's visits to Charles there. 1838-1846.
  • Chapter XIX - Other Friends of the Weaver at Netherton
    His friends few but fit—Forbes the schoolmaster; merry times at Coulterneuk: James Black, Charles's brother; becomes John's companion; his impressions of John then: Willie Beveridge of the Craigh; becomes great friend of John's; John at the Craigh; John puzzled for once; Beveridge's after successes and present position : James Barclay, the painter; his relations to John; becomes a Jack-of-all-trades: other friends; the intelligence then existing in Tough. 1836-1849.
  • Chapter XX - Ecclesiastical Movements in the Country; and John's Religion
    Constitutionally and enthusiastically religious; his religion of the old Covenanting type; intense hater of prelacy and Popery; his contrast to Charles Black and discussions between them; anti-patronage and anti-Erastian advocate: the Disruption; John's advocacy of it; controversies at Netherton; relation of Aberdeenshire to the Free Church; the Free Church in the Vale of Alford; new religious zeal roused; John's keen activity; John in church; remains a staunch Free Churchman: his study of Theology; his opinions of the great Reformers. 1836-1881.
  • Chapter XXI - His Botanical Wanderings in the South
    John's harvesting a means of wide Botanising; extent of his wanderings; his adventures and observations; visits Glasgow, Paisley, Dunfermline, Dundee—the Rest Harrow—Perth, Arbroath, Montrose, St. Andrews—Viper's bugloss—Fife, Kelso, Coldstream, Northumberland and its burr; his returns homewards; his wages and their payment: John at Dunbog in Fife; his botanical assistants there; long walks and flowers: his expenses; a god-send to his entertainers: comes to a breadless Highland hut; food produced in an hour; the "quern" and Biblical hospitality: spinning of linen by the distaff; the use of the bare thigh!; its relation to modesty: his encounter with two tramps in Fife; falls among Highland "tinklers"; their honesty and hospitality. 1836-1864.
  • Chapter XXII - John returns to the Gadie
    Return to Auchleven; Sandy Smith's cottage; Sandy Smith himself; John and Mrs. Smith; his abstemiousness; his methodicalness; his quiet humour—night-caps and social standing!; John and young Sandy: Emslie, the carpenter's rife; her kindness to John; their intellectual intercourse; her opinion of him: Mrs. Lindsay's cottage; John by the fireside there; John sleeps with a "pig!"; his returns for kindness received. 1849-1852.
  • Chapter XXIII - His Studies and Friends at Auchleven
    Intellectual pursuits ardent as ever; John's studies in "the philosopher"; "We've laid by the moon and ta'en up the stars?"; John's practical answer; botanising round Gadie side; out all night and "like naebody else"; his style of speech; holds the first Botanical Exhibition; his discourse then, "Botany not a beast"; his fame spreads: still an herbalist: his Astronomical studies; makes a telescope; John on the stars at a soiree: Entomology: Meteorology: Theology; studies the Greek Testament; anti-papal reading: bewildered opinions of him at Auchleven; "he's a fool"; John regards the exoteric and the esoteric: John and young Dr. Mackay; their friendship; their joint studies of Botany and Theology. 1849-1852.
  • Chapter XXIV - John becomes an Essayist
    Rise of the Mutual Instruction movement in the north; "Corresponding Committee" appointed; "Address to Farm Servants" issued; "Mutual Instruction Union" formed; Female classes; "Rural Echo" published; the after history of movement: the Auchleven Class; its meetings, soirees and library; John at the meetings; his essays there: his Essay on Botany; advocates Natural History for children; his praise of Linnaeus: Essays on Astronomy; Essay on Weaving: Essay on Practical Gardening; good effects of flowers everywhere; advices on gardening; criticism of gardens in general; influence of such natural studies. 1846-1852.
  • Chapter XXV - Friendship and Courtship
    Renewed intercourse with Charles Black on the Gadic; their last ramble together; their subsequent connection: wishes a home of his own; John a great ladies' man; his matrimonial qualifications; a love-letter of John's; John and the housekeeper; John gets another denial; John and a third lad hill-he hill-top; John's chivalry in love-making. 1848-1852.
  • Chapter XXVI - Settlement and Word at Droughsburn
    Events during his residence at Auchleven: the Vale of Alford and John's relations to it; Droughsburn described; his workshop and home there: William Watt his predecessor; their connection; eminent weavers: John settles down there; his future labours; a good judge of cloth; his general aspect in his wanderings; how he finished a web; his journeys to Aberdeen. 1852-1859.
  • Chapter XXVII - John's Life and Habits at Droughsburn
    His style of living; the Allanachs with whom he boarded; relations with chilly Allanach; with genial Mrs. Allanach; with couthy Mrs. Webster: his extreme care of his possessions; of his chests; of his books; of his clothes: John at church; Botany on Sunday; his flowers in church; his appearance there; his short-sight and snuffing there; on way home after church: keeps Halloween and raises bonfires; keeps Yule; at other merry-makings; sings at a soiree. 1852-1877.
  • Chapter XXVIII - General Studies in Later Years
    Theology; Astronomy; Meteorology; Ornithology; Entomology; Natural History; Geology; Phrenology; John Adam, the phrenologist and antiquarian; General knowledge; Gardening; John's relations to the McCombies of Cairnballoch; his horticultural practices; his contempt for "florist flowers"; James Black's "monstrosities"; John's herbalism; his politics; his oratory: the Milton of Cushnie as it then was; John and Willie Williams, the shoemaker; John and George Williams, the merchant: the Alford Literary Society; John at its meetings: his dislike of gossip. 1852-1880.
  • Chapter XXIX - His Botanical Studies in Old Age
    Botany still dominant; still harvesting and botanising; his modes of gathering plants; his travelling fare; his use of technical words; his pronunciation of them; his depending on his memory; his associations round flowers: visited by lady in his eighty-fourth year; searches for the Linna'a for her; out all night in a thunder-storm; his extraordinary ardour and self-denial; his flashes of old humour: his wild flower garden; its decay: presented with the portrait of Linnaeus; wins two prizes for wild plants; list of wild plants in his garden. 1852-1878.
  • Chapter XXX - The Misunderstandings under which John Lived
    Penalties for social deflection from one's neighbours; the need of being interpreted to them: reasons for the common misunderstandings of John; his eccentricities; his good temper under attack; counted a madman by schoolboys; scepticism regarding his acquirements; his consistency in nomenclature tested by youngsters; his relations to the bucolic "Johnnie Raws": the berriless juniper bush and the ploughmen; John prophesies berries for it; berries produced but once; his delight at the experiment: depreciated by many who should have known better; accused of idling his time; "what's the use of it?"; the utilitarianism of Aberdeenshire; John's answer once to this question; it should be asked on a higher level. 1836-1878.
  • Chapter XXXI - His Disciples and Sympathisers at Droughsburn
    his influence over others; his disciples: John Taylor, the ploughman; visits John and begins Botany; his botanical studies with John; his later knowledge of Botany; his other studies; his after life: William Deans, farm-servant; goes to college; becomes a teacher; introduced to Botany; makes John's acquaintance at Alford market; his first visit to the weaving shop; his after studies under John; his present position: Samson, the Swede; comes to learn farming; introduced to John; studies plants with him; his subsequent history: Dr. Williams visits Droughsburn; his impressions of the place and the man: Rev. George Williams gets plants described by John; his visits to John's cottage; their conversations there on insects, plants, weavers and ministers; Rev. David Beattie's visits to John ampress impressions of him. 1852-1878.
  • Chapter XXXII - His visits to Aberdeen - Friendship and Eccentricity
    Visits Aberdeen regularly; growth of the city; visits to Raeden: visits to James Black; their early journeys about Tough; John's appearance in town, and its effects; John's search for "Jamie Black"; James carries one of John's bundles; James martyrised in a shop window: last meeting of John with Charles Black; he becomes beatified; their talk and parting: John consents to be photographed; preparations for the event; he refuses to stand; successfully taken; portraits of him: International Botanical Congress: John visits William Beveridge; their previous intercourse; they examine the museum; their evenings at home: John's obliviousness of "the genteel." 1824-1877.
  • Chapter XXXIII - John's visits to Aberdeen - Friendship and Botany
    Meets James Taylor; James begins study with Charles Black; he goes to college and studies medicine; sails to the Arctic regions and explores their natural history and botany; later studies and work; settles at Clashfarquhar; John's visits to him; they botanise together; John begins the more difficult sections of the subject; Taylor's impressions of him; visits John at Droughsburn with Dr. Sutherland; John finds the Limestone Polypody; visits Clashfarquhar; his last visit there; botanises at the cliffs: John's connection with Professor Dickie. 1849-1877.
  • Chapter XXXIV - The Author's First Visit to Droughsburn
    I visit John in his eighty-third year with friends; introduced; John's aspect and shyness; his weaving then, and independence in it; his general herbarium inspected; his finer collections examined; his treasured Cryptogamic book; his conquest of the science in his old age: I return to the cottage alone; his interesting and varied conversation; we climb the hill together; John on the objects seen there; the view; entertainment in the cottage; parting with him. September, 1877.
  • Chapter XXXV - Fame. Pauperism and Weakness
    Account of this visit in "Good Words"; its pleasant results in assistance and appreciation; "they've found you out at last!"; "Sal, lad, it pays!" John's indignation at silly pride; Charles writes him in congratulation: John becomes unable to make ends meet; books his one luxury; he cannot part with them; tells no one; applies for work at a saw-mill in vain; takes to bed sick with heartache; renewed struggle; begs a pauper's portion; boarded in the cottage: growing weakness; faints on way to church; his last visit there; "like an aul' tumbledoon feal dike"; visits James Black and William Beveridge for last time; account of my visit appears in "Leaders of Men." 1870-1881.
  • Chapter XXXVI - John's Herbarium presented to Aberdeen University
    The herbarium still unlocalised; John agrees to present it to the University; visit of the two Taylors to arrange it; John Taylor receives Dickie's "Flora"; he completes the work; it is packed for transport; John's gratification at its destination; Dr. Murray's herbarium; John's books and letters gone over; wishes a decent funeral and "a queer stane" on his grave; advises to the study of nature: herbarium finally arranged; account of it; the volumes and their contents; its presentation; accounts of this appear in newspapers. 1880.
  • Chapter XXXVII - Public Appeal made on his behalf, and its generous results
    His pauperism now revealed; the author's appeal to the country on his behalf; immediate generous response; the press on the subject; examples of sympathetic messages sent; of curious letters received; manner of gathering some subscriptions; honours from scientific societies; places that remained silent; John's appreciation of these honours; his comforts increased; Trust Deed drawn and signed; permanent Trustees appointed; Science prizes arranged for; disposal of his library. 1881.
  • Chapter XXXVIII - His growing debility: and the Author's last visit
    His debility increases; his bed removed to workshop; his hallucinations; faints by the burn; last journey up the Leochel; brought home in a barrow; objects to being attended on: Author makes last visit in winter storm; John's reception of him in weakness; his new comforts; bright conversations with him; debility and crossness; sings a song; his gratitude for gifts; feelings for the Queen; love of Charles Black; angry reception of author and reconciliation; their last interview; letter of Charles Black's; John's strong emotion; final parting with author. 1880, 1881.
  • Chapter XXXIX - The Happy and Honoured Close
    His later condition; cuts his temporal artery; memories of Dunnottar roused; John Taylor comes to nurse him; Duncan's last time outside; asks for short reading and prayer; rigid criticism of the request; invited to a scientific meeting; has no fear of death; the monument he wishes for his grave; painless tenacity of life; last conversations; last words; his serene death; the scene in the room  the scene without; the state of the workshop; the flowers placed on his body; the author's last sight of it; the funeral; ceremony at the cottage and churchyard; monument at his grave and its inscription. 1881.
  • Chapter XL - Duncan's Characteristics and Character
    His constitution; appearance; head; countenance; short-sight and its effects; simple fare; keen appetite; John at dinner at James Black's; eats pickle whole and its results; excessive estimate of money; spends it on books, his one luxury; command of temper; kindliness of heart; John and the hare; John and the idiot; John and the coals; obliging helpfulness; delight in sharing his knowledge; gratitude for benefits; rigid honesty; orderliness in all things; tidiness in person and dress; extreme retiringness; backwardness in company; secretiveness; want of emotive utterance; manner in meeting friends; style of shaking hands; his feelings deep and strong; causes of his apparent callousness; John in the field with a friend; innocent simplicity of his nature; John and the madman; his mother-wit and humour; "damn the riddle!"; cloth "with a bone in it"; siller and its potency; sarcastic replies; John and his oil bottle; the terribly honest gardener; the botanists in hell; his recherche Doric; its poetry; the songs he sang; his opinion of Robert Burns; his deficiency of poetic feeling; its real nature; his non-perception of the artistic; his capacity for high friendship; his wonderful love of Charles Black; religiousness of his nature; its depth and character.
  • Chapter XLI - The Secret?
    The school did nothing for Duncan; his mother's extreme poverty; the extraordinary disabilities under which he lived; his remarkable successes; John's opinion of these disabilities and the value of learning; his love of knowledge, a true scientific thirst; Botany in its relation to culture; his wise union of intellectual and humanitarian studies; his practical use of all knowledge; his glimpses of higher philosophy; his opinion of his achievements in study; the effects of early influences on Duncan's life; their vital importance in every life; the value of natural pursuits in youth; Duncan's poor and hard lot and serene contentment; the character of his happiness; his simple tastes; the wisdom of plainness; his opinion of outside pity; his cultivation of "the internals"; his study of Natural Science; the felicity he extracted from it; his very happy life under untoward conditions; the happiness open to all in nature; our eyes have no clear vision of nature; our imperfect education in relation to it; the need of educational reform in view of this; "a man all his own wealth."

List of Plants gathered or verified by John Duncan

  • Part I.—Plants found in the Vale of Alford and the surrounding districts of Aberdeenshire.
  • Part II.—Introduced plants found in a semi-wild condition in the same region.
  • Part III.—Plants in Duncan's Herbarium not indigenous to the North of Scotland, but growing in the South of Scotland, England or Wales, or in other parts.
Further Reading

There are a couple of books mentioned in this text which the author himself purchased and make excellent reading if you wish to expand your knowledge. I haven't been able to find the astronomical texts mention but did find one that might suffice. They are in pdf format and can be downloaded below...

  • Family Herbal by Sir John Hill M. D. (27Mb) (538 pages) (Published around 1820)
  • The Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper M. D. (50Mb) (458 pages) (Published 1835)
  • Astronomy by George F. Chambers (40Mb) (512 pages) (Published around 1901)
  • Good Words 1878 where I've combined the 3 part article of John Duncan into one file. (14Mb)

John Duncan by Alistair Lawrie
Born at Stonehaven in 1794, John Duncan spent a lifetime collecting plant specimens from all across Scotland and the North of England, a collection including 75% of all British flowering plants when he donated it on his death to Aberdeen University. Unusually, unlike other amateur botanists of the period, John spent his life as a poor working weaver. In his seventies, he was saved from living on the Parish by a public subscription raised by a botanist friend to which Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin contributed. He died in his eighty first year.

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