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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter XVIII. Lion-Hunters - Ferns and Mosses

After Sir Roderick Murchison had made his speech at Leeds, Robert Dick’s name was carried far and wide on the wings of the press. He was spoken of as one of the most extraordinary instances of the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. Even the Thurso people began to look upon him in a different light. “They had long regarded him as partially insane,” said the editor of a Wick newspaper. “But as time rolled on opinions gradually changed. By and by it began to be whispered that men of great influence were visiting the mad Thurso baker; and when it was found that at the meetings of the British Association he was named as one of the highest authorities on certain scientific questions, and that even Sir Roderick Murchison had been sitting at his feet and receiving lessons from him, the Thurso people took pride in naming the great scientific baker of their town.”

The change of opinion was not, however, quite unanimous. When the joking rhyme about “Hammers an’ chisels an’ a’” was published in the Wick newspaper, Dick wrote to Air. Peach that “ some people here view the matter quite seriously. One says, ‘ Sir Roderick will regret having extolled me so highly : the verses are more like what a half-drunk Burns would write than anything they know.’ A weak but well-meaning bodie at Cromarty sends me a pious bookie about the state of my soul. He says ‘the spades, perhaps, are made that will dig my grave.’ He need not have had any ‘perhaps’ about the matter. Kirk-yard spades bury three or four generations. A Dublin divine has sent me a letter that I have put in the fire, with ‘There goes Balaam’s ass, No. 1.’ Indeed you know that the rhyme was solely made to make you laugh, while you were dowie.”

The lion-hunters then came upon him. Point out a man who has done something out of the ordinary way, and immediately a tribe of nobodies flock to see him. If they cannot get introduced to him, they will look at him through his window, and try to see the lion through the bars of his cage. Dick hated all this nonsense. He would not be lionised. Every scientific man was made welcome to his shop, his bakehouse, and his parlour; but when persons, who knew nothing about science, merely called to see him as a show, he was shy and unapproachable. Some thought him rude. Yet he was exceedingly attached to those who were his genuine friends.

A gentleman called upon him one day and sent in his name. Dick was at work in the bakehouse. “Tell him,” he said to Annie Mackay, “that I am very busy, and cannot see him at present.” Another message was sent in: “Tell Mr. Dick that I am the editor of so and so.” The reply was, “I have no time for editors [Aside,—“They only thresh straw a thousand times threshed.”] The editor afterwards stuck a prong into his back—after he was dead.

Dick detested sneakingness and dishonesty. One day a person called upon him and proceeded to say that a gentleman, well skilled in botany and physical science, then in Orkney, wished to call upon him, and that he had come beforehand to tell him so. It immediately flashed upon Dick’s mind that this was the very person himself. He said, “It’s of no use for your friend to call: I have no time for new acquaintances.” The stranger then tried to obtain an interview through a third person, who was instructed to say that he was the person of whom he had spoken. “Ho, no,” said Dick; “tell him not to come here, for if he do I’ll say what I don’t want to say to anybody.” “What’s that?” “I’ll tell him to go to the !” was the reply.

Many strangers, said a writer in the Northern Ensign, visited Thurso without being able to see his collections, although they had come for the express purpose. In this list we believe we can include a member of the reigning dynasty in France [Prince Lucien Buonaparte?] whom Mr. Dick refused to see, greatly to his disappointment. But when once, he adds, Mr. Dick had got the real measure of a man, and found him what he thought he ought to be, all was right, and the introduction of a stranger by such a person was the unfailing open sesame to his house and his curiosities.

Dick’s servant and housekeeper, Annie Mackay, has said of him, that many people called to see her maister —some on business, but most from curiosity. He was polite to everybody. In business no man could be more civil. Sometimes people called when he was busy in the bakehouse. His arms and hands were covered with flour; and when the batch was in, he could not leave the oven. “You see,” she said, “he had pounds and pounds worth o’ bread i’ the oven. Had he left that and come out to attend the visitors, the bread wud ha’ been burnt, and he wud ha’ lost it a’. Wha wud ha’ paid him for that?"

“The Duke o’ Argyll ca’d ae day to see the maister. He was thrang wi’ his batch. The maister said to the Duke that he couldna see him the noo, but if he wad ca’ again he wad show him the fossils. The maister fix’d the time. He put oot the fossils and waited for a hoor ayont the time. He tell’t me, ‘ If the Duke come, take him up ta the parlour; I’ve taken oot the fossils and laid them on the table.’ The Duke cam after the maister gaed oot, and looked at the fossils, but he didna stop lang. The maister was aye very particular about the time he fixed for visitors to see the fossils.”

Sir George Sinclair of Thurso Castle usually brought his distinguished visitors to see Dick. Sir George had a great admiration for the baker. When speaking of his first visit to him, Sir George said:—“I had myself attended many courses of lectures at the Edinburgh University, and had acquired some knowledge of the various departments of Natural History; but, in conferring with my friend Dick, I soon discovered that all my acquirements were shallow and superficial. On those to which I had devoted attention I found myself completely eclipsed by my acute and ardent friend, who was always as ready as he was able, to correct my mistakes, to guide my inquiries, and to add to my scanty stock of general information. The extent and variety of his scientific acquirements were incredible and almost unexampled. He knew as much about many sciences as some professors know about one.”

Amongst the numerous persons introduced by Sir George to Dick, were Thomas Carlyle and the Baroness Burdett Coutts. With the former he had but little conversation. They shook hands together across the counter, and exchanged a few words of congratulation. With the Baroness he discussed the discoveries of Mr. Pengelly of Torquay, another eminent votary of science.

Sir George often invited Dick to meet his distinguished guests at the Castle, and to dine or breakfast with them. He also invited him to meet Hugh Miller there alone. But no! Dick would not leave his own house. He felt that he should be out of place in a Castle, served by footmen. “His unassuming modesty,” said Sir George, “was as conspicuous as his wonderful knowledge.” Lady Sinclair even proposed to change her baker, and buy her bread from him. “Ho, no,” he replied; “I am the last person to take the bread from any honest man’s mouth. Remain where you are; you cannot be better served.”

When Mr. Peach proposed to visit Aberdeen in 1859, for the purpose of attending the meeting of the British Association, he asked Robert Dick if he would not send a paper, or communicate some facts through his friends. “Ho!” said Dick; “when you go to Aberdeen I hope you will not speak of me at all. People bothered me so much last year after Sir Roderick made his speech at Leeds, that I have no desire for any repetition. Tell Mr. Cleghorn also (a geologist at Wick) not to speak of me. I wish to be let alone.”

But he was quite ready to sing a triumphant song to welcome Charlie home again :—

0 welcome Charlie hame again,
0 welcome Charlie to your nain;
The toon o’ Wick has been in pain
For want o’ her ain Charlie.

When Charlie went to Aberdeen,
The like before was never seen;
His coat was brown, his breeks were green,
His buckles shining rarely.
0 welcome Charlie, etc.

Upon his back a bag o’ stones,
His pouches fu’ o’ fossil bones ;
An’ tangles lang as pipers’ drones
Hang ower his shoulders rarely.
0 welcome Charlie, etc.

When Charlie spak, the great were dumb,
They felt they micht nae fash their thumb :
For Charlie’s logic was a drum
That did its business rarely.
0 welcome Charlie, etc.

When Charlie sat in committee
The darkest doubts began to flee ;
A touch ! a word ! at once they see !
For wha can match wi’ Charlie?
0 welcome Charlie, etc.

Among those who regularly called upon Dick at his bakehouse, were the medical students of the town and neighbourhood. These were always made heartily welcome. When Dick had done his day’s work, he went out with them and pointed out the plants in their native habitat. Dr. Shearer informs us that there was hardly a medical student belonging to Caithness, who did not at one time or other make Mr. Dick’s acquaintance. Amongst these were Dr. Meiklejohn, afterwards of her Majesty’s ships “Illustrious,” “Harrier,” and “Asia". Dr. Brown, a well-known botanist, afterwards author of A Manual of Botany, Anatomical and Physiological; and Dr. Shearer himself.

Dr. Meiklejohn has told us of his first introduction to Dick. Being a native of Caithness, he had long heard of his devotion to natural science, and of the value of his researches into the palaeontology of the Caithness rocks. When Dr. Meiklejohn went to Thurso in 1850, he sought an introduction to Dick through Miss Russell, bookseller, who had long supplied him with books. “We at once called upon him,” he says, “and found him in his bakehouse, having just finished his day’s work. I was much struck with his appearance. His massive forehead and fine features betokened a man of great intelligence. I regretted that he was not in a position to follow his scientific pursuits, free from the cares of arduous daily labour.

“On being informed that I wished to know the best places for procuring specimens of fossils which abounded in the rocks of the district, he said he would at once accompany me to some good fossiliferous spots. We walked out to Holborn Head, where, on an exposed surface of the rock, a magnificent cranial buckler of the Asterolepis was imbedded. This was the first example of that fine fossil which I had ever seen, and I examined it with the greatest interest. On our way back, he took me to the bed of a small stream near the Bishop’s Palace, where numerous fossil fishes were to be seen. During my stay, we had many walks together. His acquaintance with the Fauna—particularly with the insects and shells—and the Flora of the district, was very great. I got much information from him on those subjects.”

Their acquaintance continued. When Meiklejohn returned to Thurso—after his six months’ study of surgery and medicine at Edinburgh—one of the first things he did was to call upon Dick. They saw much of each other during the three years that the young surgeon’s studies continued. He accompanied Dick in his walks. “I remember,” he says, “that he took me one day to a small pond, where he had found that curious little crustacean, with a bivalve shell, the Cypris. This little animal was of great interest to us both, as it is supposed to be allied to Estheria—a fossil not uncommon in the Caithness flagstones. It was formerly thought to be a bivalve mollusc related to the little Cyclas of our rivers.”

Dr. Meiklejohn took his degree in 1854, immediately after which he was appointed to H.M.S. “Harrier,” which was about to sail for the Baltic, during the war with Russia in the same year. While in the Gulf of Bothnia, Dr. Meiklejohn sent Dick a long account of the Natural History of Finland. “I cannot,” he said, “give you any elaborate details, as my only opportunities of investigating the coasts were, when I accompanied parties of armed men in boats, looking for ships,—frequently with a live shell by my side, and in danger of being picked off by a Russian rifleman.” After the war, the “Harrier” left Portsmouth for Rio Janeiro and Pernambuco, cruising along the coast; and Dr. Meiklejohn again furnished Dick with a long account of the botany and zoology of the lands which he had visited.

Dr. Brown first made the acquaintance of Dick while on his way from the Orkneys to Edinburgh, where he was studying medicine. He called upon Dick at his bakehouse, and the two had much pleasant conversation.

Dick supplied his young friend—for he was then only seventeen—with a list of the plants of Caithness. The list was a long one. The student read a paper on the subject to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. He gave several of the plants on Dick’s authority. The professor of Botany jeered at the idea of such plants growing in Caithness, and declared that Dick was all wrong! Dick was appealed to. He insisted that he was all right. He had seen the plants growing with his own eyes. What better evidence could there be of their existence in Caithness? Speaking of the affair to a friend, Dick said, “I doot the folk that objected were fireside botanists.”

The correspondence, however, continued. In one of his letters, Dick said, “I am sorry that my doubly-marked list of plants should have annoyed you so much. It is impossible for me to send my dried plants to Edinburgh for examination by your Professors. The plants are bulky,—and besides, I value them too highly to allow any person to touch them, except very tenderly. How can I forstand your Professors, when they dinna forstand themselves.’’

“Scucifraga tridactylites: Dunnet Links. Query— Why do your Professors doubt my word about so common a plant as that? Is it because I said it might be had in millions? . . . Arbutus alpina: native. . . . Luzula Forsteri: my nainsel fand him. . . . Osmunda regalis. Eh? Weel, man, were Dr. Johnson of Berwick alive, he would roar so loud that they would hear him at Morven. Osmunda regalis has just as good a right to be considered native as Calluna vulgaris. ... You will please give all this news to Professor Balfour. Tell hire I am just as jealous of my rights as he can be himself.

“I truly grant, a hundred times,
My skeel may weel be doubted,
But facts are chiels that winna ding,
And needna be disputed.”

Another letter from the medical student follows, in which he offered to assist Dick with specimens of plants; to which the baker, perhaps tired of the subject, said— “I hope you will dismiss from your mind the idea of hunting out dried plants for me. Attend to your studies, and leave me to find plants for ‘mysel.’ . . . Those plants exist in Caithness some way. How can I tell how they got there?”

The correspondence was not yet over. The student, on his way home to the Orkneys, called upon Dick again, made up all differences, and got from him some of the wild Caithness roses,—the whole of which Dick had tracked to their lonely haunts among the hills and the straths. In a subsequent letter, Dick says, “I could pick three or four roses of different 'varieties' from one wild rose bush in various stages of transformation. I don’t consider myself beat on that point yet. Nor will I rest satisfied until I get the decision of some authority. I’ll wait, even for twenty years. Spes irfracta. What’s that? Gaelic? May be so—may be no. It’s all the same. I’ll wait! . . . Thanks to you for giving me the Goat Honeysuckle, and the Woodsia from Dumfriesshire. I’ll thank you quietly ilka time I look on them, and that’s better than noise. . . H. C Watson most certainly has me on the hip about Potamogeton plantagineus; but I have as certainly floored him about the Buckbean {Menyanthes). . . . The season of wild flowers is over once again (September 1860), and I am not likely to wander far this year. I have never walked less in all my life than this summer. Wishing you all the happiness in this world, I am,” etc.

In the following month, Dick writes to his young friend, “You are all right; and we are sworn friends;” and again, “I can’t quite make out your hieroglyphics They are a mystery to me. You can write better than I; only don’t drive quite so furiously. I was never at college!” Then he goes on to the Caithness roses again. “Along with this you will receive your catalogue, which I have gone over very carefully, and made some notes thereon. You have omitted some which are very common, and others, which, though less abundant, are found here. I have marked no roses save Rosa spinosissima, Rosa canina, and Rosa micrantha. They are abundant on the braes, by Thurso river, for miles inland. In dry seasons, the leaves appear almost white from their hairiness. On a hill six miles away, there grows a rose; another fourteen miles away; another twelve miles away; another six miles away, on the edge of a cliff overhanging the sea, and exposed to the full sweep of the northern tempests. I had intended to have sent you specimens of all these roses. But the heavy rains forbid :

“The best-laid plans o’ mice and men Gang aft aglee.’

“But what ails Dr. Balfour? I am wearying to hear what these roses are. He need not hesitate to say what he thinks. I lay traps for no one.

“How comes it, that of all the Scotch heaths, Erica Tetralix only should be given to the habit of putting out varieties. I have watched Calluna vulgaris and Erica cinerea, and never yet, among thousands of thousands, found a notable variety. But with Erica Tetralix, the loveliest of the three, the case is very different. It is subject to strange shiftings and changings, and I have some delightful varieties from it. If Erica Tetralix was sent to some Darwinian academy, wonderful results would undoubtedly follow!

“Your society doubted whether the variety of the lady fern, known as Athyrium molle, was really native to Caithness. Since I saw you, I have got two specimens of the fern from England; but Dunnet Cliffs produce far finer specimens of the same fern. Take my word for it. I have got two specimens of the variety rhceticum from England ; the same fern is also here.

“In your catalogue, I observe that you have marked Poa aquatica as a native of Caithness. That is serious. The red Poa does not grow in Caithness.”

“I’ll not write to you again for three months. Attend to your studies.”

We have quoted these extracts to show how thoroughly Dick had mastered the botany of Caithness. He wandered over the country far and near—in spring, summer, autumn, and winter,—and collected all that grew during those seasons.

Strange to say, he missed an object that he had long been looking for. It was the Juncus squarrosus, which is usually found growing on boggy earth. he searched for it along the banks of the river, but though there, it had been cropped down by the beasts which grazed along the grassy plat. At length he found the plant growing to perfection not a hundred yards from his own door,—on a piece of land called “The Island”— a place devoted to the bleaching of clothes, and consequently sacred from the intrusion of cattle.

During the later years of his life, Dick again returned to the study of botany. He searched all the country round, for grasses, ferns, and mosses. What an insignificant thing a Moss seems! Yet, when a friend was complaining to Linnseus, that Sweden did not afford scope enough for the study of Nature, the sage laid his hand upon a bit of Moss on which they were reclining, and said, “Under this palm is material for the study of a lifetime!”

Every one remembers how Mungo Park, when lost in the desert, was delighted with the sight of a tuft of Moss. The little living jewel, growing amongst endless wastes and arid rocks, melted the traveller’s heart. “If God cares for the moss,” he said, “surely He cares for me; and Park went on his way with an uplifted heart.

Dick searched the whole county of Caithness for the mosses which it contained. He was the first local botanist who had investigated the subject. Writing to Peach in April 1856, he said:—“The club-mosses are very interesting plants. I have found five out of the six British species growing in the county, and probably I may also find the sixth. The club-moss which strikes you, is alpinum, which is found in great abundance on the steep sides of Morven. Selago, or fir club-moss, seems an exception. Selaginoides too, hears spores everywhere. ... I am scarcely master of a single spare moment.”

“I am going off to the moors,” he again says, “for a back-burden of moss. If you were here you would go too, but you would have to rise at five. If you will visit quarries, my man, it will not do to be snoozing in your bed until eight o’clock. I was up at one this morning, hence this epistle.” This, however, was a piece of banter; for Dick knew that Peach was an early riser, and did much of his geological work early in the morning, or late at night. “His letters,” said Peach, “even if bantering me, always brought sunshine.”

Dick also continued his search for ferns. He often wandered along the foot of Dunnet Head, when the tide was out, and climbed up the rocks into some shady nook where the ferns grew. They did not grow on the eastern side of the cliffs, but on the west, where the Gulf Stream washes along the headland. Sometimes he descended the western cliffs, where a fall of the red sandstone had taken place, and there he found the ferns of which he had come in search. It was a glorious day for him when he found the Eoyal Fern—Osmunda regalis —growing there in its native beauty. “I can yet recollect,” he says, “how happy I was when I found the first Osmunda. I was wearied, and sore, and sick, and nearly tired of this world, and all that’s in it, when I caught sight of that glorious Tern, large, radiant, and flourishing, among the reft sandstone cliffs of Dunnet. What a beauty ! Almost approaching to the size of a tree fern!”

Dick also found among the rocks on Dunnet Head, Lastrea dilatata, Lastrea fcenisecii, the Asplenium mari-num, Asplenium filix-fcemina (lady fern), and numerous other ferns. Morven mountain was also one of his haunts, and there he found Polypodium Phegopteris, P. calcareum, and Lastrea Oreopteris. Braalnabin and Dirlot also furnished him with many specimens. The commoner specimens he found all over the county. He collected many of the seeds and plants, and sowed them and planted them broadcast over the county, to be living when he was dead. He planted scions of the maiden hair and the royal fern in the gorges of the Dorery hills, at Morven, and in his fernery at Reay.

Mr. Peach helped Dick in his inquiries as to ferns. He often sent him seeds or plants, so that they might be planted in favourite spots. He also sent him some Cornish heaths. “Many thanks!” said Dick, “for Erica vagans and Erica ciliaris. To me they are a world of pleasure.”

Having been informed by Mr. Peach that he had found Asplenium marinum at Strathmore. Dick says, “Nothing that you ever mentioned to me has struck me so much as what you say. about Asplenium marinum. ... I have examined every accessible sea-cliff from Portskerra to John o’ Groat’s, and never yet found a trace of it. A. marinum on the slaty rocks! How is that to be accounted for ? Certainly not owing to the exposed nature of the coast, nor to the sea spray. I have clambered down the north-western point of Dunnet Head, where the northern storms waste their fury on the cliffs, and the sea spray is lifted in vapour high over their loftiest pinnacles, and even there Asplenium marinum loves to nestle among its crevices? The distribution must be a mystery.”

Peach sends Dick many plants for him to name. He sent the Polygonum viviparum. “It is a rare alpine plant,” was the reply. “It is not a fern at all, though it is nearly as rare as your treasured Dryas octopetala, in search of which I have spent many a long day. Your orchis is Habenaria chlorantha; your fern Cystopteris dentata: it is decidedly rare. Thanks for allowing me to rob you of Scolopendrium (Hart’s-tongue). ... A plant I have gathered here,” he says, “I have dried and submitted to an English professor (Babington). He has pronounced it to be one of the very rarest in Britain. The plant is rare, but not so rare as the professor kindly wished to make it.

“Not content with the specimens of the fern which I had got beside me, I set out (July 23) for a mountain nine miles away, where I knew the plant grew; and in due time I got there, and saw, or thought I saw, many different species. On one sloping brae grew Polypodium Phegopteris, and I sat me down beside it. I remarked that, though of all sizes, from an inch up to twelve inches, every one was true to the type. Passing on to a rocky ledge, I saw a cluster of the fern I had gone in quest of. Down I sat, in admiration wrapt, the world forgot! What was the world to me, with its pomps, and pleasures, and nonsense? Away with printed books and dried specimens! Nature, ever enduring and captivating Nature, is the best of all hooks to study from. That, said I, is the Polypodium Dryopteris of learned men. More than fifty of the fern were growing before me,—not one of them agreeing in any particular with the Dryopteris of the books.

“When I had gathered the plants, I sat and looked around. The day was warm and delightful. A thin haze was dancing through the air. The effect was charming, tempting one to dream. Through the mists of Mirza I could see a human figure at the hill foot, stooping low to the ground. Probably, thought I, some broken-hearted pilgrim is providing for futurity. I turned round, and after a while I looked again. Alas! it was a half-naked woman filling her stomach with cold water. The spell was broken. It was time to be gone. Adieu, old boy!”

In this way was the pleasant correspondence of the two geologists carried on. There was no envy, but every kind of helpfulness between them. Peach told his discoveries to Dick, and Dick told his to Peach. There were many discussions between them, more particularly as to Peach’s fossil wood. Dick said that under Peach’s supposition “a stone quarry becomes a buried forest” Yet Mr. Peach held that he was right. And Dick also worked hard to get at the right meaning of things.

On one occasion he writes to Peach as follows:—“A few days since I found myself standing by the seashore on the east side of Dunnet Head. I was scanning with delighted soul the overturned strata, and musing on the Past, on the Beginning, on Eternity!

“I am again bothered with rheumatism, and neither an enthusiastic love of stones nor fossils can delude me into the belief that pain is an illusion, and not a stern reality—intended no doubt for good, and yet I had as lief be without it—

“Oh! age has weary days
An’ nights o’ sleepless pain ;
The gowden time o’ youthful prime
Can never come again!’

That’s the old man’s song, Charlie. But it is all owing to temperament or constitution, or to stamina at the outset.

“I felt considerable chagrin when you returned from the West, and brought no root of Scolopendrium with you. I did not want it for myself, but for science and Nature. I wished to plant it on Dunnet cliffs, or on the slate hills to the south of Thurso. I know favourable spots where I think it would live, and gratify the weary souls of lonely pilgrims, long after you and I are singing hallelujah with the angels. If you don’t send that Scolopendrium, your monument in the North will have no garland hung around it.”

A little later he again complains of illness. He says, “I can’t bear mental fatigue. I am weary and sore. The buzzing of a fly is a burden to me. I slept only three hours last night. My head is sore, and I am not ‘i’ the vein.’ You compliment your humble servant, and ask assistance to your list of queries. I know a little—just a little, and am daily making the little more—the mark of a true Scot; yet in the imperfect knowledge of the Caithness strata I would not, for crowns, or robes, or kingly globes, put my unhallowed hands to a fancy section of Caithness strata.”

At length Peach sent him the Scolopendrium. His sickness had fled, and he was quite jubilant in his reply. “I have planted it,” he said, “among the magnificent crags of Dunnet Head. A bronze pillar should reward the person who introduces into a county such a lovely plant as the Hart’s-tongue fern, ever verdant, ever gay. What beautiful green fronds! How handsome and picturesque! My only regret is that I cannot sow it broadcast over the whole land.”

A little later Peach sent him another lot of the Hart’s-tongue ferns from Sutherland. Dick proceeded to plant them far astray, so that they might not be huddled together into one corner. “I prefer,” he said, “the fatigue of planting them as widely apart from each other as possible, so that they may scatter their colonies. In long years, after you and I are dead, and perhaps making ‘a bung for a beer-barrel' they will be fresh and flourishing. ... It was not for vanity that I begged them from you. No. It was the certainty that in generations yet unborn the feeling that ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity' would weigh down and oppress, and that some wanderer sad might be made happier by seeing them. For is not a ‘thing of beauty a joy for ever’? Bless and thank you, my dear Charlie! They’ll never thank you. That’s my duty! One cannot but admire the Wisdom which gave and gives a feeling and a sense of the beautiful even to the ignorant. Were it otherwise, Beauty would not exist; and to the All knowing how small is the difference between the sage and the savage!”

A little later Dick says:—“I have planted the Royal Fern inland many miles. I have planted it at Reay and Dorery. There I can see the hills of Sutherland far in the distance. Aided by my zealous friend Charles the Sassenach, I have adorned and beautified Caithness. I write this in the midst of care and trouble. I have a bad cough, and no more romance at present.

Robin’s head’s sair. It’s a desperate thing to fill up a page with a bad headache. I am glad that you are in spirits at least, if not altogether in health. So many people are going that I began to be apprehensive that you were seriously ill. . . . Charles, old boy, go when you may (unless I go first), I shall seriously miss you.

I miss Hugh Miller as much as ever I did, and ’tis likely I will ever do so.”

Mr. Peach says that Dick had so thoroughly examined the botany of the county, that for some years before his death he could discover nothing that he had not before met with. “I well remember,” he says, “when asking him ‘what there was new,’ his eye brightened up, and he answered, ‘Just this one plant new to the county. I was giving up my botanical search, and returning home after a long evening walk from Dunnet Links, when I lighted upon this pretty umbelliferous plant—hedge parsley; and here it is!’ Thus, so closely had he looked up the plants of the county that for some years he could scarcely discover another. Had he been persuaded to give his thoughts to the world, he would have stood very high in the ranks of scientific authors. But he never could be induced to publish his observations and discoveries. He could not get over his bashfulness.”

Many discussions about geology occur in the course of the correspondence. Peach sent Dick Darwin’s Journal to read. Dick replies:—“Though the book was never in my hands before, yet I found that I was already familiar with most of the facts it contains. Sir Charles Lyell draws upon it rather freely. And in various other works I have met with his craft. He is a fine fellow. . . . He traverses the widespread Pampas of Buenos Ayres and Patagonia, rides over their accumulated sand and pebbles and their sepulchres of dead bones, and he is overwhelmed and bewildered at their magnitude. But why should he be astonished? The sands are many, it is true, and the boulders and stones innumerable; but the sea, the million-handed ocean, that rounded them in his palm, is vastly more extensive. The sea is a workman that never wearies, never rests, never slumbers! Thanks to you and Mr. Darwin, the perusal of the book lias confirmed me in all that I told you long ago. . . . Humboldt Half guesses that the living and the fossil animals belong to the still existing creation, but it seems to be convenient to withhold the avowal.

“Nobody knows when this earth was made, how it was made, or how long it was in making.

“Of one creation part we ken,
Wi’ mair we dinna meddle ;
A nee dream o’ twa, ye’ll dream o’ ten,
An’ fancies endless—diddle !

"Don’t think that I do not value Mr. Darwin. I have read his observations most carefully, but with my own spectacles. Geologists have led me such a dance during the last twenty-five years, that I prefer that way of reading books.

“This earth on which we move may have been created very long ago, but certainly most of the regions visited by Mr. Darwin exhibited very few signs of a hoar antiquity ; and despite previous teachings and their influence, the very recent nature of many of the deposits forced itself upon his attention.” After quoting from Humboldt, Professor Sedgwick, and others, he continues the argument in favour of his own views. He concludes thus :—“I remember that when friend Hugh set down in print that all that lived previous to and during the chalk died out with the chalk, and not one existence was spared; yet when, after a time, a species of shell was found in tertiary and chalk strata, the geologists very dexterously clapped those tertiary strata alongside and with the chalk, just to make things tally! How will they manage now?”

Dick deprecated the idea of explaining the universe and how it was formed, but he threw out the following idea of the greatness of the thing attempted to be explained, and the littleness of the things attempting to explain it:—

“Take a cupful of sand and strew it over the floor. It is a mere sprinkling, scarcely discernible. A fly settles down on it, walks over and across it, and regards it as in no way remarkable. A smaller creature than the fly comes and walks over it. To him it is a very great matter,—quite a Sahara! Now, were the whole of the formations of geologists, by some superhuman power, let loose particle from particle, and the whole strewed over the floor of the ocean, would they form more than a mere sprinkling?

“Brush the cupful of sand together again. It forms a little hill, or, if of a lengthened form, a mountain range. The fly from your window comes again and settles down beside it. He looks up. *How magnificent!* says he. He walks round it and over it. ‘How vast! millions and millions of years must have been consumed in their formation!’ Ignorant, simply ignorant, all the while, of the means by which a body of matter so apparently formidable to his puny ideas was brought together. The fly will not understand it, but he’ll buzz and buzz, and make a noise; and his fellow flies, hearing the noise, will exclaim, ‘What a longheaded fellow!’”

George Shearer of Thurso, then a student at Edinburgh, was a great admirer of Dick. He got from him a great deal of his first knowledge of botany. As in the case of Dr. Meiklejohn, Dick took him to see the plants growing in their native habitats. They had conversations on many subjects. But there was one subject on which George Shearer was particularly anxious to know Dick’s opinion; and that was his views as to the Mosaic Cosmogony.

Accordingly, he wrote to him from Edinburgh on the subject. But Dick was not to be “drawn” by a person so much his inferior in years and knowledge. He replied :—“As to your religious queries, my answer is— On religious matters we are not equal. I am within three months of being fifty-three years of age. Wait until you are as old, and wearing spectacles, and then we will discuss those matters. Meantime, as you cannot rest, you will probably be writing a commentary on the Romans. My advice to you is, ‘Tak’ tent; let sleepin’ dogs lie!’”

This reminds one of a story told of the late poet Rogers. When asked by a lady what was his religion, he replied, “I am of the religion of all sensible men.” “And what is that?” asked the lady. “All sensible men,” replied Rogers, “keep that to themselves.”

Dr. Shearer, many years after, when grown to manhood, said that Dick must then have thought him somewhat of a prig. “I took his reply,” he says, “in excellent part. I felt that, when he wrote it, he thought that the unthinking may easily be orthodox, and that the loudest professors were sometimes the shabbiest actors in the drama of life.”

Dick was of opinion that dogmatism in interpretation, was equally out of place in geology as in divinity. He thought that man’s proper work at present was to search and acquire new facts and materials for the formation of further knowledge. Theories might wait. Certainly the time had not yet arisen for harmonising the Testimony of the Rocks with the first chapter of the Book of Genesis;

Dr. Meiklejohn again resumed his correspondence with his friend Dick on his return to England, while surgeon of H.M.S. “Asia.” Dick replied to him at once. He began his letter to the doctor with a little bit of censure:—“If I were to plead busy, as you do, as an excuse for not writing, I think I would never scribble a word at all. I rise generally at three o’clock, and am for the most part engaged all the day until I go to roost at nine o’clock in the evening. Nothing but thirty years’ practice could have enabled me to endure such a galley-slave life.

“I have not seen Sir Charles Lyell’s hook on the Geological Age of Man, and should I see a review of it I must be on my guard, for I fear I am too straightforward in expressing my notions on these and other fashionable speculative dreams. I have seen Darwin’s book on Orchids very coolly reviewed in the Athenceum. I have no wish to meddle with Mr. Darwin’s peculiar notions. . . . One thing, indeed, I’ll grant Mr. Darwin —that hundreds of so-called species may have sprung from one stock. I have been lately looking at grasses, and would not care though Mr. Darwin made all the species of Poa and Festuca to have grown from one plant. And so of many more of them.”

In a future letter Dick says :—“I am sorry you think that I do an injustice to Mr. Darwin, as I would not knowingly do an injustice to any one. It is quite possible that, in my ignorance of what that gentleman's true views really are, I may have spoken rashly and hastily. That you can pardon, for in truth I have never read one of his books, and the reviewers of them may have twisted his meaning to serve their own purposes.

“If what Mr. Darwin means be, that the various animals and plants we see around us are not exactly first creations—that is, are not now what they were when made by the hand of the Almighty, but have since that act been changing continually, so that it is now difficult to say from what particular stock the various forms have come—if that be all, if not pushed too far, it does not seem dangerous doctrine; in fact, it looks rather playful, and at the same time it may have much truth in it. I can myself see that it is and must be difficult to determine from what particular stock many species of plants have sprung. For that every species, made such by man, was a particular act of God’s workmanship, is out of the question. That idea I cannot admit at all. Cuvier’s definition of a species may be the right one, but surely it is rash and presumptuous. How can I or any man, while looking at a plant, say that it has maintained all its particular characteristics unchanged since it came from the hands of its Maker?

“Since I have looked at Scotch roses—for example, the very small lot of them to be met with in Caithness —I have found much to correct my earliest ideas on creation, such as my teachers (knowing as little as I did myself) instilled into me. I thought, even since I read books on plants, and looked on the coloured figures, that the various species were well marked, and must have had a distinct origin. I confess that that notion is fast leaving me. All my simpler ideas are giving way. Whether the result will be to make me happier or better I cannot say. Certainly they cannot hurt me, for, after all, first stocks must have had a Creator. They could not spring up out of the ground unbidden, and that is enough for me. There is an over-ruling Hand everywhere.

“External influences—such as soil, situation, climate, and such like—exercise a powerful effect on wild roses. Take, for instance, the Rosa spinosissima. You know its peculiar characteristics, and how very unlike the common dog rose {R. canina) it is. Would you believe that one bush of it on the boulder clay here, has put forth flowers hardly distinguishable from dog-roses. The leaves large, the flowers white, the prickles hooked, and so on. You have seen roses in country gardens? White roses in a corner, with double flowers, and very large unsightly leaves. Well, would you think or expect Rosa spinosissima to have such large unsightly leaves growing wild on hard boulder clay? Some stocks of R. spinosissima have pink petals; in dry years, red petals and excessively hairy leaves; in wet seasons, white petals and smooth leaves; in short, the leaves and the whole plant vary excessively. And suppose the plant changed to another soil, and favoured b}r shelter, its improved appearance is hardly credible.

“I have seen something worth noting. Some plants of Rosa spinosissima grew on the face of a brae of blue boulder clay. Drains and improvements on the soil atop of the clay sent a perpetual stream of water over the roots of the plants. In two years they have so altered that I can hardly believe my eyes. . . . All the roses growing wild in Caithness may have come from one stock; but from what particular stock I cannot tell.” We merely quote these remarks from Dick’s letters to show the acuteness and accuracy of his observations. He never missed any peculiar characteristic of a plant. He had also a wonderful memory, about it, and could contrast its appearance during one season with its appearance in another. It was the same with all his natural history observations. In one of his letters to Dr. Meiklejohn he refers to the mischief done to the fields of Caithness by a particular grub. “Speaking of grasses,” he says, “reminds me of the crops of Caithness. They are desperately cut up by a worm, of what particular species I’ll not say, but the grub of ‘Daddy Longlegs ’ (Tipula oleracea) has certainly the predominance. It has drawn after it whole flocks of starlings, who are driving a brisk trade. But it would require millions of them to stay ihe plague. Indeed, the work of ruin is already done. It is pitiful.”

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