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Robert Dick of Thurso
Chapter XX. Dick Compelled to Sell his Fossils


At the very time that Dick was writing the preceding letter to his sister, a circumstance occurred which brought him almost to the verge of ruin.

He had ordered from his flour merchants at Leith twenty-three bags of fine flour. They were shipped by the steamer “Prince Consort” in the month of March 1863. The steamers from Leith to Thurso usually call at Aberdeen and Wick on their way northward. On entering the harbour of Aberdeen, the “Prince Consort” struck the platform, and ran along the North Pier, where the passengers were taken off. It must have been a lubberly affair, as there was no heavy sea on at the time. It was said that the person who steered the ship was half-drunk.

When the passengers were taken off, it was attempted to float away the vessel, but as the tide was ebbing, that could not be done. The sea eventually broke her in two. The water entered the hold; and, though part of the cargo was saved, Dick’s flour was thoroughly drenched.

The ship was insured, but Dick’s flour was not. Though the bill of lading intimated that the flour was to be delivered in good order—“the act of God, the Queen’s enemies, fire, and all and every other dangers and accidents of the seas excepted”— yet it was found difficult to prove that the disaster occurred through the negligence of those who managed the vessel. Those whose goods had been lost or damaged had therefore to sustain the loss. To Dick it was ruinous.

The cost of the flour was only 45 :13 :6; but, small though the sum was, Dick had not the money at his command. What was he to do? He had never been in debt in his life. And yet, not only must this debt be paid for, but he must order more flour in order to carry on his business. He had been slowly going to ruin for years past. He had lost 120 of his former savings; and now, to use his own words, the loss of 45 made him “next thing to a beggar.” His only property consisted in his books, his collection of fossil fishes, his botanical specimens, his slender stock of furniture, his old-fashioned clothes, and his little store of linen. These were of little value. They could not be sold in time to save him. He must turn to some one else. Then he bethought him of his affectionate, generous-hearted sister. She had offered him money a few years before, which he had refused, because “coddling and nursing was about the worst treatment imaginable.”

But alas! the time had come when he could no longer refuse her generous offer. He wrote to her, pouring out his griefs, and telling her how he had been reduced almost to the brink of ruin.

“Have you still,” lie asked, “that spare money? Would you be willing to lend it to me in hope of getting it back again? Should you wish it, I would pay you interest for it. I have long felt the necessity of getting away out of this miserable place. There is no trade, and the risk is very great. I have had a sore struggle, and have often been sadly grieved; but this is the saddest ill that has ever come to me. ... I am injured for ever. I’ll never make an extra farthing by my trade here. The bakers are in swarms now. I am old, and my strength and sight fail me. Before, I had hardships quite enough; but now, this crowns everything. I am stupid with grief."

Dick’s sister earnestly sympathised with him. She told him to cheer up—to put his shoulder again to the wheel, and that all might yet go well with him. She sent him 20 of her spare money. She did so at considerable sacrifice, as she required the money at that time for special purposes. But she could not stand the piteous entreaties of her brother, and sacrificed her own requirements for his good.

Dick plucked up heart again. He replied to his sister: “I am not easily put down. I am neither inactive nor desponding. I am trying a way of recovering my loss. Your brother Robert is the most active and laborious person in the county, and could not live in idleness for one week. He does not entertain a single thought of being beat.”

The “way of recovering his loss,” to which Dick alluded, was by selling his fossils. He had now a very fine collection; but when such things are offered in the market, they are likely to bring very little indeed. Still, he was of opinion that if his collection was offered to some scientific man, he might be able to realise enough to pay his debts.

One of Dick’s geological friends was Mr. John Miller, E.G.S., a gentleman of independent property. He belonged to Thurso, but lived for the most part in London. He had a great respect for Dick, and took a deep interest in his fossil researches. When at Thurso, Mr. Miller was a frequent visitor at the bakehouse, and had many keen discussions with Robert Dick and Charles Peach about geological subjects. He was himself a collector, and employed a Mr. Budge to obtain for him new specimens of fossil fishes. He often consulted Dick as to their interest and value.

When the thought occurred to Dick of selling his fossils to Mr. Miller—knowing that he was buying them from Budge—he addressed to him the following letter :—

“Some years since you saw that I was distressed, and you offered to relieve me. I put your proffered kindness aside. Since then you have had many opportunities of knowing and seeing me; and I think you will allow that anything like complaining was very far from me. A recent event, however, has ruined me. The ‘Prince Consort,’ on attempting to enter Aberdeen Harbour, has become a total wreck. I had flour on her, uninsured, to the amount of 45 :13 : 6.

“Enclosed is a note to Sir Roderick Murchison, stating the matter, and promising to send him every Old Red fossil in my possession, if he would in pity undertake to do anything among the London geologists by way of making up my loss. Will you in kindness hand my note to him in a quiet way, and I will be ever grateful to you? If you dislike handing my note to Sir Roderick, put it in the fire, and also this one to yourself.”

We have not Mr. Miller’s reply to Dick’s letter. Very likely it may have been intended to cheer him up. At all events it seems to have contained some reference to Dick’s “independence,” for here is Dick’s reply, 27th March 1863 :—

“It is all very good to talk to me about 'independence.’ I have laboured among flour bags for the last thirty-eight years, but I never yet knew an empty bag to stand upright. .

“An honest well-meaning man once kept his horse on short allowance, and boasted that he had brought him to live on a straw a day. But when he had accomplished his object, the horse died.

“A very kind and a very discerning public have, for the last eighteen years, set me down as independent, and fed me with chopped straw; and now those drunken blackguards of the steamer have ruined me. I am a beggar, not in word, but in fact.

“Previous to writing to you, I applied to my sister at Haddington. She at one time offered me 48. I would not take the money. I thought that she might still have it. She wrote at once, saying that she had it yet, but was about to use it. I told her never to mind me, and just to use it in the way intended. She replied again, and sent me 20.

“The steamer people have sent me twelve bags, out of twenty-three bags of my flour. I have laboured hard and sifted it out, and made out six hags of spoilt flour! With my sister’s 20, and with what the flour may do, and perhaps other resources, I will try and manage to pay my bill.

“You will please to give orders to the National Bank accordingly. Reverse your order  I have not gone to the bank, and do not intend to go on the errand you speak of.

“As to my relations with Sir Roderick Murchison, I am already his debtor for two hundred dried plants, and rather than he turned out on the wide world, I would not hesitate one moment in being indebted to his goodness still further.”

He followed this letter with another written on the next day:—

“On trial,” he said, “I find that the flour saved, after much labour, is mixed with sand; consequently it will have to go for little or nothing.

“In my last to you, I thought that I would get on without troubling any one; but now I find it all hopeless.

“I have written to Sir Roderick Murchison offering to sell my fossils. I have asked his permission to send them up to Jennyn Street Museum, that he might give for them whatever he thinks them worth.

“Surely there is no degradation in this idea  It was altogether out of the question to allow the amount of my loss to fall upon you. No! I will not do that. But if you put in a good word for me with Sir Roderick about these fossils, I shall feel grateful to you.

“The fossils are not many, but they are such as Sir Roderick has not in his Museum.

“P.S.—If Sir Roderick Murchison declines to purchase my fossils, I’ll not be beat, but will offer them to some other person.”

At last the matter was pleasantly settled. Mr. Miller at once agreed to purchase the fossils, and sent Dick an order on the National Bank for 46,—the amount of his loss by the shipwrecked flour. Dick cordially acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Miller’s letter:—

“I thank you most sincerely. I have to-day (4th April) received a note from Sir Roderick Murchison. He will take the fossils; but I have settled it in my mind to give them to you. I am afraid that I grieved you by refusing your gift, but I could not, poor as I am, take so much money for nothing. I will give all my fossils to you—every one of them—shells of the boulder clay and all. There are two or three which Hugh

Miller gave me, and these I will add to my own collection of fossils. I will also give you all those which I had got for Professor Thomson, and my blessing along with them.

“Of course 46 is too much for them; hut the fossils are worth—what they are worth; and I must just be contented to stand indebted to your friendship for the rest. I will label on the fossils the localities in which they were found, and also pack them carefully.

“I am to write to Sir Roderick by this same post, telling him that you had heard of my distress, that you had made a most liberal offer to me for the fossils, and that I had given them to you. I know—at least I trust—that Sir Roderick will see meet not to be offended at me for giving you the preference. Sir Roderick will get plenty, and so will you. But one thing you know, that some of my fossils are altogether rare, and not in the possession of any other person.”

And thus ended the sale of Dick’s fossils. He parted with them with a heavy heart. But he was now enabled to pay his bill for the lost flour, which he did on the 29th of April following. How he regretted the loss of his fossils may be inferred from a letter to his brother-in-law:—“Unhappily,” he said, “I have now no fossils. I have given them all away. Alas! how often has my heart beat proudly, when looking over the figures of jaws in Duff’s and Dr. Buckland’s books, and saying, *O yes, these are very fine, but humble as I am, I have finer than either.’ But that is over, and they are all away. They exist only in remembrance, and I never hope to find the like again.”

Again he felt his business falling off. Unfortunately, he had tried to make bread of the sifted flour saved from the wreck; hut the bread was not good, and more customers left him. “They might have borne with me,” he said, “a little longer, if they had only known of my suffering and distress.” Afterwards, he said, “If I had only half as much work as I could do, I should be the happiest of men. I have more biscuit beside me than I shall be able to sell in three months. I would toil willingly, but all is overdone here. It is very difficult to get work at all. He is a happy man who can make his living. Shoals of masons and house-wrights are leaving here by steamer.

“Men are failing rapidly. One is said to have failed for 3000. He hasn’t preached according to his stipend. You know the story. An elder went to his minister, and said, ‘that his preaching was rather poor; that’s what people said.’ *Of what do they complain?" asked the minister. *Weel, sir, they’re saying that ye dinna preach half weel.’ *So,’ said the minister. *but ye dinna consider that ye dinna pay half weel. I preach according to my stipend. Pay me better, and I’ll preach better!’ And so, had the people bought better, the merchant would have sold better, and not a breath would have been heard about his failure.”

Though Dick said that his customers were leaving him, and that he was thought less of than ever, there was still some comfort left him. “Nobody heeds me,” he said; “and yet Nature is as kindly as ever.” The spring was approaching. Fine balmy days wooed him to the fields, or led him along the sea-shore. He watched nature with the eye of a lover. He longed for the coming of spring; and when she came he was unspeakably glad. He looked anxiously for every favourite plant, and knew it at once as it put its first stem above the ground.

The spring was later in 1863. At the end of April the fertile stems of the common Field Horsetail were not yet above ground. He had seen only one rumpled straggler. Neither Drummond’s Horsetail, nor the Wood Horsetail, had made their appearance. It was not until about the middle of May that he found them above ground,—excepting Drummond’s Horsetail, which was always late.

“I went out last Sabbath morning,” he said, “up the river-side, and found the common Field Horsetail and Wood Horsetail. The Water Horsetail was by the riverside. The prevailing flowers are dog-violets and yellow primroses. I found about six specimens of a rare plant peculiar to the north. It is Ajuga pyramidalis—a plant I have sent alive, as well as dried, to the south. It is a great prize with botanists. Of course, I look on them now with very different feelings from what I once did. I found also the early Purple Orchis by sixes and sevens. Also a species of chickweed which I never saw before. It is a larger and showy species. No other flowers have come up as yet. But they will come. And when they come, short will be their stay, and all will be again desolate.”

A few days later, he again goes up the river-side, and found and plucked numerous specimens of the far-famed grass—Rierocliloe borealis. By this time Dick had received communications from botanists in nearly every part of the country, asking for dried specimens of the grass. He also went to the cliffs on Dunnet Head, to his ferneries on Ben Dorery and the Reay hills, to see how the ferns were growing that he had planted—ferns that would still be growing when he and his friend Peach “were both out of time.”

“I have discovered,” he says one day, “another plant wonder! Some time ago I found a new daisy. I have now found another. It has twenty-four little heads, and the stalks are longer than the other. I sought all over the grass field on which it grew, and could not find another. I never read of such a daisy being found wild. A daisy with thirteen heads, and another with twenty-four heads, are most extraordinary. But "little things are great to little minds."

To his brother-in-law he said:—“So you have been amongst gardeners, and found a daisy. Still, the wild one is, I think much finer. It is tall, and being single, it makes a more natural show. I have hastily pencilled it off [giving a drawing of the wild daisy]. I could have done it much better,—only it is Saturday afternoon, and I am busy.

“The daisy is a great favourite with the poets; Burns speaks of it as the 'wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower.’ Another says of it, 'the bright flower, whose home is everywhere.’ Another—

“The rose has but a summer reign,
The daisy never dies.

And still another :—

“Not worlds on worlds, in phalanx deep
Need we, to prove a God is here;
The daisy, fresh from winter’s sleep,
Tells of His Power in lines as clear.”

As far on as the month of June, the weather was cold and wet. There was a good deal of hail, and one day of almost continuous snow. It is true, the snow melted as it fell, and did no other harm than giving the grass a brownish colour; though the country folks said the distant hills were covered with snow.

Dick went to Loch Duran, some seven miles off, to see the Bullrush, rather a rare plant in the far north; and besides the Lake Bullrush he found a much rarer plant, the Lapland Beed. He could find the plant nowhere else. Six miles inland he also found the Baltic Bush. “How it got there,” he said, “I cannot make out.” He was recommended to try his hand among the marine plants. “I have little doubt,” he observed, “that something new might be discovered among the weeds along the sea-shore. Solomon says, ‘All things are full of labour.’ But I’m ower auld for the labour, and as for the honour, if I get a splitting headache and a sweating cough for my pains whilst dabbling in a saltwater pool, perhaps the cost to me would be greater than the honour. The poor animal is overladen already, and to put on more weight would probably squeeze the life out of him altogether.”

“In fact,” he says to Mr. John Miller, “I fear that in pursuing researches among the rocks I have not been half cautious; for during June I have been suffering severely from rheumatism,—to an extent greater than ever I did before. 'The vengeance ’ has got hold of both my feet,—so much so that I have a difficulty in walking. That, you may be sure, was gloomy for me. I grumbled to be compelled to walk slow, especially when the spirit within said, Forward .”

And yet, when sufficiently well, Dick immediately went to the fields again to gather ferns, grasses, plants, and wild roses. One day he says to his brother-in-law, “I have had a ramble sixteen miles out and sixteen miles home again for a small fern not so long as your little finger. I would not have gone so far, but that the fern would not come to me. I had another ramble twelve miles away and twelve miles home again, and all for nothing. The plant I went to get was not growing for want of moisture.”

Dick had many applications for native roses. He sent a number of them to Professor Babington of Cambridge; but he thought that the professor’s opinion as to the species to which they belonged was not quite correct. Writing to a friend he said, “The genus Rosa is a difficult one, even for the most experienced botanist. It is hardly possible to tell the different species by their leaves alone. Their fruit is a far better test. For example, the leaves of the spiny or thorny rose may be found of various sizes—from an eighth of an inch to more than an inch long. They differ so much in their hairiness and smoothness that it would almost puzzle a conjuror to define which was which. Some years since I sent a packet of dry roses and leaves to Professor Balfour, who sent them to Professor Babington in England. The latter gave the best verdict he could, and yet I have no faith in it. For example, he told me that he believed one of them to he Rosa involuta. Now, Rosa involuta is found in the Western Isles, and a stranger might conclude readily enough that the plant grew in our neighbourhood. I have ever since been watching the hush from which I took the specimen; hut I cannot form any other opinion than that it is a variety only of the Rosa spinosissima, or the Thorny Bose. The leaves of the said hush might pass for the leaves of Rosa involuta, but the fruit will not. The fruit is invariably the fruit of the Thorny Rose.”

In September 1863, Dick received a letter from Professor Owen, stating that he had been informed that a large sperm whale had been cast ashore near Thurso, and that, as he should like to secure the hones, he would feel obliged to Mr. Dick if he would make the necessary inquiries about the nature of the whale—whether it was a sperm whale or not. He added that Sir Roderick Murchison had informed him that Mr. Dick was the most likely man in Thurso to help him on the occasion.

It seems that the whale was cast ashore at Sandside, about thirteen miles from Thurso. Dick worked all night with the object of starting on foot next morning. But at two o’clock it began to rain, and it rained continuously for about a fortnight. What with his pains and his rheumatism, he could scarcely go out of doors during the interval. “Even if I went there,” he said, “it would only have been—to guess. But I gathered all the information I could get about the whale, and sent it to Professor Owen.”

Dick still kept up a considerable correspondence, though it was for the most part forced upon him. He was indisposed, amidst his troubles, to open new correspondence; though those who had corresponded with him once, would not allow him to forget them: his letters were so interesting, humorous, and instructive. He was often invited to pay visits far from home; but that was, of course, impossible. Pew of his correspondents knew of his poverty. Very likely, many of them thought him to be a man of independent position. Mr. Notcutt of Cheltenham thought that Dick wished the correspondence with him to cease. But he wrote to him again and again, until he replied. “I shall ever feel grateful to you,” said Mr. Notcutt, “for the noble series of Old Red fossils which, through your liberality, I possess. I append a list of most of the things (dried flowering plants) which I have for you.” And at length Dick was thawed into continuing the correspondence. Of course Mr. Notcutt knew nothing of the pecuniary struggles that Dick was then passing through.

Numerous requests were made to Dick for exchanges of plants and fossils. Amongst his correspondence we find letters from Dr. L. Lindsay, lichenologist, Perth; Mr. John Sim, botanist, Perth; Mr. Boy, botanist, Aberdeen; Mr. Alfred Bell, Bloomsbury Street, London; Mr. John Backhouse, York; Mr. Henry Coghill, Liverpool ; Mr. George Henslow, son of Professor Henslow and from Mr. Tarrison of the Registrar-General’s Office, Melbourne. The principal applications made to him were for fossils from the Old Red Sandstone, and for specimens of the Hierochloe borealis which Dick had discovered so many years before on the banks of the river Thurso. Mr. Pringle of the Farmer's Gazette, Dublin, in acknowledging the receipt of a specimen, addressed Dick in the following letter:—

“I gave the specimens of the Holy Grass to Dr. Moore of the Botanic Gardens. He expressed himself much gratified with the same, and stated that he would like to correspond with you. I send by book-post a copy of his Notes of a Botanical Tour in Norway and Sweden, which will likely interest you. I must repeat what I said to you—that I think it is a great pity, nay more, a shame, that a man of your abilities and research should be buried alive, as you are and have been. Why not come out as an author on those subjects with which you are so conversant ? I hope yet to see Robert Dick’s name taking its proper place among the list of British scientific men—far above the names of some who occupy a large share of public attention, but whose chief claim to notoriety consists in an unbounded command of cheek, and of a still more unenviable gift of the gab.”

But it was too late for Robert Dick to give his thoughts to the world in writing. Por one thing, he was too modest. He was about the last person to wish to see his name in print. He was always complaining of the smallness of his knowledge, even about subjects that he had studied the most. “The more I know,” he said, “the more I feel my. ignorance. Knowledge seems to retreat before me.” He often quoted the words of Athena's wisest son—“The most I know is, nothing can he known.” And yet he said, “There is a satisfaction in getting on in knowledge, which those only can imagine who have risen early in searching for it.”

He still continued to write verses, probably as a relief from business troubles. Mr. Peach says that he wrote verses down to the end of his life. The following are extracted from some verses written in 1863, when in the midst of his sorrow and poverty. The verses commence, “0 waft me o'er the deep blue sea ! ” and proceed to the seventh stanza, which thus begins:—

“O waft me o’er, and let me roam
Her untilled plains, her fertile soil,
Where weary wanderers find a home,
And live by honest, manly toil!
By manly toil they rear a home—
Nor curst with want, nor crushed by care;
Nor grasping greed, nor grinding down,
Nor sad and weary struggle there.

“O waft me o’er! 0 waft me o’er!
In yon fair land there’s peace and rest,
And toiling-room for thousands more,
With blissful Hope to soothe the breast.
With grief, with care, by sorrows prest,
Of fruitless toil, my heart is sick.
O endless dreams, in horrors drest,
Of cruel want, when old and weak!

O waft me o’er! 0Owaft me o’er!
Yon slrip is strong; tlie sea is still;
Nor care I tliougli a tempest roar,
And every billow rolls a bill!
Let swelling sea-waves roar tbeir fill,
And dasb till crested wbite witb foam,
Tis sweet as murmuring mountain rill,
To sootbe a weary spirit Home.”

During his troubles Dick was a sleepless man. He wandered up and down the little town at night, looking in at the little burying-ground of St. Peter’s, where tbe fathers of Thurso lay buried. The town was asleep. Not a footstep was to be beard, save those of the sleepless man plodding round the graveyard, and from thence to his neighbouring bakehouse in Wilson’s Lane. Night was always a time of thought for Dick. “It is so pleasant,” be says in one of his letters, “getting up at nights to see the stars. Last night was beautiful, and the moon was a great pleasure. It is impossible, when looking at it, to prevent oneself falling into a dream of a far better world than ours.”

“Do you know,” be said to his brother-in-law, “that I am a firm believer in the unseen world? Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep. I have no doubt that they exercise a watching care over us, and often warn us of coming evil. Since my sister Jane died, I never dreamt of this but once. What people think often about, they commonly dream of. On that occasion, my sister, I thought, came to me, clothed from bead to foot with roses ! I smiled when I saw her, with pleasure, and awoke with the reflection that my sister, knowing my taste for flowers, had chosen that way of expressing her happiness. ... You may smile at this, and set it down as Robert’s silly superstition; but of one thing you may be assured, that unseen beings care for you, and that nothing can happen to you without the permission of our heavenly Father.”


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