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Life of a Scotch Naturalist, Thomas Edward
Chapter XVIII. Conclusion


Edward’s labors were now drawing to a close. He had fought the fight of science inch by inch, until he could fight no more. He had also fought the fight of honest poverty—a great triumph and a great glory.

“The honest man, though e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men, for a’ that.”

It is said that the man who can pay his way is not poor. Edward could always do that. He was in no man’s debt. He had lived within his means, small though they were. Toward the end of his life he could only earn about eight shillings a week. But his children were now growing up; and as he had helped them in their youth, they now helped him in his age.

He had become prematurely old. His constitution had been seriously injured by his continuous exposure to the night air. He had repeated illnesses—inflammations of the throat and lungs, inflammations of the stomach and bowels each attack rendering him weaker than before, until at last he altogether gave up his researches, and confined himself to shoe-making — occasionally attending as curator at the museum.

Yet he never could get rid of his love of nature. He continued to admire the works of the Creator as much as ever. On recovering from one of his illnesses, he went to bluntly for a change of air. His wife accompanied him.

When she proposed doing so, he asked the reason. “Oh!” she replied, “just to keep ye company, and to help ye.” Accordingly she went with him. While at Huntly, he felt his old craving for nature returning upon him. He wished to go out and search the woods, the mosses, and the burns, as before; but his wife never left him.

Whenever he indicated an intention of penetrating a hedge or leaping a wall, she immediately interfered. The hedge would tear his clothes, and she could not aecompany him in jumping dikes. He demurred, and said that if he went across he would “come back again.” But that did not suit her purpose, and she would not let him go. As evening approached, she said, “We’ll awa baek noo.” he protested that he would rather stay out. “No, no,” said she, “I’m no gaun intill a hole like a wild beast; and, besides, the nicht air would kill me.” In fact, as he afterward observed, “he had fallen into the hands of the Philistines.” Edward still took pleasure in wandering along the coast, and surveying the scenes of his former exploits. One day he took a friend round to Tarlair, to look at the rock from which he had fallen. Standing on the high ground above the shore, and looking down upon the rock-pools beneath the promontory, he observed: “I set many of my traps down there. I filled them with sea-weed, and sometimes with a piece of dead fish. The sea came in and filled my traps, and sometimes brought in many rare crustaeea. I set my traps along the coast for about ten miles, from Portsoy to Melrose Head. Many a time have I scrambled among these rocks. But when I took ill, and the inflammation went to my brain, I had to leave all my traps, and there they are still.”

“What a fine chance that will be for some future ichthyologist,” said his friend; “he will find the traps ready-made, and perhaps full of new species of crustaceans!” “Weel,” said Edward, “it may be sae; but I dinna think there’ll be sic a feel as me for mony a lang year to come!”

Although he had long given up searching along-shore for new specimens of fish, crustaceans, or mollusks, yet he had still another discovery to announce. There was a new fish remaining in his possession which had been entirely lost sight of. He had taken it in 1868, while searching among the rock-pools at the links. He kept it alive for two days, and when it died he put it into a bottle, intending to send it to Mr. Couch; but, somehow or other, the bottle got lost, and, though he turned the house almost upside down, he could never find it.

Only about a year ago, while turning over his papers to find the letters referred to in the preceding pages, he found the bottle containing the new fish at the bottom of the box. How great was his delight! But what was he to do with it? Mr. Couch was dead, all his fish friends were dead, and he did not know to whom to apply to name the new fish. But as he was about to proceed to Aberdeen to see Mr. Reid, who was so kind as to offer to paint his portrait, he took the fish with him. Mr. Reid procured an introduction for him, through Dean of Guild Walker, to Professor Nicol, of Marischal College. The professor did not at first recognize the fish, but, on referring to his works on ichthyology, he found that it was a specimen of Nilsson’s goby, a species not before known to have been taken in British seas.

Notwithstanding the thousands of specimens and the hundreds of cases that Edward had been obliged to part with during his successive illnesses, he has still sixty cases filled with about two thousand specimens of natural objects.

During his life-time he has made about five hundred cases with no other tools than his shoe-maker’s knife and hammer, and a saw; and he papered, painted, and glazed them all himself.

As to the number of different species that he has accumulated during thirty years of incessant toil, it is, of course, impossible to form an estimate, as he never kept a log-book; but some idea of his persevering labors may be formed from the list of Banffshire fauna annexed to this volume.

Many of his discoveries have already become facts in history; but a large proportion of them can never be known. His specimens were sent to others to be named, but many of them were never afterward heard of. This was particularly the case with his shrimps, insects, zoophytes, corals, sponges, sea-slugs, worms, Tunicata, or leathern-bag mollusks, fossils, and plants. “Had any one,” he says, “taken pity on me in time (as has sometimes been done with o'thers), and raised me from the dirt, I might have been able to name my own specimens, and thereby made my own discoveries known myself.”

Many of Edward’s friends told him that he should have extended his inquiries into Aberdeenshire and the Northern counties; and that he should have explored the coasts of the Moray Firth in all directions. Others told him that he should have written and published much more than he did, or was ever able to do; and that he should have given many more facts to the public. The only reply that he gave to such advisers was, that he had neither the opportunity nor the means of doing so, having to work for his daily bread all the time that he was carrying on his researches.

He had another difficulty to contend with, besides his want of time and means. When he did publish what he had observed with his own eyes, and not in books through the eyes of others, his facts were often disputed by the higher class of naturalists. He was under the impression that this arose from the circumstance that they had never been heard of before, and that they had now been brought to light by a poor shoe-maker—a person of no standing whatever. This deterred him, in a great measure, from publishing his observations, as he did not like his veracity to be called in question; and it was not until years after, when others higher up the ladder of respectability had published the same facts, that his observations were accredited—simply because they could no longer be denied.

Toward the close of his labors, Edward, on looking back, was himself surprised that in the midst of his difficulties— his want of learning, his want of time, his want of books— he should have been able to accomplish the little that he did. He had had so many obstructions to encounter. His bringing-up as a child, and his want of school education, had been very much against him. Then he had begun to work for daily bread at six years old, and he had continued to labor incessantly for the rest of his life. Of course, there was something much more than the mere manual laborer in him. His mind had risen above his daily occupation; for he had the soul of a true man. Above all, he loved nature and nature’s works.

We need not speak of his stern self-reliance and his indomitable perseverance. These were among the prominent features of his character. Of his courage it is scarcely necessary to speak. When we think of his nightly wanderings, his trackings of birds for days together, his encounters with badgers and polecats, his climbing of rocks, and his rolling down cliffs in search of sea-birds, we can not but think that he taxed his courage a great deal too much.

A great point with him was his sobriety. For thirty-six years he never entered a public-house nor a dram-shop. He was not a teetotaler. Sobriety was merely his habit. Some of his friends advised him to take “a wee drap whisky” with him on cold nights; but he never did. He himself believes that had he drunk whisky he never could have stood the wet, the cold, and the privations to which he was exposed during so many years of liis life. When he went out at night, his food consisted for the most part of plain oatmeal cakes; and his drink was the water from the nearest brook.

He never lost a moment of time. When his work for the day was over, he went out to the links or the fields with his supper of oatmeal cakes in his hand; and after the night had passed, he returned home in time for his next day’s work. He stuffed his birds, or prepared the cases for his collection, by the light of the fire. He was never a moment idle.

Another thing must be mentioned to his credit — and here his wife must share the honor. He brought up his large family of eleven children respectably and virtuously. He educated them much better than he himself had been educated. They were all well clad and well shod, notwithstanding the Scottish proverb to the contrary. Both parents must have felt hope and joy in the future lives of their children. This is one of the greatest comforts of the poor —to see their family growing up in knowledge, virtue, industry, well-being, and well-doing. We might say much of Edward’s eldest daughter, who has not only helped to keep her parents, but to maintain her brother at school and college. It is families such as these that maintain the character and constitute the glory of their country.

But to return to Edward and his culture. In one of the earliest letters which the author addressed to him, he made inquiry as to the manner in which he had become acquainted with the scientific works which are so necessary for the study of natural history. “You seem to wonder,” he said in his reply, “why I did not mention books in my memoir. You may just as well wonder how I can string a few sentences together, or, indeed, how I can write at ail. My books, I can tell you, were about as few as my education was brief and homespun.

“I thought you knew—yes, I am sure you knew—that any one having the mind and the will need not stick fast even in this world. True, he may not shine so greatly as if he were better polished and better educated; but he need not sink in the mire altogether.

“You may very likely wonder at what I have been able to do—being only a poor souter, with no one to help me, and but few to encourage me in my labors. Many others have wondered, like yourself. The only answer I can give to such wonderers is, that I had the will to do the little that I have accomplished.

“If what I have done by myself, unaided and alone, and without the help of books, surpasses the credulity of some, what might I not have accomplished had I obtained the help from others which was so often promised me! But that time is past, and there is no use in saying any thing more about it. If I suffered privations, I had only myself and my love of nature to blame.”

He was sometimes told that it was his “pride” which prevented him from being assisted as he should have been. His answer was, that he did not know any thing about pride. But if it consisted in not soliciting aid when in want, and in endeavoring to conceal his poverty even when in need of help, in order that the world might not know of the misery which himself, his wife, and his family suffered, then he did not hesitate to say that he and his wife were proud. They never refused a kindly gift, but they always refused public charity.

“Although,” he says in a recent letter, “I have not known the pangs of want for some time, thanks to my children, I could scarcely have failed to do so in the years that are past: it would have been beyond the common run of things if I had not. What working-man, especially what journeyman shoe-maker, could have brought up and educated a large family without at times feeling privation and the pressure of poverty? There are other trades which have their dull seasons; but, unlike most other tradesmen, shoe-makers are not, from their low pay, able to lay any thing by, even when they have plenty of work. And, as a matter of course, this made the struggle, when it did come, all the worse to bear.

“From these facts and others which I have told you before, I say, and am ready to maintain against every opposition, that no one who steps this earth, or even crawls upon it, need ever despair, after what I have done, of achieving whatever of good they have once set their minds on. Firmness of purpose and the will to do and dare will accomplish, I may say, almost any thing. The will is the key that opens the door to every path, whether it be of science or of nature, and every one has it in his power to choose the road for himself.”

Notwithstanding Edward’s power of will and indomitable perseverance, and the amount of useful scientific work which lie has accomplished, it was easy to see that he was rather disappointed at the results of his labors. It is true that his zoological labors did not enable him to earn money: indeed, he had not worked for money considerations. Natural science is always unrcmunerative, especially to those who have to work for their daily bread. Nor had his selfimposed labors lifted him above his position in any way. he began life as a shoe-maker, and he continued a shoemaker to the end. Many called him a fool because he gave himself up to “beasts.” He himself says, “I have been a fool to nature all my life.”

“If it had not been for the industry of my children,” he says, “my wife and myself would have been in starvation these many years bach, as all that I have been making could scarcely have kept myself in bread. So that is something. But if ever I complained about my life, I never meant it to be in that way. Had the object of my life been money instead of nature—had I pursued the one with half the ardor and perseverance that I did the other—I have no hesitation in saying that by this time I would have been a rich man.

“But it is not the things I have done that vex me so much as the things that I have not done. I feel that I could have accomplished so much more. I did not want the will, but I wanted the means. It is that consideration that hurts me when I think about it, as I sometimes do. I know what I have done, and from that I can conceive how much more I might have done had I got but a little help. Think yourself—only think for a few moments—of a poor, illiterate working-man struggling against every sort of privation for so many years, with no other object in view but simply to gain a little knowledge of the works of creation —think of that, and say if I can be blamed because I occasionally grieve that I had no help, when it would have enabled me to do so much more than I have already done. For these reasons I sometimes consider my life to have been a blasted one—like a diamond taken from the mine, and, instead of being polished, crushed to the earth in a thousand fragments.”

Still, Edward must, to a great extent, have enjoyed a happy life. He was hopeful and cheerful. He had always some object to pursue, with a purpose. That constitutes one of the secrets of happiness. He had an interesting hobby: that is another secret. Natural history is one of the most delightful of hobbies. He had the adventure, the chase, the capture, and often the triumph of discovery. He must have found great delight in finding a new bird, a new star-fish, a new crustacean, a new ascidian. It must also have been a pleasure to him .to be in correspondence with some of the most enlightened men of the time; to have received their congratulations upon his discoveries; and to have been rewarded with the titular honors which they had to bestow.

But what did they think of him at home? A man may be a well-disposed man out-of-doors, yet altogether different in his domestic circle. Follow him home, and see what he is there. We have seen that Edward was a happy father and a happy husband. His children, as we have said, were brought up well and virtuously. There was no better-conducted family in Banff. When young, they assisted him in his labors among his fishes and crustaceans; and, when old, they were proud to help him in all ways. Is not this a great feature in a man’s character?

What did his wife say of him? When reminded of his wanderings about at night, and asked what she thought of them, she replied, “Weel, he took such an interest in beasts, that I didna compleen. Shoe-makers were then a very drucken set, but his beasts keepit him frae them. My man’s been a sober man all his life; and he never negleckit his wark. Sac I let him be.” Wise woman!

Scotch people are very reticent. They rarely speak of love or affection. It is all “understood.” It is said that a Scotchman will never tell his wife that he loves her, until he is dying. But you can always tell, from the inside of a house, what the woman is, and how her husband regards her. In these respects, it may be said that Edward, though poor and scrimp of means, has always enjoyed a happy home; and that is saying a great deal.

It is not, however, the amount of love and respect with which a man is regarded at home that satisfies him, so much as the esteem with which he is regarded by his fellow-men. When a man works gratuitously for science, and labors for the advancement of knowledge, he seems entitled to admiration and respect. But Edward did not think that his labors had been properly recognized. This seems to have vexed him very much. He had often been promised aid in the shape of books, but no such aid ever came. “All my honors,” said he, “have come from a distance. I have kept the museum of the Banff Institution for about twenty-one years, for, I may say, almost nothing; and though the Linnsean Society thought me worthy of being elected an associate, the people here did not think me worthy of being an honorary member of their society. Still, I am not complaining. The people of Banff had no right to make me a gentleman.”

The truth is, that it was a misfortune for Edward to have lived so far from the centre of scientific pursuits. Banff was a place comparatively unknown. In the pursuit of science a man requires fellowship: he especially requires the fellowship of books. Banff could do little for him in this respect. Had he lived in a larger town, with a library at his command, he could have acquired the friendship of scientific men, who are rarely disposed to be narrow in their “encouragement of native genius and talent,” however poor the student may be.

But it was difficult for Edward to remove to any other place. He had his family to provide for, and he had not the means of removing them elsewhere. He was tied like a limpet to its rock. Still, he did all that he could to improve his position where he was. He tried to secure an appointment in connection with the police; but having no influence, he failed. He applied to the London College of Surgeons for a curatorship; but Mr. Quekett having informed him that it was only a fourth portership that was vacant, he failed there too. Then he studied electricity, for the purpose of assisting a doctor in electrifying his patients; but, thinking that he might kill more than he could cure, he gave up the idea of proceeding further. He next tried photography, but, not being provided with sufficient capital, he gave up that too. The last application he made was for an appointment as subcurator of the City Industrial Museum of Glasgow, but he received no encouragement.

After abandoning photography as a means of subsistence, he returned to his old trade. “As a last and only remaining resource,” he said, in June, 1875, “I betook myself to my old and time-honored friend — a friend of fifty years’ standing, who has never yet forsaken me, nor refused help to my body when weary, nor rest to my limbs when tired —my well-worn cobbler’s stool. And here I am still on the old boards, doing what little I can, with the aid of my well-worn kit, to maintain myself and my family; with the certainty that instead of my getting the better of the lap-stone and leather, they will very soon get the better of me. And although I am now like a beast tethered to his pasturage, with a portion of my faculties somewhat impaired, I can still appreciate and admire as much as ever the beauties and wonders of nature, as exhibited in the incomparable works of our adorable Creator.”


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