WEAVER AND BOTANIST.
Many young men ask nowadays what is the secret of "success." It were
better to inquire also how to do without success, since that is the
destiny of most of us, even in the most prosperous communities.
Could there be imagined a more complete "failure" than this John Duncan,
a Scottish weaver, always very poor, at last a pauper, short-sighted,
bent, shy, unlettered, illegitimate, dishonored in his home, not
unfrequently stoned by the boys of the roadside, and in every
particular, according to the outward view, a wretched fag-end of human
Yet, redeemed and dignified by the love of knowledge, he passed, upon
the whole, a joyous and even a triumphant life. He had a pursuit which
absorbed his nobler faculties, and lifted him far above the mishaps and
inconveniences of his lowly lot. The queen of his country took an
interest in his pursuits, and contributed to the ease of his old age.
Learned societies honored him, and the illustrious Charles Darwin
called him "my fellow botanist."
[Illustration: John Duncan]
The mother of John Duncan, a "strong, pretty woman," as he called her,
lived in a poor tenement at Stonehaven, on the Scottish coast, and
supported herself by weaving stockings at her own home, and in the
summer went into the harvest field. He always held his mother in honor
and tenderness, as indeed he ought, for she stood faithfully by the
children she ought not to have borne.
As a boy the future botanist developed an astonishing faculty of
climbing. There was a famous old castle upon the pinnacle of a cliff,
inaccessible except to cats and boys. He was the first to gain access to
the ancient ruin, and after him the whole band of boys explored the
castle, from the deep dungeons to the topmost turret.
His first employment led him directly to what became a favorite pursuit
of his lifetime. By way of adding to the slender gains of his mother, he
extracted the white pith from certain rushes of the region, which made
very good lamp-wicks for the kind of lamps then in use in Scotland.
These wicks of pith he sold about the town in small penny bundles. In
order to get his supply of rushes he was obliged to roam the country far
and wide, and along the banks of streams. When he had gathered as many
as he could carry he would bring them home to be stripped. To the end of
his days, when he knew familiarly every plant that grew in his native
land, he had a particular fondness for all the varieties of rush, and
above all for the kind that gave him his first knowledge.
Then he went to a farmer's to tend cattle, and in this employment he
experienced the hard and savage treatment to which hired boys were so
frequently subjected at that day. Drenched with rain after tending his
herd all day, the brutal farmer would not permit him to go near the fire
to dry his clothes. He had to go to his miserable bed in an out-house,
where he poured the water from his shoes, and wrung out his wet clothes
as dry as he could. In that foggy climate his garments were often as wet
in the morning as he left them in the evening, and so days would pass
without his having a dry thread upon him.
But it did not rain always. Frequently his herd was pastured near the
old castle, which, during the long summer days, he studied more
intelligently, and in time learned all about its history and
construction. And still he observed the flowers and plants that grew
about his feet. It seemed natural to him to observe them closely and to
learn their names and uses.
In due time he was apprenticed to a weaver. This was before the age of
the noisy, steaming factory. Each weaver then worked at home, at his own
loom, and could rent, if he chose, a garden and a field, and keep a cow,
and live a man's life upon his native soil. Again our poor, shy
apprentice had one of the hardest of masters. The boy was soon able to
do the work of a man, and the master exacted it from him. On Saturdays
the loom was usually kept going till midnight, when it stopped at the
first sound of the clock, for this man, who had less feeling for a
friendless boy than for a dog or a horse, was a strict Sabbatarian. In
the depth of the Scotch winter he would keep the lad at the river-side,
washing and wringing out the yarn, a process that required the arms to
be bare and the hands to be constantly wet. His hands would be all
chilblains and frost-bitten.
But again we may say it was not always winter. In the most dismal lot
there are gleams of sunshine. The neighbors pitied and comforted him.
His tyrant's wife was good to him as far as she dared. It was she,
indeed, who inspired him with the determination to learn to read, and
another friendly woman gave him regular instruction. He was sixteen
years old when he learned his alphabet. A school-girl, the daughter of
another weaver, would come into his shop to hear him read his lesson,
and tell him how to pronounce the hard words. This bright, pretty girl
of twelve would take her seat on the loom beside the bashful, lanky boy,
who, with the book close to his eyes and his finger on the page, would
grope his way through the paragraph.
Other children helped him, and he was soon able to get the meanings from
the few books at his command. His solitary walks were still cheered by
his observation of nature, although as yet he did not know there was
such a thing as a science of botany. He could give no account of the
interest he took in plants, except that he "loved the pretty little
things," and liked to know their names, and to classify in his rude way
those that were alike.
The exactions of his despot wore out at length even his astonishing
patience. He ran away at twenty, and entered upon the life which he
lived all the rest of his days, that of a weaver, wandering about
Scotland according to his need of work. At this period he was not the
possessor of a single book relating to his favorite pursuit, and he had
never seen but one, an old-fashioned work of botany and astrology, of
nature and superstition, by the once famous Culpepper. It required extra
work for months, at the low wages of a hand-loom weaver, to get the
money required for the purchase of this book, about five dollars. The
work misled him in many ways, but it contained the names and properties
of many of his favorite herbs. Better books corrected these errors by
and by, and he gradually gathered a considerable library, each volume
won by pinching economy and hard labor.
The sorrow of his life was his most woeful, disastrous marriage. His
wife proved false to him, abandoned his home and their two daughters,
and became a drunken tramp. Every now and then she returned to him,
appealing to his compassion for assistance. I think Charles Dickens must
have had John Duncan's case in his mind when he wrote those powerful
scenes of the poor man cursed with a drunken wife in "Hard Times."
But the more miserable his outward life, the more diligently he resorted
for comfort to his darling plants. For many years he groped in the dark;
but at length he was put upon the right path by one of those
accomplished gardeners so common in Scotland, where the art of gardening
is carried to high perfection. He always sought the friendship of
gardeners wherever he went. Nevertheless he was forty years old before
he became a scientific botanist.
During the rest of his life of forty-four years, besides pursuing his
favorite branch, he obtained a very considerable knowledge of the
kindred sciences and of astronomy. Being obliged to sell his watch in a
time of scarcity, he made for himself a pocket sun-dial, by which he
could tell the time to within seven or eight minutes.
During this period steam was gaining every year upon hand power; his
wages grew less and less; and, as his whole heart was in science, he had
no energy left for seeking more lucrative employment. When he was past
eighty-three he would walk twelve miles or more to get a new specimen,
and hold on his way, though drenched with a sudden storm.
At length, old age and lack of work reduced him to actual suffering for
the necessaries of life. Mr. William Jolly, a contributor to
periodicals, heard his story, sought him out, and found him so poor as
to be obliged to accept out-door relief, of which the old man was
painfully ashamed. He published a brief history of the man and of his
doings in the newspapers.
"The British people," says Voltaire, "may be very stupid, but they know
how to give."
Money rained down upon the old philosopher, until a sum equal to about
sixteen hundred dollars had reached him, which abundantly sufficed for
his maintenance during the short residue of his life. For the first time
in fifty years he had a new and warm suit of clothes, and he again sat
down by his own cheerful fire, an independent man, as he had been all
his life until he could no longer exercise his trade.
He died soon after, bequeathing the money he had received for the
foundation of scholarships and prizes for the encouragement of the study
of natural science among the boys and girls of his country. His valuable
library, also, he bequeathed for the same object.