The Doric Columns
The Aspiring Weaver
Johnnie Moon – the extraordinary life of John Duncan (1784-1881) Weaver & Botanist
The laying on of moose wabs (spider webs) to his cut and bleeding head could only, at best, delay John Duncan’s inevitable death. It was the summer of 1881 at Droughsburn in Leochel a little way out of Alford in Aberdeenshire. An old man of 87 seven surrounded by his good friends reflecting on a life most extraordinary.
In his day, John Duncan had been an easily recognised figure striding out in black lum hat, sans-culottes breeks and a shabby blue jacket that stretched miserably across lean shoulders. In later life his fingers clasped a rough walking stick and sometimes a bottle. This comical figure bore well the derision of those ignorant of this self-taught individual with his razor-sharp mind, purposeful in his quest for knowledge. It all began in the most unlikely and unpromising of circumstances. John was born on the 19th December 1794 in a lodging house close to the Old Tolbooth in Stonehaven where his young, unmarried mother, Ann Caird had gone for her confinement. Ann named her baby after his father a weaver in Drumlithie and so on that winter day John Duncan was introduced to his most constant companion, poverty, which makes his achievements all the greater. The boy was fascinated by the history and rock formations around his native Stonehaven. Ruined Dunottar Castle was his playground where he would chase down old Bony’s men through the Wallace Hole, the surging waves of the German Ocean breaking on the rocks below or pause in a game of hide and seek, ear pressed to stone to catch the ghostly cries of distressed Covenanters echo across time. Working life began with the boy collecting rushes for their pith which he sold as wicks for cruisie lamps. From this, young John moved into agricultural work, starting as a live-in cattle herder but he wearied of the physical brutality liberally dispensed by his masters and the dull intellects he encountered so followed is father into weaving. Weavers had a reputation for being scholars. In Drumlithie he wove the local blue flax. While apprenticed John was taught the rudiments of reading by 2 local women and in no time he had discovered a world far beyond the confines of the Mearns. One day he picked up a book on medical botany. Inspired by Culpepper’s famous herbal treatise, John began to observe and collect samples of wild plants. He used Culpepper’s comprehensive descriptions to identify carefully preserved specimens and memorised each name. John Duncan was captivated and divided his life between the mundane necessity of earning a living and his passion for natural science.
In the year 1816 John crossed the Ruthrieston Burn turned up Aberdeen’s Hardgate by the Denburn and into the employ of Leys, Masson and Company. Here he learned to weave wool and cotton as well as linen and, at Rubislaw bleach field, our weaver came across bleached linen for the first time. Aberdeen’s bookshops provided a rich source of reading matter and in due course John Duncan turned his attention to etymology, astronomy, history, Latin, Greek, grammar and arithmetic. Books were possibly the only attraction of Aberdeen for the man who longed to be back roaming the countryside and soon he turned his back on town life and a short-lived unhappy marriage and headed west towards Alford.
Weaving by day and searching out plant samples by night, John Duncan was again able to indulge his passion for botany. This was not a romantic life of fulfilment. Weaving earned near starvation wages and finding work was a constant worry. To eke out his earnings and boost his book allowance, John would return occasionally to Aberdeen to serve with the local Militia. Mostly this meant simply drilling on the Links near to the Barracks but on 1 occasion in when the Militia was sent out to deal with a demonstration in the town, John found himself on the wrong end of a musket butt being wielded by an over eager Militiaman. He survived to tell the tale but was astonished that he had.
Home for John Duncan was where the work was. At times this was Monymusk, Auchleven or Tough. The lush countryside provided an abundance of plants to study and Duncan gained a reputation for making herbal remedies based on Culpepper. Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) relieved toothache and corn husks lathered up as soap then taxed beyond the means of most. However, rural life again brought episodes of the senseless cruelties and meanness John had despaired of as a boy in the Mearns. A weaver he was regarded by many as the lowest of the low and the food provided for his keep frequently scraps regarded unfit for the farm labourers. Generally, home was his weaving shed or a cold and exposed loft space above it and predictably the man’s health suffered. Yet his positive spirit prevailed on account of strong religious beliefs and absorption in his cherished scientific volumes. Once he had taught himself to write, John was able to record information on the plants he gathered instead of retaining all his remarkable knowledge in his head. Perched on the summit of Cairn William near Tillyfourie Duncan made meticulous notes about the moon and stars while searching for botanical specimens. These nocturnal rambles did not go unnoticed but provided ammunition to his taunter's suspicious of learning especially in an ‘inferior’ weaver. What business did he have crawling around worthless plants or pointing his nose to the night skies? They called him ‘Johnnie Moon’ and made him the butt of jokes and cruel pranks. Some did, however, recognise John’s scholarship and marvelled at his ability to make highly accurate time pieces based on his astronomical observations. Occasionally John’s enthusiasm proved contagious and he would draw an audience to stare with him at the stars when talk would be of possible life out there and what it meant for them on earth. None of these exchanges shook John’s steadfast faith.
A stalwart of the Free Kirk, he poured over religious tracts and taught himself Greek to read the scriptures. Unquestionably John Duncan had an extraordinary brain which was never idle. His learning was achieved by painstaking persistence and must have made him a fascinating companion for those able to appreciate his abilities. Two such men were Charles Black, a gardener at Cluny Castle and for a time with the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh and Charles Hunter, a shoemaker. They were John Duncan’s intellectual equals and Hunter, like Duncan, an impressive scholar. All 3 men read voraciously everything they could afford to buy or acquire. Hunter was impressed with his humble companion, recognising in him a formidable talent imprisoned by social class. Duncan strongly applauded the movement for self-improvement such as the Rhynie Mutual Instruction Class set up in 1846. Nearly 30 years before compulsory schooling in Scotland, farm servants, craft workers both male and female established clubs throughout Aberdeenshire and Banffshire. The Lynturk Club was first to publish a monthly periodical, The Rural Echo and Magazine of the North of Scotland Mutual Instruction Associations. John Duncan was a regular contributor to Auchleven’s society. He would read from papers pressed close to his nose, carefully sounding out difficult scientific terms. He enthused about Swedish botanist Linnaeus who developed the system of identifying plants and animals by genus and species. Linnaeus like Duncan had overcome hurdles of poverty to pursue knowledge and the men shared a common intellectual language, Latin. John’s natural speech included archaic terms from old Scotch which added to the difficulty fellow debaters had in understanding him.
Johnnie Moon’ worked his loom by day then set about writing up detailed descriptions of his latest botanical samples. As long as the light held out he would pick up a volume and study botany or astronomy before retiring to a cold and uncomfortable bed. Frequently he undertook long, difficult journeys, not uncommonly up to 40 miles around the Vale of Alford, seeking out plants which were slipped into the bottle he carried to protect them then it was home to catch up on sleep before rising for work early next morning. When work was scarce, Duncan would travel 100s of miles sustained by oatmeal mixed to a paste with fresh burn water. On these travels John developed a theory on poverty. Old men in Scotland wore red and white striped night-caps called Kilmarnocks. According to John’s hypothesis, a rich man’s Kilmarnock stood straight up on his head whereas a poor man’s drooped appropriately. Ever the empiricist.
In William Jolly’s sympathetic and excellent biography of the weaver and botanist, it appears John Duncan was the 1st to create a Botanical Exhibition in the north of Scotland. At Auchleven Carding Mill around 1850 several of John’s specimens were displayed including a water lily from the Loch of Drum. Our man had stripped off his breeks and waded into the loch in pursuit of the lily only to find himself floundering hopelessly in the soft mud. Luckily a man in a boat heard his cries for help and Duncan was rescued from the sludge still clutching the elusive white lily. Assisted by his companion, Charles Black, Duncan recorded a veritable alpine meadow of colourful and scented wild plants including rare species from around Alford, many now extinct. Habitats were observed while specimens carefully tucked between tea papers or scraps of newspaper and meticulous notes made on both. John’s methods demonstrated the best research practice and his reputation in the field of botany such that he was invited to help establish a Natural History Society in Aberdeen. Duncan’s vast collections, preserved in some instances for over 50 years eventually found their way to the Natural History Museum at Marischal College where it was discovered that this humble botanist had indeed collected nearly all recognised flora species known in Scotland and England.
John Duncan survived his life of penury with stoicism, ever optimistic that one day his contribution to science would be recognised. Towards the end of his life there was some recognition in so far as an appeal was made for his financial support. Articles in the likes of The Times and The Pall Mall Gazette but chiefly in The People’s Journal and Aberdeen Free Press resulted in kind words and gifts of money from the rich and humble. One woman sent £30 and an easy chair to provide some comfort in his remaining years. Queen Victoria stumped up £10. Up and down the country, even abroad, individuals and organisations set about collecting funds to help the intrepid botanist-weaver now fallen on the hardest times he ever had to endure. There were 2 outstanding exceptions to this philanthropy. Edinburgh Botanical Society decided against assisting a man who had not contributed directly to their Society and Aberdeen University displayed callous indifference when it turned its back on a man who had so generously benefited it. The upshot of the charity he received enabled John to be moved from his workshop to more comfortable quarters and he delighted in his 1st new set of clothes in some 50 years. There was even money left over to set up a Trust Fund to encourage children in the Alford area to study natural sciences so their eyes might be opened to the world around them.
Death came peacefully in early August 1881 as John Duncan lay in bed at his cottage at Droughsburn. His coffin was a veritable shrine to his passion. The frail body gently placed on sprigs of peppermint from the banks of the burn that ran by his cottage. Little bunches of wild flowers arranged around the funeral shroud: Linnoea Borealis representing science; pyrola secunda symbolising his discovery of rare plants; rose petals scattered around the head of a fine and generous man; mimulus ringans in recognition of the distances he travelled to complete his collection; water-cress for the hardship that dogged him all his days and spurge laurel signifying the whole man.
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