The Birthplace of a Local Hero

The Tollbooth with its distinctive craws step gable -taken in a day of bright sunshine

After decades of neglect by our local historians, John Duncan – a once celebrated botanist – is finally emerging from the shadows into the spotlight of recognition and appreciation. He was born in Stonehaven.

Douglas Cusine has tracked down Duncan’s birthplace and provided this account –

COWIE COURT AND JOHN DUNCAN

Many people in Stonehaven might be pushed to identify the location of “Cowie Court.” Near Cowie Water or Cowie River as it is better known? No, Cowie Court was at the side and to the rear of the Tolbooth. There is an inshot between the houses on The Old Pier and the Tolbooth, at the rear of which is a store. That is the only remaining part of Cowie Court.

It has not been possible to identify when the houses were built, but from the earliest Ordnance Survey Map (1846) Cowie Court can be seen clearly and was on the part of what is now the back gardens of the houses on The Old Pier.

In 1855, the system of rating was introduced. Prior to that there were a variety of taxes, e.g a poll tax, a hearth tax, a window tax and a land tax, but individual houses do not get a mention. The Valuation Rolls were made up every 10 years, with the first one for Kincardineshire in1865, but the Parish of Dunnottar does not contain any entry for Cowie Court.

There are entries for 1875 which disclose that there were two grain lofts. The next one, 1885, shows three houses, a grain loft and two cellars, By 1895, there are four houses, two grain lofts and three cellars. Moving forward to 1920, we have one house and one store, and from 1925 onwards, only a store is shown and so, we can assume that the houses were demolished between 1920 and 1925. The Valuation Roll for 2000 still has a separate entry for “Cowie Court,” but the entry is for the store.

Now that all that is left is that store, has Cowie Court any claim to fame? Yes.

John Duncan became a very famous botanist, recognised not only in Scotland but internationally. He came from very humble beginnings—here in Stonehaven, and was born in Cowie Court, in 1794. His mother was Ann Caird, who, at the age of 21, had been made pregnant by a weaver called John Duncan who lived and worked in Drumlithie. He abandoned Ann, who decided to leave her parents’ home in Drumlithie and walk to Stonehaven. At that time, there was a boarding-house in Cowie Court near the Tolbooth, which is where Duncan was born. This boarding-house had gone by the time of the Valuation Rolls. John’s mother was very supportive and, like his brother who was born later, he spoke highly of her, even on his death-bed.

Duncan did not have any formal schooling but he spent a lot of time around Dunnottar Castle where it seems that he began to take an interest in geology and botany.  In 1818, he became a weaver at Rubislaw Bleachfield in Aberdeen, but in his spare time, he visited bookshops picking up material to further his botanical pursuits. indeed, at night he would go looking for plant samples, earning the nickname “Johnny Moon.” Weaving did not pay well and so, he supplemented his income by joining the Aberdeen Militia, and nearly died when he was hit by a musket ball in “friendly fire.” He made various medicinal remedies and soap.

He worked and lived in various places in the north-east, such as Johnshaven, Portlethen, Auchleven. When he worked at Cluny he was influenced by two local men, Charles Black, a gardner and Charles Hunter, a shoemaker, but was also very interested in the work of the Swede, Linnaeus, who worked on plant classification. Duncan was instrumental in setting up the Natural History Society of Aberdeen, and donated his collection of plant samples to Marischal College. He did marry, and had two daughters by his wife, but she was unfaithful and the marriage foundered.

The latter part of his life was spent at Alford where he was involved in charitable work, such as improving the lot of children in Alford, by encouraging them to be interested in botany. He died in 1881 at Droughsburn, near Alford  and there is a large monument to him in Alford Cemetery. His final charitable work was to leave  his books and papers to the Parish of Alford.

In his life, he was famous both nationally and internationally; not an insignificant feat for someone who came from humble beginnings in Cowie Court, Stonehaven. There is a book John Duncan; Scotch Weaver and Botanist by Wliiiam Jolly which was first published in 1883. Jolly obviously knew John Duncan well as the book extends to 516 pages.

To find out the role John Duncan played in Stonehaven’s Beautiful Scotland entry in 2022- read this article