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Duncan was born at Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, on 19 December 1794. His mother, Ann Caird, was not married to his father, John Duncan, a weaver of Drumlithie, eight miles from Stonehaven, and she supported herself and the boy by harvesting and by weaving stockings. He never went to school, but very early gathered rushes in the valleys, from which he made pith wicks for sale. During his boyhood he acquired a strong love for wild plants. From the age of fifteen he went as herd-boy to various farms, receiving cruel treatment.