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The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter VI


Lessons in the Quarry—Friendship with William Ross—Loyalty to his Master in Seasons of Adversity . —A Night Scene—Mad Bell.

It was while working in a quarry on the nothern shore of the Moray Firth that Hugh Miller became first acquainted with the organism peculiar to the Old Red Sandstone with which his name is so splendidly associated. We cannot, however, dwell upon his geologic discoveries, nor attempt in a sketch like this to trace the sequence of the steps by which he eventually became one of the greatest geologists of his country. Suffice it to say, that every field was carefully surveyed which promised to yield such lessons as would repay the labour expended upon the survey, and in the first six months of his apprenticeship as a mason, he had mastered, in great measure, by his own unaided efforts, the rudiments of geologic science. During the interval which succeeded his first summer of work, the young mason was much in the company of a young house-painter, William Ross, a delicate lad with the mark of early death legibly inscribed upon him, but an enthusiast in literature and art. He made good verses, drew well in water colours, played the flute better than any one else in the district, and was a great reader of books. The lads, although differing in opinion on many subjects, had the common ground of an intellectual taste to meet upon, and they were consequently almost inseperable companions. Ross had been unfortunate in his parents. His mother, the descendant of "devout family of the old Scottish type," had fallen in early youth, and she subsequently married an ignorant, half imbecile man. William Ross was the eldest born of this ill-matched pair. Fortunately for him, he had been sent at an early age to live with his maternal grandmother and aunt, women of superior intelligence and devout character, who kept a "girls" school, and it was under the influence of the kindly culture of those women that his genius budded forth, and his character assumed a nobler type than that he inherited from his poor parents. His protectresses were dead before Hugh Miller became acquainted with him, and he was then struggling with poverty through the last year of his apprenticeship. The mason lad was, of course, as poor as Ross in a pecuniary point of view, but he had a capital stock of spirits, a commodity which the other wanted sadly, and his intimacy with the delicate painter boy was in the highest degree beneficial to the latter. They discussed all manner of subjects together, poetry, the fine arts, science, and problems in political economy, no doubt, for William Ross was a keen politician. The difference in their temperaments is shown in the authors in which they respectively delighted. The somewhat feminine painter looked upon the mild and gracefully written "Minstrel," of Beattie, as the most perfect poem in the English Language; and although he liked Dryden's "Virgil," he could see no poetry whatever in "Absalom and Ahithophel." Miller was fond alike of Beattie and Dryden. Ross delighted in the polish of Addison, but could not endure the caustic satire of Swift; whereas Miller loved both, and could pass from the "Vision of Mirzal to the "Tale of a Tub " without any sense of incongruity. The one was dainty in his intellectual taste; the other, so that the fare was healthful and substantial, sat down with a relish to every feast. The one was passionately fond of music, and the other, though tolerant of the bagpipes, and having no special objection to drums, was doubtful whether there was in reality any such thing as tune; but, notwithstanding their difference in taste, they were fast friends, reading, walking, studying and conversing together, to their mutual advantage in many important respects.

The first winter vacation was succeeded by a summer one, which, by one person at least, was not desired. The work upon which Hugh Miller's master's squad was engaged terminated early in May, and, as no further contracts could be got at the time, the men were thrown idle. Hugh rushed to the woods, rocks, and caves, and busied himself with his geology, botany, and legend hunting, but the master pined beneath a life of inaction, and at last applied for work as a journeyman. One of the apprentices quitted his service, but Hugh, loyal to his old master in the season of adversity, stuck by him, and gave him his work to enable him, although advanced in years and debilitated in strength, to rank as a full journeyman, and receive the wages to which a full journeyman was entitled. There first work was in assisting to build a jointure house for the lady of a Ross-shire proprietor, and the scene of their labours was of the wildest and most dreary character, their lodgings being by no means fitted to reconcile a young man keenly alive to landscape beauty, to the waste and howling wilderness to which fortune had led him. No beds had been prepared for them, as they were unexpected; and accordingly for the first night, at least, they had either to dispense with the luxury of beds altogether or share a bed with a Highland carpenter, whom Hugh had good reason to believe would prove a dangerous customer to sleep with. He gave his master fair warning of his risk, but the latter determined to brave the danger rather than lose a bed. Hugh slept on straw in a loft, and his uncle reaped the reward of his temerity in sleeping with a strange bedfellow by catching a cutaneous distemper, somewhat common in Highland society. The locality to which they had been transported was not altogether destitute of charms to ft young man who delighted in the legendary lore of his country. The country, in its main or general features, was bare and uninviting—a scene of bogs and moors, overlooked by a range of tame heathy hills. There was, however, an oasis even in this desert. "Two meal mills—the one small and old, the other larger and modern—were placed beside each other, on ground so unequal that, seen in front, the smaller seemed perched on the top of the larger; a group of tall graceful larches rose immediately beside the lower building, and hung their slim branches over the mill-wheel, while fine aged ash trees that encircled the mill-pond, which, in sending its waters down the hill, supplied both wheels in succession, sprang up immediately beside the upper erection, and shot their branches over its roof. " A beautiful little picture to meet with, certainly, in the midst of a scene generally of such unpoetic aspect. Beside the little picture just described, there stood, at a short distance from the scene of Hugh Miller's labours, the ruined chapel and solitary burying ground of Gillichrist, the scene of one of those terrible deeds of vengence which one reads of in Highland story, and which, for refinement of cruelty, are scarcely equalled in the annals of human crime. The Mackenzies of Ord had by some means offended the pride of the Macdonalds of Glengarry, and the latter suddenly came upon the former on a Sunday, while they were engaged in the chapel in the celebration of mass. The Macdonalds shut the worshippers up in the church, which they set fire to, and watched until their enemies were consumed to ashes; their pipers discoursing wild music while the auto-de-fe was proceeding. Such a dark deed of vengence was more than sufficient to give the place a bad name. The ghost of some fair lady or stern warrior of the murdered family might surely haunt such a scene, if ever ghost was permitted to haunt any place; and, accordingly, Hugh Miller, on the first night of his residence in the locality, very nearly saw a ghost. Not being accustomed to lie upon straw, his sleep was frequently disturbed, and about midnight he rose and stood before a small window which commanded a view of the wide, dark, and solitary moor. Through the midnight darkness he could distinguish the site of the chapel and the position of its burying-ground, and, to his astonishment, he saw a light flickering amid the grave stones and ruins. The phenomenon of the light was accompanied by an unearthly screaming, as if the ghosts of the whole murdered family were bewailing their fate in one wild chorus! No wonder that the blood of the young man ran cold as he gazed upon that mysterious light, and listened to those discordant sounds. What could they mean? Was it after all true that the stories of Highland superstition were veritable facts, and that those dead lights, warnings, kelpies, wraiths, elf-candles, and so forth entered into the economy of Highland existence, as truly as did the tartan and the Gaelic. Evidently it was so, if he were to beleive his senses; for yonder, amidst the tenements and memorials of the dead,, were phenomena, sensible to hearing as well as to sight. The light might be an ignis fatuus, but the screams were undoubtedly real, and in no way pertaining to the " air-drawn dagger'' which startled the conscience of the regicide Macbeth, while he was only a regicide in intent. But, although to all appearance supernatural, the light and the sound belonged to this world; for just as Hugh was thinking of stealing down to the bedchamber of his uncle and the Highland carpenter, one of the servant girls of the mansion-house came out half-dressed to the door of an outer building in which the workmen and a farm-servant lay, and summoned them to immediate attendance, with the announcement that "Mad Bell had broken out, and would set them on fire a second time."

"Mad Bell" was a maniac, who habited the moor, and the tombs occasionally, at midnight, frightening people sometimes nearly out of their wits. All the male servants rushed down the moor, with Hugh Miller along with them, found the object of their search, dragged her home, and were proceeding to chain her to the floor of the hut, when Miller interposed and prevented that cruelty. She looked grateful for the interference, and next day Bell visited her deliverer, the paroxyism having passed away for. the time. Miller scarcely knew her. She was respectably dressed, her clean white cap neatly arranged, and she looked like some respectable tradesman's wife or daughter. Hugh Miller tells us she was one of the most intellectual women he ever met. Her brother was one of the ablest ministers of the Scottish Church in the Nothern Highlands, and, from her conversations with Miller, one learns that she must have possessed much of her brother's vigourous intellect, poetical temperament, and extensive knowledge. Many of the legends which, in after years, Hugh Miller put up in proper shape and gave to the world, were first learned from Mad Bell, so that, upon the whole, one almost envies him of her acquaintance.


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