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The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter VII


Termination of Apprenticeship—Visits Edinburgh —Returns to Cromarty out of Health—Goes to Inverness in Quest of Work—Amusing Interview with a Scotch Minister—Publishes his First Volume —Death of Uncle James.

We cannot look for incidents of a very striking or picturesque character in the daily life of a stone mason, and it would be tedious to dwell upon the routine existence even of Hugh Miller. He pursued his calling faithfully, earning the reputation of a skilful and honest tradesman in different masonic squads in the north. Meeting with singular characters at times, amongst his fellow-workmen, and occasionally finding himself located in wild desolate parts of the country, thinly inhabited by human beings, but abounding in reminiscences of early times where these wild and howling wastes were supposed to be tenanted by the characters which figure in the picturesque mythology of the far Scottish North. Every legend was carefully noted down, and in the summer evenings, after his labour was over, we find him putting them into shape, with a view to their publication. The legend hunting was diversified by the study of botany and geology, and, by the expiration of his apprenticeship as a mason, he was known by many learned men as an accurate scientific student. On the termination of his apprenticeship he proceeded to Edinburgh partly to find work, partly to get rid of an old property in Leith, which had ceased to be profitable, .and partly to enjoy the advantages of the metropolitan city in the pursuit of his studies.

While in Edinburgh, he made a raid among the celebrated divines of that time; one of whom, Dr. Colquhoun, of Leith, made the fires the subject of a special discourse, in which he argued that they had been sent by Providence as punishment, in token of the Divine displeasure at a musical festival—an oratorio, we learn, which had taken place three weeks anterior to the conflagration. Hugh Miller listened with respect to the preaching of such a generally sound and able man as the Doctor, but did not like his doctrine of special providences. He derived greater pleasure and more profit from the preaching of the acomplished author of the "life of Knox," the Rev. Dr. M'Crie, and he tells us the following Anecdote illustrative of the Doctor's tact in securing the attention of an audience :—

"There was a great deal of coughing in the place (the chapel in which Dr. M'Crie preached), the effect of a recent change of weather; and the Doctor, whose Voice was not a strong one, and who seemed somewhat annoyed by the ruthless interuptions, stopping suddenly short in the middle of his argument, made a dead pause. When people are taken by surprise, they cease to cough—a circumstance which he had evidently calculated upon. Every eye was now turned towards him, and for a full minute so dead was the silence that one might have heard a pin drop. 'see, my friends,' said the Doctor, resuming his speech with a suppressed smile, 'I see you can all be quiet enough when I am quiet.' "

The first winter in Edinburgh passed away as all winters do pass. Our philosopher mason read a good deal from odd volumes picked up at cheap bookstalls, from books borrowed from his friend, William Boss, and from a brother-workman, a somewhat wild and reckless man, but withal the most intelligent, with the exception of Hugh Miller, in the squad His book-shelf boasted of from twenty to thirty: volumes at that time, all purchased from the Edinburgh stalls, and all solid books requiring the exercise of the thinking faculty on the part of the reader. There was no cheap literature then, and the future editor of the Witness seemed to think that the world was, upon the whole, better without it. The Niddry woods were beautiful, too, in the moonlight evenings, and these were frequently visited by him in " musing mood;" but the spring came round and brought with it abundance of work and excellent wages.

The dust supplied by two years hewing at this period began to affect Hugh Miller's lungs, and he deemed it prudent to return for some space to Cromarty, in order to recruit his health. We need not dwell upon the voyage, its incidents, nor its companions. It was long, but Cromarty was at last reached, and his two uncles, cousin George, and a number of relatives had assembled on the beech to welcome the wanderer home. His health was bad, but he had no acute pain, so that he could read and at times take short rambles in the country, and take lessons in his favourite science. About this time, too, his faith in Christianity, which had previously been cold and speculative, became vital and practical, and he recognised the scheme of Redemption as something to be trusted as the chiefest of life's supports rather than as a system to be discussed and argued about in a polemical spirit. His constitution ultimately triumphed over his malady, and he acquired . complete health and strength, studying the peculiarities of a colony .of gipsies which had settled in the cave in which he spent many days during his boyhood. In his period of convalesence he had amused himself with hewing a dial-stone for his uncles, from an original design, and gradually, as his health returned, little jobs in the stone-cutting line, monumental tablets, and others, came in. He hewed better than any other mason in the north, and, after practising for some time in the country, in the parishes of Cromarty and Nigg, on the advice of a friend he started for Inverness, depending upon his skill as a stone cutter for employment. Thinking that his capacity as a poet might be an additional ground of recommendation to a discerning public, he took sundry manuscript poems along with him to the Highland capital, having been previously furnished with a letter of introduction to a minister who was supposed to have influence enough with one of the local journals to get Hugh Miller's verses inserted in its "Poet's Corner." The interview with the reverend gentleman is so good that we must give it in the author's own language.

"I was informed that the minister's hour for receiving visitors of the humbler class was between eleven and twelve at noon; and, with the letter of introduction and my copy of verses in my pocket, I called at the manse, and was shown into a little anteroom, furnished with two seats of deal that ran along the opposite walls. I found the place occupied by some six or seven individuals,—more than half their number old withered women, in very shabby habiliments, who, as I soon learned from a conversation which they kept up in a grave undertone, about <weekly allowances and the partiality of the session,were paupers. The others were young men, who had apparently serious requests to prefer anent marriage and baptism; for I saw that one of them was ever and anon drawing from his breast-pocket a tattered copy of the Shorter Catechism, and running over the questions; and I overheard another asking his neighbour "who drew up the contract lines for him?" and "whae he had got the whisky?" The minister entered; and as he passed into the inner room, we all rose. He stood for a moment in the door-way, and beckoning on one of the young men—he of the Catechism,—they went in together, and the door closed. They remained closeted together for about twenty minutes or half an hour, and then the young man went out; and another young man—he who had procured the contract lines and the whisky—took his place. The interview in this second case, however, was much shorter than the first; and a very few minutes served to despatch the business of the third young man; and then the minister, coming to the door-way, looked first at the old women and then at me, as if mentally determining our respective claims to priority; and mine at length prevailing—I know not on what occult principle—I was beckoned in. I presented my letter of introduction, which was graciously read; and, though the nature of the business did strike me as out of keeping with the place, and it did cost me some little trouble to suppress at one time a burst of laughter, that would, of course, have been prodigiously improper in the circumstances, I detailed to him in a few words my little plan, and handed him my copy of verses. He read them aloud with slow deliberation.

"The minister paused as he concluded, and looked puzzled. 'Pretty well, I dare say,' he said; 'but I do not now read poetry. You however, use a word that is not English,—"Thy winding marge along." Marge!—What is marge?' 'You will find it in Johnson,' I said. 'Ah, but we must not use all the words we find in Johnson.' 'But the poets make frequent use of it.' 'What Poets?' 'Spencer.' 'Too old,—too old; no authority now,' said the minister. 'But the Wartons also use it.' 'I don't know the Wartons.' 'It occurs also,' I iterated, 'in one of the most finished sonnets of Henry Kirk White.' 'What sonnet?' 'That to the river Trent.'

"Once more, O Trent! along thy peebly marge, 
A pensive invalid, reduced and pale,
From the close sick-room newly set at large,
Woos to his woe-worn cheek the pleasant gale."

It is, in short, one of the common English words of the poetic vocabulary.' Could a man in quest of patronage, and actually at the time soliciting a favour, possibly contrive to say anything more imprudent? And this, too, to a gentleman so much accustomed to be deferred to when he took up his ground on the Standards, as sometimes to forget, through the sheer force of habit, that he was not a standard himself! He coloured to the eyes; and his condescending humility, which seemed, I thought, rather too great for the occasion, and was of a kind which my friend Mr. Stewart never used to exhibit, appeared somewhat ruffled. 'I have no acquaintance,' he said, 'with the editor of the Courier: we take opposite sides on very important questions; and I cannot recommend your verses to him: but call on Mr.-; he is one of the proprietors, and, with my compliments state your case to him: he will perhaps be able to assist you. Meanwhile, I wish you all success.' The minister hurried me out, and one of the withered old women was called in. 'This' I said to myself, as I stepped into the street, 'is the sort of patronage which letters of introduction procure for one. I don't think I'll seek any more of it.' "

Mr. Miller's efforts to obtain work as a stone-cutter were rather more successful than was his attempt to get an introduction to literature; but, while in Inverness, he committed a volume of poetry to print. The volume was no great success; but it introduced the author to the genial-hearted editor of the Inverness Courier, Mr. Carruthers, who was a much better judge of poetry than the reverend censor to whom Mr. Miller first showed his "Ode to the Ness." If the poems fell somewhat flat upon the public, a series of letters upon the "Herring Fishery," published in the columns of the Courier, were eminently popular, attracting the attention of Sir Walter Scott, and all sorts of people, whose approval was fame. While in Inverness, Uncle James, so dearly and deservedly loved, died, and when Hugh Miller returned home stricken with grief for the loss of his revered relative, a letter was waiting him, recording the early death of his friend William Ross. Hugh prepared a memorial stone for his uncle, and inscribed an epitaph upon it, in which the departed was described as "An honest, warm-hearted man, who had the happiness of living without reproach, and of dying without fear."

No lie this, we believe, as too many epitaphs are! The critics were now busy with his verses, and the critiques were all more or less unfavourable. An itinerant elocutionist, however, criticised them before an audience, amongst which was the author, but he got hissed and hooted for so doing—the poems were, after all, popular with the Cromarty public; the prophet did receive honour in his own country.


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