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The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter VIII


Dawn of his Literary Fame—Writes his Autobiography—Casual Interview with his Future Wife— Appointed Accountant in a Commercial Bank—His Marriage—Continues his Literary Labours—Enters the Arena of Church Controversy—Letter to Lord Brougham—Appointed Editor of the Witness—His Independence and Success.

The Itinerant critic, whose name was Walch, in in addition to being hissed and hooted by the Cromarty men—whom one loves for their chivalrous defence of one of themselves—narrowly escaped being b2aten into a jelly by a stalwart Highland cousin of Hugh Miller, who deemed that a gross and public attack upon the literary reputation of his kinsman could only be avenged by a sound thrashing. Hugh, however, found means to persuade his Celtic cousin to keep his honourable hands off the lecturer, and by-and-by there come balm for the wounds of the bard in a generous and highly laudatory critique, written by Dr. Brown, the author of a "History of the Highlands and the Highland Clans;" the praise and friendship of Principal Baird, a warm-hearted liberal-minded .gentleman, who was the frank patron of true merit, whether it was found beneath the garb of the day-labourer, or that of the polished gentleman and scholar; the esteem of Miss Dunbar, of Boath, a lady of refined literary taste and considerable literary power; the respect of Sir Thomas Dick Lauder; and, in short, of a great many Scotchmen of mark of that period. The rosy dawn of a brilliant future had at length broken, and was visible to the mind's eye of this stone-cutter, but it did not turn his head. The prophet, as we have said, was honoured in his own country; and already had the ripples, caused by the few literary pebbles he had thrown into the waters of public opinion, spread much further than his native neighbourhood. They were palpable so far south as the metropolis, and great men solicited his company at their houses, and to their tables; but, by God's blessing, he contrived to escape that great curse and hindrance to a working man with a literary turn of mind—a patron. Although he shaped great and good thoughts out of the raw material of the mind, he continued still to labour conscientiously at the shaping and chiselling of tablets and tombstones, and accepted few of those flattering invitations which rich kindness or curiosity extended to him to come and be lionised! Hear what he says upon this point, thou struggling genius, thou "mute inglorious Milton," whoever thou art, toiling at the anvil, the plough, or the spade, and preserve thy dignity!

"I had already seen several poor wrecked mechanics, who, believing themselves to be poets, and regarding the manual occupation by which they could live in independence as beneath them, had become in consequence little better than mendicants—too good to work for their bread, but not too good, virtually, to beg it; and, looking upon them as beacons of warning, I determined that, with God's help, I should give the error a wide offing, and never associate the idea of meanness with an honest calling, or deem myself too good to be independent."

At the suggestion of Principal Baird, he wrote an autobiographic sketch of his life, which extended till the year 1825. About the same period, he wrote his "Scenes and Legends of the North," a most fascinating book, which he dedicated to Sir Thomas Dick Lauder. We find him, too, taking part in a local church controversy, writing petitions, paragraphs, letters, articles, and pamphlets respecting it with characteristic zeal; and from time to time prosecuting more profitable studies in the field of geological science. Still the stone-cutting was persevered in; and one evening, while hewing in a part of his uncle's garden, he was visited by a lady friend, who brought a stranger lady along with her to see an old dial-stone which he had dug out of the earth some time previously. While Hugh Miller and his visitors were standing beside that old time-marker, taking no note of time, a third lady came tripping down the garden walk, and, addressing the other two in a great flurry, said, "O come, come away; I have been seeking you ever so long." "Is this you L-," was the staid reply; "why, what now? you have run yourself out of breath." This third lady was nineteen years of age, was of light and small figure, had a waxen clearness of complexion, and was, in short, as pretty a little vision as one would wish to meet in a summer evening. Her visit to Hugh Miller's working-place was purely accidental—perhaps she had heard something of his fame—perhaps she wished to see the man of whom so many had so much that was excellent to say. Be that as it may, the meeting, so accidental and certainly so momentary, was pregnant with great results for both. The young lady—Lydia Mackenzie Fraser—in due time became Mrs. Miller. Time passed on, and Hugh, still a working mason, had serious thoughts of going out to America to push his fortune, when he was offered the accountantship in the Cromarty branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, by Mr. Ross, the agent. After due consideration he accepted the appointment, and was sent to the Linlithgow branch to be initiated into the mysteries of banking. He was so stupid at first that the worthy agent in Linlithgow expressed his conviction to the manager in Edinburgh that it would be in vain to think of making "yon man" an accountant. He speedily mastered the system, however, and in little more than a fortnight—the agent being again in Edinburgh, and the regular accountant being away on some business mission, was asked to whom he had intrusted the bank. He had left "yon man," he said. "What, the Incompetent?" "O, that." he replied, "is all a mistake; the Incompetent has already mastered our system." Of his stay in Linlithgow, he says "Brief as the days were, I had always a twilight hour to myself; and as the evenings were fine for the season the old royal park of the place, with its massive palace and its sweet lake still mottled by the hereditary swans, whose progenitors had sailed over its waters in the days when James IV. worshipped in the spectre aisle, formed a delightful place of retreat, little frequented by the inhabitants of the town, but only all the more my own in consequence; and in which I used to feel the fatigue of a day's figuring and calculation drop away into the cool breezy air like cobwebs from an unfolded banner, as I climbed among the ruins, or sauntered along the grassy shores of the loch,"

At the end of two months' residence in Linlithgow, he returned to Cromarty and was installed as accountant in the local branch of the Commercial Bank.

His new position was an interesting standing point upon which to view the world, and a school favourable to the developement of shrewdness and common sense, and he gained much that was valuable in after years there. Two years after the commencement of his banking career, he was united to Lydia Mackenzie Fraser, the young lady of his uncle's garden, and to eke out his income which did not, with the earnings of his wife—who, after her marriage, continued to teach a few pupils—much exceed one hundred pounds per annum, he contributed stories for "Wilson's Border Tales," started in 1835; and, subsequently, he established a profitable connection with the Messrs Chambers, as an occasional contributor to their admirable Journal, the precusor of the cheap, popular, and elevating press. During his connection with the bank, he wrote a memoir, which was subsequently published for private circulation, of a celebrated Cromarty man, Mr. William Forsyth. We have never seen this production, but from the sketch given of its subject in "Scenes and Legends," we can believe it was in every respect worthy of a good man. We see occasional symptoms of the church controversialist cropping out here and there in this portion of his life. The war between the Moderates and the Evangelicals, as the two opposing parties in the church were termed, had by this time fairly commenced. The long and bitter voluntary controversy—in which, however, there were clearly defined and broad principles to fight about— had done its work; and the church, aroused out of that sweet sleep which, till awakened by the voluntary trumpet, she had so long enjoyed, was fairly broken up into two great contending parties. Hugh Miller, who had been nurtured in the strong presbyterianism of his ancestor, Donald Roy, one of the "Men" of Nigg, sympathised with the Non-Intrusion party. Events hurried on. The admission of the quoad sacra ministers as members of the church courts, the Veto Law which gave the people the power of rejecting a minister without assigning reasons of objection, speedily brought the ecclesiastical and civil tribunals into harsh collision. The Strathbogie case, the Auchterarder case, and others of a similiar kind, made Scotland ring with the clash of ecclesiastical arms; and on the decision of the House of Lords in the Auchterarder case becoming known in Cromarty, Hugh Miller, after a sleepless night, penned a letter to Lord Brougham, in which the speech of that great statesman and lawyer was reviewed with a vigour which must have astonished him when he knew that the daring critic was a self-taught man. The letter was seen by the clerical heads of the Non-Intrusion party in Edinburgh; and as these had been looking about for an editor to undertake the management of a newspaper which had been projected for the purpose of defending the position and advocating the principles of the party, Dr. Candlish at once said, on seeing the letter in manuscript, "Here is the editor we want." A meeting was arranged between Mr Miller and the leading Non-Intrusionists, the result of which was the appointment of the former to the editorship of the Witness. The following extract indicates the spirit in which he undertook his new labour:—

"Save for the intense interest with which I regarded the struggle, and the stake possessed in it, as I beleived, by the Scottish people, no consideration whatever would have induced me to take a step so fraught, as I thought at the time, with peril and discomfort. For full twenty years I had never been engaged in a quarrel on my own account: all my quarrels, either directly or indirectly, had been ecclesiastical ones;—I had fought for my minister, or for my brother parishioners; and fain now would I have lived at peace with all men; but the editorship of a Non-Intrusion newspaper involved, as a portion of its duties, war with all the world. I held, besides,—not aware how very much the spur of necessity quickens production,—that its twice-a-week demands would fully occupy all my time, and that I would have to resign, in consequence, my favourite pursuit,—geology. I had once hoped, too,—though of late years the hope had been becoming faint,—to leave some little mark behind me in the literature of my country; but the last remains of the expectation had now to be resigned. The newspaper editor writes in sand when the flood is coming in. If he but succeed in influencing opinion for the present, he must be content to be forgotten in the future. But believing the cause to be a good one, I prepared for a life of strife, toil, and comparative obscurity. In counting the cost, I very considerably exagerated it; but I trust I may say that, in all honesty, and with no sinister aim, or prospect of worldly advantage, I did count it, and fairly undertook to make the full sacrifice which the cause demanded."

In January, 1840, Hugh Miller presided over the birth of the first number of the Witness. The proprietors were fortunate in securing such a man as the editor of their paper. There were few men living in Scotland, at that period, possessed of greater ability, or who had a more exact knowledge of the controvorsy of which he was henceforth to be one of the chief conductors. But more than this—he was a thoroughly independent man, and would not, in order to please friends or in dread of the anger of foes, take a single step which was not sanctioned by his own judgment and conscience. From the fact that the Witness was originated by the clerical leaders of the Non-Intrusion party, the public were naturally suspicious of its becoming the organ of a mere clerical clique. Hugh Miller, however, speedily undeceived the public upon this point. He knew his duty, and he brooked no interference with the discharge of it from whatever quarter it came. The determination to maintain his independence, we know, several times cost him much, for a generous nature like that which he possessed feels pain while inflicting it in the discharge of duty upon others; but, when the sacrifice had to be made, it was made freely. One of the chiefs of the party proposed upon one occasion a sort of clerical censorship upon the columns of the Witness, but the editor had the boldness to resist a proposition which morally and commercially would have been fatal to the journal had it been acted out. Dr. Buchanan, the author of the "Ten Years' Conflict," almost ignores the services rendered Non-Intrusion by the Witness; but it is an undoubted fact that the articles of Hugh Miller in that paper were the cause of the popular awakening to the importance of the question at issue between the contending parties, which characterised the years 1840, 1841, and 1842. Previous to the first of these three years—or, let us at once say, to the appearance of the Witness—many who had any idea of the Non-Intrusion controversy condemned it, and the great mass of the people knew and cared nothing at all about it. So recently as 1839, Dr. George Cook stated, without contradiction, that he could scarce enter an inn or stage coach without finding respectable men inveighing against the utter folly of the Non-Intrusionists, and the worse than madness of the church courts; and remembering, as we do, the same year—and mingling, as we then did, amongst people with whom religious controversy was almost a necessity of life—we have frequently been struck with the manner in which Non-Intrusion was treated by the bulk of the community. The Witness, however, had not been many months in existence when the movement became to a large extent popularised. The mission Hugh Miller set before himself -was to instruct the people on this question, which, of all others, in his estimation, concerned them most intimately; and week after week the Witness came out with articles pregnant with argument, with felicitous illustration, and couched in the most forcible and appropriate language. In the first year of the Witness a petition was sent up from Edinburgh in favour of the spiritual independence of the church, to which 13,000 signatures were attached, a larger number by one-half than ever had appeared at any similar petition previous to that year.


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