live in an age of travel and discovery. Men have been to the North Pole and
the South Pole, and explorers have penetrated into savage and distant lands,
and brought back to us not only fascinating and accurate descriptions in the
form of narrative, but also photographs and cinematograph films, which bring
these strange countries and their inhabitants to our firesides. And yet it
has often happened that very important and interesting discoveries in
science have been due to the researches of stay-at-home people.
Hugh Miller, the Scots geologist, is a
striking instance of a scientific investigator who made geological
discoveries of great interest and importance while he was living in
obscurity and obliged to confine his field of investigation to one locality.
As he says him-self in one of his books, in his study of fossils on the
shores of the Cromarty Firth, he found within the limits of the parish work
enough for the patient study of many years.
The life of Hugh Miller possesses a
twofold interest—it makes an appeal to the lover of science, and also to the
student of human nature. He has told his story himself in "My Schools and
Schoolmasters," one of the most interesting autobiographies ever written,
and highly praised by Thomas Carlyle as such.
Born at Cromarty, on the 10th October,
1802, his earliest memories were of the sea. His father was the owner of a
small trading sloop, and was drowned at sea when Hugh was only five years
old. The sailor left three children—a son and two daughters—and the widow
had a hard struggle to bring them up. She was greatly aided by her two
brothers, and these men had much to do with moulding the character of their
There was a great contrast between
these two men. James Wright, the elder, a harness-maker, was a humorous man,
a keen antiquary, and an assiduous collector of old local legends. The
other, a cartwright, was a grave fellow, who had sailed with Nelson and
fought on land and sea, surviving all perils, returning finally to the
little wind-swept town of Cromarty with a nest-egg of prize-money and
"heartily sick of war and bloodshed."
Under the eyes of these
high-principled and kindly men, Hugh Miller was warmly encouraged to indulge
his natural bent for reading. As soon as he could read at all, he used to
sit for hours beside the work-bench of his uncle, the harness-maker, reading
aloud "Jack the Giant Killer" and similar books. His uncle in turn would
regale the boy with wonderful old traditionary stories of the Highlands.
It was Uncle Sandy, the sailor, who
first awakened Hugh’s interest in natural history. Indeed, the first
ammonite the boy ever saw was one that this uncle had brought home from the
Mediterranean. Every Sunday evening Hugh attended at his uncles’ home to be
catechized in Scriptural knowledge in the old Scots fashion, for both these
men held that the Sabbath School was an expedient devised for parents who
were too indolent or ignorant to teach their children themselves. The range
of reading and instruction which these two working men brought within the
reach of their nephew was, astonishing—extending from the Bible to the
Iliad" and the "Odyssey," and including the voyages of
all the great sailors.
Hugh Miller was first taught at a
dame’s school, and afterwards at the parish school of Cromarty, which,
although only a straw-thatched cottage with a mud floor and no ceiling, was
in charge of a master who was a university prizeman in mathematics and
languages, and who could boast that no schoolmaster in the north had ever
sent more boys to college.
Among the curious recollections which
Hugh Miller gives of this school is the fact that one of its endowments
consisted of twenty peats from every peat boat that entered the harbour of
Cromarty—and such boats were many. Some of the boatmen attempted to evade
this toll, and then the schoolmaster would send a party of boys to collect
it, or, failing that, to commandeer an oar or a spar, or anything they could
lay hands on. Such property was then kept in the school until its owners
paid up. An important yearly event was the school cock-fighting tournament,
after which the floor below the desks would be deeply stained for weeks with
the blood of the gallant birds.
When quite a boy Hugh Miller searched
out all the working men in Cromarty who possessed books—and several of them,
who did not earn a pound a week, had libraries of eighty volumes or more—and
in this way he greatly extended his reading. Years afterwards Miller stated
that he considered the grand acquirement of his life was his mastery of the
art of holding converse with books.
He was still a schoolboy when he began
to explore among the rocks along the seashore near his home, armed with a
hammer about 100 years old, which he had picked up. Soon his great interest
in geology was observed even by the farm servants, who came to the shore
with carts for seaweed, and who asked Hugh if he was finding money in the
stones. In these expeditions he was often accompanied by his sailor uncle,
of whom Hugh Miller said that some professors of natural history knew less
of living nature.
One of the first definite studies that
Miller made was in observing the habits of crabs and lobsters, about which
his uncle possessed a great deal of knowledge, gained by years of hunting
these creatures. Describing these excursions and lessons, Miller wrote:
The tract of sea-bottom laid bare by
the ebb formed an admirable school, and Uncle Sandy, an excellent teacher,
under whom I was
not in the least disposed to trifle; and when, long
after, I learned to detect old marine bottoms far out of sight of the
sea—now amid the ancient forest-covered Silurians of central England, and
anon opening to the light on some hill-side among the Mountain Limestones of
our own country—I have felt how very much I owed to his instructions.
Another favourite hunting ground of
the youthful naturalist was a place near Cromarty where an ancient bog had
been released by a flood, opening a channel about twelve feet deep through
the lower end of the surrounding morass. Here the boy found, exposed to
view, trunks of trees that had been buried in the bog for thousands of
years, and his digging unearthed handfuls of nuts and acorns, black as jet,
and even antlers of elks and other animals that bad long been extinct in
As a schoolboy Hugh Miller was less
happy at the desk than when exploring the caves on the coast line near
Cromarty or clambering about the cliffs, but he found other teachers besides
his excellent schoolmaster. One of his companions on the sea shore was an
old soldier, who had fought under the Duke of Wellington, and one day Hugh
guided the infirm pensioner’s hand, while he wrote a letter to the duke.
This letter brought a kind reply, with much good advice, which,
unfortunately, the old soldier did not follow. Among other links with the
distant past, Hugh Miller had spoken to two men who had fought at Culloden,
and also to a number of others, including his own grandfather, who had
witnessed the battle from a safe distance.
After he left school, although his
natural inclinations all pointed to science and literature, Hugh Miller felt
obliged to become a manual labourer. His uncles urged him to continue his
education, offering to stint themselves to send him to college, but the lad
did not feel any ambition to train himself to be a doctor, lawyer, or
minister— at that time the goals of most Scots lads who went to college. He
therefore, became a mason, a choice that proved to be a wise one, for, as
Miller himself says, "it was the necessity which made me a quarrier that
taught me to be a geologist."
Miller was singular as a mason, as he
had been when a schoolboy—always carrying a book in his pocket, and seeking
his enjoyment in solitary walks. He was constantly chipping open pieces of
stone in search of fossils, and in the dinner-hour in the quarry he would
show his finds—scales of fishes, shells, ammonites, and the impressions of
ferns. His companions often expressed their curiosity as to how such things
had "got into the stones," but they also indicated that such things were
beneath the notice of grown men.
There was one workman who told Miller
that in his father’s time he had known people search the beach for
"thunderbolts," which they used for curing bewitched cattle. Ascertaining
the spot where these things had been found, Miller went there on his next
half-holiday, and found a Liassic deposit, which was immensely rich in
Miller was seventeen when he was
apprenticed to a stonemason, and for fifteen years he continued to follow
that trade. His wages were small, and he lived a very plain and laborious
life; but he never relaxed his efforts at self-improvement, reading all that
was best in English literature, and studying geology without a teacher.
The Inconveniences of Bothies
Living as he did in a sparsely
populated part of Scotland, Miller and his companions usually practised
their trade in the heart of the country. Most of their work consisted in
setting up farm buildings, and, when employed on such jobs, the workmen were
accommodated in the bothy attached to the farm. Some of these wretched
places were unfit for the housing of cattle. Many a time was Miller awakened
by the rain dropping on his face from the roof, and sometimes he could see
the stars through the rotten thatch.
The men occupying these bothies had to
do their own cooking. The usual breakfast and supper was porridge and milk,
and oatcake and milk served for the mid-day meal. Sometimes, as Miller says,
he and his companions could not even procure salt for their porridge, and in
times of heavy rain they could not cook their food at all, because the turf,
which was the only fuel, was too wet to burn.
The Solace of Nature
In these hard circumstances Miller
turned to Nature for solace, and there, he says, he found ample compensation
for all his hardships. He was allowed no half-holiday—-such a luxury for a
working man was almost unheard of at that time—but every evening the young
mason naturalist wandered through the woods, or across the moors, or by the
seashore. After darkness fell, he would read by the light of the fire, even
a candle being a luxury.
His trade took Miller all over
Scotland, and, wherever he happened to be, he studied the local geology as
well as he could. One of his most interesting experiences as a journeyman
mason was a period of employment in Edinburgh, where his fellow-workmen
looked askance at him as a "Highlander newly come to Scotland."
In his walks out of Edinburgh Miller
found himself in the neighbourhood of coal-pits, and there, on the banks of
the unlovely slag-heaps, he was introduced to the wonders of another world.
Breaking open the blocks of shale with his hammer, he was astonished to
discover the fossilized ferns and other vegetation of the Coal Measures. No
one, seeing the young man in rough working clothes cracking open the blocks
of shale on the slopes of a colliery rubbish tip, could have imagined that
in fancy he was picturing the ancient world and its gigantic vegetation,
whose destruction and decay stored up the wealth of coal in the bowels of
A Vision of the Ancient World
He thus describes the play of his
imagination on such occasions:
Amid forests of arboraceous ferns, and of horse-tails
tall as the masts of pinnaces, there stood up gigantic club-mosses, thicker
than the body of a man, and from sixty to eighty feet in height, that
mingled their foliage with strange monsters of the vegetable world, of types
no longer recognizable among the existing forms— sculptured ulodendra,
bearing rectilinear stripes of sessile cones along their sides, and ornately
tattooed sigillaria, fluted like columns, and with vertical rows of leaves
bristling over their stems and larger branches.
At this period (1825) Hugh Miller
describes himself as earning high wages—twenty-four shillings a week, paid
fortnightly. For this he had to work sixty hours a week. His lodging was a
one-roomed cottage, shared with three other men. Yet even there he continued
to write a great deal in the evenings on a little table in a corner, and he
had a library of about thirty volumes, picked up at secondhand bookstalls
during his walks in Edinburgh on Saturday evenings. During these walks
Miller confesses that he often lingered in Castle Street, opposite Sir
Walter Scott’s house, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great man, but in
this he was never successful.
Threatened with Consumption
Happy though he was, there was one
dark cloud on his life. By inhaling the stone-dust raised by the chisel in
hewing masonry, his lungs had become affected, and for a time he feared
consumption, and had to return to the more bracing air of his native
Cromarty to recuperate.
During the spring following his return
from Edinburgh Miller took up an occupation, which, though strangely out of
keeping with his abilities and aspirations, was far healthier than stone
hewing. He began to fashion and cut inscriptions on gravestones. Of this
work he says, with pardonable pride, that he introduced a better type of
gravestone into the north of Scotland, and his lettering also was superior
to the inscriptions usually found in that locality.
He was now his own master, and the new
occupation proved less trying to his lungs than working with gangs of men in
the dusty environment of a city building in course of erection. He found a
solitary burying-ground, embowered amid old trees, "a much more delightful
scene of labour than a dusty work-shed," and, all things considered, his new
mode of life was a "quiet and happy one."
It was while engaged in cutting
inscriptions on gravestones that Miller published anonymously, at his own
expense, a volume of poems. These he had to admit to himself, even when they
were going through the press, possessed little merit; but he was more
successful in another venture, this time in prose. He wrote a series of
letters to a Scottish newspaper on the herring-fishing industry, which
contained a great deal of first-hand information. These letters were
afterwards reprinted in pamphlet form, and attracted considerable attention,
Sir Walter Scott even writing to the publisher for a copy when the pamphlet
was out of print.
Becomes Accountant in a Bank
This humble but well-deserved success
put Miller on the right course. Realizing that he was no poet and that he
did not possess the equipment necessary to become an imaginative writer, he
resolved that he would qualify himself to "stand as an interpreter between
nature and the public." He continued, however, with his gravestone work for
several years, until, in the latter part of 1834, he was offered a position
as accountant in a newly opened branch bank in Cromarty. This new occupation
offered advantages, and so, after fifteen years, the mallet and the chisel
were laid aside in favour of the pen and the ledger.
Shortly after joining the bank, Miller
published a volume of "Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland," which,
although it did not sell very well at first, attracted the attention of
several discerning critics. Leigh Hunt, in reviewing it, described the
author as "a remarkable man, who will infallibly be well known." This volume
was written in that easy and fluent style, which afterwards characterized
all Miller’s writings.
Writing for the Press
Success was slow in coming to him, and
even after his marriage in 1837 to Lydia Falconer Fraser (who wrote
children’s books under the name of "Harriet Myrtle ") his income did not
amount to two pounds a week. In the leisure that remained to him after his
day’s work in the bank, Miller occupied himself in writing for the press,
and many of his early essays appeared in Chambers’s Journal, then
edited by its founder—like Miller, a self-made man—Mr. Robert Chambers.
To his first love, geology, Miller was
never unfaithful, and his chief recreation during the time he was employed
at the bank was exploring an ichthyolitic deposit of the Old Red Sandstone
within a short distance of his bank-counter. He says that a patch of this
deposit, little more than forty yards square, never failed to furnish him
with fossils at every visit during a period of ten years.
These fossil remains consisted of
fragments of very ancient forms of fishes—so ancient, indeed, that when
Miller began to attempt to reconstruct the creatures from their fragments,
he could discover no living types upon which to model them. When he found a
head and a body and a tail of the same fish, they joined up perfectly, but
the complete fish was quite unlike any ever seen by the fishermen of the
Moray Firth, or, indeed, by the fishermen of any other seashore. Vertebrates
they undoubtedly were, but they had no internal skeleton— their bones were
on the outside, not the inside.
I could find (wrote Miller) no living
analogues for them; and so, in my often-repeated attempts at restoration, I
had to build them up plate by plate, as a child sets up his dissected map or
picture bit by bit—every new specimen that turned up furnishing a key for
some part previously unknown—until at length, after many an abortive
attempt, the creatures rose up before me in their strange unwonted
proportions, as they had lived, untold ages before, in the primeval seas.
Louis Agassiz, the great Swiss
naturalist, and perhaps the foremost authority on fossil fishes and geology
at that time, was astonished by the strange forms of the fossils discovered
by Hugh Miller. "The same astonishment (wrote Agassiz) that Cuvier felt in
examining the Plesiosaurus, I myself experienced when Mr. H. Miller, the
first discoverer of these fossils, showed me the specimens which he had
detected in the Old Red Sandstone of Cromarty." The plates which illustrate
Miller’s famous book, "The Old Red Sandstone," give a very clear idea of the
extraordinary structure and shape of these curious fossil fishes.
Miller’s head was not turned by his
important discoveries, or by the attention they received from scientists. He
remarked that he could be credited only with patience, and, for the
encouragement of others, contended that patient research might often be
capable of making even greater discoveries than genius. In order to pursue
his geological explorations on outlying reefs, he purchased a small boat,
and he would often start on a geological excursion as early as two o’clock
in the morning, and be back and at work in the bank before ten.
At a conference of the British
Association, held in Glasgow on the 23rd September, 1840, one of the
meetings was devoted to Hugh Miller’s discoveries. Sir Charles Lyell (who
was in the chair), Agassiz, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Roderick Murchison, and
William Buckland, four of the world’s foremost geologists, all joined in
eulogizing the researches of the Cromarty ex-stonemason.
On this occasion Murchison said that
he had seen some of Mr. Miller’s papers on geology, and that they were
written in a style so beautiful and poetical as to throw plain geologists
like himself into the shade. Dr. Buckland stated that he had never been so
much astonished by the powers of any man as he had been by the geological
descriptions of Hugh Miller. He also remarked that he would give his left
hand to possess such powers of description as had made him feel ashamed of
his own descriptions, although the latter had cost him long hours of labour.
Agassiz, on being requested to give a scientific name to one of Hugh
Miller’s fossil fishes, gave it the name of
This was, indeed, high praise for a
working man, long buried in obscurity, to receive from the most eminent
geologists of his day. Yet such was the natural ability of Hugh Miller that
during the very same year he had also achieved distinction in another field,
that of journalism.
A religious controversy was in
progress at that time in the Church of Scotland, and when a journal was
established to represent one set of views, Hugh Miller was appointed its
first editor. This journal, The
Witness, under his
guidance, was not only a success from the point of view of its promoters,
but it also attained high rank as a literary production.
Among the numerous articles which
Miller wrote for The Witness was a series of sketches on popular
geology, written, like all his prose, in an extremely interesting and
attractive style. These sketches were afterwards collected, added to, and
published in volume form, under the title, "The Old Red Sand-stone." This
work was first published in 1841, and the author dedicated it to Murchison,
who, he gratefully acknowledged, had noticed and encouraged him when
"prosecuting my humble researches in obscurity and solitude."
Few men have succeeded so well as Hugh
Miller in writing a scientific work that the unlearned can read with
enjoyment and profit. There is a great deal of shrewd common sense in
Miller’s writings, and the following quotation from the first chapter of
"The Old Red Sandstone" will serve to indicate the purpose behind all he
wrote. There was nothing of the intellectual snob about Miller, and he was
always seeking to encourage other working men to seek happiness and wisdom
in studying nature, and to employ their leisure in the cultivation of their
There is none of the intellectual, and
none of the moral faculties, the exercise of which does not lead to
enjoyment; nay, it is chiefly in the active employment of these that all
enjoyment consists; and hence it is that happiness bears so little reference
to station, it is a truth which has often been told, but very little heeded
or little calculated upon, that, though one nobleman may be happier than
another, and one labourer happier than another, yet it cannot be at all
premised of their respective orders, that the one is in any degree happier
than the other.
"The Newspaper Editor Writes in
Miller was thirty-eight years of age
when he left the bank at Cromarty for the editor’s desk in Edinburgh. He
made the change with regret, not only because he would hence-forward have
little time to spare for his favourite study of geology, but also because he
felt that he would never be able to make any enduring contribution to
literature, fully employed as he felt he would be in religious controversy.
"The newspaper editor," he remarked, "writes in sand when the tide is coming
As a matter of fact, it was after he
became an editor that he wrote the two books upon which his fame chiefly
rests to-day—"The Old Red Sandstone" and "My Schools and Schoolmasters." He
never relinquished his interest in geology, even when engaged in the most
strenuous literary labour in connexion with his paper, and amid all the
anxieties that led eventually to the disruption of the Established Church of
Refuses to Forsake Geology
These events and the changes that
followed imposed a great strain upon Miller’s strength,. but again and again
he returned to his first love—geology. He wrote a very profound work, "The
Footprints of the Creator" (1849), while other geological papers were
published after his death; among them being his book, "The Testimony of the
Miller’s lungs had been seriously
affected in his stonemason days, and his constant literary labours in later
years made great inroads upon a constitution already enfeebled. More than
once he had been attacked by inflammation of the lungs. His life ended in
tragedy, for at last his overtaxed brain gave way, and he died, by his own
hand, at Portobello, on the 23rd December, 1856. There are several monuments
to his memory, including a high column of Old Red Sandstone at Cromarty.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.