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Significant Scots
Hugh Miller

Hugh MillerWE 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 fatherless nephew.

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 Scotland.

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 fossils.

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 the earth.

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 Pterichthys Milleri.

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 faculties:

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 Sand"

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 in."

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 Scotland.

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 Rocks" (1857).

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.

The Life and Times of Hugh Miller
By Thomas N. Brown (1809)

Life and Letters of Hugh Miller
By Peter Bayne (1871)
Volume 1  |  Volume 2

Celebrating the Life and Times of Hugh Miller
Edited by Lester Borley (2003) (pdf)

The Witness Papers
The headship of Christ, and The rights of the Christian people, a collection of essays, historical and descriptive sketches, and personal portraitures by Hugh Miller (1872) (pdf)

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