Hugh Miller, Geologist and Evangelicist

Forgotten over the past fifty years, Hugh Miller was a major Scottish figure of the first part of the nineteenth century, remembered for his writings on general themes like “My Schools and Schoolmasters”, but especially for his work in bringing to the public’s attention the new, dangerously subversive topic of geology, which was seen by some as undermining religious belief, although Miller didn’t see any contradiction.

Indeed, into the 1960s, over a hundred years after he committed suicide in 1856, he was mentioned with approval, his scientific work dated, but his other prose being worth a read. Besides, there was his advocacy of the Evangelical party against the moderates, in the greatest cataclysm that Scotland had seen since the Reformation, the Disruption, in which the Church of Scotland was split asunder.

Religion was much more important a hundred and fifty years ago, and everyone would want to take sides. When he was approached by some radical Evangelicals who were starting a newspaper and offered him the editorship of “The Witness,” he would go down in Scottish history. It would also cause him to leave Cromarty where he was born and lived and move to Edinburgh.

Michael A. Taylor wrote Hugh Miller: Stonemason, Geologist, Writer in 2007, the first biography for over a hundred years. It’s an excellent account and concisely deals with the man and his work. Michael Taylor is the principal curator of vertebral palaeontology at the National Museum of Scotland, where most of Miller’s collection of fossils ended up.

One of the abiding myths of the nineteenth century was the “lad o’pairts” who made good despite coming up the hard way. It might have been designed to keep the lower orders beavering away at self improvement. Attempts were sometimes made to give Hugh Miller a biography in keeping with this, but he came from a different strand of Cromarty society. His father was the owner of a vessel engaged in coastal shipping, who traded on his own account, and who was lost at sea when Hugh Miller was five.

His mother did work as a seamstress, but finances were helped by the rent from the house next door which his father had built. In 1819 his mother married again.

Hugh Miller was apprenticed as a mason, in spite of his uncles’ hopes that he would find a career in medicine or the law. He had the intelligence for this, and had composed a handwritten Cromarty newspaper, the “Village Observer.”

For fourteen years he laboured at his trade, travelling to Edinburgh for work, but didn’t have much to do with his fellow masons. They drank too much alcohol (although Miller wasn’t teetotal), and he was steadfastly against their support for early trade unions. He must have seemed to them to have come from another world.

Miller acquired silicosis, which was endemic amongst masons, as the result of breathing in stone dust. He was to suffer recurrent attacks to the end of his life.

He sought to develop his literary skills. He was appointed Cromarty correspondent for the “Inverness Courier” , and re-published some articles in book form in book form “Letters on the Herring Fishing in the Moray Frith” (“Firths” were called “Friths” at the time) which was locally noticed.

Out of the blue a merchant and ship owner (which must have stirred memories of his father) offered him the job of accountant with the Commercial Bank, a branch of which this man was hoping to found in Cromarty in 1834.

He had meanwhile become engaged to Lydia Fraser, the daughter of an Inverness merchant. Her widowed mother at first disapproved of him on class-grounds, but later relented. He married in 1837.

He was offered the editorship of “The Witness,” which promoted the Free Church case in 1840, largely on account of his ironic “Letter from one of the Scottish people to the Right Hon. Lord Brougham and Vaux,” a law lord who had made a ruling on the Auchterarder Case in the House of Lords which sought to clarify the law on patronage. This was the burning topic at the time and which led to the Church of Scotland’s break up. He had sent a copy to the general manager of the bank where he now worked, who was a leading Evangelical, and thought that the potential backers had found their editor in Miller.

He had been in charge of “The Witness” for sixteen years when he moved from Edinburgh to Portobello. You might have thought that his move to the seaside would be happy, but it was far from the case.

The house, Shrub Mount, still exists in Portobello’s Main Street, although its garden ground, which was one of its attractions for Hugh Miller, has long since been built on.

He built a museum in the garden to house his collection of fossils.

Changes in his personality were noticed immediately. He carried loaded pistols (it wasn’t difficult to get these then).He placed a man-trap (humane) to protect his fossils. He developed an unhealthy interest in newspaper reports of break-ins and kept a claymore by the bedside.

More seriously, he complained to his G.P. about nightmares of which he could remember no detail but left him with a sense of dread. He complained of sensations “like a poignard passing through his brain.” This was most commonly put down to endogenous depression, but other suggestions have been made.

His suicide happened only thirteen years after the McNaughten Rules were suggested, with much controversy and discussion. These were formulated during the trial of an obviously insane person, McNaughten, for murdering a member of the Home Secretary’s entourage, as a guide to judges. They didn’t apply to Scotland, which had the defence of diminished responsibility, but people must have read the articles in the press and been forced to think about insanity, permanent and temporary.

The London “Times” reported on Miller’s post mortem and mentioned “diseased appearances found in the brain.” It was enough to permit what people could think of as an “honourable suicide”, and a Christian burial.

The site of his house in Portobello is currently undergoing extensive rebuilding work, but the Victorian tenement that was built in front of it still exists. A plaque, too high on a lintel to allow its small letters to be read easily, records that fact that Hugh Miller once lived here. I think he deserves to be better remembered.


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