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 â€œMy Schools and Schoolmastersâ€, but especially for his work in bringing to the publicâ€™s attention the new, dangerously subversive topic of geology, which was seen by some as undermining religious belief, although Miller didnâ€™t see any contradiction.
If you look down the somnolent mainstreet of post-industrial Pumpherston, itâ€™s difficult to believe that West Lothian was the centre of the worldâ€™s first oil boom, but it was. James â€œParaffinâ€ Young didnâ€™t discover paraffin in 1851, but he was the first to exploit it under the protection of patents. James Young became very rich, and transformed the way houses throughout Britain and further afield were lit after dark. He also changed the economy of West Lothian.
When it was obvious in the â€™seventies of the last century that the long-stay tourists were never going to return, North Berwick was content to let itself become an upmarket dormitory suburb and retirement destination for Edinburgh. An agitation against the Beeching cuts in the early â€™sixties, because the train delivered tourists, had providentially saved the railway for the town; it meant that in the future the train journey was acceptably short for its new role.
Samuel Smiles of Haddington, of whom I wrote in my last article, worked at his Autobiography intermittently over many years.Â An important memory is of what Samuel Smiles called â€œThe Cartersâ€™ Ployâ€. It was a great event in early summertime Haddington in those days, when Smiles was ten, just after the Napoleonic Wars.
Haddington was the birthplace of John Knox. Most small towns are content to have produced even one eminent person, but at the start of the nineteenth century Samuel Smiles was born in the town. Almost forgotten today, he was immensely influential, the leading self-help writer of his age, and a popular historian of the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Heâ€™s remembered by a bronze plaque on the wall of his house in the High Street, and by little else.
In November I wrote about Hans Christian Andersen and the trip he made to Edinburgh in 1849. Another nineteenth century literary giant visited Scotland, ten years after Hans Christian Andersen who was at the height of his fame and powers when he came here. Jules Verne, in contrast, was quite unknown. He had yet to publish a book.