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.

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The West Lothian Oil Rush

If you look down the somnolent mainstreet of post-industrial Pumpherston, it’s difficult to believe that West Lothian was the centre of the world’s first oil boom, but it was. James “Paraffin” Young didn’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.

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North Berwick and the Pilgrims’ Ferry

When it was obvious in the ’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 ’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.

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The Carters’ Ploy

Samuel Smiles of Haddington, of whom I wrote in my last article, worked at his Autobiography intermittently over many years. An important memory is of what Samuel Smiles called “The Carters’ Ploy”. It was a great event in early summertime Haddington in those days, when Smiles was ten, just after the Napoleonic Wars.

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Samuel Smiles, doctor, writer, railway developer and insurance agent

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. He’s remembered by a bronze plaque on the wall of his house in the High Street, and by little else.

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Jules Verne in Scotland

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.

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