Hugh Miller

Hugh Miller


William Keith Leask


In the absence of material dealing especially with his last years in Edinburgh a complete Life of Hugh Miller will probably never be attempted. I am informed by his daughter, Mrs. Miller Mackay, F.C. Manse, Lochinver, that the letters and materials sent out to Australia to form the basis of a projected biography by his son-in-law and daughter disappeared, and have never been recovered. The recent deaths of his son and of others who knew Hugh Miller in Cromarty and in Edinburgh still more preclude the appearance of a full and authentic presentation. To the scientist the works of Miller will ever form the best biography; to the general reader and to those who, from various causes, regard biography as made for man and not man for biography some such sketch as the following may, it is believed, not be unacceptable.

To treat Hugh Miller apart from his surroundings of Church and State would be as impossible as it would be unjust. Accordingly the presentation deliberately adopted has been from his own standpoint—the unhesitating and undeviating traditions of Scotland.

Geology has moved since his day. In the last chapter I have accordingly followed largely in the steps of Agassiz in the selection of material for a succinct account of Miller's main scientific and theological standpoints or contributions. My best thanks are due to Principal Donaldson of the University of St. Andrews for looking over the proof-sheets; to Sir Archibald Geikie, Director-General of the Geological Survey, London, for his admirable reminiscence of his early friend contained in the last pages of this work; and to my friend J. D. Symon, M.A., for the bibliography of Miller in the closing appendix.

W. K. L.

Aberdeen, April 1896.



"A wet sheet and a flowing sea,

A wind that follows fast."

Allan Cunningham

The little town of Cromarty lies perched on the southern shore of the entrance to the Firth of that name, and derives its name from the Cromachty, the crook or winding of the magnificent stretch of water known to Buchanan and the ancient geographers as the Ecclesiastical History, 'in which the very greatest navies may rest secure from storms.' In the history of Scotland the place is scarcely mentioned; and, indeed, in literary matters is known only from its association with the names of Hugh Miller and the rare figure of Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, who had followed Charles II. to the 'crowning mercy' of Worcester fight, to land at last in the Tower. But for the silence of history the imagination or the credulity of the knight has atoned, by the production of a chronicle which rivals fairly the Ecclesiastical History of the old wandering Scottish scholar Dempster, who had in Italy patriotically found the Maccabees to be but an ancient Highland family. According to Urquhart, whose translation of Rabelais has survived his eccentric disquisitions in genealogy and history, Alypos, the forty-third lineal descendant of Japhet, was the first to discover Cromarty, and, when the Scythians under Ethus pitched on the moor bounding the parish on the north, they had been opposed by the grandson of Alcibiades; in proof of which Sir Thomas could triumphantly point to remaining signs of 'trenches and castrametation' with a confidence which would have won the heart of Jonathan Monkbarns in The Antiquary.

The population of the district is essentially a mixed one, and strongly retains the distinctive features of the Scandinavian and the Gael. From Shetland to the Ord of Caithness, the population of the coast is generally, if not wholly, of the former type. Beyond the Ord to the north of the Firth of Cromarty, we find a wedge of Celtic origin, while from the southern shore to the Bay of Munlochy the Scandinavian element again asserts itself. Thus, as Carlyle escaped being born an Englishman by but a few miles, the separation from the Celtic stratum was, in Miller's case, effected by the narrow single line of the one-mile ferry. In later years, at all events, he would refer with evident satisfaction to his Teutonic origin. There was, as we shall have occasion to notice, a certain Celtic lobe of imagination on the mother's side, but in his mental and political character the great leading features of the other race were undoubtedly predominant.

Whence Buchanan drew the possibilities of great fleets in the Firth of Cromarty is unknown unless he had in his memory some of the vessels of the old mariners, such as Sir Andrew Wood and the bold Bartons, or even the 'verrie monstrous schippe the Great Michael' that 'cumbered all Scotland to get her to sea.' Certain it is that for many a day its position had marked out the town as the natural centre of a coasting trade, though shortly after the Union the commerce of the place which had been considerable had declined. The real commencement of the prosperity of the place was due to the energy of a native, William Forsyth, whose life Miller has sketched in a little memoir originally drawn up for the family, and subsequently republished in his Tales and Sketches under the title of 'A Scottish Merchant of the Eighteenth century.' Forsyth had been appointed by the British Linen Company, established about 1746 in Edinburgh to promote the linen trade, its agent in the North throughout the whole district extending from Beauly to the Pentland Firth. The flax which was brought in vessels from Holland was prepared for use in Cromarty, and distributed by boats along the coast to Wick and Thurso. In the early days of the trade the distaff and the spindle were in general use; but Forsyth's efforts were successful in the introduction of the spinning-wheel, though the older means of production lasted far into this century in the west of Ross and in the Hebrides. The coasting schooners of the agent were the means of introducing into the town teas and wines, cloth, glass, Flemish tiles, Swedish iron, and Norwegian tar and spars. The rents of the landed proprietors were still largely paid in kind, or in the feudal labour by which the Baron of Bradwardine managed to eke out a rather scanty rent roll. In this way the mains or the demesnes of the laird were tilled and worked, and the Martinmas corn rents were stocked in a barn or 'girnal,' like that of the Antiquary's famous John of legend, often to cause a surplus to hang on the hands of the proprietor, until the idea was fortunately devised of exporting it to England or to Flanders for conversion into malt.

Ship-carpentry or boat-building upon a humble scale had been long established, and the coasting trade lay between the North, Leith, Newcastle, and London. The Scottish sailors then on the eastern coast enjoyed a strong reputation for piety, such as, we fear, their descendants have not maintained. John Gibb of Borrowstouness, the antiquary may remember as the founder of the now forgotten sect of Gibbites or 'sweet singers,' who denounced all tolls and statutory impositions, abolished the use of tobacco and all excisable articles, and finally made a pilgrimage to the Pentland Hills to see the smoke and the desolation of Edinburgh as foretold by their founder. The wardrobes and scrutoires of the local cabinet-maker, Donald Sandison, enjoyed a reputation through the North, and were, far into this century, found in the houses of Ross, together with the old eight-day clocks made in Kilwinning. But the great founder of its modern prosperity was George Ross, the son of a small proprietor in Easter Ross, who, after amassing a fortune as an army-agent as the friend of Lord Mansfield and the Duke of Grafton, had in 1772 purchased the estate of Cromarty. When he started his improvements in his native district, there was not a wheeled-cart in all the parish, and the knowledge of agriculture was rude. Green cropping and the rotation of crops were unknown, and in autumn the long irregular patches of arable land were intersected by stretches of moorland that wound deviously into the land, like the reaches of the Cromarty and the Beauly Firths. Though long opposed by tenacious local prejudices, he at length triumphed over the backward habits of the people, who yoked their oxen and their horses by the tail, and who justified their action by an appeal to the argument from design, and by a query as to what other end in creation such tails had been provided? Ross also established in the town a manufactory for hempen cloth, and erected what at the time was the largest ale-brewery in the North. A harbour was built at his own expense, and a pork trade of a thriving nature set on foot, wheat reared, the rotation of crops introduced, a nail and spade manufactory set up, and lace manufactures brought from England. Such, then, was the condition of Cromarty at the beginning of the present century.

Far different was that of the surrounding Highlands. Protestantism had been at an early period introduced into Ross and Sutherland by its Earls and by Lord Reay. The Earl of Sutherland had been the first to subscribe the National Covenant in Greyfriars; and, after the suppression of the first Jacobite rising, Sir Robert Munro of Fowlis, as commissioner of the confiscated estates, had set himself to the creation of parishes and presbyteries in remote districts, where the Church of Scotland before had been unknown. In the better class of houses the old Highland fireplace, like a millstone, still occupied its place in the centre, with no corresponding aperture in the roof for the smoke. In the Western districts the greatest distress prevailed, for the country was at the parting of the ways in a time of transition. About the beginning of the present century the results of the French Revolution began to make themselves felt. Through the long war the price of provisions rose to famine price, and the impecunious Highland laird, like his more degenerate successor that battens on the sporting proclivities of the Cockney or American millionaire, set himself to the problem of increasing his rent-roll, and the system of evictions and sheep-farming on a large scale commenced. The Sutherland clearances forced the ejected Highlanders to Canada and the United States, while the poorer classes drifted down from the interior to the already overpopulated shore-line, where they eked out, as crofters or as fishermen, a precarious existence without capital or the acquired experience of either occupation, and laid the seeds of the future crofter question. The manufacture of kelp, which for a time rendered profitable to many a Highland proprietor his barren acres on a rocky shore, was not destined to long survive the introduction of the principles of Free Trade. The potato blight succeeded finally in reducing the once fairly prosperous native of the interior to chronic poverty and distress.

On the West Coast, the heavy rainfall is unfavourable to agriculture on any extended scale. From Assynt to Mull the average rain-gauge is thirty-five inches, and the cottars of Ross were threatened with the fate of the Irish in Connemara, through periodic failures in the herring fishery and liabilities for their scanty holdings to their landlords. Miller found the men of Gairloch, in 1823, where the public road was a good day's journey from the place, still turning up or scratching the soil with the old Highland cass-chron, and the women carrying the manure on their backs to the fields in spring, while all the time they kept twirling the distaff—old and faded before their time, like the women in some of the poorer cantons the traveller meets with in Switzerland. Their constant employment was the making of yarn; and, as we have seen, the spinning-wheel was for long as rare as the possession of a plough or horse. The boats built for the fishing were still caulked with moss dipped in tar and laid along the seams, the ropes being made of filaments of moss-fir stripped with the knife, while the sails were composed of a woollen stuff whose hard thread had been spun on the distaff, for hemp and flax were practically unknown. Such, in 1263, had at Largs been the equipment of the galleys of Haco,

"When Norse and Danish galleys plied

Their oars within the Firth of Clyde,

And floated Haco's banner trim

Above Norweyan warriors grim."

Marmion, iii. xx.

Such, too, had been the traditional custom for centuries after of the boatbuilders in the Western Highlands.

In Cromarty, then, on the 10th of October 1802, Hugh Miller was born—in a long, low-built six-roomed house of his great-grandfather, one of the last of the old buccaneers of the Spanish Main, who had thriftily invested his pieces of eight in house-property in his native place. His mother was the great-granddaughter of Donald Roy of Nigg, of whom, as a kind of Northern Peden or Cargill, traditions long lingered. In his early days, Donald had been a great club and football player in the Sunday games that had been fostered in the semi-Celtic parish by King James's Book of Sports, and which, it may be remembered, had been popular in the days of Dugald Buchanan of Rannoch at a time when the observance of the seventh day and of the King's writ never ran beyond the Pass of Killiecrankie. At the Revolution, however, Donald had become the subject of religious convictions; and when, on the death of Balfour of Nigg in 1756, an unpopular presentee, Mr. Patrick Grant, was forced upon the parish, resistance was offered. Four years before this, Gillespie of Carnock had been deposed on the motion of John Home, author of Douglas, seconded by Robertson of Gladsmuir, the subsequent historian of Charles V., for his refusal to participate in the settlement of Richardson to Inverkeithing; and when some of the presbytery, in fear of similar proceedings, had met for the induction, they found an empty church and an old man protesting that "if they settled a man to the walls of that kirk, the blood of the parish of Nigg would be required at their hands." For long the entire parish clung to the Church of Scotland, but never could they be induced to enter the building again, and so they perforce allied themselves to the Burgher Secession. Thus early was the non-intrusion principle made familiar to Miller, and thus early were made manifest the miserable effects of the high-handed policy which, begun in the long reign of Robertson, was destined a century later to have such disastrous results.

In early youth his father had sailed in an East Indiaman, and during the intervals of his Indian and Chinese voyages had learned to write and add to his nautical knowledge stores of general reading and information not then common among sailors. Storing up, instead of drinking, his grog-money, he drove a small trade with the natives of these countries in little articles that had excited their curiosity, and for which, hints his distinguished son, the Custom-house dues were never very punctually or rigorously paid. Pressed, however, by a man-of-war that had borne down upon the Indiaman when in a state of mutiny, after a brief experience of the stern discipline of the navy not yet tempered by the measures of reform introduced after the mutiny of the Nore, he returned when not much turned thirty to Cromarty, where his savings enabled him to buy a coasting sloop and set up house. For this the site was purchased at £400, a very considerable sum in those days, and thus his son could, even in the high franchise qualifications after the Reform Bill, exercise the right of voting for the Whig party. The kelp trade, of which we have spoken, among other things engaged the efforts of his father, who had been appointed agent in the North and Hebrides for the Leith Glass-works. Driven by a storm round Cape Wrath and through the Pentland Firth, the vessel, after striving to reach the sheltered roadstead of the Moray Firth, was forced to put in at Peterhead. On the 9th of November 1807 he set sail, but foundered with all hands, by the starting, as was believed, of a plank. During more than one hundred years the sea had been the graveyard of the family: Miller's father, grandfather, and two grand-uncles had been all drowned at sea.

At the time of his father's death the son had just by one month completed his fifth year. At that time happened the circumstance which he himself relates, and which we mention here in this place both for the interest attaching to it in the history of his own mental development, and for various subtle psychological reasons to which we shall advert later, and which cannot fail to be observed by the careful student of his works. The last letter to his wife had been written by his father from Peterhead, and on its receipt, 'the house-door, which had been left unfastened, fell open, and I was despatched from her side to shut it. I saw at the open door, within less than a yard of my breast, as plainly as ever I saw anything, a dissevered hand and arm stretched towards me. Hand and arm were apparently those of a female: they bore a livid and sodden appearance; and, directly fronting me, where the body ought to have been, there was only blank transparent space, through which I could see the dim forms of the objects beyond. I commemorate the story as it lies fixed in my memory, without attempting to explain it."In after years he would say of such mental or visual hallucinations that they were such as 'would render me a firm believer in apparitions, could I not account for them in this way, as the creatures of an imagination which had attained an unusual and even morbid strength at a time when the other mental faculties were scarcely at all unfolded." In this connection the similar case of Chatterton need only be alluded to, but the question will be treated again in describing his later years.

Like Burns, Carlyle, and Scott, Miller seems to have borne the powerful impress, mentally and physically, of his father. Yet, like the mothers of the first two, Mrs. Miller bequeathed to her son his store of legend and story and the imagination that was thus so early awakened. The new house which his father had built remained for some little time after his death untenanted; and, as the insurance of the sloop was deferred or disputed by an insolvent broker, his mother had recourse to her needle as the means by which she could best support her family. Three children had been born, and her brothers came to her assistance and lightened her task by taking her second daughter, a child of three, to live with them. Both of the girls died of a fever within a few days of each other, the one in her twelfth, and the other in her tenth year.

Of these two uncles, the James and Sandy of his Schools and Schoolmasters, Miller has spoken with deserved affection and loyalty. To them he confesses he owed more real education than ever he acquired from all other sources; and, belonging as they do to the class of humble and worthy men that seems pre-eminently the boast and pride of Scottish life, they will merit a detailed account. Of this type some little knowledge had been made known by Lord Jeffrey in his review of Cromek's Reliques, where such men as the father of Burns and those of his immediate circle were first introduced to their proper place as those 'from whom old Scotia's grandeur springs.' In his own Reminiscences, Carlyle has added to our acquaintance with these men through his sketch of his own father and others, who are, says Professor Blackie, the natural outcome of the republican form of our Scottish Church government, and of the national system of education so early developed by Knox and the first Reformers.

The elder of the two brothers, James, was a harness-maker in steady employment in the surrounding agricultural district, so that from six in the morning till ten at night his time would be fully occupied, thus leaving him but scanty leisure. But, in the long evenings, he would fix his bench by the hearth, and listen while his nephew or his own younger brother or some neighbour would read. In the summer, he would occupy his spare hours upon his journeys to and from his rural rounds of labour in visiting every scene of legend and story far and near, and so keen were his powers of perception and ready expression in matters of a historical and antiquarian nature, that his nephew regrets he had not become a writer of books. Some part of this information, however, he has attempted to preserve in his Scenes and Legends.

To the younger brother, Alexander, he seems to have been even more indebted. If to the one he owed his gift of ready and natural expression, it was to the other that he was indebted for his powers of observation. Originally educated as a cart-wright, he had served for seven years in the navy, sailing with Nelson, witnessing the mutiny at the Nore, the battle of Camperdown under Duncan, and sharing the Egyptian campaign of Abercromby. Even on his discharge, he was still ready in 1803 to shoulder a musket as a volunteer, when Napoleon at Boulogne 'armed in our island every freeman.' The scientific interest, too, of the man may be judged from the fact that in the Egyptian expedition, during the landing, he managed to transfer a murex to his pocket from the beach, and the first ammonite which formed the nucleus of his nephew's geological collection was also brought home from an English Liassic deposit. Facts like these and the presence of such men should go far to dispel much of the cheap sentiment introduced into the current of Scottish life by writers such as Smiles and others, who profess to be ever finding some 'peasant' or 'uneducated genius' in the subjects of their all too unctuous biographies. Such a class has really no existence in Scotland, and between such men as Miller, Burns, or even the unfortunate and sorely buffeted Bethunes, there is a great gulf fixed when they are sought to be brought into relation with men like John Clare and Robert Bloomfield. All the Scotchmen, born in however originally humble circumstances, had the advantage of education at the parish school; and, slight though in some cases the result may have been, it yet for ever removes the possibility of illiteracy which the English reader at once conjures up at the sound of such surroundings. The more the critic studies the facts of Burns' early years and education, and the really remarkable stock of information with


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