1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Miller, Hugh

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21887741911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 18 — Miller, Hugh

MILLER, HUGH (1802–1856), Scottish geologist and man of letters, was born in humble circumstances at Cromarty, on the 10th of October 1802; his father, Hugh Miller, a seaman, was drowned when he was but five years old. His primary education was acquired at a dame’s school and afterwards at the parish school, and at the age of six he had learned that “the art of reading is the art of finding stories in books.” At the age of twelve he began to write verses. Two of his mother’s brothers, James and “Sandy” Wright, hard-working men at Cromarty, offered to assist him to enter the ministry, but he felt no call to the sacred office, and from 1820 to 1822 he was apprenticed to a stone-mason. During the next few years he obtained employment as a journeyman mason in Edinburgh, Inverness and various other parts of Scotland. The writing of verses occupied his leisure hours, and in 1826 he sent to the Scotsman an “Ode on Greece” which was refused. It was not until 1829 that he met with his first success in the publication of Poems written in the Leisure Hours of a Journeyman Mason. These were printed and issued from the office of the Inverness Courier. Miller now turned his attention to prose and contributed many essays to the Inverness Courier. As remarked by Sir A. Geikie, “These made so favourable an impression that they were soon afterwards reprinted separately. They marked the advent of a writer gifted with no ordinary powers of narration and with the command of a pure, nervous and masculine style.”

At the age of thirty-two he was still a stone-mason, but in the latter part of 1834 he was offered a post as accountant in the Commercial Bank of Scotland, and was almost immediately transferred to the Cromarty branch. His prose writings had now attracted much notice, and he next issued in 1835 Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, or the traditional history of Cromarty, in which he introduced some memoranda on the geology. This work met with a cordial reception. Miller, while still a stone-mason, had observed the abundant fossils in the Jurassic shales on the shores of Ethie, but it was not until 1830 that he first obtained remains of fossil fishes in the Old Red Sandstone. These for many years he collected and studied as far as he could, and in 1837 some of his specimens were brought to the notice of R. I. Murchison and Professor Agassiz. In the following year he was in communication with Murchison and his career as a geologist was definitely opened.

In 1837 Miller married Lydia Falconer Frazer (1811?–1876), a lady of good position and great natural ability, whom he had met six years previously. He set up his household in Cromarty, on a salary of sixty pounds a year, aided by the small sums he then earned by literary work; and his wife took a few pupils. Mrs Miller eventually became well known under the pseudonym of Mrs Harriet Myrtle as author of the Ocean Child (1857) and other story-books for children.

Soon after his marriage, Miller became greatly stirred by the internal dissensions in the Church of Scotland, of which he was a staunch member, and he published two pamphlets which brought him to the notice of some of the prominent members of the liberal church party. In 1839 he went by invitation to Edinburgh to edit a new Whig newspaper, the Witness, which was intended to support the views of those who after the disruption in 1843 formed the Free Church. The paper rapidly attained a large circulation; and this was no doubt largely due to his own literary and scientific essays. In 1840 he contributed a series of articles on The Old Red Sandstone, and these were reprinted in book form in the following year. The charm of this work was widely appreciated, as was also the natural sagacity shown in the descriptions and restorations of some of the fossil fishes. His Footprints of the Creator was published in 1849, and My Schools and Schoolmasters in 1854. He was engaged on the final proofs of his Testimony of the Rocks on the day of his death. During the last year of his life he suffered from inflammation of the lungs; and the strain of ill-health proving too severe, he died by his own hand in Edinburgh on the 23rd of December 1856. By request of his wife, The Cruise of the Betsey, with Rambles of a Geologist (1858) previously printed only in the Witness newspaper was published under the editorship of the Rev. W. S. Symonds.

In memory of Hugh Miller a monument was erected by public subscription in 1860 at Cromarty; and the cottage in which he was born was acquired at a later period by his son Hugh. In it have been placed part of his library, a set of the Witness newspaper, some letters addressed to him, and a number of geological specimens, including many referred to in his Old Red Sandstone. On the 22nd of August 1902 the centenary of his birth was celebrated at Cromarty, and was attended by scientific representatives from all parts of the world.

His elder son, Hugh Miller (1850–1896), passed through the Royal School of Mines and joined the Geological Survey in England in 1873; afterwards he was transferred to Scotland and surveyed the country around Cromarty and other parts of Ross-shire and Sutherlandshire. He was author of Landscape Geology, 1891.

See The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, by Peter Bayne (2 vols., 1871); Hugh Miller; his work and influence, address by Sir A. Geikie, at the centenary celebration.  (H. B. Wo.)