Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Miller, Hugh
MILLER, HUGH (1802–1856), man of letters and geologist, son of Hugh Miller by his second wife Harriet, was born at Cromarty on 10 Oct. 1802. His father, who came of a long line of seafaring men of Scandinavian descent, was lost in the Moray Firth with his trading-sloop and all hands on 9 Nov. 1807. His mother was great-granddaughter of Donald Ross or Roy, a sage and seer of Celtic race long remembered in Ross-shire. As a child Hugh was a keen observer of nature and a collector of shells and stones, while he evinced much interest in literature. But when sent to the school of his native burgh he proved incorrigibly self-willed, and left it after a violent personal encounter with the dominie, on whom he revenged himself in some stinging verses. Wild and intractable, he formed his companions into a gang of rovers and orchard robbers; but at the same time he infected some of them with his own love of reading and rhyming, and edited a boyish 'Village Observer,' to which several of them contributed. At seventeen he was apprenticed to a stone-mason, abandoned his boyish frowardness, and became an excellent workman. His occupation gave his mind its scientific cast. He saw ripple-marks on the bed of his first quarry; and thus 'the necessity that had made him a quarrier taught him also to be a geologist.' On 11 Nov. 1822 his apprenticeship ceased and he became a journeyman mason. Miller thenceforth pursued his craft in different parts of the highlands and lowlands of Scotland, sometimes in towns he was in Edinburgh in 1824-5 oftener in the open country. Always observing, reflecting, and writing, he developed a strongly religious temperament, and devotion to the Christian faith became the determining principle of his life. He soon formed the acquaintance of persons of literary taste, among them Dr. Carruthers of the 'Inverness Courier,' and Alexander Stewart, minister of Cromarty. In 1829 he published 'Poems written in the Leisure Hours of a Journeyman Mason,' a volume that attracted the favourable attention of some distant critics, among them Leigh Hunt, but it lacked fire or facility, and he wisely abandoned poetry for prose. He contributed in 1829 'Letters on the Herring Fishery' to the 'Inverness Courier;' they were reprinted separately, and gave promise of much literary capacity.
At thirty-two, in 1834, his reputation in his native town brought him an accountantship in the branch of the Commercial Bank recently established there. On 7 Jan. 1837 he married, after a long courtship, Lydia Falconer Fraser [see Miller, Lydia Falconer], a lady of great mental refinement. He showed some interest in his work at the bank by publishing 'Words of Warning to the People of Scotland,' in which he advocated the continuance of the one-pound-note circulation. But he made his first mark in literature in 1835 when he issued 'Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland,' the traditions of his native Cromarty, and a little later he contributed largely to Mackay Wilson's 'Tales of the Borders.' But while he thoroughly studied the antiquities of his native town, he did not neglect the geological examination of the neighbouring country which he had begun as a stonemason's apprentice. Geology formed the subject of a chapter in his 'Scenes and Legends.' He explored the fossil fish-beds of the old red sandstone about Cromarty; and when Dr. John Malcolmson and Professor Fleming of Aberdeen visited the town, he met them and discussed geological problems. He soon began to correspond with Murchison and Agassiz, and to collect the materials for a work on the 'Old Red Sandstone.'
Since 1834 Miller had been an intensely interested spectator of the attempts of the Church of Scotland to neutralise the effects of the law of patronage, and to secure to the Scottish people the right of freely electing their pastors. In May 1839 the House of Lords decided that the rights of patronage were 'inconsistent with the exercise of any volition on the part of the people, however expressed/ Miller and others saw that an ecclesiastical reform bill for Scotland was needful to restore the Scottish people's rights, and to rouse popular feeling on the question he published two powerful pamphlets, 'A Letter to Lord Brougham' and 'The Whiggism of the Old School,' 1839, in which he ably stated the popular view. In January 1840 he was offered by the leaders of his party the non-intrusionists the editorship of their new organ, the 'Witness,' a bi-weekly newspaper. He accepted the post with diffidence, but, once settled at the editorial desk in Edinburgh, he proved that he was in his right place. He impressed his personality on the paper, and it rapidly attained a very wide circulation. His leading articles, to which he devoted the utmost care, were invariably brilliant and convincing. The movement grew, and Miller's part in it was only second to that of Chalmers. Signatures to non-intrusion petitions increased fivefold. At the general election of 1841 all the Scottish parliamentary candidates, with a single exception, were advocating some popular modification of patronage. In 1843 the disruption came, and the free church, embracing two-thirds of the members of the church of Scotland, was established. In the free church, at the outset, Miller saw an opportunity for realising his ideal of a national church. The free church, reared alongside the establishment (which he at that time held with Chalmers to have become a 'moral nullity'), was to overshadow and absorb it without self-aggrandisement, and by pure moral force. 'The church of the future,' he insisted, 'must be missionary, not political.' But, to his sorrow, the free church, after the death of Chalmers, and under other leaders, abandoned, in his opinion, her high claims by identifying her position with that of a dissenting sect.
Throughout this exciting period science was Miller's relaxation. In 1840 his well-known book on 'The Old Red Sandstone, or New Walks in an Old Field,' appeared serially in the 'Witness,' and was re-published in 1841, with remarkable figures of 'Old Red' fishes from his own pencil. By this work, wrote Buckland, geologists were astonished and delighted. They at once accorded to the old red sandstone, as a formation, an importance scarcely before recognised. His technical ichthyology was based on Agassiz's contemporary researches among the fishes of the 'Old Red,' but it contained important improvements, and the best part of the work was founded entirely on original observation. 'The more I study the fishes of the "Old Red,'" wrote Professor Huxley twenty years afterwards, 'the more I am struck with the patience and sagacity manifested in Hugh Miller's researches, and by the natural insight, which in his case seems to have supplied the place of special anatomical knowledge.' His common sense gave him a grasp of the scientific method in palaeontology, while his imagination enabled him to pictorially restore ancient physical geographies.
In 1845, broken down in health by excessive labour, he visited England, and his 'First Impressions of England and its People' appeared in 1846. In 1847 he published 'Footprints of the Creator, or the Asterolepis of Stromness.' This was a reply to the 'Vestiges of Creation,' and a contribution both to Christian apologetics and to palaeontology. Many of the fossils described were supplied to Miller by his friend, Robert Dick [q. v.] of Thurso. To the American edition Agassiz affixed a memoir of the writer. The doctrine of development Miller here held to be irreconcilable with the dogmas of Christianity. He argued for the miracle of creation versus the law of development, and set himself to prove that the earliest fossils, and more especially the fishes of the 'Old Red,' were as advanced of their kind as those that have lived since or that live now.
In 1848 Miller contributed a geological section to McCrie's work on the Bass Rock, and in 1852 he published his autobiography 'My Schools and Schoolmasters.' 'Truly I am glad,' wrote Thomas Carlyle to him of this work, 'to condense the bright but indistinct rumour labelled to me by your Name, for years past, into the ruddy-visaged, strong-boned, glowing Figure of a Man which I have got, and bid good speed to, with all my heart! You have, as you undertook to do, painted many things to us: scenes of life, scenes of Nature, which rarely come upon the canvas; and I will add, such Draughtsmen too are extremely uncommon in that and in other walks of painting. There is a right genial fire in the Book, everywhere nobly tempered down into peaceful, radical heat, which is very beautiful to see. Luminous, memorable; all wholesome, strong, and breezy, like the "Old Red Sandstone Mountains" in a sunny summer day.'
Miller's last volume, which received its final corrections on the day of his death, 'The Testimony of the Rocks '(1857) mainly deals, like 'The Footprints,' with the borderland between science and religion. Miller took the six days of creation as synonymous with six periods, and sublimed them into representative visions of the progress of creation. 'Rightly understood,' says Miller, speaking of Genesis, 'I know not a single truth that militates against the minutest or least prominent of its details.'
In the meantime, in 1845, 'The Witness' became the joint property of Miller and his business partner, Robert Fairby, and its sentiments henceforth diverged from those held by the leaders of the free church. In politics Miller was an 'old whig,' or independent liberal 'whig in principle, tory in feeling' and his political independence gave, in the words of the 'Scotsman,' 'dignity and character to the newspaper press of Scotland.' In education he supported the national, not the sectarian, view, and favoured no such narrow restriction of subjects as some of his co-religionists adopted, and in 'Thoughts on the Education Question' (1850) he outlined a scheme now substantially law. Conscious of the growing power of the masses he advocated, besides education, a moderate extension of the franchise, the abolition of entail, and the curtailment of the game laws. He exposed and denounced the Sutherlandshire clearings and the intolerant refusal of sites to the free church, but he countenanced no vision of clearing the proprietors. To chartism he was hostile, strikes he discouraged, and he accepted a poor law for Scotland with regret, deeming it to have been rendered necessary by the inefficiency of the old church administration of relief. Puritan in temper, he deemed Ireland in need of education and protestantism, and the grant to Maynooth he would gladly have seen converted into a grant to science.
In the words of Dr. John Brown, Miller was the 'inexorable taskmaster' of his own energies, and with characteristic tenacity he worked on at his newspaper or his books when he needed rest. The seeds of the 'stonemasons' disease' had been sown in his constitution in early manhood, and his frame was subsequently weakened by repeated attacks of inflammation of the lungs. Under the strain of bodily illness his intellect suddenly gave way, and on the night of 2 Dec. 1856 he died by his own hand.
Miller's features were rugged, but his calm, grey eyes and pleasing smile softened their austerity. His voice was gentle. Not mixing much in general society, he reckoned himself a working man to the end, but he carried himself with much natural stateliness. There is an early calotype by D. O. Hill, which though not very distinct in its lineaments, and certainly too aggressive in its expression, is more suggestive of Miller's strength of character than any other likeness. A portrait by Bonnar belongs to the family. A bust, by William Brodie, is in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
Miller's chief works, other than those mentioned, are:
- 'The Whiggism of the Old School, as exemplified by the Past History and Present Position of the Church of Scotland,' 1839.
- 'Memoir of William Forsyth,' 1839.
- 'The Two Parties in the Church of Scotland exhibited as Missionary and Anti-missionary,' 1841.
- 'Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland; or the Traditional History of Cromarty,' 1850.
- 'The Fossiliferous Deposits of Scotland,' 1854.
- 'Geology versus Astronomy; or the Conditions and the Periods; being a View of the Modifying Effects of Geologic Discovery on the Old Astronomic Inferences respecting the Plurality of Inhabited Worlds,' Glasgow .
- 'Voices from the Rocks; or Proofs of the Existence of Man during the Paleozoic Period,' 1857.
- 'The Cruise of the Betsy; or a Summer Ramble among the Fossiliferous Deposits of the Hebrides,' ed. by W. S. Symonds, 1858.
- 'Essays,' ed. by P. Bayne, 1862.
- 'Tales and Sketches,' ed. Mrs. Miller, 1863.
- 'Edinburgh and its Neighbourhood, Geological and Historical,' ed. by Mrs. Miller, 1864.
[Life and Letters of Hugh Miller by Peter Bayne, 1871; Miller's My Schools and Schoolmasters; personal knowledge.]