ugh Miller, who was born in Cromarty on the east coast of Scotland, received his education first at a dame school and later at the town grammar school. His father was lost at sea when he was still a small boy, so he was brought up in relative poverty by his mother. While still young, he started to learn about natural history from an uncle, who was a sawyer in the local woods, and he also became an avid collector of minerals and rocks found amid the scattered boulders near his home. He became interested in fossils and started to collect them from the local coastal exposures around Cromarty. Initially he collected marine invertebrates from the upper Jurassic, but later he discovered and collected fossil fish and plants from much older rocks dating to the Devonian period, then known as the Old Red Sandstone Period. He travelled widely in Scotland and northern England, collecting both plant and animal remains, which he added to his large and expanding private collection. Miller wrote on a wide variety of subjects, reflecting both his interests and his understanding of the world as an integrated entity.
When Miller was 17 he was apprenticed as a stonemason. He then worked as a mason in Edinburgh on new houses and other buildings during the boom years of 1824-25. After he became ill from stone dust in his lungs, he returned home to convalesce. There he took up the carving of gravestones and earned a reputation for being an honest, hard working, and respected member of his local church and community. When the Commercial Bank of Edinburgh opened a branch in Cromarty the manager needed a suitable candidate to become the branch accountant and offered Miller the post, which he accepted and trained in Edinburgh before returning to Cromarty to take up his position.
Hugh Miller, by Alexander Rae from a albumen carte-de-visite, mid 1850s. NPG Ax39886 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
While working as a mason he had started to write. His first published work was a book of poems (1829), which was followed by Scenes and Legends, an account of the lives and folk tales of the crofters in the Highlands, which earned him a literary reputation. In 1840 Miller wrote a letter to Lord Brougham, a leading member of the Church of Scotland, urging that congregations should be allowed to elect their bishops rather than having them appointed by a system of preferment. This letter brought him to the attention of the leaders of the Free Church of Scotland movement, who invited him to become the editor of The Witness newspaper, the organ of the Free Church of Scotland, a post he held until his death.
Miller’s writings reveal a wide range of interests, including geology, palaeontology, religion, folklore, local history, and journalism. Much of his writing was based upon his personal experiences of travelling around Scotland and northern England where he observed closely the homes and ways of life of Scottish crofters and the effects of the Highland Clearances. He gathered this information while working as a stone mason in different communities, talking to people about folk legends and local history. He published many of these in two volumes: Scenes and Legends and The Cruise of the Betsy. When travelling and working, he also observed the local rocks and collected fossils and minerals where he could, always keeping accurate descriptions of his observations and collections: these were included in his In The Footprints of the Creator and The Testimony of the Rocks.
Miller's old house in Cromarty is open as a geological museum, with specimens collected in the immediate area. There is a Hugh Miller Trail which starts at a small car park on a minor road just past Eathie Mains, about 3 miles (4.8 km) south of Cromarty, and leads down a steep slope to the foreshore at Eathie Haven on the Moray Firth where Miller began collecting fossils. It was here that he found his first fossil, an ammonite, in Jurassic rocks.
Hugh Miller, fossil collector
Miller, who made many important original contributions to geology, discovered fossils of sea scorpions (eurypterids) from the Silurian, and fishes from the Old Red Sandstone (Devonian) rocks, on the coast near Cromarty, together with plants from the Devonian and Carboniferous periods. His fish specimens proved of great interest to Louis Agassiz, the Swiss geologist who had become a world authority on fossil fishes. He also found many marine invertebrate fossils from the upper Jurassic rocks, also around Cromarty. Many of his fossils were drawn by him and presented in his Testimony of the Rocks, and in lectures that he gave to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institute and the Geological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
His collection eventually exceeded 6000 specimens, and unusually for the time included broken fragments as well as complete fossils. This approach made his collection all the more important because he kept material which is usually only found in fragmentary form and would not have been recorded if he had only collected complete specimens. The collection was acquired after his death by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh where it forms the core of the modern museum's collection: Miller is now recognised as one of the leading Scottish palaeontologists of the nineteenth century. He also made important original observations of the Quaternary rocks of central Scotland where he described evidence for the action of former glaciers and marine incursions into the area. He was a modest man who understated his achievements: "the only merit to which I lay claim in the case is that of patient research, — a merit in which whoever wills may rival or surpass me; and this humble faculty of patience, when rightly developed, may lead to more extraordinary developments of idea than even genius itself."
Other contributions to geology
Miller's books and articles had an important influence on scientists and environmentalists, including Sir Archibald Geike, who became the head of the Geological Survey and one of Britain's leading geologists in the early twentieth century. Miller, who encouraged Geike to take up geology as a profession, showed the young man the importance of careful, accurate observation when trying to understand complex geological exposures. Miller also influenced John Muir, the early environmentalist who founded the National Parks movement. Muir was deeply moved both by Miller's books and discussing ideas with him. George Jennings Hinde, a pioneer of micro-palaeontology, was another scientist influenced by Miller.
Attitudes towards Evolution
Miller, who did not believe in descent of one species to another, thought that species were homologues that showed progressive development over time as a benevolent Creator tested different versions of an idea. Miller rejected Lamarck's theory of evolution because he believedd it lacked supporting evidence/ In fact, he thought that the fossil record provided a better proof of the argument from design than did William Paley’s Natural Theology. Miller also rejected the idea of Erasmus Darwin and Robert Chambers that species arose by chance events controlled by natural law. because he thought that organisms were too complex to have formed in this way. He argued that some form of intelligent guidance was needed to integrate the very many complex changes involved in the appearance of new species. Understanding science and religion to be complimentary facets of the world, he did not think that the evidence collected by geologists and other scientists invalidated his religious beliefs.
Miller, who was originally a member of the Church of Scotland, became increasingly dissatisfied with the system of patronage whereby wealthy landowners appointed the ministers in the church. Miller believed with other evangelicals that the congregation should be able to vote for their clergy. In 1843 matters came to a head in the Great Disruption, which resulted in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland, of which he became a member. Initially he believed that the creation story as given in the book of Genesis was literally true, but as his knowledge and understanding of the fossil record increased, he abandoned this idea and instead argued that the Genesis text was prophetic in nature and that "days" described long periods of time. Miller, who interpreted Noah's flood as a local event which only affected the Middle East, thought that the Earth was extremely old and that the fossil record showed that species had come into existence and then become extinct over long periods of time.
Miller’s principal published works
Scenes and legends of the north of Scotland: or, The traditional history of Cromarty (1834).
The old red sandstone: or, New walks in an old field (1841).
First impressions of England and its people (1847).
The foot-prints of the Creator: or, The Asterolepis of Stromness (1849).
My schools and schoolmasters; or, The story of my education (1854).
The cruise of the Betsey: or, a summer ramble among the fossiliferous deposits of the Hebrides; with Rambles of a geologist; or, Ten thousand miles over the fossiliferous deposits of Scotland (1857).
The testimony of the rocks; or, Geology in its bearings on the two theologies, natural and revealed (1857).
The old red sandstone; or, New walks in an old field. To which is appended a series of geological papers, read before the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh (1858).
Sketch-book of popular geology being a series of lectures delivered before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh (1859).
Popular geology: a series of lectures read before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, with Descriptive sketches from a geologist's portfolio (1859).
The headship of Christ and The rights of the Christian people (1860).
Tales and sketches (1862).
Edinburgh and its neighbourhood, geological and historical; with the geology of the Bass rock (1863).
Essays, historical and biographical, political, social, literary and scientific (1865).
Sketch-book of popular geology (1869).
Hugh Miller's memoir: from stonemason to geologist by Hugh Miller (1995).
Anderson, Lyall I. “Hugh Miller: introducing palaeobotany to a wider audience” in History of Palaeobotany: Selected Essays.. Ed. A. J. Bowden, C. V. Burek, and R. Wilding. London: Geological Society, 2005). Pp. 63-90.
Bayne, Peter. The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller. 2 vols. 1871.
Brown. Thomas. Annals of the Disruption: With Extracts from the Narratives of Ministers who Left the Scottish Establishment. Edinburgh: McNiven & Wallace, 1884. pp. 460–462. Web. 1 May 2017.
Johnston. Marian McKenzie. ‘Miller , Lydia Mackenzie Falconer (bap. 1812, d. 1876)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. online edn. Jan 2008. Web. 1 May 2017
Mackenzie, William Macka. Hugh Miller, a Critical Study. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1905. Web. 1 May 2017.
Taylor, Michael. Hugh Miller, stonemason, geologist, writer. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 2007.
Created 10 May 2017