Hugh Miller

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 8:295-303.

As a popular illustrator of geology, no author approaches HUGH MILLER, the self-taught man of science and genius. He was a native of Cromarty, born October 10, 1802. He was of a race of seafaring men well to do in the world, who owned coasting-vessels, and built houses in the town of Cromarty. One of them had done a little in the way of bucaneering on the Spanish main. Most of them perished at sea, including Hugh's father, who was lost in a storm in 1807. By the aid of two maternal uncles, Hugh received the common education of a Scottish country-school, and was put apprentice, by his own desire, to a stone-mason. His sensations and geological discoveries while toiling in the Cromarty quarries are beautifully told in the opening chapters of his work on the Old Red Sandstone. A life of toil, however, in such a sphere as this has its temptations, and the drinking usages of the masons were at that time carried to some excess. Hugh learned to regard the ardent spirits of the dram-shop as high luxuries; they gave lightness and energy to both body and mind. "Usquebaugh," he says, "was simply happiness doled out by the glass and sold by the gill." Soon, however, his better genius prevailed.


"In laying down the foundation-stone of one of the larger houses built this year by Uncle David and his partner, the workmen had a royal 'founding pint,' and two whole glasses of the whisky came to my share. A full-grown man would not have deemed a gill of us usquebaugh an overdose, but it was considerably too much for me; and when the party broke up, and I got home to my books, I found, as I opened the pages of a favourite author, the letters dancing before my eyes, and that I could no longer master the sense. I have the volume at present before me — a small edition of the Essays of Bacon, a good deal worn at the corners by the friction of the pocket — for of Bacon I never tired. The condition into which I had brought myself was, I felt, one of degradation. I had sunk, by my own act, for the time, to a lower level of intelligence than that on which it was my privilege to be placed: and though the state could have been no very favourable one for forming a resolution, I in that hour determined that I should never again sacrifice my capacity of intellectual enjoyment to a drinking usage; and, with God's help, I was enabled to hold by the determination.... I see, in looking back on this my, first year of labour, a dangerous point, at which, in the attempt to escape from the sense of depression and fatigue, the craving appetite of the confirmed tippler might have been formed."

This may be considered a grand epoch in the life of Miller. He had laid the foundation of a habit of virtuous self-denial and decision of character, that was certain to bear precious fruits. Removing to Edinburgh for employment, he saw more of the habits of the working-men, and had to fight his way among rather noisy and intemperate associates. He found that mere intelligence formed no guard amongst them against intemperance or licentiousness, but it did form a not ineffectual protection against what are peculiarly the mean vices, such as theft, and the grosser and more creeping forms of untruthfulness and dishonesty. The following is another of his experiences:

"Burns tells us that he 'often courted the acquaintance of the part of mankind commonly known by the ordinary phrase of blackguards, and that 'though disgraced by follies, nay sometimes stained with guilt, he had yet found amongst them, in not a few instances, some of the noblest virtues — magnanimity, generosity, disinterested friendship, and even modesty.' I cannot say with the poet that I ever courted the acquaintance of blackguards; but though the labouring-man may select his friends, he cannot choose his work-fellows; and so I have not unfrequently come in contact with blackguards, and have had opportunities of pretty thoroughly knowing them. And my experience of this class has been very much the reverse of that of Burns. I have usually found their virtues of a merely theatric cast, and their vices real; much assumed generosity in some instances, but a callousness of feeling and meanness of spirit lying concealed beneath."

Most men, we believe, will agree with the comment rather than the text, high as Burns's authority is on questions of life and conduct. No man saw more clearly or judged more rightly than Burns, when his passions were not present as a disturbing element; but in this case the poet's use of the term "blackguard," like Dr. Johnson's use of the term "scoundrel," was perhaps comprehensive enough to include men worthy of a better designation. His experience was then limited and confined to a few companions. Men of the stamp alluded to are often ready to part with money if it does not directly interfere with their immediate gratification, and have an impulsive generosity of sentiment. But "noble virtues" require prudence, self-control, regard for the feelings of others, and steady intellectual culture; and these cannot long co-exist with folly and sensuality. One must overpower the other — as in the forest the oak and the brush-wood rise together, and either the tree or the parasite soon asserts the superiority. Returning to the north, Hugh Miller ventured on the publication of a volume of Poems, written in the Leisure Hours of a Journeyman Mason, 1829. The pieces occasionally rise above mediocrity, and are always informed with fine feeling; but there is much more real poetry in his prose works. He next wrote some letters on the "Herring Fishing," descriptive of the fisher's life at sea, and they shew his happy observant faculty, and his fine English. He had been a diligent student of the best English authors, and was critically exact and nice in his choice of language. Mr. Miller was now too conspicuous to be much longer employed in hewing jambs or lintels, or even cutting inscriptions on tombstones, in which (like Telford the engineer in his early days) he greatly excelled. He carried on his geological studies and researches on the coast-lines of the Moray Firth.


"I found that the caves hollowed by the surf, when the sea had steed from fifteen to five-and-twenty feet above its present level, or, as I should perhaps say, when the land had stood that much lower, were deeper, on the average, by about one-third, than those caves of the present coast-line that are still in the course of bring hollowed by the waves. And yet the waves have been breaking against the present coast-line during the whole of the historic period. The ancient wall of Antoninus, which stretched between the Firths of Forth and Clyde was built at its terminations with reference to the existing levels; and ere Caesar landed in Britain, St. Michael's Mount was connected with the mainland as now, by a narrow neck of beach, laid bare by the ebb, across which, according to Diodorus Siculus, the Cornish miners used to drive at low-water their carts laden with tin. If the sea has stood for two thousand six hundred years against the present coast-line — and no geologist would fix his estimate of the term lower — then must it have stood against the old line, ere it could have excavated caves one-third deeper than the modern ones, three thousand nine hundred years; and both sums united more than exhaust the Hebrew chronology. Yet what a mere beginning of geologic history does not the epoch of the old coast-line form! it is but a starting-point from time recent period. Not a single shell seems to have become extinct during the last six thousand years."

The ancient deposits of the lias, with their mollusca, belemnites, ammonites, and nautili, had by this time overrun the province of the muses, and a nomenclature very different from poetical diction had to be studied. Theological controversy also broke in; and as Miller was always stout on the score of polemics, and withal sufficiently pugnacious, he mingled freely in local church disputes, the forerunners of a national ecclesiastical struggle, in which he was also to take a prominent part. The Reform Bill gave fresh scope for activity, and Miller was zealous on the popular side. He was elected a member of the town-council of Cromarty, and attended at least one meeting, at which, he says, the only serious piece of business was the councillors clubbing pennies apiece in order to defray, in the utter lack of town funds, the expense of a nine-penny postage. Perhaps Miller's interest in burgh politics was a little cooled at this time by a new influence that began to gain ground upon him. When working in the churchyard, chiselling his "In Memoriam," he used to have occasional visitors, and among them several accomplished intellectual ladies, whom he also met occasionally at tea-parties, and conducted through the wild scenes and fossiliferous treasures of the romantic burn of Eathie. Meditations upon the tombs led to love among the rocks, and geology itself had no discoveries or deposits hard enough to shut out the new and tender formation. Miller was overpowered, and circumstances ultimately sanctioned his union with the youngest, the fairest, and most accomplished of his lady-visitors.

He next became accountant in a banking establishment in Cromarty, and in 1834 he published Scenes and Legends in the North of Scotland, or the Traditional History of Cromarty — a work remarkable for the variety of its traditional lore, and the elegance of its style. Fifteen years a stone-mason, and about six years a bank-accountant, Miller's next move was into that position for which he was best adapted, and in which he spent the remainder of his life. The ecclesiastical party in Scotland then known as the "Non-Intrusionists" (now the Free Church), projected a newspaper to advocate their views; all Mr. Miller's feelings and predilections ran in the same direction; he had sufficiently evinced his literary talents and his zeal in the cause — especially by two able pamphlets on the subject; and accordingly, in 1840, he entered upon his duties as editor of The Witness, a twice-a-week paper. We well remember his farewell dinner at Cromarty — the complacent smiles of old Uncle Sandy, proud of his nephew — the lively earnestness of the minister, Mr. Stewart, varied by inextinguishable peals of laughter, for which he was famous — and Hugh Miller's grave speech, brimful of geology and of choice figurative expression — and the cordial affectionate feeling with which the friends of his youth and manhood bade "God-speed" to their townsman and historian. Life has few things better than such a meeting even to a spectator, and what must it have been to the prime actor in the little drama? The scene was about to be shifted — new characters introduced, new machinery, new duties, and a wider theatre of action. Opinions, thoughts, and language, gathered and fashioned in obscurity, were now to be submitted to the public are, and tested by severe standards. But early trials, discipline, and study had braced and elevated the mind — a mind naturally copious, vigorous, and buoyant; and Hugh Miller had been taught what he now set about teaching others, that "life itself is a school, and nature always a fresh study, and that the man who keeps his eyes and his mind open, will always find fitting, though it may be hard schoolmasters, to speed him on his life-long education."

During the remaining fifteen years of his life, besides contributing largely to his paper, Mr. Miller wrote his work on The Old Red Sandstone, 1841, part of which appeared originally in Chambers's Journal, and part in the Witness; his First Impressions of England and its People, 1847; Footprints of the Creator, or the Asterolepis of Stromness, 1850; My Schools and Schoolmasters, an autobiography, 1854; and The Testimony of the Rocks, a work completed, but not published till after his death. Two other posthumous works have since appeared — The Cruise of the Betsey, or a Summer Ramble among the Fossiliferous Deposits of the Hebrides, 1858; and Sketch-Book of Popular Geology, being a Series of Lectures delivered before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, with an introduction by Mrs. Miller, giving a resume of the progress of geological science within the previous two years, published in March 1859. The death of Mr. Miller took place on the 24th of December 1856. He had overtasked his brain, and for some time suffered from visions and delusions combined with paroxysms of acute physical pain. In one of those moments of disordered reason, awaking from a hideous dream, he shot himself in the heart, and must instantly have expired — a sad and awful termination to a life of noble exertion and high hopes!

Mr. Miller's first geological work, the treatise on The Old Red Sandstone, is perhaps the most valuable. On that field he was a discoverer, adding to our knowledge of organic remains various members of a great family of fishes existing only in a deposit of the highest antiquity. One of these bears now the name of "Pterichthys Milleri." He illustrated also the less known floras of Scotland — those of the Old Red Sandstone and the Oolite, giving figured illustrations of the most peculiar. But the great distinguishing merit of Miller is his power of vivid description, which throws a sort of splendour over the fossil remains, and gives life and beauty to the geological landscape. His enthusiasm and word-painting were irresistible. He was in geology what Carlyle is in history, both possessing the power of genius to vivify the past and stir at once the heart and the imagination. In his Footprints of the Creator, Miller combated the development theory. In his last work, The Testimony of the Rocks, 1857, he goes at great length into the question of the antiquity of the globe, endeavouring to reconcile it with the Mosaic account of the creation; Astronomers do not attempt any such reconciliation, and the geologists can never attain to certainty. Miller once believed with Buckland and Chalmers that the six days of the Mosaic narrative were simply natural days of twenty-four hours each, but he was compelled by further study to believe that the days of creation were not natural but prophetic days — unmeasured eras of time stretching far back into the bygone eternity. The revelation to Moses he supposes to have been optical — a series of visions seen in a recess of the Midian desert, and described by the prophet in language fitted to the ideas of his times. The hypothesis of the Mosaic vision is old — as old as the time of Whiston, who propounded it a century and a half since; but in Miller's hands the vision becomes a splendid piece of sacred poetry.


"Such a description of the creative vision of Moses as the one given by Milton of that vision of the future which he represents as conjured up before Adam by the archangel, would he a task rather for the scientific poet than for the mere practical geologist or sober theologian. Let us suppose that at took place far from man, in an untrodden recess of the Midean desert, ere yet the vision of the burning bush had been vouchsafed; and that, as in the vision of St. John in Patmos, voices were mingled with scenes, and the ear as certainty addressed as the eye. A 'great darkness' first falls upon the prophet, like that which in an earlier age fell upon Abraham, but without the 'horror': and as the Divine Spirit moves on the face of the wildly troubled waters, as a visible aurora enveloped by the pitchy cloud, the great doctrine is orally enunciated, that 'in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' Unreckoned ages, condensed in the vision into a few brief moments, pass away; the creative voice is again heard, 'Let there be light,' and straightway a gray diffused light springs up in the east, and, casting its sickly gleam over a cloud-limited expanse of steaming vaporous sea, journeys through the heavens towards the west. One heavy, sunless day is made the representative of myriads; the faint tight waxes fainter — it sinks beneath the dim undefined horizon; the first scene of the drama closes upon the seer; and he sits awhile on his hill-top in darkness, solitary but not sad, in what seems to be a calm and starless night.

"The light again brightens — it is day; and over an expanse of ocean without visible bound the horizon has become wider and sharper of outline than before. There is life in that great sea — invertebrate, mayhap also ichthyic, life; but, from the comparative distance of the point of view occupied by the prophet, only the slow roll of its waves can be discerned, as they rise and fall in long undulations before a gentle gale; and what most strongly impresses the eye is the change which has taken place in the atmospheric scenery. that lower stratum of the heavens occupied in the previous vision by seething steam, or gray, smoke-like fog, is clear and transparent; and only in an upper region, where the previously invisible vapour of the tepid sea has thickened in the cold, do the clouds appear. But there, in the higher strata of the atmosphere, they lie, thick and manifold — an upper sea of great waves, separated from those beneath by the transparent firmament, and, like them too, impelled in rolling masses by the wind. A mighty advance has taken place in creation: but its most conspicuous optical sign is the existence of a transparent atmosphere — of a firmament stretched out over the earth. that separates the waters above from the waters below. But darkness descends for the third time upon the seer, for the evening and the morning have completed the second day.

"Yet again, the light rises under a canopy of cloud; but the scene has changed, and there is no longer an unbroken expanse of sea. The white surf breaks, at the distant horizon, on an insulated reef, formed mayhap by the Silurian or Old Red coral zoophytes ages before, during the bygone yesterday; and beats in long lines of foam, nearer at hand, against the low, winding shore, the seaward barrier of a widely spread country. For at the Divine command the land has arisen from the deep — not inconspicuously and in scattered islets, as at an earlier time, but in extensive though flat and marshy continents, little raised over the sea-level; and a yet further flat has covered them with the great carboniferous flora. The scene is one of mighty forests of cone-bearing trees — of palms, and tree-ferns, and gigantic club-mosses, on the opener slopes, and of great reeds clustering by the sides of quiet lakes and dark rolling rivers. There is deep gloom in the recesses of the thicker woods, and low thick mists creep along the dank marsh or sluggish stream. But there is a general lightening of the sky overhead; as the day declines, a redder flush than had hitherto lighted up the prospect falls athwart fern-covered bank and long withdrawing glade. And while the fourth evening has fallen on the prophet, he becomes sensible, as it wears on, and the fourth dawn approaches, that yet another change has taken place. The Creator has spoken, and the stars took out from openings of deep unclouded blue; and as day rises, and the planet of morning pales in the east, the broken cloudlets are transmitted from bronze into gold, and anon the gold becomes fire, and at length the glorious sun arises out of the sea, and enters on his course rejoicing. It is a brilliant day; the waves, of a deeper and softer blue than before, dance and sparkle in the light; the earth with little else to attract the gaze, has assumed a garb it brighter green; and as the sun declines amid even richer glories than those which had encircled his rising, the moon appears full-orbed in the east — to the human eye the second great luminary of the heavens — and climbs slowly to the zenith as night advances, shedding its mild radiance on land and sea.

"Again the day breaks; the prospect consists, as before, of land and ocean. There are great pinewoods, reed-covered swamps. wide plains, winding rivers, and broad lakes; and a bright sun shines over all. But the landscape derives its interest and novelty from a feature unmarked before. Gigantic birds stalk along the sands, or wade far into the water in quest of their ichthyic food; while birds of lesser size float upon the lakes, or scream discordant in hovering flocks, thick as insects in the calm of a summer evening, over the narrower seas; or brighten with the sunlit gleam of their wings the thick woods. And ocean has its monsters: great 'tanninim' tempest the deep, as they heave their huge bulk over the surface, to inhale the life-sustaining air; and not of their nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a 'seething pot or caldron.' Monstrous creatures, armed in massive scales, haunt the rivers, or scour the flat rank meadows; earth, air, and water are charged with animal life; and the sun sets on a busy scene, in which unerring instinct pursues unremittingly its few simple ends — the support and preservation of the individual, the propagation of the species, and the protection and maintenance of the young.

"Again the night descends, for the fifth day has closed; and morning breaks on the sixth and last day of creation. Cattle and beasts of the field graze on the plains; the thick-skinned rhinoceros wallows in the marshes; the squat hippopotamus rustles among the reeds, or plunges sullenly into the river; great herds of elephants seek their food amid the young herbage of the woods; while animals of fiercer nature — the lion, the leopard, and the bear — harbour in deep caves till the evening, or lie in wait for their prey amid tangled thickets, or beneath some broken bank. At length, as the day wanes and the shadows lengthen, man, the responsible lord of creation, formed in God's own image, is introduced upon the scene, and the work of creation ceases for ever upon the earth. The night falls once more upon the prospect, and there dawns yet another morrow — the morrow of God's rest — that Divine Sabbath in which there is no more creative labour, and which, 'blessed and sanctified' beyond all the days that had gone before, has as its special object the moral elevation and final redemption of man. And over it no evening is represented in the record as falling, for its special work is not yet complete. Such seems to have been the sublime panorama of creation exhibited in visions of old to

The shepherd who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of chaos;

and, rightly understood, I know not a single scientific truth that militates against even the minutest or least prominent of its details."

The subject of the Noachian deluge is discussed at length, Miller holding with Stillingfleet, Poole, and modern authorities, that the deluge was partial as to the earth, but universal as to the human race.

There was no novelty in this portion of his argument, and he sometimes misconstrues the opinions of those he opposes. His earnestness and fertility of illustration enchain the reader's attention, but a reperusal only the more convinces us that Mr. Miller's great power lay in description — not in grappling with the difficulties of speculative philosophy. We give a few more specimens of his exquisite composition:


"But let as trace the history of a single pine-tree of the Oolite, as indicated by its petrified remains. This goaded and twisted trunk once anchored its roots amid the crannies of a precipice of dark-gray sandstone, that rose over some nameless stream of the Oolite, in what is now the north of Scotland. The rock, which, notwithstanding its dingy colour, was a deposit of the Lower Old Red Sandstone, formed a member of the fish-beds of that system — beds that were charged then, as now, with numerous fossils, as strange and obsolete in the creation of the Oolite as in the creation which at present exists. It was a firm, indestructible stone, covered by a thin, barren soil; and the twisted rooilets of the pine, rejected and thrown backwards from its more solid planes, had to penetrate into its narrow fissures for a straightened and meagre subsistence. The tree grew but slowly: in considerably more than half a century it had attained to a diameter of little more than ten inches a foot over the soil; and its bent and twisted form gave evidence of the life of hardship to which it was exposed. It was, in truth, a picturesque rag of a tree, that for the first few feet twisted itself round like an overborne wrestler struggling to escape from under his enemy, and then struck out at an abrupt angle, and stretched itself like a bent arm over the stream. It must have resembled, on its bald eminence, that pine-tree of later time described by Scott, that high above 'ash and oak'

Cast anchor in the rifted rock,
And o'er the giddy chasm hung
His shattered trunk, and frequent flung,
Where seemed the cliffs to meet on high,
His boughs athwart the narrowed sky.

The seasons passed over it: every opening spring gave its fringe of tenderer green to its spiky foliage, and every returning autumn saw it shed its cones into the stream below. Many a delicate fern sprang up and decayed around its gnarled and fantastic root, single-leaved and simple of form, like the Scolopendria of our caverns and rock recesses, or fretted into many a slim pinnate leaflet, like the minute maiden-hair or the graceful lady-fern. Flying reptiles have perched amid its boughs; the light-winged dragon-fly has darted on wings of gauze through the openings of its lesser twigs; the tortoise and the lizard have hybernated during the chills of winter amid the hollows of its roots; for many years it formed one of the minor features in a wild picturesque scene, on which human eye never looked; and at length, touched by decay, its upper branches began to wither and bleach white in the winds of heaven; when shaken by a sodden hurricane that came roaring adown the ravine, the mass of rock in which it had been anchored at once gave way, and, bearing fast jammed among its roots a fragment of the mass which we stilt find there, and from which we read a portion of its story, it was precipitated into the foaming torrent. Dancing on the eddies, or lingering amid the pools, or shooting, arrow-like adown the rapids, it at length finds its way to the sea; and after sailing over beds of massive coral — the ponderous Isastrea and more delicate Thamnastrea — and after disturbing the Enaliosaur and Belemnite in their deep green haunts, it sinks, maturated with water, into a bed of arenaceous mud, to make its appearance, after long ages, in the world of man — a marble mummy of the old Oolite forest — and to be curiously interrogated regarding its character and history."


"There is an order of English mind to which Scotland has not attained: our first men stand in the second rank, not a foot-breadth behind the foremost of England's second-rank men; but there is a front rank of British intellect in which there stands no Scotchman. Like that class of the mighty men of David, to which Abishai and Benaiah belonged — great captains, who went down into pits in the time of snow and slew lions, or 'who lifted up the spear against three hundred men at once, and prevailed' — they attained not, with all their greatness, to the might of the first class. Scotland has produced no Shakspeare; Burns and Sir Walter Scott united would fall short of the stature of the giant of Avon. Of Milton we have not even a representative. A Scotch poet has been injudiciously named as not greatly inferior, but I shall not do wrong to the memory of an ingenious young man [PoIlock], cut off just as he had mastered his powers, by naming him again in a connection so perilous. He at least was guiltless of the comparison; and it would be cruel to involve him in the ridicule which it is suited to excite. Bacon is as exclusively unique as Milton, and as exclusively English; and though the grandfather of Newton was a Scotchman, we have certainly no Scotch Sir Isaac. I question, indeed, whether any Scotchman attains to the powers of Locke: there is as much solid thinking in the Essay on the Human Understanding, greatly as it has become the fashion of the age to depreciate it, and notwithstanding his fundamental error, as in the works of all our Scotch metaphysicians put together. It is, however, a curious fact, and worthy, certainly, of careful examination, as bearing no the question of development purely through the force of circumstances, that all the very great men of England — all its first-class men — belong to ages during which the grinding persecutions of the Stuarts repressed Scottish energy, and crushed the opening mind of the country; and that no sooner was the weight removed, like a pavement stab from over a flowerbed, than straightway Scottish intellect sprung tip, and attained to the utmost height to which English intellect was rising at the time. The English philosophers and literati of the eighteenth century were of a greatly lower stature than the Miltons and Shakspeares, Bacons and Newtons, of the two previous centuries; they were second-class men — the tallest, however, of their age anywhere; and among these the men of Scotland take no subordinate place. Though absent from the competition in the previous century, through the operation of causes palpable in the history of the time, we find them quite up to the mark for the age in which they appear. No English philosopher for the last hundred and fifty years produced a greater revolution in human affairs than Adam Smith; or exerted a more powerful influence on opinion than David Hume; or did more to change the face of the mechanical world than James Watt. The History of England produced by a Scotchman is still emphatically the "English history;" nor, with all its defects, is it likely to be soon superseded. Robertson, if inferior in the untaught felicities of narration to his illustrious countrymen, is at least inferior to none of his English contemporaries. The prose fictions of Smollett have kept their ground quite as well as those of Fielding and better than those of Richardson. Nor does England during the century exhibit higher manifestations of the poetic spirit than those exhibited by Thomson and by Burns. To use a homely but expressive Scotticism, Scotland seems to have lost her bairne-time of the giants; but in the after bairnetime of merely tall men, her children were quite as tall as any of their contemporaries."

The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller have been published by PETER BAYNE, M.A., two volumes, 1871. This is a copious — too copious — but interesting work, embracing n full account of the ecclesiastical questions in which Miller was so deeply and earnestly engaged. An excellent summary of his life and works is also given in a volume of biographies, entitled Golden Lives, by HENRY A. PAGE, 1874.