Friday, 14 September 2012

The Remarkable Rise of the Scottish Stonecutter

                       There are giants in the pantheon of Victorian scientists – Darwin, Huxley, Faraday, Owen, Buckland, Paley, Lyell, Maxwell et al. Unfortunately, some names are now almost forgotten and figures of immense influence and importance in their day have now been relegated to undeserved obscurity. One such is Hugh Miller, a complex and fascinating character, whose name was once mentioned in the same breath as those of Agassiz and Hutton but who has since fallen from former glory. 

Hugh Miller's Birthplace

Miller was born in Cromarty, Scotland on October 10th 1802; his father Hugh, a sea captain, was forty-four and his mother Harriet was eighteen when they had married. Five years later, the captain was drowned at sea, leaving his young widow with a son and two infant daughters to raise, which she did with the help of her brothers, Uncles Sandy and James, and by what little needlework she could find. Young Hugh was a voracious reader but a poor scholar, with but a smattering of arithmetic, poor spelling and grammar, and firm, clear handwriting after ten years of schooling. 

Hugh Miller

In 1819, his mother remarried and the following year Hugh ‘a slim, loose-jointed boy’ was apprenticed to his mother’s brother-in-law Donald Wright, a stonemason, working in a local quarry, where the work was back-breaking and dangerous. In later life, Hugh wrote that it was at this time his love of nature was founded, and as his apprenticeship progressed he became disciplined, earnest and skilled. Late in 1822, his indenture ended and after coming of age, the journeyman mason moved to Edinburgh, where a building boom furnished work aplenty and good wages, but Hugh’s views on working men were forever soured by the example of his colleagues who wasted their weekly pay on weekend drinking binges, gambling and loose women. 

Hugh Miller

He returned home to Cromarty with his lungs damaged by stone-dust and was so ill it was thought he may not live, but after some rest he continued to work locally and began to write poetry. He also began to take an interest in religion, and resolved to read his father’s Bible. In the spring of 1828, he wrote a list of things he intended to do, a strange compilation of desires that includes studies of antique architecture, a memoir of his father, taking up oil painting, writing a book about the Psalms and writing an ode to the Ness. He continued to earn his living by cutting inscriptions on gravestones in country churchyards and published a book of poetry; in 1830 a Mrs Fraser wrote to her daughter Lydia with a note describing Cromarty, 
You may guess what are its literary pretensions when I tell you that from my window at this moment I see a stonemason engaged in building a wall. He has just published a volume of poems and likewise letters on the herring fishery; both of which I now send you.” 
When Lydia came to Cromarty she met, and was captivated by, the poetical mason, a six-footer with a shock of red hair and immense physical strength who was humble, soft-spoken and thoughtful. He, in turn, was fascinated by the intelligent, fashionable lady, some ten years his junior, but with typical chivalry, he resolved to improve his station in life before pressing his suit, as he could not envisage the marriage of such a lady to a manual labourer. By coincidence, at a breakfast with a banker friend, Mr Ross, in 1834, he was offered a position as an accountant, not least because of his diligent reputation. After some prevarication, he accepted and went to work at the Commercial Bank in Linlithgow; he began a correspondence with Lydia Fraser and started to write his first prose work Scenes and Legends in the North of Scotland, hoping to emulate White’s Natural History of Selborne

From - Edinburgh and its neighbourhood, geological and historical 

The work was well received by subscribers and critics alike, which encouraged Miller to continue writing and, on January 7th 1837, he finally married Lydia. One chapter in Scenes and Legends, concerning geology, drew the greatest interest from other writers and scientists and Miller began to correspond with several of them. His Evangelical writings also began to attract attention and in 1839 he was invited to Edinburgh, to become the editor of the religious newspaper the Witness, which soon became immensely popular with the Scottish public, who took pride in the ‘commonality’ of the writings of a self-educated Scot. The paper was published twice a week and Miller often wrote in excess of ten thousand words a week for the paper, in editorials, reports and features, and when Lydia and their daughter Harriet joined Hugh at Edinburgh in April 1840, his domestic happiness and no longer having to deal with the stultifying boredom of balance sheets at the bank inspired his writing. 

The Old Red Sandstone

In September 1840 he began a series of articles entitled The Old Red Sandstone, a geological formation that had long been held to be barren of fossils – Miller’s work proved otherwise, as he found countless marine fossils in the stone. In September 1840, Miller’s discoveries were brought to the attention of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at its annual meeting, thrusting Miller into unexpected fame. His work was praised by the finest scientists of the day, William Buckland was so in awe of Miller’s prose style that he said he was,  
“… ashamed of the comparative meagreness and poverty of his own descriptions: he would give his left hand to possess such powers of description.” 
The columns were collected and expanded to a work of over 300 pages, called The Old Red Sandstone; or New Walks in an Old Field (1840), a truly fascinating book that, idiosyncratically for a work of geology, begins with an exhortation to working men to avoid trade unions and the Chartist movement, and to work hard to better themselves by hard work and instructive reading, “ … upper and lower classes there must be, so long as the World lasts,” and to try to upset this balance invites disaster and the possibility of a ‘second Cromwell or Napoleon.’ Such a view was entirely typical of the Victorian zeitgeist, echoing the earlier concept of the Great Chain of Being; the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful reflects the view in its third verse –
The rich man in his castle, 
The poor man at his gate, 
God made them high and lowly, 
And ordered their estate.’ 

Hugh Miller

But Miller’s political stance belongs in, and is a consequence of, its time; it is the descriptive writing in The Old Red Sandstone that places it in the category of Classic. It is vivid, rich and disciplined, the product of an expert and enthusiast, self-educated but phenomenally well read, and always informed by his practical experiences in the quarries and stone pits. Many more works followed (his collected works run to thirteen thick volumes), the most enjoyable perhaps being First impressions of England and its people (1847), which, from its title, one may be forgiven for expecting a hackneyed, cliché-ridden screed from a Highland Scot, but which is, instead, a work of staggering beauty; intelligent, civilized and so poetic it approaches the musical. The prose is elegant, fresh and restrained, perfectly illustrating each point or impression with economy and ease. 

From The Old Red Sandstone

Miller’s geological writings are based on his observations, and although he believed the Earth to be of great age, he strongly held the Biblical view of God’s creation, that species had superseded each other but not that they were descended from earlier ones. The similarities of animals were manifestations of the mind of God and, rather like William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial, he thought the ‘days’ of creation were metaphorical eras of millions of years.  But we should not dismiss him as a muddled Victorian Evangelical; his works are learned and incisive, many of his observations remain relevant and his descriptions of fossils are timeless. 

In later life, Miller began to worry about his mental stability and the safety of his family. His overlapping scientific and religious worlds began to diverge and he found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his views. There is some evidence that he was experiencing the early stages of a degenerative brain disease, and on Christmas Eve 1856 he took his customary bath and went to bed. At some hour during the night he awoke, went to his study table and wrote on a sheet of paper,  
“DEAREST LYDIA, My brain burns. I must have walked; and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. Dearest Lydia, dear children, farewell. My brain burns as the recollection grows. My dear, dear wife, farewell. HUGH MILLER.” 
He took his revolver, raised the left side of his sweater and placed the barrel against his chest. The single shot pierced his lung, grazed his heart, cut through the pulmonary artery at its root, and lodged in the rib on the right side. He died instantly.

Memorial to Hugh Miller
The scientific and literary worlds mourned the loss of a Titan; his widow received letters of consolation from, amongst others, Dickens, Carlyle and Ruskin, and the largest crowd of mourners in living memory attended his funeral in Edinburgh. There is not space enough in a single blog post to honour this remarkable man to extent he deserves, but if I might, may I direct you to the Discover Hugh Miller website, which contains much more information. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. And The Old Red Sandstone is still in press – do read it if you possibly can.

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