Hugh Miller, stonemason turned geologist, palaeontologist, poet, collector of Scottish folklore, economist, writer, journalist, author, artist, and religious reformer, died on the 24th of December, 1856.
Hugh Miller was a self-taught geologist who wrote about the history of the Earth with imagination, eloquence, and a marvellous power of vivid description that no one else has since achieved. His intellect and inquiring nature took him in many and varied directions and perhaps ultimately, tied him in knots. He is best known for having pioneered research into fossils and is mainly associated with the Devonian epoch, which is also, thanks to Miller’s work, known as the ‘age of fishes’. Miller’s massive, personally gathered, fossil collection of over 6,000 specimens is now in the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. He reputation stems from his books on geology, the first of which was inspired by his meeting some of the foremost paleontologists of the day at an event hosted by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in Glasgow, on the 23rd of September, 1840. Amongst those luminaries were Sir Charles Lyell, ‘Sir to be’ Roderick Murchison, the eminent Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, and William Buckland. These guys heaped praise on oor Hughie’s work and his previous articles and papers, and Agassiz honoured him by giving the scientific name of ‘Pterichthys Milleri’ to one of Miller’s fossils. Miller’s first and the best known of his three books on geology appeared in 1841, and became a bestseller and classic. That book, ‘The Old Red Sandstone’, first appeared as a series of sketches on popular geology that Miller wrote for ‘The Witness’. It was dedicated to Murchison, who Miller had said encouraged him when “prosecuting my humble researches in obscurity and solitude.”
Miller had become a founding editor of ‘The Witness’, based in Edinburgh, in 1840 and was to retain his association with that highly influential religious journal until his death. He was an evangelical Christian and ferociously aggressive in ‘debate’ with opponents via the columns of his newspaper. He opposed the ‘Reform Bill’ and argued over patronage, and he became a leader of the ‘Distuption’ of 1843, which led to the formation of the Free Kirk. Sadly, Miller’s strong religious principles led to his bitter opposition to the then emerging theories of evolution. He argued that the complexity of ancient fish fossils was evidence that God had created them fully formed. He believed, as did most scientists of the time, that the fossil record represented a series of separate special creations and subsequent mass extinctions. Miller struggled to reconcile his religious views with his scientific research, but his work as a geologist and paleontologist can not be diminished. His 1847 book, ‘Foot-Prints of the Creator; Or, The Asterolepis of Stromness’ proselytised that fossil fish anatomy failed to substantiate the “development hypothesis” – the pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory – of fellow Scot, Robert Chambers.
Hugh Miller was born in Cromarty, in the Black Isle district of Ross and Cromarty, on the 10th of October, 1802. He had an ordinary parish school education, but was a bit lazy and his schooling is said to have ended abruptly after a violent disagreement with the schoolmaster. In any event, he showed a remarkable love of reading as, when still a boy, he searched out everyone in Cromarty who owned books in order to extend his reading. Years later, he was to say that he considered the grand acquirement of his life to be his “mastery of the art of holding converse with books.” When he was seventeen, he became apprenticed to a stonemason and in 1824, he worked in Edinburgh, helping to restore the City after the ‘Great Fire’. Later, he worked as a monumental mason in Inverness, but his lungs had been damaged by the dust and he sought a new occupation. His first venture into writing was a volume of poems, which he had published in 1829, but his next job, which he took up in 1834, was as an accountant in a bank. A year later, he brought out ‘Scenes and Legends in the North of Scotland’, which drew him to the attention of the scientific community. His interest in the natural world had been encouraged by his two uncles who had helped to raise him after his father’s untimely death. Miller once said of his knowledgeable and influential uncle Sandy that “some professors of natural history knew less of living nature.” Miller had scoured the quarries and coasts of the Black Isle for fossils and after moving to Edinburgh to take up his post with ‘The Witness’, he continued his study of geology and his path to renown.
What is interesting about Miller is that he was what you might call a ‘stay at home’ geologist. All of his important discoveries were made while he was living in obscurity and obliged to confine his field of investigation to the Cromarty Firth. As he later wrote, he “found within the limits of the parish, work enough for the patient study of many years.” Miller was also an artist, who illustrated his work with etchings of the fishes and their skeletal components. However, unlike that surreal fantasist, Buckland, Miller’s art was accurate in its representation. He had the discipline of a detective and the mind of a novelist and gained tributes from many eminent men of his time. Long Johnnie Muir named an Alaskan glacier after Miller and Thomas Chalmers called Miller “the greatest Scotchman alive after Sir Walter Scott's death.” His autobiography was highly praised by none other than Thomas Carlyle and his mentor, Murchison, said that Miller’s writing was “so beautiful and poetical as to throw plain geologists like himself into the shade.” Even Buckland was impressed, stating that, “I would give my left hand to possess such powers of description as had made me feel ashamed of my own descriptions.” He was probably right handed. Miller left a heritage of new discoveries of primarily Devonian examples, all of which were wonderfully described in his popular books. He had no academic credentials, but this Scottish stonemason is considered to be one of the world’s premier early paleontologists.
Tragically, Hugh Miller shot himself at his home in Shrub Mount, in Portobello, on Christmas Eve, 1856. He was buried in Grange Cemetery, in Edinburgh, after a funeral ceremony that was attended by thousands. Folks say he did so because he could no longer reconcile his understanding of evolution with his religious beliefs; others say overwork and stress, coupled with his long standing silicosis, made him succumb to depression. Whatever the cause, he was tormented by nightmares and fears of approaching insanity, and as his post mortem revealed, he had suffered from psychotic depression.