This page will feature conflicting assessments of Miller's name and reputation. While these continue, efforts go on to find and publicly "signpost" his trail, as, for example, the mounting of a plaque at the site of his "Witness" office in the Royal Mile in October 2002 (above) (see also News)
In the Spring of the Bicentenary Year, a very lively exchange took place in the columns of the West Highland Free Press, which we reproduce here in full. Loath as we were to give space to Ian Mitchell's rant, we nevertheless recognize such declamations are the very stuff of public debate - and continuing public interest.
ARTICLE IN WEST HIGHLAND FREE PRESS, 19th April 2002
HUGH MILLER: A STUDY IN FAILURE
A leading influence in the creation of the Free Church, and thus on the history of the Highlands, Hugh Miller was born 200 years ago this year. IAN R MITCHELL evaluates his legacy.
Hugh Miller was an icon of early Victorian society, and was seen as a sage by many long after his death. He was one of the leading lights in the foundation of the Free Church in 1843, and took part in some of the important scientific controversies of his times. Today his memory is kept alive by the cottage in Cromarty where he was born, visited by thousands every year. It is sanitised in the best Scottish National Trust traditions - like Burns' and Cariyle's cottages - to make poverty picturesque. The man born there in 1802 represents one of the types so beloved of Scottish sentimentalism: the humble lad o'pairts who by hard work and study overcame poverty and was subsequently lionised by middle-class society. Indeed, that is the main reason why his memory is kept alive today, for in every other respect Miller's life is a study in failure.
Miller was born, like Burns, in humble circumstances - but, like Burns again, not that humble. Lads o' pairts were usually from the aristocracy of the working classes, not the lower depths. Miller's father was a Cromarty sea captain, whose death at sea when the boy was five plunged the family into hardship - though comfortable uncles helped out. His mother was a Highlander and Gaelic speaker, and from her he gained his love of folklore and myth which later sat uneasily with his Free Church associates who disapproved of such "paganism", as was evidenced in Miller's "Scenes and legends of the North of Scotland". At 17 Miller was apprenticed as a stonemason, a trade he worked at for 15 years, travelling all over the Highlands and Lowlands to work. He would later denounce the crude conditions of exploitation endured by the travelling masons, just as he would criticise the Highland Clearances, but it was clear that he was a loner with his working class associates He disapproved of their drinking, and made enemies by trying to convert his largely irreligious companions to God. On one occasion Miller was told: "If you set yourself to convert me, I'll brak your face."
Masons were one of the earliest trades to form combinations - unions - and Miller, self-educated in the bourgeois economics of his time, thought such measures folly. He refused to participate in trades unions, just as he later denounced the 1840s Chartist movement which aimed at getting working men the vote. Instead of political activities such as these, Miller offered the workers salvation through temperance, self- education and godliness. It was not a popular message with his workmates, though it was enormously popular with Miller's middle-class admirers. Miller had little intention of spending his life as a stonemason and tried to establish himself as a writer, with occasional pieces on folklore and his own poetry appearing in such outlets as the Inverness Courier'. His "Poems of a Journeyman Stonemason" appeared in 1829, and though received with enthusiasm at the time are mawkish and now unread. In 1834 he obtained a post in a bank, which was more congenial to him than being a mason, bringing him into the more refined society he found congenial. This gave him more time to indulge in his hobby of fossil- collecting, which had been with him since youth and which had been deepened by his time working in quarries as a mason. He had a talent for draughtsmanship and his fossil drawings, though criticised by some for supplying with imagination facts that were missing, were widely admired, including by Charles Darwin himself. But Miller was no scientist, lacking the formal training, and was merely an amateur dabbler. Divine Inspiration is no substitute for scientific method.
MILLER was not a simple Six-Day Creationist. The geological evidence, building up since the 1820s, was so overwhelming that all but the strictest fundamentalists had abandoned such ideas, and also those of the antiquity of the earth as as being limited to the Biblical 4,000 years.
However, Miller was a selective fundamentalist and a firm opponent of evolution, which he saw as being incompatible with Genesis. In his "Footprints of the Creator" in 1847 - a reply to Chambers' evolutionary "Vestiges of Creation" ó Miller argued, against all available evidence, that the fossils which had been found in ancient rocks were identical with presently existing species, and that each species had been created at a stroke by God.
Despite the accumulation of evidence for evolution, long before Darwin's "On the Origin of the Species" appeared in 1859, Miller continued to polemicise for creationism. In "Testimony of the Rocks", published after his death in 1857, he stated of Genesis: "I know not a single truth that militates against the minutest or least prominent of its details. Miller was an amateur out of his depth in this debate, and unlike many Christians he was unable to move towards a symbolic interpretation of Genesis and accept that, as one cleric later put it: "Evolution was God's way of doing things." It is no accident that, burdened by ill health - brought on probably by silicosis contracted while a mason - and having increasing difficulty in reconciling his fundamentalism with his science, Miller shot himself in 1856.
In religious controversies, too, Miller had his disappointments, which added to his depressive tendencies. The early nineteenth century had seen a rising movement to abolish patronage in the Church of Scotland. This had been introduced a century before in clear violation of the Treaty of Union and against the wishes of most church members. But the right of landlords to appoint clergy - and the similar, often forgotten, right of councils to do so in urban areas - was more and more challenged in the increasing democratic atmosphere of the times. Miller took a leading part in this movement, becoming in 1840 the editor of 'Witness', the bi-weekly organ of the evangelical non-intrusionists as they were called.
At this time Miller came under the increasing influence of Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the anti-patronage movement, adopting many of his social as well as religious ideas. In 1843 about one third of the ministers and half the members of the Kirk left, and established the Free Church.
Like Chalmers, Miller had great hopes for the Free Church. Announcing that "the Church of the future must be missionary, not political", Miller echoed the new church's conimitment - in theory - to evangelising the urban masses. But the message the Free Church brought to the working classes ensured the failure of this project, just as Miller's, attempts to convert his mason workmates 20 years before had failed.
The Free Church message was the tired old nostrums of temperance, self-help, self-education, hostility to trades unions and Chartism, and opposition to social reform. Chalmers ("that old humbug", as Marx called him, like Miller, opposed imposing a tax on the middle classes in order to pay for Poor Relief. Instead he proposed that the solution to poverty was collections at the Church door, for the "deserving poor". With such a message it was no surprise that the Free Church rapidly became the Victorian urban bourgeoisie at prayer - except in the Highlands, where the improverished crofters joined in droves.
Miller himself was hugely influential in this Highland movement - partly through his writings and partly through his tour of many Western Isles in 1844 in the Free Church yacht, the 'Betsy'. But in the Highlands Chalmers and Miller, while criticising evictions, also opposed any idea of resistance or of land reform, and preached Christian resignation - though Miller did propose reform of the Game Laws. Through its message the Free Church was successful in contributing to social peace in the Highlands, where it failed in the Lowlands. And Miller was aware by the mid 1850s that the new church has not evangelised the masses, nor had it become the moral reference point for the nation as a whole which he hoped it would be.
Today hardly anyone opens Miller's ureadable Victorian tomes, whose ecclesiatical and scientific views are of a bygone age. The only work of his that still attracts some attention for its social history is "My Schools and Schoolmasters" published in 1852 - the year after that other classic of Scottish Victorian ideology which it echoes, Smiles' "Self-Help". Miller's bookwas admired by many, including Thomas Carlyle. Miller resembles Carlyle in the fact that, both Victorian icons, both are now largely forgotten - except by the Scottish National Trust. Carlyle admired the ideology of Miller's autobiographical work, with its insistence that politics and social reform would simply make the working man's condition worse; the recipe he needed was thrift, temperance, self-education and God.
The full measure of Miller's failure is demonstrated by the fact of his suicide. The recipe he espoused did not solve the problems of the Victorian working man, nor did it solve Miller's own.
PROFESSOR DONALD MACLEOD'S FOOTNOTES COLUMN IN THE WEST HIGHLAND FREE PRESS
26th April 2002
I can hardly be expected to ignore such a headline as "Hugh Miller: a study in failure" (WHFP, 19/04/02). You could read for a hundred years and not find so many prejudices crammed into a single page. Are the Free Church, the National Trust, Fundamentalists and Thomas Chalmers demons from lan R Mitchell's childhood? But I am allowed only 1,200 words and I'd better not waste them.
Let's begin with the tragedy of Miller's suicide. How long do we have to suffer the myth that he shot himself because he had failed to reconcile geology and Genesis? For such a theory there is not one shred of evidence. The night before Miller shot himself he was not engaged in tortuous, mind-bending arguments on the frontier between science and religion. He was merely correcting the proofs of "Testimony of the Rocks". The storms involved in the creative struggle had spent themselves long since.
In any case, the idea of Miller as a lone presbyterian pioneer is completely misleading. Thomas Chalmers had championed the idea of the vast antiquity of the earth long before Miller ever put pen to paper; and far from being "that old humbug", Chalmers' name commanded respect throughout the whole academic and religious world. Only north of Inverness was the great man considered less than perfect. Maybe Mr Mitchell's ancestors were North Country Separatists. Nor was Chalmers Miller's only support. He had the security and satisfaction of knowing that his views were shared by "all the great representative theologians of the age": William Cunningham, the most erudite theologian in Scotland; Robert Candlish, a pioneer in Biblical Studies; and, not least, his own minister in Cromarty, Dr Alexander Stewart ("one of the most originalminded men I ever knew").
Far from wandering through strange seas of thought alone, Miller was treading a well-worn path and he enjoyed the support of the only men for whose opinions he cared. Nowhere in the millions of words he penned (nor in the millions more penned by Chalmers & Co) is there the slightest hint that the tensions were driving them mad. In my own case, I must leave it to others to judge my sanity, but to the best of my knowledge I am still more or less rational, despite having spent almost 50 years wrestling with these same issues and learning (like Charles Darwin) that none of us can claim the support of all the data.
Why, then, did Miller shoot himself? According to a statement signed by no fewer than four doctors he acted "under the impulse of insanity". The trouble with this is that prior to his death no one noticed that he was mad. As one recent writer puts it, "Miller's madness occurred largely after his death". But several facts are clear. One is that Miller was seriously overworked, producing the 'Witness' (larger than the modern 'Scotsman') almost single-handedly, and personally writing an average of 10,000 words a week.
There is post-mortem evidence, too, that Miller was suffering from an organic brain-disease. This would explain the excruciating head-pains, the hallucinations, the insomnia and the paranoia. Why does anyone commit suicide: a 28 year old man who takes an overdose; a young Japanese woman who throws herself off a highrise building; a newly promoted policeman who gasses himself in his garage? Their secret dies with them. In Miller's case, the most likely thing is that he came to be possessed of the idea that he was suffering from an incurable brain disease and that he would soon be reduced to slobbering idiocy. He preferred death. But in addition to wishing us to believe that Miller was unhinged by religion Mr Milchell also wants us to believe that he was a mere dabbler in science; an amateur hopelessly out of his depth. There are two or three grains of truth here. Miller did not make his living from geology, he was not a teacher of geology, he had had no formal geological training and he was not in the habit of writing technical articles for scientific journals.
Oddly enough, however, the charge of being a mere amateur is not brought against the publisher, Robert Chambers, author of pro-evolutionary "Vestiges of Creation". Maybe it depends which side you're on. But whatever Mr Mitchell's assessment, Miller's contemporaries in the world of science were in no doubt that he was one of them. When "Footprints of the Creator" was published in 1850 it was prefaced by a Memoir written jointly by the Swiss naturalist, Louis Agassiz, the world's foremost authority on fossil-fishes, and Sir David Brewster, second only to James Clerk-Maxwell in the pantheon of Scottish physicists. Sir Archibald Geikie, Director-General of the UK Geological Survey and one of the defining figures in the history of British geology, spoke often of his own personal debt to Miller, described him as one of the ablest Scottish geologists of his day and declared that the science as a whole owed him more than it had ever ackowledged. This was a reference, of course, to Miller's work as a populariser, bringing the latest developments to the attention of the public: doing, in effect, what is done today by 'Nature' and 'New Scientist'.
The populariser is seldom himself a research pioneer, but only someone with an absolute mastery of the science can explain it intelligibly to a lay readership; and only talent bordering on genius can turn descriptions of fossils into masterpieces of creative writing. Yet in one area. Miller was a pioneer. His rambles in search of fossils may have begun as a hobby, but they yielded serious scientific results.
Miller assembled an impressive collection of Old Red Sandstone fish, described them vividly and sorted them out according to their patterns of similarity. At the time, these fossils were among the very oldest vertebrate fossils ever discovered and they figured prominently in Agassiz's epochmaking work, "Fossil Fishes of the Old Red Sandstone". Several of them (including Pterichthyodes milleri and Coccosteus milleri) bear Miller's name down to the present day. His significance in this and other respects may be denied by Mr Mitchell, but it is frankly acknowledged by such authorities as Dr Mike Taylor, Curator of Vertebrate Fossils at Edinburgh's Royal Museum. "Miller was not the only collector, but he was a big part of the wave of his time."
His discoveries would have been even more significant were it not for two disadvantages: first, that the rocks with which he was most familiar (the Devonian rocks of the Old Red sandstone) contained relatively few fossils; and, secondly, that the only other formation of which he had expert knowledge (the Jurassic rocks of Eigg) were 400 million years younger. This meant that he had little opportunity to explore what happened between the age of armour-plated fish and the age of dinosaurs. The other function performed by Miller was to defend geology against its enemies. To judge from Mr Mitchell, you would think that Miller spent most of his life defending Christians from scientists.
On the contrary, he spent most of it defending scientists from Christians. These precursors of modern so-called creationism (the idea that God created the earth and all its species in one week's work 6 000 vears apo) were not Scottish Presbyterians but Anglican deans. Miller laid into them with gusto and this debt, too, is acknowledged by Geikie: "His genial ardour and irresistible eloquence swept away the last remnants of the barrier of orthodox prejudice against geology." And so we could go on, point by point. The idea that Miller's Free Church friends were disquieted by "Scenes and Legends" is a piece of nonsense. I have used the book freely in class and no one's ever raised an eye-brow over its "paganism".
The throw-away line that the Free Church failed in the cities because its message was "the tired old nostrums of temperance, self-help, self education, etc" is simply the rumbling of ignorance (or a secondhand quote from that great observer of the Free Church, Karl Marx). We don't tell people how to save themselves; we tell them how God saved them.
The assumption that Miller's turgid prose is now forgotten may be necessary if you're going to write rubbish about him, but there are still many of us whose 13 volumes of Miller are falling to bits with overuse. "My Schools and Schoolmasters" and "Testimony of the Rocks" have recently been reprinted and "The Cruise of the Betsy" will follow shortly.
There is currently an excellent Hugh Miller exhibition at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh and another is due to open shortly in the Public Library at Portobello. And dozens of Millerstudents have recently enjoyed two outstanding conferences here in Edinburgh. But maybe this, too, is a lesson in failure. Miller failed to be forgotten.
LETTERS, WEST HIGHLAND FREE PRESS, 26th April 2002
CHEAP PORTRAIT OF A CLASS TRAITOR
St Mary's King's College University of Aberdeen Aberdeen
It was disappointing that the West Highland Free Press should have crowned its 30th anniversary with an article of such wearying vacuity as lan Mitchell's review of Hugh Miller (WHFP 19/4/02).
If Mitchell considers Miller's life to be "a study in failure", this view is not, to be honest, going to shake the worlds of science or historiogra- phy. But in order to defend the literary reputation of this doughty newspaper, a critical response seems appropriate even if the full catalogue of Mitchell's gaffes must pass unchallenged.
His claim, for instance, that Miller was "no scientist, merely a dabbler" may come as a surprise to Harvard biology professor, Stephen Jay Gould, who enthusiastically introduced a recent reprint of "Testimony of the Rocks". Similarly, "an amateur out of his depth" was clearly not an assessment shared by Darwin himself, nor that of glaciation theorist Louis Agassiz who honoured him with the fossil name Pterichthys milleri.
Had Mitchell taken the risk of reading contemporary research in history, he would have found undiminished respect for Miller's legacy among historians and philosophers of science, as is evident in the collection of essays edited by Professor Michael Shortland (Oxford University Press, 1996).
"Today hardly anyone opens Miller's unreadable Victorian tomes," writes Mitchell, when even Miller's geological work has remained more profitably and constantly in print than that of almost any of his scientific peers, including Michael Faraday or Thomas Huxley. We are offered a cheap portrait of a class-traitor; there is no awareness that Miller's science and theology, unlike that of his critics, were invested with the political conviction that poverty and destitution were socially rather than divinely sanctioned. Indeed this is an overlooked subtext of evolutionary debates in lhe nineteenth century.
In the end, the importance of Miller's work (like that of, say, Marx) is not whether it is held to be strictly "true" in some conceited 21st century sense. Rather, it is the extent to which it can be seen as a conceptual staging post in the wider development of ideas. To say that Miller was "wrong" and therefore "a failure' is tragically small-minded. But to suggest that his "failure" was "demonstrated by the fact of his suicide" implies an understanding of mental illness that would have been reactionary and offensive even in Victorian times.
LETTERS, WEST HIGHLAND FREE PRESS, 3rd May 2002
HUGH MILLER'S ACHIEVEMENTS
3 Drinan, Elgol Isle of Skye
Some time ago I crossed swords with Donald Macleod in your columns over the memory of Ian Crichton Smith. How pleasing it is, then, to be able to congratulate him on his fine defence of Hugh Miller (WHFP, 26/4/02.
Miller's outstanding abilities as a thinker, writer, geologist and stonemason were most unreasonably assaulted by Ian Mitchell (WHFP 19/4/02). Miller's prose is a delight. Lucid, crisp and to the point.
The charge of Scottish sentimentalism that is laid at the door of his admirers is typical of the kind of utterance that comes from those whose political agenda is to take possession- of the poor and speak for them, though they themselves have little experience of real poverty, and frequently fail to reflect the diversity within any one "class". The majority of such people these days are themselves representatives of the dreaded "middle class" and theirs is a kind of inverted sentiment- alism which often travels hand-in- with inverted snobbery.
Miller's emphasis of temperance, though it won many adherents, was unlikely to succeed, but that does not invalidate it; and his message of godliness and self-education did not always fall on deaf ears; indeed it was part of the Scottish psyche - witness, for example, the Stevenson family.
As for Mitchell's interpretation of Miller's suicide, it is little more than ignorant impudence. We do not know why, nor shall we ever know why; but if speculate we must, then Donald Macleod's suggestion that Miller was aware of some serious and worsening brain condition seems more plausible to me.
It is given to few to achieve as much as Miller did in such a short lifetime. Let not your readers imagine that he was a misguided idealist, lacking in mental courage and expressive skill. The man was a wonder, and if his internationally acknowledged achievements are failures, Mr Mitchell had better look to his own laurels.
Hugh Miller's, Cottage Church Street Cromarty
May l add further to the debate on Hugh Miller's legacy initiated by lan R Mitchell (WHFP 19/4/02). It is a cheap sneer to assert that the National Trust for Scotland has sanitised Hugh Miller's Cottage, his birthplace in Cromarty, in order to "make poverty picturesque".
At various points in the cottage's history, the walls have been plastered and the clay ground floor overlaid with Caithness flags, both essential steps for conservation, given that we have several thousand visitors a year. Our guidebook explains that Miller's great grandfather, the buccaneer John Feddes, built a dwelling much larger than most of his neighbours with a bag of Spanish gold, and that generations of seafaring Millers subsequently were "sometimes prosperous, sometimes severely pinched". Poverty came when Miller lost his father in a shipwreck at the age of five. It would thus be quite inaccurate to present the cottage as a place of either wealth or poverty.
It cannot help being picturesque, as one of very few thatched cottages with tiny windows and low doors and a cobbled courtyard remaining on the east coast. Its picturesque quality is undoubtedly one factor in its survival.
At the cottage, we are delighted that one of his supposedly "unreadable" tomes, "The Testimony of the Rocks", has just been republished, while another, "The Cruise of the Betsey", is due out in the autumn, and a new biography is planned to follow. "My Schools and Schoolmasters" and "Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotlind" sell modestly but steadily.
Miller's fossil collection effectively founded what is today's national collection in the National Museums. Sir Archibald Geikie, head of the first HM Geological Survey of Scotland was his protege. The father of American landscape conservation, John Muir, named a glacier for him in Alaska; some Devonian cliffs on the Restigouche River in Quebec bear his name, as does a fossil species in New York state. The Ardersier born naturalist Robert McKenzie Johnston of Tasmania was inspired by Miller. One of today's greatest Australian palaeontologists, Alex Ritchie, discoverer of the huge Canowindra Devonian fishbeds in New South Wales, carries a copy of "The Old Red Sandstone" round in his pocket. The Miller oil and gas field in the North Sea is still in production. Some record for an "amateur dabbler". So much for Miller the geologist.
As a journalist, I believe his polemics denouncing the Clearances were the equal of Marx's, if not superior. Marx and his heirs have ultimately been no more successful than Miller and the Free Church in converting the masses. Perhaps that's why Mitchell wrote such an embittered, sour, and premature dismissal of a great 19th Century Scot of whom we can all be proud. Yours faithfully.
Acting Property Manager (National Trust for Scotland)
OVERHEATED TOM - MORTON VERSUS MILLER
The Bicentenary year got off to a very sour and distasteful start when a well-known journalist, Tom Morton, took a pot shot at the children's opera in his column in The Scotsman newspaper.
Under a headline, "Not in Front of the Children" he "just wondered how you incorporate into a children's opera the dodgy sexual practices, syphilis, madness and suicide which hallmarked at least some of Hugh Miller's life."
Our local councillor David Alston, who is also Curator of Cromarty Courthouse Museum, said perhaps Morton would find any comparison between himself and Miller as a journalist "unsettling."
He continued: "Miller was a leading nineteenth century newspaper editor, often producing 10,000 words a week for The Witness.... His suicide, whatever the root cause, was at least partly the result of overwork.
"Like Tom Morton, Miller could be argumentative, provocative and down right infuriating. But, although not always right, Miller was a perceptive commentator on society and had a rigorous regard for the truth. In contrast, Tom Morton's claim that Miller's life was "hallmarked" by "dodgy sexual practices, syphilis and madness" bears no relation to the facts and seems more the product of a dangerously overheated imagination.
"Could it be time for Tom to take a break from the demands of journalism."