"RANGE, VISION AND PASSION"
HUGH MILLER - THE JOURNALIST
Professor (Emeritus) Alan Harding believes that Miller's journalism is a subject which the recent Bicentenary Conference (Cromarty, October 2002) "did not quite do justice to."
He has written two articles* of assessment based on fairly extensive reading of The Witness. The first looks at Miller's reporting of The Disruption, and in general, his performance as Editor.
AN AGE OF REVOLUTIONS
THE turning-point in Miller's career came in 1839, at the height of the 'ten years conflict,' when he circulated an open Letter to Lord Brougham asserting the right of congregations to reject patrons' nominations of ministers.
On the strength of it, he was brought to Edinburgh by (Thomas) Chalmers and the evangelical party in the Kirk to edit a newspaper which should be the 'sledgehammer' of the non-intrusionist cause.
The person they chose was hardly, as he claimed in the Letter, a 'plain working man,' equipped to speak for his countrymen by 'knowledge won slowly and painfully in the intervals of a laborious life.' The son of a shipmaster from a prosperious port, he had read voraciously while learning the trade of stonemason, coming south in 1824 to work for some months 'at Niddry, a gentleman's seat about four miles south of Edinburgh,' attending the theatre from his lodginings on the Dalkeith Road, and forming a low opinoin of the debauched labourers of the metropolis.
He had published poetry and articles (eg Letters on the Herring Fishery in the Moray Firth) in the Inverness Courier, and in 1835, by which time he was the accountant of the new Cromarty branch of the Commercial Bank and about to marry the middle-class Lydia Fraser, he had published Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, or The Traditionary History of Cromarty.
He had also taught himself the basis of geology, the science which was presenting one of the great intellectual challenges of the time and would give full rein to his speculative urge and powers of description.
Much has been written about this younger Hugh Miller, the self-made man of his own image, but much less about his achievement as a newspaper editor in the last sixteen years of his life, when all his talents came together in what seems to me remarkable journalism.
The Witness was a weekly, then a twice-weekly, newspaper, which quickly rivalled The Scotsman in readership: a very broad sheet of four pages, each page of seven two-thousand word columns, which placed the battles of the Free Church and of evnagelicals everywhere alongside national and world events. Since the staff of the Witness office on the north side of the high Street was miniscule, reports were often borrowed from London or foreign papers: the distinction of the Witness was in the range, vision and passion of Hugh Miller's column-length leaders, which must have amounted to several million words by the end.
In Miller's columns I found the great set-piece descriptions of the events of Thursday 18th May 1843, the opening day of the General Assembly, when 'the fatal die was cast' and the Free Church 'escaped from bondage.'
The Witness describes the morning levee held by the Lord High Commissioner, the Marquess of Bute, at Holyrood: in the crush a portrait of William III is knocked from the wall, and a voice from the crowd exclaims 'there goes the Revolution Settlement.'
At the meeting-place of the Assembly, St Andrew's Church in George Street, benches of rosy-cheeked "moderates" (the party that had regained control of the Kirk from the evangelicals) wait nervously for the arrival of the retiring Moderator, Dr Welsh, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Edinburgh University, 'amusingthmeslves with concerns of the chase and the cellar, the larder and the dormitory,' and looking like 'a bed of full-blown piony-roses glistening after a shower.'
Surveying the church leaders present, Miller cannot resist getting in a dig at a rival geologist: 'on the one side, we saw Moderate science personified in Dr Anderson of Newburgh - a dabbler in geology, who found a fish in the Old Red Sandstone, and described it as a beetle, - and we saw science, not moderate, represented by Sir David Brewster.' (Brewster, a physicist and later principal of Edinburgh University, was the leading evangelical elder.)
Dr Welsh arrives to read a solemn protest against the coercion of the Church by the civil courts, whereupon two hundred ministers and elders rise to follow Welsh and Chalmers out of the church to cries of 'They come! They come! Thank God, they come,' and process down Hanover Street through cheering crowds to the Tanfield Hall at Canonmills, there to constitute themselves the Free Protecsting Church of Scotland, with Chalmers as its first Moderator.
The most prominent figure in the famous David Octavius Hill painting of the members of that first Free Church assembly, which hangs and ought to be seen in the Free Church College on the Mound, is that of Hugh Miller, his characteristic plaid over his shoulder, recording the proceedings from a position at the right had end of the table, on which lie copies of his newspaper.
Miller's combative journalism made him enemies. His nineteenth-century biographer Peter Bayne, tells how two friends went to visit him in Sylvan Place, and not finding him at home, returned across The Meadows in the dusk. Suddenly Miller strode past without recognizing them, and one of them turned and 'exclaimed with mock ferocity, "There goes that rascally editor of the Witness." Hugh at once faced round and presented a pistol,' excusing himself when he discovered who it was, 'by saying that it would not surpise him to be attacked any day.'
Some in his own Free Church were embarrassed by his style. In a letter to the committee sponsoring the Witness in 1847, Miller declared 'open war' on the Rev Dr Robert Candlish, the dominant personality in the Edinburgh Presbytery, who he believed had repeatedly conspired to censor the paper and ultimately have him revoed from the editorship for a 'lack of taste and tact in the handling of public questions.' This had so affected the Doctor's nerves, he was told, that he never opened the paper now without a feeling of dread lest something untoward should be in it.' Miller insisted that the Witness would be destroyed if Candlish achieved his purpose of turning it into a 'Free Church Centralization Journal, and Parliament-House Gazette.'
The editorship had not been of his seeking, he wrote, but once there, he knew that Providence had put him 'in his true place.' He communicated directly with his readers, and had 'no other influence than what he owes to the degree of confidence reposed by them in the integrity of his principles or the coundness of his judgement.'
Bayne asserts that, although Miller won the battle with Candlish, he never got over it; thereafter he shied away from discussing the business of his beloved Free Church, and the clergy never came near his office, so that after the death of his patron, Thomas Chalmers, later in 1847 he was left in a depressed isolation to concetrate on the'more congenial sphere of science and literature.' In fact Miller had told the committee that the paper was compelled to change once the 'great and intensely exciting drama' of the Disruption was over. (I suspect the let-down was the true source of the depressive illness he complained of in 1845-6).
THE MIRROR OF HIS WORLD
From the very beginning Miller had made of the paper what he wanted, which was a mirror of the world as he had learnt to see it and understand it for himself. The Old Red Sandstone, the book which made his name as a geologist, began to appear in the newspaper in its inaugural year of 1840. Discovering geology and the importance of learning 'to make a right use of the eyes was at the heart of the story of his self-education told in My Schools and Schoolmasters, the first twenty chapters of which appeared in the Witness every Saturday from June 1853.
His writings on education also served Miller's evangelical commitments. His paper lauded the biblical teaching at Thomas Guthrie's 'Ragged School,' but opposed the government's allocation of educational grants on a sectarian basis, partly because Miller believed the appointment of schoolmasters (like that of parish ministers) belonged to all the people on a household franchise, and partly because he could not stomach the public endowment of Roman Catholic schools.
Miller's leading articles combined marvellous descriptions of geology and landscape, lively observations of scoiety, and passionate political commentary. As I read on through the Witness... it was the range of the discussion of social questions and the state of the world which made an impression on me. Miller was both exhilarated and frightened by the revolution in communications. He presented a lurid vision of the apocalypse that would follow the running of the trains on Sundays, but he was gratified 'to see the working man taking his secular Sabbaths...spending them rationally in exploring new scenes, and filling his mind with fresh images,' and 'members of Friendly and Temperance Societies several hundred strong' going on 'pleasure trips to Glasgow and the land of Burns...even to London...with time to see the Lions.'
He believed that 'everything like "authority," with all the worship that waits on it, had been exploded by travel, which 'mingled all ranks and conditons together in the same steam-boat, in the same railway-train.'
In the wake of 11th September 2001 (9/11), I found positively startling the contemporaneity, and tone of some of Miller's leaders on the politics of the wider world.
In 1842 he declared that the country 'had not yet been able rightly to appreciate the disasters of Afghanistan,' because it was humiliating to conceive of the war there in its true character of 'an unprincipled conspiracy of the civilised, horribly anvenged by infuriated savages' (a British force had been massacred in the Kyber Pass).
At the close of 1848, the year of revolutions, he marvelled at how the world had changed from a year before, when 'history seemed to want incident.' 'Our leading statesmen' were deluded in thinking they could deal with the crisis by the old 'petty style of diplomatic manoeuvre,' for the beast of Atheistic Liberalism was out for revenge on 'the Babylonish beast' of the ancient despotisms, and the two would destroy each other by their atrocities.
After the Crimean War, Miller feared that trust between nations would never be restored; the country with the largest ready-made apparatus of war in the most perfect state' would now always be master, and war the trade of a body of men 'with an interest in bringing it about.'
On 24 January 1855 the Witness announced a new anxiety: what part would America play in this altered world? 'All that is truly noble and great among the American race they had from us,' the blood in their veins, the tongue they spoke, the 'hardy and energetic qualities' which were 'fast winning for them no second ploace on the globe;' what would America have been without free Britain's laws, literature, commerce, 'and, above all, her Protestantism?'
Yet the American papers were accusing the British and French of a conspiracy to establish 'a kind of balance of power in the American continent,' and saying that 'no enlightened American' could rejoice in Russia's defeat and humiliation.
SENSE OF DOOM
In the final weeks of Miller's life the rising flood of 'intelligennce' from home and abroad seems to have become a source of increasing agitation.
'WEe now never open a newspaper but with a feeling of terroor' began leader on a spte of murders by poisoning. Why, Miller asked, should 'these hideous inqiuties stalk abroad' in 'the most civilized and Christian nation on earth,' and why, with all the church-building, forming of societieis for the relief of distress, and endowment of educational instittutions, do 'we never seem to make head against the mass of misery and crime?'
In November 1856, a first leader greeted with dism,ay reports of the election of President Buchanana (by the smallest margin ever) and the victory of a party on America which talked of annexing all the West Indian islands to whzatever governments they belonged, occupying Panama and renewing the slave t5rrade.
'Shouold anything come of all this speculative braggardism, what consequences ot Europe and the whole earth?'
An article entitled 'What Next and What Now,' printed on 5 and 19 November, declared the dominant characteristic of the age to be 'unusually rapid change.' In the previous fifty years there had been wonderful 'inventions in art' and 'discoveries in science,' and the development of a 'facility and rapidity of transit' which allowed the inhabitants of the most diustant parts to visit and revisit the remotest places 'without even pausing to wonder at the fact.'
Above all the electric telelgraph was girdling the globe with a new zone, so that 'friendly salutations or hostile messages may soon be transmitted at a moment's notice...between the citizens of Edinburgh and those of Pekin, or between those of New York and the men of Patagonia.' 'All the powers in society' were 'working with a force and velocity unprecedented.'
The 'social, commercial, and military mnovements of the world' were all affected, and 'haste, haste, haste' drove 'opinions, literature and actons.' ' Men generally are living fast, too fast....The fever of the brain and the sweat of the brow bear witness to the pressure.' A metaphor for modern life was the description of 'the manners and business habits of the citizens of New York,' where people are 'restless and feverish' and 'never done working,' and buildings are 'thrown up six floors towards heaven in as many weeks' and as ruthlessly demolished.
Yet 'the lust of empire' remained stronger than 'the motives that give life and energy to commerce...(which are) so much calculated upon the securities of peace.' The Crimean War's disturbance of the 'economics or money system,' despite compensating influences from California and Australia, perplexed 'the monarch in his cabinet', paralysed the merchant at his desk,' and distressed 'the peasant among his children,' and 'this distress, there is but too much ground to fear, is but the beginning of sorrows.'
People were left with a terrible sense of insecurity, a 'fearful apprehensiveness about the immediate future.' Just as much as wonderful inventions these disasters were dispensations of Providence. 'The telegraphic message' transmitted by the increasing velocity of events signified the rushing on of the Day of Judgement.
The promised third part of 'What Next and What Now' never appeared (what more was there to say?), and in the early hours of Wednesday 24 December 1856 Hugh Miller shot himself through the heart at his house at Shrub Mount, Portobello. A week later a great crowd met his hearse outside Register House and processed to his burial under the north wall of Grange Cemetery, a few yards from Thomas Chalmers, who allegedly had often, 'self-oblivious,' called Miller 'the greatest Scotchman alive after Sir Walter Scott's death.'
A more judicous tribute came from an old opponent, the editor of the Scotsman, who wrote that while Miller had scarecely aimed 'at the performance of the most arduous duties of a journalist,' his passing had deprived the Scottish press 'of one who was felt to give ti dignity and character' by the vigour anx coimpleteness of his leading artc iles, which were admired by friends and foes alike. Russel also remarked that the editor of the Witness had been destroyed by overwork of the brain, 'the peculiar malady of these days, and of men of his class.'
ThIs article, and a second which will follow shortly, first appeared in the Newsletter of the Edinburgh University History Graduates Association (No 35, April 2002, and No 36, January 2003).
Prof Harding was a member of Edinburgh University's History Department from 1961 to 1980, and then chair of medieval history in Liverpool, until his retiral in 1996.
THE ROAD THROUGH THE MEADOWS
Hugh Miller was what we would today call an environmentalist, more than 150 years before his time. In these extracts from his second article, Professor Alan Harding shows how his opposition to plans for "driving a coach and horses" (literally) through The Meadows, fitted in with his views on both nature and society.
Anyone who knows the Meadows, and particularly who remembers the fight in the 1960s to prevent the building of an 'inner relief road' across them, will be interested in the debate in 1855 about their laying out, which I came across while reading Hugh Miller's newspaper, The Witness.
The threat to this public space posed by the development of the southern suburbs and the transformation of the approach to the Old Town from south and west was anticipated by the Committee of the House of Commons dealing with the Edinburgh Improvement Bill of 1827. This inserted a clause which forbade building on the Meadows or Bruntsfield links in pereptuity, overriding the objection that their value to the Town Council was thereby drastically reduced.
In May 1855 The Witness reported the conclusions of a Joint Committee of the Town Council and the Commissioners of Police set up to consider how the Meadows might be made into a public park. It had awarded a first prize £50 to the plan of a Mr T Davies, a civil engineer, and recommended the acceptance of his key proposal for the making of a carriage drive 'thirty-four feet in breadth, including two footpaths' from west to east through the centre of the Meadows, though before work was begun the line should be staked out and suggestions for alteration invited.
In the meeting of the Town Council which received the recommendation on 23 May it was objected that the park was supposed to be 'for the benefit of the humbler classes, but this carriage road would benefit the upper classes', and that the road would cost £2000 (with entrances £4000) while by a simple enlargement of 'the present road on the south side' much expense would be saved, and 'the Meadows would be preserved entire'.
On the other side several members thought that a road through the centre would yield beautiful views - to which it was replied that the pedestrians could get them now - and Mr Blackadder said that it was precisely on grounds of shortness and cheapness that the central route had been preferred.
On 9 June Hugh Miller, who had stayed on both sides of the Meadows, in Archibald Place and Sylvan Place, joined in the argument with one of his famous leaders, 'a lithograph reduction of the winning design' before him. He entirely agreed with the town council's objection to the carriage road, that the line presently proposed would leave the humbler classes only 'broken nooks and conrers', and in this peroration, he rejoiced to be living 'in an age in which the rights of people in such matters were so distinctly recognised'.
It was not fifty years since the great stone in which the standard of James IV was fixed before his march to Flodden, might be seen in its original place, four hundred yards from the Meadows' western corner: when the standard was raised, 'every working man in Scotland could be summoned to attend the king at Edinburgh, furnished with jack, spear, and axe, and provided, at his own special cost, with forty days' provision. At a period only a few ages earlier serfship existed very generally in a neighbouring county.'
Now, though class interests still occasionally prevailed, legislation tended 'to regard rather the welfare of the many, than the pleasures of the few', and in spending public money, determined, as a matter of course, that 'the humbler amusements of a class who walk' were not to be sacrificed to 'the more exclusive enjoyments of the people who ride'. What Wordsworth termed 'the great current of tendency' was moving towards a recognition that 'the general interests of humanity are of vastly greater importance than the mere privileges of class'.
But the body of The Witness's argument was that 'if you look at the Meadows themselves and the various objects that rise up around them', a central line for the carriage-drive 'would be quite as objectionable on aesthetic as utilitarian grounds'. 'Aesthetic' may be too weak a word, for Miller had a reverence for landscape, and it was a vivid sense of how the landscape was formed that made him so notable a geologist and educationalist.
CHAIN OF LAKES
The vision of the Meadows which Miller presented in May 1855 derived its power from his understanding of the geology, and first-hand appreciation of the picturesque qualities of the part of Edinburgh he had made his home in later life. He begins by noting that the space had been occupied by the Borough Loch, one of a chain of lakes stretching from Duddingston to the slopes of Corstorphine', and remembers that as late as the winter of 1824 he saw a large portion of the eastern Meadows reduced to a lake by wet weather. When it was drained, excavations showed that the sub-soil consisted of 'beds of lake-shells, chiefly lymenea and valvata, overlaid by a deposit of moss, containing horns of the red deer'.
This is a preliminary to the assertion that 'the first landscape painters of the country' would judge a carriage drive across the old bed of the Borough Loch to provide the worst vantage-point for appreciating the vista from the Meadows. It should be moved to the southern side, in order to exploit 'the peculiar picturesqueness' of the scene - of 'the tall trees of Warrender's Parks', the ridge of the Borough Moor, 'the rich well-grown trees of the Hope Park villas', and Arthur's Seat and the Castle, the latter certainly visible from the proposed line but 'at a defective angle, and in consequence, less imposing'.
From a proper vantage point the great buildings of the Old Town, St Giles, Heriot's, the spire of the Victoria Hall and the Merchant Maidens' Hospital would look fine - Watson's Hospital too, though in a homelier style - but the Lauriston Lodge was comparatively poor, and the sombre back part of Buccleuch Place and George Square would require to be hidden by trees. The improvers should 'do what would assuredly be done by the skilful artist in transferring their forms to canvas - give prominence to the better objects, and all possible cover to the worse and less pleasing ones'.
The grounds themselves were full of possibility, and there was 'no finer subject for the exercise of the judgement of a man of taste than that furnished by the projected improvements'. The proposed link between the eastern end and the Queen's Park and St Leonard's 'would unite two pieces of scenery more diverse in their character, though alike exquisite in their kind, than are perhaps to be found within the same space anywhere in the British Islands.'
More doubtful were the plans to introduce a lake that would be a mere pool; no-one wanted back the ague and malaria which had disappeared with the Borough Loch, and Dunsappy and Duddingston would do for skating and curling.The 'manly British style' was to be preferred to the toy-like artifices of Dutch gardening'. Vast expenditure was not needed, when Nature had done so much.
The one simple rule which the improvers must follow was 'never to sacrifice to the spirit of change, under almost any circumstances, a grown tree'. It was to its trees that this piece of ground owed 'much of the beauty peculiar to itself', and it had taken about eighty years to make them what they were. The rows of elms and beeches on each side of the southern walk were too close together for a carriage road of the necessary breadth to be made between them, but rather than the trees be sacrificed 'the present inner row' should be protected in the space between a double line of road. 'The Police Commission can make excellent roads; but time, and time only, can make respectable trees'.
A letter from 'D.G., Perthshire' in the next issue of The Witness (of 13 June 1855) found the poverty of its views a weaker objection to the central line of the road than that the ground would be cut up by horses and carriages and the 'quietness and seclusion which pedestrian visitors may require' be destroyed.
But it added a third objection; it would cut the park in two and do away with that breadth of effect achieved by park and flower garden designers in the English style, who gathered 'shrubs, trees and flower beds in masses towards the verges, leaving an unbroken expanze of grass in the middle ground.'
The existing walk from north to south (Middle Meadow Walk) should be removed, or at least the belt of trees bordering it broken up; the designers had been hampered by 'the conditions laid down regarding the preservation of every existing tree'. D.G. hoped that something would be done in the Meadows 'worthy of the modern Athens', and that the 'civic rulers' would then 'turn their attention to the forming of a park, arboretum, and necropolis, the best in Europe, on Arthur's Seat and the neighbouring waste grounds'.
On 23 June The Witness reported that on the previous Thursday the central line of the road had been staked out, and 'the route we advocated also', so that the Town Council and the public could judge, and added that even if the matter was not settled 'on scenic grounds', the appearance of the Meadows in the evenings since the eastern portion has been thrown open' should be conclusive.
'Almost the whole surface of the verdant expanse is, in fine weather, dotted with groups of young men engaged in manly exercises and games of various kinds, and presenting a highly animated scene:' The projected central drive would put an end to all that.
A week later the paper was able to report that the joint committee had met 'on the grounds', and first decided that the western entrance of the park should be from 'the under or east end of Home Street', not opposite the gateway of Gillespie's Hospital as had been suggested. They then walked to the centre of the West Meadow, and also along the south side (it almost sounds as though Miller was leading them); and 'came to the conclusion that the finest and most open views of the city were to be obtained from the south side'; and decided that the road should run round the inner edge of the Meadows, inside the line of young trees. 'The proposed central drive has thus been condemned'.
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