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....Low lies the grandest head in all Scotland.
We'll miss him when there's noble work to do!
We'll miss him coming through the crowded street,
Like plaided Shepherd from the Ross-shire Hills,
Stalwart and iron-gray and weather-worn;
His tall head holding up a lonely lamp
Of steadfast thought still-burning in his eyes,
Like some masthead-light lonely through the night...

by Gerald Massey


Geologist, journalist and author.

A Brief Biography by

Samuel Smiles.

A Calotype, ca 1843.

MEN may learn much that is good from each other's lives,—especially from good men's lives.  Men who live in our daily sight, as well as men who have lived before us, and handed down illustrious examples for our imitation, are the most valuable practical teachers.  For it is not mere literature that makes men,—it is real, practical life, that chiefly moulds our nature, enables us to work out our own education, and to build up our own character.

    HUGH MILLER has very strikingly worked out this idea in his admirable autobiography, entitled, "My Schools and Schoolmasters."  It is extremely interesting, even fascinating, as a book; but it is more than an ordinary book,—it might almost be called an institution.  It is the history of the formation of a truly noble and independent character in the humblest condition of life,—the condition in which a large mass of the people of this country are born and brought up; and it teaches all, but especially poor men, what it is in the power of each to accomplish for himself.  The life of Hugh Miller is full of lessons of self-help and self-respect, and shows the efficacy of these in working out for a man an honourable competence and a solid reputation. It may not be that every man has the thew and sinew, the large brain and heart, of a Hugh Miller,—for there is much in what we may call the breed of a man, the defect of which no mere educational advantages can supply; but every man can at least do much, by the help of such examples as his, to elevate himself, and build up his moral and intellectual character on a solid foundation.

"....on finding in my copybook, on one occasion, a page filled with rhymes, which I had headed "Poem on Care," he brought it to his desk, and, after reading it carefully over, called me up, and with his closed penknife, which served as a pointer, in the one hand, and the copybook brought down to the level of my eyes in the other, began his criticism.  "That's bad grammar, Sir," he said, resting the knife-handle on one of the lines; "and here's an ill-spelt word; and there's another; and you have not at all attended to the punctuation; but the general sense of the piece is good,—very good indeed, Sir."  And then he added, with a grim smile, "Care, Sir, is, I daresay, as you remark, a very bad thing; but you may safely bestow a little more of it on your spelling and your grammar...."

A schoolmasterly criticism of Miller's juvenile 'Poem on Care', from
'My Schools and Schoolmasters.'

    We have spoken of the breed of a man.  In Hugh Miller we have an embodiment of that most vigorous and energetic element of English national life,—the Norwegian and Danish.    In times long, long ago, the daring and desperate pirates of these nations swarmed along the eastern coasts.  In England they were resisted by force of arms, for the prize of England's crown was a rich one; yet, by dint of numbers, valour, and bravery, they made good their footing in England, and even governed the eastern part of it by their own kings until the time of Alfred the Great.  And to this day the Danish element amongst the population of the east and northeast of England is by far the prevailing one.  But in Scotland it was different. They never reigned there; but they settled and planted all the eastern coasts.  The land was poor and thinly peopled; and the Scottish kings and chiefs were too weak—generally too much occupied by intestine broils—to molest or dispossess them.    Then these Danes and Norwegians led a seafaring life, were sailors and fishermen, which the native Scots were not.  So they settled down in all the bays and bights along the coast of Scotland, and took entire possession of the Orkneys, Shetland, and Western Isles, the Shetlands having been held by the crown of Denmark down to a comparatively recent period.   They never amalgamated with the Scotch Highlanders; and to this day they speak a different language, and follow different pursuits.  The Highlander was a hunter, a herdsman, a warrior, and fished in the fresh waters only.  The descendants of the Norwegians, or the Lowlanders, as they came to be called, followed the sea, fished in salt waters, cultivated the soil, and engaged in trade and commerce.  Hence the marked difference between the population of the town of Cromarty—where Hugh Miller was born, in 1802—and the population only a few miles inland; the townspeople speaking Lowland Scotch, and being dependent for their subsistence mainly on the sea,—the others speaking Gaelic, and living solely, upon the land.

"....The concluding evening prayer was one of great solemnity and unction.  I was unacquainted with the language in which it was couched; but it was impossible to avoid being struck, notwithstanding, with its wrestling earnestness and fervour.  The man who poured it forth evidently believed there was an unseen ear open to it, and an all-seeing presence in the place, before whom every secret thought lay exposed.  The entire scene was a deeply impressive one; and when I saw, in witnessing the celebration of high mass in a Popish cathedral many years after, the altar suddenly enveloped in a dim and picturesque obscurity, amid which the curling smoke of the incense ascended, and heard the musically-modulated prayer sounding in the distance from within the screen, my thoughts reverted to the rude Highland cottage, where, amid solemnities not theatric, the red umbry light of the fire fell with uncertain glimmer upon dark walls, and bare black rafters, and kneeling forms, and a pale expanse of dense smoke, that, filling the upper portion of the roof, overhung the floor like a ceiling, and there arose amid the gloom the sounds of prayer truly God-directed, and poured out from the depths of the heart...."

Evening prayers in a Highland cottage, spoken in Gaelic, from
'My Schools and Schoolmasters.'

    These Norwegian colonists of Cromarty held in their blood the very same piratical propensities which characterized their forefathers who followed the Vikings.  Hugh Miller first saw the light in a long, low-built house, built by his great-grandfather, John Feddes, "one of the last of the buccaneers;" this cottage having been built, as Hugh Miller himself says he has every reason to believe, with "Spanish gold."  All his ancestors were sailors and seafaring men; when boys they had taken to the water as naturally as ducklings. Traditions of adventures by sea were rife in the family.  Of his grand-uncles, one had sailed round the world with Anson, had assisted in burning Paeta, and in boarding the Manilla galleon; another, a handsome and powerful man, perished at sea in a storm; and his grandfather was dashed overboard by the jib-boom of his little vessel when entering the Cromarty Firth, and never rose again.  The son of this last, Hugh Miller's father, was sent into the country by his mother to work upon a farm, thus to rescue him, if possible, from the hereditary fate of the family.  But it was of no use.  The propensity for the salt water, the very instinct of the breed, was too powerful within him.  He left the farm, went to sea, became a man-of-war's man, was in the battle with the Dutch off the Dogger Bank, sailed all over the world, then took "French leave" of the royal navy, returned to Cromarty with money enough to buy a sloop and engage in trade on his own account.  But this vessel was one stormy night knocked to pieces on the bar of Findhorn, the master and his men escaping with difficulty; then another vessel was fitted out by him, by the help of his friends, and in this he was trading from place to place when Hugh Miller was born.

".....The other half of the prospect embraces the iron and coal districts, with their many towns and villages, their smelting furnaces, forges, steam-engines, tall chimneys, and pit-fires innumerable; and beyond the whole lies the huge Birmingham, that covers its four square miles of surface with brick. No day, however bright and clear, gives a distinct landscape in this direction,—all is dingy and dark; the iron furnaces vomit smoke night and noon, Sabbath-day and week-day; and the thick reek rises ceaselessly to heaven, league beyond league, like the sulphurous cloud of some never-ending battle."

A distant vista of Birmingham, from 'First Impressions of England and its People.'

   What a vivid picture of sea-life, as seen from the shore at least, do we obtain from the early chapters of Miller's life! "I retain," says he, "a vivid recollection of the joy which used to light up the household on my father's arrival, and how I learned to distinguish for myself his sloop when in the offing, by the two slim stripes of white that ran along her sides, and her two square topsails."  But a terrible calamity—though an ordinary one in sea-life—suddenly plunged the sailor's family in grief; and he, too, was gathered to the same grave in which so many of his ancestors lay,—the deep ocean.  A terrible storm overtook his vessel near Peterhead; numbers of ships were lost along the coast; vessel after vessel came ashore, and the beach was strewn with wrecks and dead bodies, but no remnant of either the ship or bodies of Miller and his crew was ever cast up.  It was supposed that the little sloop, heavily laden, and labouring in a mountainous sea, must have started a plank and foundered.  Hugh Miller was but a child at the time, having only completed his fifth year.  The following remarkable "appearance," very much in Mrs. Crowe's way, made a strong impression upon him at the time.  The house-door had blown open, in the gray of evening, and the boy was sent by his mother to shut it.


"....It is surely a remarkable fact, that in an army never more than seven miles removed from the base line of its operations, the distress suffered was so great, that nearly five times the number of men sank under it than perished in battle.  There was no want among them of pinheading and pinheaded martinets.  The errors of officers such as Lucan and Cardigan are understood to be all on the side of severity. . . . So far as the statistics of the British portion of this greatest of sieges have yet been ascertained, rather more than three thousand men perished in battle by the shot or steel of the enemy, or afterwards of their wounds, and rather more than fifteen thousand men of privation and disease.  As for the poor soldiers themselves, they could do but little in even more favourable circumstances under the pinheading martinets...."

Characteristics of the Crimean War, from Leading Articles.

    "Day had not wholly disappeared, but it was fast posting on to night, and a gray haze spread a neutral tint of dimness over every more distant object, but left the nearer ones comparatively distinct, when I saw at the open door, within less than a yard of my breast, as plainly as ever I saw anything, a dissevered hand and arm stretched towards me.  Hand and arm were apparently those of a female: they bore a livid and sodden appearance; and directly fronting me, where the body ought to have been, there was only blank, transparent space, through which I could see the dim forms of the objects beyond.  I was fearfully startled, and ran shrieking to my mother, telling what I had seen; and the house-girl, whom she next sent to shut the door, affected by my terror, also returned frightened, and said that she, too, had seen the woman's hand; which, however, did not seem to be the case.  And finally, my mother going to the door, saw nothing, though she appeared much impressed by the extremeness of my terror, and the minuteness of my description.  communicate the story as it lies fixed in my memory, without attempting to explain it: its coincidence with the probable time of my father's death, seems at least curious."


"....Birmingham produces on the average a musket per minute, night and day, throughout the year: it, besides, furnishes the army with its swords, the navy with its cutlasses and pistols, and the busy writers of the day with their steel pens by the hundredweight and the ton; and thus it labours to deserve its name of the "Great Toy-shop of Britain," by fashioning toys in abundance for the two most serious games of the day—the game of war and the game of opinion-making."

The business of Birmingham, from 'First Impressions of England and its People.'

    The little boy longed for his father's return, and continued to gaze across the deep, watching for the sloop with its two stripes of white along the sides.  Every morning he went wandering about the little harbour, to examine the vessels which had come in during the night; and he continued to look out across the Moray Forth long after anybody else had ceased to hope.  But months and years passed, and the white stripes and square topsails of his father's sloop he never saw again.   The boy was the son of a sailor's widow, and so grew up, in sight of the sea, and with the same love of it that characterized his father.  But he was sent to school; first to a dame school, where he learnt his letters; he then worked his way through the Catechism, the Proverbs, and the New Testament and emerged into the golden region of "Sinbad the Sailor," "Jack the Giant-Killer," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp."  Other books followed,—the Pilgrim's Progress, Cook's and Anson's Voyages, and Blind Harry the Rhymer's History of Wallace; which first awoke within him a strong feeling of Scottish patriotism.  And thus his childhood grew, on proper child-like nourishment.  His uncles were men of solid sense and sound judgment, though uncultured by scholastic education.  One was a local antiquary, by trade a working harness-maker; the other was of a strong religious turn: he was a working cartwright, and in early life had been a sailor, engaged in nearly all Nelson's famous battles.  The examples and the conversation of these men were for the growing boy worth any quantity of school primers: he learnt from them far more than mere books could teach him.


"....The age has been peculiarly an age of exploration—a locomotive age: commerce, curiosity, the spirit of adventure, the desire of escaping from the tedium of inactive life,—these, and other motives besides, have scattered travellers by hundreds, during the period of our long European peace, over almost every country of the world.  And hence so mighty an increase of knowledge in this department, that what the last age knew of the subject has been altogether overgrown.  Vast additions, too, have been made to the province of mechanical contrivance: the constructive faculties of the country, stimulated apparently by the demands of commerce and the influence of competition both at home and abroad, have performed in well-nigh a single generation the work of centuries..."

The 7th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, from 'Leading Articles.'

    But his school education was not neglected either.  From the dame's school he was transferred to the town's grammar school, where, amidst about one hundred and fifty other boys and girls, he received his real school education.  But it did not amount to much.  There, however, the boy learnt life,—to hold his own,—to try his powers with other boys,—physically and morally, as well as scholastically.  The school brought out the stuff that was in him in many ways, but the mere book-learning was about the least part of the instruction.


"...It was Sabbath, but the morning rose like a hypochondriac wrapped up in his night-clothes,—gray in fog, and sad with rain..."

At anchor in the bay of Kildonan, from 'The Cruise of the Betsey.'

    The school-house looked out on the beach, fronting the opening of the Frith, and not a boat or a ship could pass in or out of the harbour of Cromarty without the boys seeing it.   They knew the rig of every craft, and could draw them on their slates.  Boats unloaded their glittering cargoes on the beach, where the process of gutting afterwards went busily on; and to add to the bustle, there was a large killing-place for pigs not thirty yards from the school door, "where from eighty to a hundred pigs used sometimes to die for the general good in a single day; and it was a great matter to hear, at occasional intervals, the roar of death rising high over the general murmur within, or to be told by some comrade, returned from his five minutes' leave of absence, that a hero of a pig had taken three blows of a hatchet ere it fell, and that, even after its subjection to the sticking process, it had got hold of Jock Keddie's hand in its mouth, and almost smashed his thumb." Certainly it is not in every grammar-school that such lessons as these are taught.


"....On both sides the river the eye rests on a multitude of scattered patches of green, that seem inlaid in the brown heath.  We trace on these islands of sward the marks of furrows, and mark here and there, through the loneliness, the remains of a group of cottages, well-nigh levelled with the soil, and, haply like those ruins which eastern conquerors leave in their track, still scathed with fire.  All is solitude within the valley, except where, at wide intervals, the shieling of a shepherd may be seen....It would seem as if for twenty miles the long withdrawing valley had been swept of its inhabitants....And such generally is the present state of Sutherland.  The interior is a solitude occupied by a few sheep-farmers and their hinds; while a more numerous population than fell to the share of the entire county, ere the inhabitants were expelled from their inland holdings, and left to squat upon the coast, occupy the selvage of discontent and poverty that fringes its this instance the victory of the lord of the soil over the children of the soil was signal and complete.   In little more than nine years a population of fifteen thousand individuals were removed from the interior of Sutherland to its sea-coasts, or had emigrated to America.  The inland districts were converted into deserts, through which the traveller may take a long day's journey, amid ruins that still bear the scathe of fire, and grassy patches betraying, when the evening sun casts aslant its long deep shadows, the half-effaced lines of the plough...."

The terrible Highland 'clearances,' from Sutherland as it Was and Is.

    Miller was put to Latin, but made little progress in it,—his master had no method, and the boy was too fond of telling stories to his schoolfellows in school hours to make much progress.  Cock-fighting was a school practice in those days, apparently the master having a perquisite of two-pence for every cock that was entered by the boys on the days of the yearly fight.  But Miller had no love for this sport, although he paid his entry money with the rest.  In the mean time his miscellaneous reading extended, and he gathered pickings of odd knowledge from all sorts of odd quarters,— from workmen, carpenters, fishermen and sailors, old women, and, above all, from the old boulders strewed along the shores of the Cromarty Frith.  With a big hammer, which had belonged to his great-grandfather, John Feddes, the buccaneer, the boy went about chipping the stones, and thus early accumulating specimens of mica, porphyry, garnet, and such like, exhibiting them to his uncle Alexander, and other admiring relations.   Often, too, he had a day in woods to visit his uncle, when working as a sawyer,—his trade of cartwright having, failed. And there, too, the boy's attention was excited by the peculiar geological curiosities which lay in his way.  While searching among the stones and rocks on the beach, he was sometimes asked, in humble irony, by the farm servants who came to load their carts with sea-weed, whether he "was gettin' siller in the stanes," but was so unlucky as never to be able to answer their question in the affirmative.  Uncle Sandy seems to have been a close observer of nature, and in his humble way had his theories of ancient sea beaches, the flood, and the formation of the world, which he duly imparted to the wondering youth.  Together they explored caves, roamed the beach for crabs and lobsters, whose habits Uncle Sandy could well describe; he also knew all about moths and butterflies, spiders, and bees,—in short, was a born natural-history man, so that the boy regarded him in the light of a professor, and, doubtless, thus early obtained from him the bias toward his future studies.


". . . . It was a lovely evening of October.  The ancient elms and wild cherry-trees which surrounded the burying-ground still retained their foliage entire, and the elms were hung in gold, and the wild cherry-trees in crimson, and the pale yellow tint of the straggling and irregular fields on the hill-side contrasted strongly with the deepening russet of the surrounding moor.  The tombs and the ruins were bathed in the yellow light of the setting sun; but to the melancholy and aimless wanderer the quiet and gorgeous beauty of the scene was associated with the coming night and the coming winter, with the sadness of inevitable decay and the gloom of the insatiable grave."

The Chaplain's Lair, from Scenes and Legends.


Miller: a Calotype by Hill and Adamson -
period 1843-47.

    There was the usual number of hair-breadth escapes in Miller's boy-life.  One of them, when he and a companion had got cooped up in a sea cave, and could not return because of the tide, reminds us of the exciting scene described in Scott's Antiquary.  There were school-boy tricks, and schoolboy rambles, mischief-making in companionship with other boys, of whom he was often the leader.  Left very much to himself, he was becoming a big, wild, insubordinate boy; and it became obvious that the time was now come when Hugh Miller must enter that world-wide school in which toil and hardship are the severe but noble masters.  After a severe fight and wrestling-match with his schoolmaster, he left school, avenging himself for his defeat by penning and sending by the teacher, that very night, a copy of satiric verses, entitled "The Pedagogue," which occasioned a good deal of merriment in the place.


AE shoon to hide her tiny taes,
    Nae stockings on her feet;
Her supple ankles white as snow
    Of early blossoms sweet.

Her simple dress of sprinkled pink,
    Her double, dimpled chin;
Her pucker’d lip and bonny mou’,
    With nae ane tooth between.

Her een sae like her mither’s een,
    Twa gentle, liquid things;
Her face is like an angel’s face—
    We’re glad she has nae wings.

    His boyhood over, and his school training ended, Hugh Miller must now face the world of toil.  His uncles were most anxious that he should become a minister; and were even willing to pay his college expenses, though the labour of their hands formed their only wealth.  The youth, however, had conscientious objections: he did not feel called to the work; and the uncles, confessing that he was right, gave up their point.  Hugh was accordingly apprenticed to the trade of his choice,—that of a working stone-mason; and he began his labouring career in a quarry looking out upon the Cromarty Firth.  This quarry proved one of his best schools.  The remarkable geological formations which it displayed awakened his curiosity.  The bar of deep-red stone beneath, and the bar of pale-red clay above, were noted by the young quarryman, who, even in such unpromising subjects, found matter for observation and reflection.  Where other men saw nothing, he detected analogies, differences, and peculiarities, which set him a-thinking.  He simply kept his eyes and his mind open; was sober, diligent, and persevering; and this was the secret of his intellectual growth.

"...The shieling, a rude low-roofed erection of turf and stone, with a door in the centre some five feet in height or so, but with no window, rose on the grassy slope immediately in front of the vast continuous rampart.  A slim pillar of smoke ascends from the roof, in the calm, faint and blue within the shadow of the precipice, but it caught the sun-light in its ascent, and blushed, ere it melted into the ether, a ruddy brown..."

On approaching a shepherd's hut, from 'The Cruise of the Betsey.'

    Hugh Miller takes a cheerful view of the lot of labour.  While others groan because they have to work hard for their bread, he says that work is full of pleasure, of profit, and of materials for self-improvement.  He holds that honest labour is the best of all teachers, and that the school of toil is the best and noblest of all schools, save only the Christian one,—a school in which the ability of being useful is imparted, and the spirit of independence communicated, and the habit of persevering effort acquired.  He is even of opinion that the training of the mechanic, by the exercise which it gives to his observant faculties, from his daily dealings with things actual and practical, and the close experience of life which he invariably acquires, is more favourable to his growth as a Man, emphatically speaking, than the training which is afforded by any other condition of life.  And the array of great names which he cites in support of his statement is certainly a large one.  Nor is the condition of the average well-paid operative at all so dolorous, according to Hugh Miller, as many modern writers would have it to be.  "I worked as an operative mason," says he, "for fifteen years,—no inconsiderable portion of the more active part of a man's life; but the time was not altogether lost.  I enjoyed in those years fully the average amount of happiness, and learned to know more of the Scottish people than is generally known.  Let me add, that from the close of the first year in which I wrought as a journeyman, until I took final leave of the mallet and chisel, I never knew what it was to want a shilling; that my two uncles, my grandfather, and the mason with whom I served my apprenticeship—all working-men—had had a similar experience; and that it was the experience of my father also.  I cannot doubt that deserving mechanics may, in exceptional cases, be exposed to want; but I can as little doubt that the cases are exceptional, and that much of the suffering of the class is a consequence either of improvidence on the part of the completely skilled, or of a course of trifling during the term of apprenticeship,—quite as common as trifling at school,—that always lands those who indulge in it in the hapless position of the inferior workman."

"....the river,—after wailing for miles in a pent-up channel, narrow as one of the lanes of old Edinburgh, and hemmed in by walls quite as perpendicular, and nearly twice as lofty,—suddenly expands, first into a deep brown pool, and then into a broad tumbling stream, that, as if permanently affected in temper by the strict severity of the discipline to which its early life had been subjected, frets and chafes in all its after course, till it loses itself in the sea."

The river Auldgrande, near Evanton, from 'Rambles of a Geologist.'

    There is much honest truth in this observation.  At the same time, it is clear that the circumstances under which Hugh Miller was brought up and educated are not enjoyed by all workmen,—are, indeed, experienced by comparatively few.  In the first place, his parentage was good, his father and mother were a self-helping, honest, intelligent pair, in humble circumstances, but yet comparatively comfortable.  Thus his early education was not neglected.  His relations were sober, industrious, and "God-fearing," as they say in the north.  His uncles were not his least notable instructors.  One of them was a close observer of nature, and in some sort a scientific man, possessed of a small but good library of books.  Then Hugh Miller's own constitution was happily trained.  As one of his companions once said to him, "Ah, Miller, you have stamina in you, and will force your way; but I want strength; the world will never hear of me."  It is the stamina which Hugh Miller possessed by nature, that were born in him, and were carefully nurtured by his parents, that enabled him as a working-man to rise, while thousands would have sunk or merely plodded on through life in the humble station in which they were born.    And this difference in stamina and other circumstances is not sufficiently taken into account by Hugh Miller in the course of the interesting, and, on the whole, exceedingly profitable remarks, which he makes in his autobiography on the condition of the labouring poor.

"....Perhaps no personage of real life can be more properly regarded as a hermit of the churchyard than the itinerant sculptor, who wanders from one country burying-ground to another, recording on his tablets of stone the tears of the living and the worth of the dead. . . .  How often have I suffered my mallet to rest on the unfinished epitaph, when listening to some friend of the buried expatiating, with all the eloquence of grief, on the mysterious warning—and the sad deathbed—on the worth that had departed—and the sorrow that remained behind!  How often, forgetting that I was merely an auditor, have I so identified myself with the mourner as to feel my heart swell, and my eyes becoming moist! . . . . I have grieved above the half-soiled shroud of her for whom the tears of bereavement had not yet been dried up, and sighed over the mouldering bones of him whose very name had long since perished from the earth."

The stone-mason at work in Kirk-Michael churchyard, from 'Scenes and Legends.'

    We can afford, in our brief space, to give only a very rapid outline of Hugh Miller's fifteen years' life as a workman.  He worked away in the quarry for some time, losing many of his finger-nails by bruises and accidents, growing fast, but gradually growing stronger, and obtaining a fair knowledge of his craft as a stone-hewer.  He was early subjected to the temptation which besets most young workmen,—that of drink.  But he resisted it bravely.  His own account of it is worthy of extract :—

"When overwrought, and in my depressed moods, I learned to regard the ardent spirits of the dram-shop as high luxuries; they gave lightness and energy to both body and mind, and substituted for a state of dulness and gloom one of exhilaration and enjoyment.  Usquebhae was simply happiness doled out by the glass, and sold by the gill.  The drinking usages of the profession in which I laboured were at this time many; when a foundation was laid, the workmen were treated to drink; they were treated to drink when the walls were levelled for laying the joists; they were treated to drink when the building was finished; they were treated to drink when an apprentice joined the squad; treated to drink when his 'apron was washed;' treated to drink when his ' time was out;' and occasionally they learnt to treat one another to drink.  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 whiskey came to my share.  A full-grown man would not have deemed a gill of usquebhae 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 my determination."

    A young working mason, reading Bacon's Essays in his by-hours, must certainly be regarded as a remarkable man; but not less remarkable is the exhibition of moral energy and noble self-denial in the instance we have cited.

"...The entire scene suggested the idea of a land with which man had done for ever;—the vapour-enveloped rocks,—the waste of ebb-uncovered sand,—the deserted harbour,—the ruinous house,—the melancholy rain-fretted tides eddying along the strip of brown tangle in the foreground,—and, dim over all, the thick, slant lines of the beating shower!..."

At anchor off Eigg on a rainy 'Sabbath', from 'The Cruise of the Betsey.'

    It was while working as a mason's apprentice, that the lower Old Red Sandstone along the Bay of Cromarty presented itself to his notice; and his curiosity was excited and kept alive by the infinite organic remains, principally of old and extinct species of fishes, ferns, and ammonites, which lay revealed along the coasts by the washings of waves, or were exposed by the stroke of his mason's hammer.  He never lost sight of this subject; went on accumulating observations and comparing formations, until at length, when no longer a working mason, many years afterwards, he gave to the world his highly interesting work on the Old Red Sandstone, which at once established his reputation as an accomplished scientific geologist.  But this work was the fruit of long years of patient observation and research.  As he modestly states in his autobiography, "the only merit to which I lay claim in the case is that of patient research, —a merit in which whoever wills may rival or surpass me; and this humble faculty of patience, when rightly developed, may lead to more extraordinary developments of idea than even genius itself."  And he adds how he deciphered the divine ideas in the mechanism and framework of creatures in the second stage of vertebrate existence.

    But it was long before Hugh Miller accumulated his extensive geological observations, and acquired that self-culture which enabled him to shape them into proper form.  He went on diligently working at his trade, but always observing and always reflecting.  He says he could not avoid being an observer; and that the necessity which made him a mason, made him also a geologist.  In the winter months, during which mason-work is generally superseded in country places, he occupied his time with reading, sometimes with visiting country friends,—persons of an intelligent caste,—and often he strolled away amongst old Scandinavian ruins and Pictish forts, speculating about their origin and history.  He made good use of his leisure.  And when spring came round again, he would set out into the Highlands, to work at building and hewing jobs with a squad of other masons,—working hard, and living chiefly on oatmeal brose. Some of the descriptions given by him of life in the remote Highland districts are extremely graphic and picturesque, and have all the charm of entire novelty.  The kind of accommodation which he experienced may be inferred from the observation made by a Highland laird to his uncle James, as to the use of a crazy old building left standing beside a group of neat modern offices.  "He found it of great convenience," he said, "every time his speculations brought a drove of pigs, or a squad of masons, that way."  This sort of life and its surrounding circumstances were not of a poetical cast; yet the youth was now about the poetizing age, and during his solitary rambles after his day's work, by the banks of the Conon, he meditated poetry, and began to make verses.   He would sometimes write them out upon his mason's kit, while the rain was dropping through the roof of the apartment upon the paper on which he wrote.  It was a rough life of poetic musing, yet he always contrived to mix up a high degree of intellectual exercise and enjoyment with whatever manual labour he was employed upon; and this, after all, is one of the secrets of a happy life.  While observing scenery and natural history, he also seems to have very closely observed the characters of his fellow workmen, and he gives us vivid and life-like portraits of some of the more remarkable of them in his Autobiography.  There were some rough and occasionally very wicked fellows among his fellow-workmen, but he had strength of character, and sufficient inbred sound principle, to withstand their contamination.  He was also proud,—and pride in its proper place is an excellent thing,—particularly that sort of pride which makes a man revolt from doing a mean action, or anything which would bring discredit on the, family.  This is the sort of true nobility which serves poor men in good stead sometimes, and it certainly served Hugh Miller well.

"....I was fortunate in a fine breezy day, clear and sunshiny, save where the shadows of a few dense piled-up clouds swept dark athwart the landscape.  In the secluded recesses of the valley all was hot, heavy, and still; though now and then a fitful snatch of a breeze, the mere fragment of some broken gust that seemed to have lost its way, tossed for a moment the white cannach of the bogs, or raised spirally into the air, for a few yards, the light beards of some seeding thistle, and straightway let them down again.  Suddenly, however, about noon, a shower broke thick and heavy against the dark sides and gray scalp of the Ward Hill, and came sweeping down the valley...."

A walk on the Island of Hoy, from 'Rambles of a Geologist.'

    His apprenticeship ended, he "took jobs" for himself,—built a cottage for his Aunt Jenny, which still stands, and after that went out working as journeyman-mason.  In his spare hours, he was improving himself by the study of practical geometry, and made none the worse a mason on that account.  While engaged in helping to build a mansion on the western coast of Ross-shire, he extended his geological and botanical observations, noting all that was remarkable in the formation of the district.  He also drew his inferences from the condition of the people,—being very much struck, above other things, with the remarkably contented state of the Celtic population, although living in filth and misery.  On this he shrewdly observes: "It was one of the palpable characteristics of our Scottish Highlanders, for at least the first thirty years of the century, that they were contented enough, as a people; to find more to pity than to envy in the condition of their Lowland neighbours; and I remember that at this time, and for years after, I used to deem the trait a good one.  I have now, however, my doubts on the subject, and am not quite sure whether a content so general as to be national may not, in certain circumstances, be rather a vice than a virtue.  It is certainly no virtue, when it has the effect of arresting either individuals or peoples in their course of development; and is perilously allied to great suffering, when the men who exemplify it are so thoroughly happy amid the mediocrities of the present that they fail to make provision for the contingencies of the future."

"....The infection spread with frightful rapidity.  At Inver, though the population did not much exceed a hundred persons, eleven bodies were committed to the earth, without shroud or coffin, in one day; in two days after they had buried nineteen more.  Many of the survivors fled from the village, and took shelter, some in the woods, some among the hollows of an extensive tract of sand-hills.  But the pest followed them to their hiding-places, and they expired in the open air.  Whole families were found lying dead on their cottage floor.  In one instance, an infant, the only survivor, lay grovelling on the body of its mother—the sole mourner in a charnel-house of the pestilence.  Rows of cottages, entirely divested of their inhabitants, were set on fire and burned to the ground."

The Cholera, from 'Scenes and Legends'.

    Trade becoming slack in the North, Hugh Miller took ship for Edinburgh, where building was going briskly on (in 1824), to seek for employment there as a stone-hewer.  He succeeded, and lived as a workman at Niddry, in the neighbourhood of the city, for some time; pursuing at the same time his geological observations in a new field, Niddry being located on the carboniferous system.  Here also he met with an entirely new class of men,—the colliers,—many of whom, strange to say, had been born slaves; the manumission of the Scotch colliers having been effected in comparatively modern times,—as late as the year 1775!  So that, after all, Scotland is not so very far ahead of the serfdom of Russia.

"....It was on a fine calm morning,—one of those clear sunshiny mornings of October when the gossamer goes sailing about in long cottony threads, so light and fleecy that they seem the skeleton remains of extinct cloudlets, and when the distant hills, with their covering of gray frost-rime, seem, through the clear close atmosphere, as if chiselled in marble.  The sun was rising over the town through a deep blood-coloured haze,—the smoke of a thousand fires; and the huge fantastic piles of masonry that stretched along the ridge looked dim and spectral through the cloud, like the ghosts of an army of giants...."

A vista of Edinburgh, from 'Recollections of Ferguson.'

    Returning to the North again, Miller next began business for himself in a small way, as a hewer of tombstones for the good folks of Cromarty.  This change of employment was necessary, in consequence of the hewer's disease, caused by inhaling stone-dust, which settles in the lungs, and generally leads to rapid consumption, afflicting him with its premonitory symptoms.  The strength of his constitution happily enabled him to throw off the malady, but his lungs never fairly recovered their former vigour.  Work not being very plentiful, he wrote poems, some of which appeared in the newspapers; and in course of time a small collection of these pieces was published by subscription.  He very soon, however, gave up poetry writing, finding that his humble accomplishment of verse was too narrow to contain his thinking; so next time he wrote a book it was in prose, and vigorous prose too, far better than his verse.  But Miller had meanwhile been doing what was better than either cutting tombstones or writing poetry: he had been building up his character, and thereby securing the respect of all who knew him. So that, when a branch of the Commercial Bank was opened in Cromarty, and the manager cast about him to make selection of an accountant, whom should he pitch upon but Hugh Miller, the stone-mason?  This was certainly a most extraordinary selection; but why was it made?  Simply because of the excellence of the man's character. He had proved himself a true and a thoroughly excellent and trustworthy man in a humble, capacity of life; and the inference was, that he would carry the same principles of conduct into another and higher sphere of action.  Hugh Miller hesitated to accept the office, having but little knowledge of accounts, and no experience in book-keeping; but the manager knew his pluck and determined perseverance in mastering whatever he undertook; above all, he had confidence in his character, and he would not take a denial.  So Hugh Miller was sent to Edinburgh to learn his new business at the head bank.

"....One night, towards the close of last autumn, I visited the old chapel of St. Regulus.  The moon, nearly at full, was riding high overhead in a troubled sky, pouring its light by fits, as the clouds passed, on the grey ruins, and the mossy, tilt-like hillocks, which had been raised ages before over the beds of the sleepers.  The deep, dark shadows of the tombs seemed stamped upon the sward, forming, as one might imagine, a kind of general epitaph on the dead, but inscribed, like the handwriting on the wall, in the characters of a strange tongue.  A low breeze was creeping through the long withered grass at my feet; a shower of yellow leaves came rustling, from time to time, from an old gnarled elm that shot out its branches over the burying-ground—and, after twinkling for a few seconds in their descent, silently took up their places among the rest of the departed; the rush of the stream sounded hoarse and mournful from the bottom of the ravine, like a voice from the depths of the sepulchre; there was a low, monotonous murmur, the mingled utterance of a thousand sounds of earth, air, and water, each one inaudible in itself; and, at intervals, the deep, hollow roar of waves came echoing from the caves of the distant promontory, a certain presage of coming tempest."

The Chapel of St. Regulus, from Scenes and Legends.


Miller: from a Calotype by Hill and Adamson -
period 1843-47.

    Throughout life, Miller seems to have invariably put his conscience into his work.  Speaking of the old man with whom he served his apprenticeship as a mason, he says: "He made conscience of every stone he laid.  It was remarked in the place, that the walls built by Uncle David never bulged nor fell; and no apprentice nor journeyman of his was permitted, on any plea, to make 'slight work.'"  And one of his own Uncle James's instructions to him on one occasion was, "In all your dealings, give your neighbour the cast of the baulk,—'good measure, heaped up and running over,'—and you will not lose by it in the end."  These lessons were worth far more than what is often taught in schools, and Hugh Miller seems to have framed his own conduct in life on the excellent moral teaching which they conveyed.  Speaking of his own career as a workman, when on the eve of quitting it, he says: "I do think I acted up to my uncle's maxim; and that, without injuring my brother workmen by lowering their prices.  I never yet charged an employer for a piece of work that, fairly measured and valued, would not be rated at a slightly higher sum than that at which it stood in my account."

    Although he gained some fame in his locality by his poems, and still more by his "Letters on the Herring Fisheries of Scotland," he was not, as many self-raised men are, spoilt by the praise which his works called forth.  "There is," he says, "no more fatal error into which a working-man of a literary turn can fall, than the mistake of deeming himself too good for his humble employments; and yet it is a mistake as common as it is fatal.  I had already seen several poor wrecked mechanics, who, believing themselves to be poets, and regarding the manual occupation by which they could alone live in independence as beneath them, had become in consequence little better than mendicants,—too good to work for their bread, but not too good virtually to beg it; and looking upon them as beacons of warning, I determined that, with God's help, I should give their error a wide offing, and never associate the idea of meanness with an honest calling, or deem myself too good to be independent."  Full of this manly and robust spirit, Hugh Miller pursued his career of stone-hewing by day, and prose composition when the day's work was done, until he entered upon his new vocation of banker's accountant.  He showed his self-denial, too, in waiting for a wife until he could afford to keep one in respectable comfort, —his engagement lasting over five years, before he was in a position to fulfil his promise.  And then he married, wisely and happily.

"....The evening was of great beauty: the sea spread out from the cliffs to the far horizon like the sea of gold and crystal described by the Prophet, and its warm orange lines so harmonized with those of the sky that, passing over the dimly-defined line of demarcation, the whole upper and nether expanse seemed but one glorious firmament, with the dark Ailsa, like a thunder-cloud, sleeping in the midst.  The sun was hastening to his setting, and threw his strong red light on the wall of rock which, loftier and more imposing than the walls of even the mighty Babylon, stretched onward along the beach, headland after headland, till the last sank abruptly in the far distance, and only the wide ocean stretched beyond...."

The coast of Kirkoswald, from 'Recollections of Burns'.

   At Edinburgh, by dint of perseverance and application, Mr. Miller shortly mastered his new business, and then returned to Cromarty, where he was installed in office.  His "Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland" were published about the same time, and were well received; and in his leisure hours he proceeded to prepare his most important work, on "The Old Red Sandstone."  He also contributed to the "Border Tales," and other periodicals.  The Free-Church movement drew him out as a polemical writer: and his Letter to Lord Brougham on the Scotch Church Controversy excited so much attention, that the leaders of the movement in Edinburgh invited him to undertake the editing of the Witness newspaper, the organ of the Free-Church party.  He accepted the invitation, and continued to hold the editorship until his death, in 1856.

"....The evening, considering the lateness of the season, for winter had set in, was mild and pleasant.  The moon at full was rising over the Cumnock hills, and casting its faint light on the trees that rose around us, in their winding-sheets of brown and yellow, like so many spectres, or that, in the more exposed glades and openings of the wood, stretched their long naked arms to the sky.  A light breeze went rustling through the withered grass; and I could see the faint twinkling of the falling leaves, as they came showering down on every side of us...."

A night-time walk near Mossgiel farm-house, from 'Recollections of Burns.'

    The circumstances connected with his decease were of a most distressing character.  On entering his room one morning, he was found lying dead, shot through the body, and under circumstances which left no doubt that he had died by his own hand.  He had for some time been closely applying himself to the completion of his "Testimony of the Rocks," without rest or relaxation, or due attention to his physical health.  Under these circumstances, overwork of the brain speedily began to tell upon him.  He could not sleep,—if he lay down and dozed, it was only to wake in a start, his head filled with imaginary horrors; and in one of these fits of his disease he put an end to his life;—a warning to all brainworkers, that the powers of the human constitution may be strained until they break, and that even the best and strongest mind cannot dispense with the due observance of the laws which regulate the physical constitution of man.

Extract from Miller's obituary in
THE TIMES, 29 Dec 1856.

Ed. ―Miller took his life during the night of 23/24 December 1856.




EFORE the Grave-gulf closes, let me drop
My few poor flowers upon his Coffin lid!
I loved the man: his taking roughness too
I liked; it was the Sword-hilt rough with gems.
I loved him living, not with that late love
Which asks for rootage in the dead man's grave,
And must be writ in Marble to endure.
To many he was stern, for he could guard
His tongue with his good teeth: to some he seemed
Sharp as the Holly's lower range of leaves,
His prickly humour all alive with spears:
But if you climbed to the serener height,
You found a life in smooth and shining leaf,
Crowned with its calm, and lying nearer heaven.

Low lies the grandest head in all Scotland.
We'll miss him when there's noble work to do!
We'll miss him coming through the crowded street,
Like plaided Shepherd from the Ross-shire Hills,
Stalwart and iron-gray and weather-worn;
His tall head holding up a lonely lamp
Of steadfast thought still-burning in his eyes,
Like some masthead-light lonely through the night;
His eyes, that rather dreamed than saw, deep-set
In the brow's shadow, looking forward, fixed,
On something we divined not, solemn, strange!
He was a Hero true as ever stepped
In the Forlorn Hope of a warring world:
And from opposing circumstance his palm
Drew loftier stature, and a lustier strength.
From the far dreamland height of youthful years
He flung his gage out 'mid the trampling strife,
And fought his way to it with spirit that cut
Like a scythed Chariot, and took up his own.
Once more Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came,
Saw bright forms beckon on the battlements,
And stormed through fighting foes, true steel to steel;
Slow step by step he won his winding way,
And reached the top, and stood up Victor there;
And yet with most brave meekness it was done.

His life-tree fair of leaf, and rich in fruit!
We could not see it mouldering at the heart.
We knew not how in nights of pain he groped,
And groped with bleeding feeling down dark Crypts
Of consciousness, to find the buried sense;
When the faint flame of being flickering low,
Made fearful shadows spectral on the walls;
And beckoning terrors muttered in the dark;
Old misery-mongers moaned along the wind;
The lights burned blue as Death were breathing near,
And dead hands seemed to reach and drag him down
To those who have been deceived by false belief.

The powers of Evil often have a hand
With human Lots in the dim urn of Fate.
The awful Dark flung over him a pall
Of pain, hot hands of hell were on his eyes,
And Devils drew him through the cold night-wind;
But while they held the helpless body bound,
The spirit broke away.   That rent was death!
The iron will wherewith he hewed his path
From the stone-quarries to the heights of fame,
Still strove for freedom when the leap was death.
But, never doubt God's Children find their home
By dark as well as day.   The life he lived,
And not the death he died, was first in judgment.
It is the writing on the folded scroll
Death sends, and not the seal, that God will judge.

I like to think the Spirit of Cowper caught
Hold of his poor weak wandering hands in help,
As at the dark door he in blindness groped.
How it would touch that tender soul to read
The earthly memories written in his face!
Such memories as ope the gates of heaven:
And he who soothed him with last words on earth
Might whisper his first welcome in the heavens,
And lead him through cool valleys green where grow
The Leaves of Healing by the River of Life,
Where tears and travel-stains are wiped away,
All troubled thoughts laid in ambrosial rest,
And hearts have ceased to ache,

                                         And there is no more pain.
Before His throne who sitteth in the Heavens,
Perchance the pleading Poet prayed that he
Might sit beside him at th' Eternal feast.
The fancy flower-like from his Coffin grew
Even while I looked.   He lay as Death did seem
Only a dream he might have dreamed before;
All peaceful as the face of Sabbath morn:
The meekened witness of another world.
That stern, white stillness had a starry touch,
As his last look had caught the first of heaven.
The battle-armour of a soldier-soul
Lay battered, but still bright from many blows,
Upon the field, large, such as few could wear.
The ghosts of last year's leaves, that last night rose
And rustled in their spectral dance of death,
Are laid and silent in a shroud of snow!
The day is dark above the long, dark host:
The sad hushed heavens seem choked, but cannot weep.
Many pale faces, many tristful eyes,
With dumb looks pleading for the kindly rain
That comes not when the heart can only cry
With unshed tears, close round his wintry grave:
The lonely men whose lives are still a-light
And shining when the manual Toilers sleep,
To whom Night brings the larger thoughts like Stars.
I marvel if among them there is one
Who shudders when men speak of such a death
As if they named His—who had longed to pluck
Death's cool hand down upon the burning brain,
But chokes the secret in his heart as though
He crushed a hissing serpent in his hand,
Lest it scream out, and his white face be known!

Ah! come away, for sorrow is a child
That needs no nursing!   And all seems so strange.
One last look, and then home to feel and feel
What we have lost.   And when from the dark earth
A spring-tide dawn of leaf-light glistens green,
And Nature with her dewfall and her rain
Gives to our grief the last calm tender touch,
In those sweet days when hearts are tenderest
For those who never come back with the flowers,
Upon some balmy Eve so beautiful
We should not wonder if an Angel stood
Suddenly at our side; the silent march
Of all the beauty culminating thus!
Then let us come, dear friend, and spend an hour
At the communion table of His tomb—
And pluck the Heartsease growing from the grave
While Nature kneeleth in all places lowly,
And blessings rest upon a time so holy.


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