The Edinburgh Geologist
Issue no 40

Hugh Miller's collection - a memorial to a great geological Scot

by Michael A. Taylor & Martin Gostwick



Some would argue that Hugh Miller's greatest memorial lies in his writings and his enduring reputation. Nevertheless, as well as the Nelson's Column style monument overlooking his birthplace cottage preserved by the National Trust for Scotland at Cromarty, he also enjoys four other statues or portrait busts. Appropriately for an advocate of self-improvement, a street is named after him in the pioneering self-help housing for the working class at Stockbridge in Edinburgh, as is a library at Cromarty. On the geological side Alaska has its Hugh Miller Glacier thanks to John Muir, and the Old Red Sandstone fish site of Escuminac Bay in Québec rejoices in its Hugh Miller Cliffs. But it may be a surprise to learn that the Hugh Miller collection at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) was intended to be a key memorial. 

New light was thrown on the acquisition of these thousands of specimens, mostly from Scotland, when one of us (MAT) recently discovered, in the British Geological Survey archives, a circular entitled Proposal to Purchase the Museum of the Late Hugh Miller. This turns out to have been issued by a committee of civic and scientific worthies at a meeting called by John Melville, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, in the Council Chambers on the '12th April' (the year is not stated but it has to be 1858 as we will see). There had been 'strong desire felt and expressed in many quarters' that the Miller collection should be 'secured for Scotland, and deposited in the new Industrial Museum' ­ by which the writer presumably meant the Natural History Museum, newly combined with the Industrial Museum proper to form the precursor of the old Royal Scottish Museum. (This would not be the last time that the terminology of the Chambers Street museums confused the uninitiated, even though, as we shall see, the Keeper of the Natural History Museum was on the committee!) 

 'An application had been made to the late Government with a view of inducing them to become the purchasers. They had cordially entered into the project, and a sum of £500 had been set aside. This application may have been a joint one. The Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh was Miller's favourite local scientific forum, and its meeting of 24 December 1856 was adjourned because of the news of Miller's death. Its next meeting, on 28 January 1857, heard a brief but very much to the point eulogy on Miller by the President, following an unanimous vote by the members present to ask their council to make such an application jointly with 'other bodies' which, it was understood, 'intended moving in the same direction'.

In any case, however, as the appeal leaflet later explained, a 'Scottish Nobleman' ­ was he the geologically inclined Duke of Argyll, or perhaps Miller's Portobello neighbour Lord Kinnaird, one wonders? -  offered £1000, while an 'American College' bid 1000 guineas [£1050]. So, even assuming that the new administration would honour its predecessor's promise, the shortfall had to be tackled by public appeal before the 'family could be asked to carry out their desire to have the Museum permanently deposited in Edinburgh'. The aim was to raise £600, capping the top bid by £50, on the grounds that:

' no more suitable Memorial of the genius and scientific labours of Mr. Miller could be erected and preserved; that a Collection so distinctively illustrative of the Geology of Scotland, made by one of whom Scotland had such reason to be proud, instead of passing into private hands, should be placed in one of the public Institutions of the country '

The committee set up a subcommittee of worthies convened by the Provost to 'prosecute the Subscription with as little delay as possible'. This included, amongst others, George Wilson, Professor of Technology and first director of the Industrial Museum, and Professor George Allman, the biologist who was also Keeper of the University's Natural History Museum, as well as the medical Professors Simpson and Miller, and Robert Paul, manager of the Commercial Bank. 

Obviously the leaflet must date from after Miller's death in December 1856, and this particular copy has a manuscript annotation dated July 1858. The change of government mentioned has to be the replacement in February 1858 of Palmerston's administration of 1855-1858 by Lord Derby's of 1858-1859. In turn this dates the original committee meeting to 12 April 1858, and the issue of the Proposal sometime soon after that. No wonder it expressed a sense of urgency: the collection 'must be removed from its present site before Whitsunday' - the Scots legal term day, 15 May for letting or selling property, but 28 May for removals in towns.  Where was this 'site'? An obvious possibility is the 'museum' (i. e. physical building, rather than the leaflet's usage of 'collection') which Miller had built in the garden of Shrub Mount, the family's Portobello house. Sasine records show that his son William did not sell Shrub Mount till 1864. However, the family had long gone: they temporarily dispersed early in 1857, and may never have returned to Shrub Mount. Indeed, it seems from the family account books now in the National Library of Scotland ­ more specifically the lawyers' accounts for the late Hugh Miller's estate ­ that Shrub Mount was being rented out through a Portobello house agent by well before November 1857: perhaps quite early in 1857, assuming that the rental charge was not greatly different from later years.  Either Shrub Mount had been let without the 'museum' where the collection remained, presumably unsupervised, or the collection had been moved to some intermediate store on which rental was being paid.

The committee soon had enough subscribers to fill two and a half double column pages of small print in the leaflet by the time Peach's copy went to press, taking them to almost £400, two-thirds of the way to their target. Either the subcommittee had moved very quickly, or the copy we have is the original preamble text married to a later listing of subscribers, which may not necessarily date from before Whitsun 1858. At any rate, the leaflet we do have was, of course, intended to drum up the remaining cash. That it apparently succeeded ­ seemingly helped by the family's willingness to waive the last £24-odd ­ is shown by the payment of £1025 0s 6d [£1025.03] recorded in the family accounts. Of this the Government through the national museum fully paid the promised £500 in 1859, when the specimens officially came into its tenure, as NMS records confirm. 

The List of Subscribers to the Hugh Miller Museum Fund is fascinating. It is not always possible to identify each Mr X unambiguously, especially if his address is given incompletely or not at all, but some trends are plain even if a full analysis is completely beyond the scope of this note ­ though no doubt different names from those examined here would catch a different reader's eye. As one would expect, Edinburgh people feature strongly, as do professionals and other big city people: the news had not had time to filter out, and after all the whole point of the leaflet was to recruit from all over the kingdom. There are a few aristocrats, unsurprisingly including the geologically inclined Duke of Argyll (and of the Ardtun leaf beds), of whom Miller had written approvingly, and Lord Kinnaird. The Marquess of Breadalbane is there; he was an important lay supporter of the Free Kirk whose creation Miller did so much to support with his journalism in The Witness. But the great bulk of the list seems to comprise professional men. 

As one would expect of a list heavy on the Edinburgh side, there are lawyers aplenty, and medics and University teachers. Professor Simpson must be James Young Simpson, the obstetrician and advocate of anaesthesia in childbirth, and Miller's fellow parishioner at Free St John's (now Free St Columba's) on Johnston Terrace. Here also are John Balfour, the Professor of Medicine and Botany and Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden at Inverleith, and James Miller, the Professor of Surgery. This last is somewhat ironic, for Hugh, evidently troubled by his physical and mental state, consulted him and the Miller family's doctor Dr Balfour ­ who must be the Dr Andrew Balfour of Portobello, not on the list - the day before his suicide. They prescribed, amongst other things, a haircut, and a regular bedtime at eleven after only a light supper and a warm sponge-bath, though to be fair they rather more usefully recommended a complete break from work. Unfortunately Miller did not last even the night, and a few days later James Miller and Andrew Balfour were two of the four doctors signing the crucial post-mortem report which concluded that Hugh Miller had committed suicide 'under the impulse of insanity' ­ in other words, a sudden act, neither a wilful one nor a reflection of long-term madness.

Bankers are represented by Robert Paul of the Commercial Bank, no small figure in the business establishment, who had spotted Miller (then an accountant at the Bank's Cromarty branch) back in 1839 when the Evangelicals were seeking an editor for what became The Witness. Literary men are represented by Robert Chambers, and John Ruskin of Camberwell is surely the art critic and mineral collector, listed  alongside his father John James Ruskin. Overt female donors are thin on the ground. Some perhaps gave invisibly through their menfolk. However, the list does include the Duchess of Argyll and Lady Emma Campbell, and, rather lower down the social scale of the day, Miss Marion Wood, a family friend of the Millers. 

Interestingly most people seem to have subscribed a pound, maybe two, but we need to multiply these sums by about 100 or 200 to give even a very coarse idea of modern values. The biggest donations by far are the £25 each from Robert Horn, the advocate and committee member, and the MPs Alexander Murray Dunlop and Charles Cowan. Cowan, the Penicuik papermaker, was a Liberal politician and supporter of the Free Church, and incidentally also a relative of the late Thomas Chalmers, the Free Church leader and Miller's ally. This particular copy of the leaflet has, scribbled on it, 'Sent Dr Smith' ­ a committee member - '10s/ in postage stamps 23[?] July 1858 CWP'. That unmistakable scrawl confirms that the leaflet belonged to none other than Charles Peach, former coastguard, fossil collecting friend of Hugh Miller, and father of that Ben of Peach and Horne fame. That 10 shillings [£0.50] was surely no insignificant sum for a pensioned coastguard.

Geologists were already well signed up, no doubt through their society and Survey networks: as well as Peach, and Roderick Impey Murchison (at 10 guineas [£10.50]), it is easy to spot Charles Lyell, Philip Egerton the fish enthusiast, Patrick Dudgeon the mineralogist, Colonel Portlock of the Irish Ordnance Survey, Andrew Ramsay of the Geological Survey, and William Logan, 'Provincial Geologist of Canada', while Archibald Geikie only just squeaked onto the list ­ perhaps he had been away on Survey fieldwork. There are also less weel-kent but interesting names such as the Montrosians James Howden, the fossil collecting Superintendent of the Montrose Royal Asylum, R. Barclay and Christian Hoyer Millar, all three leading lights of the local Natural History and Antiquarian Society. 'Mr Moore' of the Geological Society of London has to be that Society's Secretary, and 'J. T. Bowerbank, Esq., of London' was perhaps an error for James Scott Bowerbank, the wealthy distiller of London Clay fruit and Palaeontographical Society fame. The Rev. John Duns of Torphichen must be the geologically minded minister who edited John Fleming's The Lithology of Edinburgh. Perhaps he knew the Millers also: a copy of this book recently turned up in a bookseller's catalogue, with a dedication to 'Mr H. Miller' ­ though this cannot very well have been to Hugh himself as the inscription is dated 31 December 1858, and the book was published in 1859, and the question remains open whether it was a present to wee Hugh junior, or some other Mr Miller entirely. Other scientific men are represented by Sir Thomas Brisbane, army general and amateur astronomer.

This List was, of course, an interim one, and no final list of subscribers, if indeed one still exists anywhere, has yet been traced, so it is unfair to draw too many conclusions from the list, particularly when a particular group is scattered across the country, as in the case of the ordained ministers or clergy. Still, this professional group, and the Free Church in particular, seems distinctly underrepresented, given all that Miller did to encourage and sustain the Free Church. There are only about sixteen ordained men on a sub list of over two hundred at a time when there were around three dozen Free Kirk ministers known in and near Edinburgh alone. Moreover, some of those Free Churchmen who are on the list may have been there primarily for personal and family reasons. The Reverend Guthrie was Miller's friend and parish minister at Free St John's on Johnston Terrace. Dr Hanna was Guthrie's colleague at St John's, and the son in law of Thomas Chalmers. 'Rev. Principal Cunningham' is William Cunningham, the Principal of New College and also a friend and ally. His colleague the Professor of Divinity, the Reverend Bannerman, is also on the list. Of the remaining ordained gentlemen, some were members of other denominations, such as the Anglican Bishop of London and Dean of Carlisle, and Dr Cairns of the Secession and later United Presbyterian Churches of Berwick, while a  Rev. John Jaffray may be the Establishment (C of S) minister of Dunbar.  

The thought naturally arises as to whether this reflects any differences within the Kirk, for Miller had certainly become alienated from the new ruling faction in the Free Church, led by Robert Candlish, Robert Buchanan and Robert Rainy, none of whom appear here. Certainly, also, Buchanan's history of the troubles in the Kirk which led to the Free Church, published in 1849, had pointedly omitted Miller completely, probably because Miller had upset this faction by insisting on his independence and refusing to let The Witness become a mere mouthpiece of theirs. Still, this absence of Free Kirk ministers is perhaps best put down to a lack of direct personal or scientific interest. There seems no reason to expect Free Church ministers, as a group, to donate to a primarily scientific objective. They had many other fish to fry than Pterichthys milleri, after all, and other things on which to spend their limited stipends, and it is always possible that some who are not listed here nevertheless made donations to the other, and certainly more conventional, monument, the Handyside Ritchie statue of Hugh Miller on top of the pillar above Cromarty, which was going up about this time. 

The collection was catalogued in summary by Geikie, in a list dated 14 June 1858, apparently before it came to the Museum ­ or perhaps it had been stored at the museum once it became clear that the appeal had a fighting chance of success. It was catalogued more thoroughly by Peach after it became legally part of the national museum collection in 1859. These MS catalogues are still in use. The work goes on even today, and the Miller Collection has been earmarked as a possible priority for a major computer documentation project. But not all the 'Miller Collection' is in NMS. A small, but well chosen, selection of Miller specimens ended up (with specimens from other sources) in the Cottage in Cromarty. They apparently stemmed from the 'museum' set up there (or just possibly in the Miller family's other house next door) by Hugh Miller junior (1850-1896), Miller's youngest son, a professional with the Survey, and a Vice-President of the EGS. It seems that he established this museum while living locally, mapping his father's old stamping grounds around Cromarty in the mid-late 1880s. Who chose these specimens, we do not yet know ­ except that he or she evidently knew enough geology to make a shrewd selection to represent Hugh senior's work -  nor how and when these specimens left the main collection and (perhaps at a much later time) ended up in Cromarty. We hope to carry out further research into the history of the collection and the Cottage to solve this puzzle, and meanwhile we would be most grateful to hear of any other copies of the Proposal leaflet or other relevant archival material in existence.  

Peach's copy of the Proposal is catalogued as GSM 1/669 in the Library Archives, British Geological Survey, Keyworth, which we thank for permission to cite, and to place a copy in the Reading Room at Hugh Miller's Cottage. We thank Graham McKenna, Librarian, BGS, Iain Maciver of the National Library of Scotland, and the staff of the National Archives of Scotland and the NMS Library  for their help, Marian McKenzie Johnston for access to family papers and critical comments, Peter Dryburgh for drawing attention to the RPSE notices, Lyall Anderson for spotting fellow Montrosians, and Graham King for information on them.


Mike Taylor is curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the National Museums of Scotland. Martin Gostwick is Acting Property Manager at Hugh Miller's Cottage, Cromarty, where he hosted the visit of the EGS members on their Spring 2002 weekend field trip to Hugh Miller territory.
 

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