The Edinburgh Geologist
Issue no 38

Hugh Miller - a bicentenary appreciation

by Michael A Taylor

Hugh Miller is probably considered by readers of this magazine as a geologist. Yet geology formed only a small part of the life's work of this Cromarty mason, banker, writer and editor of the major Edinburgh newspaper The Witness, which first appeared in 1840. He helped to create the support for the establishment of the Free Church in the Disruption of 1843, in protest at lairdly and government interference with the Church of Scotland. With its anti-lairdly politics further influenced by Miller's experiences as a humble mason, The Witness was one of the few mainstream newspapers to denounce the Highland Clearances. Editing the paper, and writing much of the content, Miller alleviated his massive workload with regular afternoons' fossil-hunting, and a month's annual leave visiting family in Cromarty by an indirect route to take in more Scottish fossil sites for a book he never finished. Always desperate for copy, he wrote up many of his trips, as when he visited his old friend the Reverend Swanson who tended his Small Isles parish from the leaky 'Free Church Yacht Betsey'.

So was Miller's geology simply a hobby of no particular relevance to the day job? I don't think so. This active, Calvinist, Free Churchman and crusading editor made geology mesh with his wider world view in sometimes surprising ways. Let us look, not so much at the practicalities of Miller the field geologist and collector in shepherd's tweeds and wrap, ripping up the ground and chapping open nodules with his mason's skill (though that is impressive and interesting in its own right) but rather what his fossils meant to him and to others.

As a young apprentice Miller was first entranced by the Jurassic fossils of Eathie on the Black Isle. A decade or so later, in 1830, he reasoned out a simple model of local geology which predicted more Jurassic nearer Cromarty, on the other side of the South Sutor headland's 'granitic gneiss'. Remember this is when he had no geological contacts and just a few odd books and articles, and doing it just for his own satisfaction, a 'Robinson Crusoe of geology' as he put it. He soon spotted a likely-looking nodule:

I laid open a nodule with a blow of the hammer, and my heart leaped up when I saw that it enclosed an organism. A dark, ill-defined, bituminous mass occupied the centre; but I could detect what seemed to be spines and small ichthyic bones ... I eagerly wrought on, and disinterred, in the course of a single tide, specimens enough to cover a museum table; and it was with intense delight that, as the ripple of the advancing tide was rising I carried them to the higher slopes of the beach, and, seated on a boulder, began carefully to examine them I had got amid the remains of an entirely different and incalculably more ancient creation.

Thus he discovered new fossil fishes of the Old Red Sandstone, quite literally an older 'creation': geologists such as Georges Cuvier then believed in successive mass extinctions and new divine creations, which matched the then-known fossil record.

From the middle 1830s onwards, Miller got to meet other geologists, crucially John Malcolmson of Forres who put him in contact with the scientific world of London and the Continent. Edinburgh was of course much more convenient. Miller was a fairly active member in the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh, an old society revived in the 1840s and '50s seemingly as a venue for the city's natural scientists as an alternative to the moribund Wernerian controlled by Robert Jameson, and without the social status required by the RSE. (I am not sure whether Miller took much part in the Edinburgh Geological Society, or if not, why not: something for future research!)

Lyall Anderson and I are beginning to consider the Miller collection as a whole. As Lyall points out, it has much fragmentary but scientifically valuable material. There is little sign of collecting for show ? few, or no, 'décor fossils', and hardly anything bought in except perhaps items from local coal miners and the like. Nor did Miller gain kudos by giving away large numbers of specimens to museums. It is very much the collection of a serious collector with his own special interests. He even built a little private 'museum' in the back garden of his Portobello home, and when he started fretting about burglars, his neighbour Lord Kinnaird gave him a man-trap, with 'the engaging property of holding the robber without hurting him' as his biographer records - no doubt one of the 'humane' toothless variety, but still capable of breaking a leg.

Miller was always especially interested in Old Red Sandstone fossils. But he was also keen on what we call Quaternary deposits, seeking out topical evidence such as cold?water molluscs from raised beaches. The then new idea of a massive icecap was challenging the older idea of Scotland being drowned under an iceberg-laden sea, but deciding between them was by no means easy from the then-current evidence ? especially if, like Miller, one espoused the older view but also accepted the local development of mountain glaciers on land. Hence his portrayal of Ice Age Scotland:

A foundering land under a severe sky, beaten by tempests and lashed by tides, with glaciers half choking up its cheerless valleys, and with countless icebergs brushing its coasts and grating over its shallows...

Miller's contribution to Scottish geology lies partly in the fossils and sites he discovered. These included very substantial contributions of Old Red Sandstone fish, and his writings about them, which helped sort out their diversity and distribution and which the Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz described in his major book Poissons fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge [Fossil fishes of the Old Red Sandstone]: these were, after all, some of the oldest then known fossil vertebrates.

Pterichthyodes milleri and Coccosteus milleri, and other fossils, were named after him. One must also add sites such as the Eigg reptile bed. Of course, Miller was not the only collector ? but he was a big part of the wave of his time. 
David Oldroyd interestingly suggests that, in a sense, Miller's biggest 'find' was the addressee of this letter:

Witness Newspaper Office,
15th January 1852

My dear sir,

I trust to be quite at leisure on the evening of Saturday and expect to see you at six o'clock to take a quiet cup of tea with me, and discuss a few geological facts. A return omnibus passes my house at nine in the evening for Edinburgh.

Yours truly,

          Hugh Miller

That was to the young Archibald Geikie, whom Miller encouraged to give his first paper at the RPSE on the Jurassic of Pabay. Geikie rose to be Director-General of the Survey, President of the Royal Society and a big man in British government science.

Miller examined his finds with great care and attention to detail, and did a pretty good job of working out their anatomy. Yet Miller was no major publisher of formal research papers, compared to some other Victorian amateurs. He had a heavy load in the day job. Perhaps, too, he preferred to spend his spare time, not writing formal descriptions, but hunting for fossils and writing for the general public, though his massive and meaty articles seem more like work than recreation. Certainly, he made his biggest impact on geology by improving the public understanding and support of the science.

Of course, one cannot say that Miller was the greatest, or the third greatest populariser By its nature, popular science writing is difficult to assess. It is comparatively neglected by historians' emphasis on formal scientific literature. And how does one measure popularity, or compare, say, Richard Fortey to Stephen Jay Gould? Miller had his competitors, or perhaps one should say colleagues. Gideon Mantell of Iguanodon fame wrote books on fossils which were popular, in both senses. And even Lyell's Principles of Geology, not what we'd call a popular book, sold very well. I'd simply say Miller was right up there in the pantheon of the great Victorian popular science writers. And here is Geikie again:

I do not think that the debt which geology owes to him for deepening the popular estimation of the science has been sufficiently acknowledged Hugh Miller was looked upon by the general body of his countrymen as the leading geologist of the day. And this exaggerated but very natural estimate spread perhaps even more extensively in the United States. His books were to be found in the remotest log-huts of the Far West, and on both sides of the Atlantic ideas of the nature and scope of geology were largely drawn from them.

Geikie rightly points out here that non-scientists take the views of a writer with a high public profile as typical of all scientists: still an issue today. But, in any case, Miller is often reporting others' work as well as commenting from his own observation and analysis. So he probably gives a good feel of geology then, and if it seems strange to us it's not because he was 'wrong' but because this was the current consensus on the then available evidence.

One might also wonder how many copies of The Old Red Sandstone were bought and read on the back of his autobiographical, political, and religious writings. Still, who's complaining? He made a big impact, especially on his home ground at a time when many thought that geology was against the Bible. Geikie on Miller again:

His genial ardour and irresistible eloquence swept away the last remnants of the barrier of orthodox prejudice against geology in this country

Miller was a fine writer, personal like a good TV presenter, but neither egoistic nor intrusive. Without dumbing down, he gave clear accounts and very homely comparisons.

A white zeolite of crystals so extremely slender, that the balls, with their light fibrous contents, remind us of cotton apples divested of their seeds

He was intensely visual, both at microscopic level, so typical of the Victorian love of detail, and on the great scale of spectacle - like son et lumière almost. He could at times be almost hallucinatory. Here he is on the Bass Rock's formation, incidentally showing the catastrophism normal for the time:

The billows roll back, - the bared strata heave, and crack, and sever, - a dense smouldering vapour issues from the opening rents and fissures; and now the stony pavement is torn abruptly asunder, like some mildewed curtain seized rudely by the hand, - a broad sheet of flame mounts sudden as lightning through the opening, a thousand fathoms into the sky... and the volcano is born. Meanwhile, the whole region around, as far as the eye can reach, heaves wildly in the throes of Plutonic convulsion. Above many a rising shallow, the sea boils and roars... 

Above all, he met the spirit of the time. As improving recreation, geology is very much part of the self-improvement theme of My Schools and Schoolmasters. It scored in being good mental and physical exercise without being frivolous. Anything that kept young lads out of the howffs and off the drink was a Good Thing. But geology had more going for it: it was basically the study of the Lord's works, a real contribution to 'natural theology' or what one could learn about God from His works as opposed to what had been 'revealed' in the Bible. Natural theology was of course a longstanding staple of Protestantism, and Archdeacon Paley had famously compared the cosmos to a watch lying in the road: even if you hadn't seen it made, the designful construction proved the existence of a Maker. But Miller preferred to compare the Lord to a Scots country craftsman, as with fossil fishes:

the art of the slater had been anticipated, - the scales had been slates fastened down by long nails driven in slantwise, which were however mere prolongations of the scale itself. it struck me as wonderful that the humble arts of the tiler and slater should have existed in perfection in the times of the Old Red Sandstone.

This mix of religion and science was then well out of date in formal scientific literature. But it would be wrong to dismiss Miller as an antiquated 'scriptural geologist'.

Firstly, he was often writing for the general public who not only wanted to know the latest scientific finds but how they fitted in with Life, the Universe, and Everything: and in that place and time that meant Calvinist Presbyterianism. He was, in fact, being a good journalist and writer - just like many professional scientists who today mix religion and philosophy with their science in popular writing.

Secondly, examined without the hindsight conferred by our knowledge of Darwin, Miller was pretty progressive. In books such as Testimony of the Rocks, he savagely attacked the precursors of today's creationists and young-earthers. Indeed, the Rev. Philip Foster reprinted Testimony precisely because it still teaches modern Christians a few lessons.

To Miller, science and revealed religion (as in the Bible) were two faces of the same divine truth. He disposed of Genesis' portrayal of 6 days of creation c. 4004 BCE as Moses's vision of geological evolution ? with clouds of vapour conveniently concealing the difficult bits, charmingly compared to steam intermittently obscuring the view from a train! Noah's Flood was simply a local Middle Eastern flood. But where he had real problems was evolution. The sort of evolution being hawked at the time was a progressionist, from-simple-to-complex type, basically Lamarckian (thus with nasty French revolutionary connotations), as tarted up for a middle-class audience by Miller's fellow Edinburgh geologist Robert Chambers (also born in 1802!) in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1843). Miller denounced evolution

A form of error at once exceedingly plausible, and consummately dangerous, and which is telling so widely on society, that one can scarce travel by railway or in a steamboat, or encounter a group of intelligent mechanics, without finding decided trace of its ravages

Miller attacked Vestiges on scientific grounds, reasonably enough at the time, as in Footprints of the Creator. For instance, the Old Red fossil fish Homostius - which he called Asterolepis, working from fragmentary remains and inadvertently including bits of an unrelated fish - was big and complex, but also old. So it tended to refute the simple-then-to-complex-now model. And, of course, the then known fossil record was patchy and jerky ? not like smooth progressive evolution. We interpret the organization of life in regular patterns of similarity as the obvious result of descent with modification from a common ancestor. But Miller, like many others such as Richard Owen, simply interpreted this as the Great Chain of Being, an old concept of the order and plenitude of divine creation, with simple at the bottom and complex towards the top, with Man near the apex and God at the peak. When Miller talks of such things as 'saurian fishes' (his 'saurians' are what we'd call amphibians and reptiles) or 'semi-reptile' fishes, he's not talking about fishes on the way to evolving into amphibians but simply fish placed on the scale near amphibians and so having some of their features such as big teeth.

But also he had a serious religious objection. It was a very Presbyterian viewpoint, based not on Biblical literalism but on individual responsibility before the Maker. Miller emphasised the division between human with soul, responsible for his actions, and irresponsible animal without. The problem was the supposed gradual transition from animal and human: to Miller, it didn't make sense to have the immortal soul suddenly appearing between ape and human. Thus evolution posed Miller a dilemma. If animals had souls, yet they weren't morally responsible beings and religion was false ? and all foundations of society were lost; but so too was the case if neither animals nor humans had souls. Of course, in 1859 Charles Darwin cut the scientific ground from under Miller's feet with the Origin of Species. Quite contrary to popular myth, many Presbyterians and Free Churchmen accepted Darwinism. But we shall never know what Miller would have said, because by then  he was in Grange Cemetery.

Miller famously shot himself in the chest in his Portobello house in the wee small hours of Christmas Eve 1856. A myth has crept up that he shot himself because of the conflict between science and religion - but Miller saw no conflict, while Darwin's ideas were still confined to his study and close friends. Indeed, if Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger is to be believed, the nonconformists of the Potteries came to believe that the suicide was a Divine judgement for impugning the truth of the Bible. Poor Hugh couldn't win! Probably he simply woke up and thought, wrongly, he was going mad, thanks to hallucinatory nightmares arising from overwork and physical illness ? his old lung disease, lack of sleep, and so on. But who can know? At any rate, most people certainly didn't blame him: they continued to buy his writings, systematically gathered together and republished under the supervision of his widow Lydia to whom we owe a great debt, for it is Miller's life we should remember, not his death.


This article stems from a presentation to the Edinburgh Geological Society on 16th January 2002. I have benefited from the insights of previous writers, especially David Oldroyd in Shortland (1996), and discussions with many colleagues, notably Lyall Anderson, Marian McKenzie Johnston, Simon Knell, Hugh Torrens, and John Burnett to whom I owe the Bennett reference.

Further reading

Bayne, P. 1871. The life and letters of Hugh Miller. 2 vols.

Geikie, A. 1924. A long life's work.

Gostwick, M. 1993. The legend of Hugh Miller. Cromarty Courthouse Museum.

Hudson, J. D. That man is to be envied. Scottish Journal of Geology, vol. 36, pp. 1-3.

Miller, H. 1858. The Cruise of the Betsey and Rambles of a Geologist.

Miller, H. 1993 [1854]. My schools and schoolmasters (ed. J. Robertson). B&W Publishing.

Miller, H. 2001 [1857]. The Testimony of the Rocks, or, Geology in its bearings on the two theologies, natural and revealed. St Matthew Publishing.

Secord, J. A. 2000. Victorian sensation: the extraordinary publication, reception and secret authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. University of Chicago Press.

Shortland, M. (ed.) 1996. Hugh Miller and the controversies of Victorian science. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Misleadingly titled; actually much broader in scope. For geology, see especially the paper by Oldroyd.

Taylor, M. A. 2000. Mary Anning, Thomas Hawkins and Hugh Miller, and the realities of being a provincial fossil collector. Edinburgh Geologist vol. 34, pp. 28-37.

Recommended websites:;

Miller in his 'maud' or wrap

Figure 1: Portrait of Miller in his 'maud' or wrap. Print by Bell after a photograph by Tunny. Photo Suzie Stevenson, courtesy and copyright the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland. return to bookmarked text

Figure 2: Miller's classic Old Red Sandstone site on the Comarty foreshore, looking west towards the town. Photo courtesy and copyright the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland. return to bookmarked text

Figure 3: Postglacial fossils of freshwater gastropods from the former Borough Loch on what is now the Meadows, Edinburgh, arranged in tasteful pattern on card, similar to an Ionic capital. Photo Suzie Stevenson, courtesy and copyright of the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland. return to bookmarked text

Figure 4: The estuarine clam Scrobicularia from the raised beach at Portobello, in clay deposits that Miller interpreted as the estuary of the Figgate Burn at a time of raised sea level. Photo Suzie Stevenson, courtesy and copyright the Trustees of the National  Museums of Scotland. return to bookmarked text

Figure 5: Osteolepis from Miller's classic Old Red Sandstone site at Cromarty, showing the scales which, to him, were evidence of Divine design. Photo Suzie Stevenson, courtesy and copyright of the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland. return to bookmarked text

Figure 6: Portrait of Hugh Miller from W.M. Mackenzie (1908)  Selections  from the writings of Hugh Miller. Photo courtesy and copyright the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland. return to bookmarked text

Mike Taylor is Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the Department of Geology and Zoology of the National Museums of Scotland. In 1993, following a D.Phil. on Jurassic plesiosaurs at Oxford University and jobs in museums in England,  he began working on the Beginnings gallery in the Museum of Scotland, and then on the exhibition Testimony of the Rocks: Hugh Miller 1802-1856 (9th March - 3rd June 2002) with fellow EGS members Lyall Anderson and Christine Thompson.

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