Hugh Miller is not only Cromarty’s ‘most famous son’, he would be on many a list of ‘Great Scots’. Born in 1804 his name belongs in the ranks of the truly influential geologists and although he died when only 54 he made a huge impact in his chosen field.
The thatched cottage in which Miller was brought up lies in the centre of Cromarty and is now a museum, managed by the National Trust for Scotland. It was from here that as a young lad he would head off on explorations armed with his great grandfather’s hammer. In this fashion he developed an abiding interest in rocks and fossils while roaming the coast and hills. Above all, he learned ‘the habit of observation’.
An apprentice stonemason, which arguably further fuelled his interest in fossils, his house was nestled beside a fisherman’s cottage and Hugh developed a keen interest in many subjects. In later life he was a true polymath, having a keen interest in writing, religion and social issues.
From an early age his was an enquiring and lively mind. Of course he famously observed that ‘Life is itself a school and nature always a fresh study’. A self-taught geologist he made an early breakthrough in discovering his famous ‘winged-fish’, the fossil remains of an early, 390 million year old, ‘Old Red Sandstone’ armoured fish that had peculiar wing-like fins.
Even in the throngs of Edinburgh, where he moved to edit the Presbyterian newspaper – The Witness – he cut a dash. His appearance helped him stand out from the crowd; he grew to be 6’2” and had a full and flowing head of red hair. As his journalism progressed so did his immense fossil collection and by the time of his death at the age of 54 he had amassed a collection that ran to over 6,000 specimens and later became the founding core of what is today’s Scottish national collection in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Such is the value of this collection that it continues to be studied by palaeontological researchers to this day.
Miller was just as prolific with his pen and published vast numbers of articles, scientific papers and books, as well as giving many lectures. His most successful work is reckoned to be his The Old Red Sandstone, or New Walks in an Old Field which came out in 1841.
September 2014 brings a nostalgic revival of the trip that Hugh Miller made around the Inner Hebrides in 1844. In a joint trip organised by The Royal Scottish Geographical Society and The Friends of Hugh Miller, The Leader, a traditional sailing boat dating back to 1892, will sail from Oban to the Small Isles in a one-week voyage in celebration to Hugh Miller and his Hebridean tours, as described in his classic book “The Cruise of the Betsey“.
If Hugh Miller had one abiding impact it was that he brought Scottish geology and its international value to a wide audience. In popularizing the subject, he enthused many others to follow in his footsteps.
We can still share his excitement on breaking open a rock and finding a fossil ‘by a stroke of the hammer (whilst observing the Scottish Fossil Code naturally) and see a sight that nobody else has seen before. Some would say “Was there another such curiosity in the whole world?”
The Scottish Fossil Code : Scotland has a remarkably rich geodiversity that spans nearly 3 billion years of Earth’s history. Part of this ‘Earth heritage’ is the record of the development and evolution of life on Earth in the form of fossils. They are found amongst other places, in rivers and streams, coastal cliffs and quarries, and are also preserved in museums and private collections. It comprises an irreplaceable and finite resource that has uses in science, education and recreation. This element of Scotland’s Earth heritage is vulnerable to abuse and damage and so needs safeguarding and management to ensure its survival for future generations. Read more @ http://www.snh.gov.uk/protecting-scotlands-nature/safeguarding-geodiversity/protecting/fossil-code/
Find out more about the Royal Scottish Geographical Society Cruise of the Betsy @ http://cruiseofthebetsey.wordpress.com/about/
“The Cruise of the Betsey took place the year after the Disruption, when 450 ministers broke away from the Established Church. Miller joined his boyhood friend the Rev Swanson, a keen supporter of the Disruption, who had been removed from his Small Isles parish and his manse on Eigg. Swanson used the Betsey as his ‘floating manse’ so that he was still able to serve his parishioners. The cruise was to visit Tobermory, Eigg, Rum, Glenelg and Isle Ornsay on Skye. Miller’s accounts record much about the social circumstances they came across as well as detailed descriptions of the geology, palaeontology and landscapes encountered. During the Cruise of the Betsey, Miller made many ground-breaking scientific discoveries. He wrote about his journey on the Betsey, and other travels through Scotland.
Today, the Friends of Hugh Miller celebrate and promote the legacy of this great pioneering Scottish geologist.”
Above quoted text from Cruise of the Betsy blog as at 29 08 2014.
The National Trust for Scotland Hugh Miller museum @ http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/Hugh-Millers-Birthplace-Cottage-and-Museum/
This biography of Hugh Miller was originally produced for SNH’s Highland Naturalists project – part of our contribution to 2007 The Year of Highland Culture.
Image credits – The calotype(s) are courtesy of the University of Glasgow Library, Hill & Adamson Collection. The colour images (c) John Love.