Discover Hugh Miller
Here we introduce site visitors to a writer who in his heyday and for some fifty years after his death was a mega-bestseller. Hugh Miller himself embraced so much of the passions preoccupying the public in mid-19th Century Scotland that he could speak to great swathes of the population as if he was just "one of us."
This page will be regularly changed with new selections, enabling site visitors to advance their appreciation of Miller's talents. We hope in future to place the contents of six Albums, or Story-books, containing many of his best passages in his own life-story and in his folklore tales. These albums will be available to visitors in the Cottage's newly-created Reading Room.
Modern readers may find the long sentences with their many sub-clauses a little heavy-going at first, but we are confident that like previous generations of enthusiasts, they will be drawn irresistably on to marvel at an intricately woven tapestry, full of unforgettable images.
THE INCIDENT AT GARDENSTONE
(from Miller’s book Rambles of a Geologist or Ten Thousand Miles over the Fossiliferous Deposits of Scotland. It is one of our favourite reminiscences,relating a colourful encounter which well describes both the fame he had gained as a geologist from his book, The Old Red Sandstone, and his modesty about it.)
In passing downwards on the fishing village of Gardenstone, mainly in the hope of procuring a guide to the ichthyolite beds, I saw a labourer at work with a pick-axe, in a little craggy ravine, about a hundred yards to the left of the path, and two gentlemen standing beside him. I paused for a moment, to ascertain whether the latter were not brother-workers in the geologic field. “Hilloa!-here,” – shouted out the stouter of the two gentlemen, as if, by some clairvoyant faculty, he had dived into my secret thought.; “come here.” I went down into the ravine, and found the labourer engaged in disinterring ichthyolitic nodules out of a bed of stratified clay, identical in its composition with that of the Cromarty fish-beds; and a heap of freshly-broken nodules, speckled with the remains of the Lower Old Red Sandstone, - chiefly occipital plates and scales, - lay beside him. “Know you aught of these?” said the stouter gentleman, pointing to the heap. “A little,” I replied; “but your specimens are none of the finest. Here, however, is a dorsal plate of Coccosteus; and here a scattered group of scales of Osteolepis; and here the occipital plates of Cheirolepis Cummingiae; and here the spine of the anterior dorsal of Diplacanthus Striatus.” My reading of the fossils was at once recognised, like the mystic sign of the freemason, as establishing for me a place among the geologic brotherhood; and the stout gentleman producing a spirit-flask and a glass, I pledged him and his companion in a bumper. “Was I not sure,” he said, addressing his friend: “I knew by the cut of his jib, notwithstanding his shepherd’s plaid, that he was a wanderer of the scientific cast.” We discussed the peculiarities of the deposit, which, in its mineralogical character, and generically in that of its organic contents, resembles, I found, the fish-beds of Cromarty (though, curiously enough, the intervening contemporary deposits of Moray and the western parts of Banffshire differ widely, in at least their chemistry, from both); and we were right good friends ere we parted. To men who travel for amusement, incident is incident, however trivial in itself, and always worth something. I showed the younger of the two geologists my mode of breaking open an ichthyloite nodule, so as to secure the best possible section of the fish. “Ah,” he said, as he marked a style of handling the hammer, which, save for the fifteen years’ previous practice of the operative mason, would be perhaps complete, - “Ah, you must have broken open a great many.” His own knowledge of the formation and its ichthyolites had been chiefly derived, he added, from a certain little treatise on the “Old Red Sandstone,” rather popular than scientific, which he named. I of course claimed no acquaintance with the work; and the conversation went on.
THE DWARFIE STONE OF HOY
From Chapter XV, Rambles of a Geologist
Commentary: There are places in this narrative where HughMiller’s prose can become as “ponderous” as the scenery he is describing. The first paragraph is over 730 words long, and its last sentence about the Stone winds past 100 words. Lengthy quotations from the works of Walter Scott have been abbreviated or omitted. It is therefore a good example of both the “difficulty” of his style for the modern reader, and the rewards awaiting those with the patience to discover a peculiarly atmospheric scene, and observations on the transient nature of human existence in general, and of his own work as a geologist in particular.
We landed at Hoy, on a rocky stretch of shore, composed of the gray flagstones of the district. They spread out here in front of the tall hills composed of the overlying sandstone, in a green undulating platform, resembling a somewhat uneven esplanade spread out in front of a steep rampart. With the upper deposit a new style of scenery commences, unique in these islands: the hills, bold and abrupt, rise from fourteen to sixteen hundred feet over the sea-level; and the valleys by which they are traversed, - no mere shallow inflections of the general surface, like most of the other valleys of Orkney, - are of profound depth, precipitous, imposing, and solitary. The sudden change from the soft, low, and comparatively tame, to the bold, stern, and high, serves admirably to show how much the character of a landscape may depend on the over formation which composes it. A walk of somewhat less than two miles brought me into the depths of a brown, shaggy valley, so profoundly solitary, that it does not contain a single habitation, nor, with one interesting exception, a single trace of the hand of man. As the traveller approaches by a path somewhat elevated, in order to avoid the peaty bogs of the bottom, along the slopes of the northern side of the dell, he sees, amid the heath below, what at first seems to be a rhomboidal piece of pavement of pale Old Red Sandstone, bearing atop a few stunted tufts of vegetation. There are no neighbouring objects of a known character by which to estimate its size; the precipitous hill-front behind is more than a thousand feet in height; the greatly taller Ward Hill of Hoy, which frowns over it on the opposite side, is at least five hundred feet higher; and, dwarfed by these giants, it seems a mere pavier’s flag, mayhap some five or six feet square, by from eighteen inches to two feet in depth. It is only on approaching it within a few yards that we find it to be an enormous stone, nearly thirty feet in length by almost fifteen feet in breadth, and in some places, though it thins, wedge-like, towards one of the edges, more than six feet in thickness, - forming altogether such a mass as the quarrier would detach from the solid rock, to form the architrave of some vast gateway, or the pediment of some colossal statue. A cave-like excavation, nearly three feet square, and rather more than seven feet in depth, opens on its gray and lichened side. The excavation is widened within, along the opposite walls, into two uncomfortably short beds, very much resembling those of the cabin of a small coasting vessel. One of the two is furnished with a protecting ledge and a pillow of stone, hewn out of the solid mass; while the other, which is some five or six inches shorter than its neighbour, and presents altogether more the appearance of a place of penance rather than of repose, lacks both cushion and ledge. An aperture, which seems to have been originally of a circular form, and about two and a half feet in diameter, but which some unlucky herd-boy, apparently in the want of better employment, has considerably mutilated and widened, opens at the inner extremity of the excavation to the roof, as the hatch of a vessel opens from the hold to the deck; for it is by far too wide in proportion to the size of the apartment to be regarded as a chimney. A gray, rudely-hewn block of sandstone, which, though greatly too ponderous to be moved by any man of ordinary strength, seems to have served the purpose of a door, lies prostrate beside the opening in front. And such is the famous Dwarfie Stone of Hoy, - as firmly fixed in our literature by the genius of Sir Walter Scott, as in this wild valley by its ponderous weight and breadth of base, and regarding which – for it shares in the general obscurity of the other ancient remains of Orkney – the antiquary can do little more than repeat, somewhat incredulously, what tradition tells him, viz., that it was the work, many ages ago, of an ugly, malignant goblin, half-earth, half-air, - the Elfin Trolld, - a personage, it is said, that, even within the last century, used occasionally to be seen flitting about in its neighbourhood.
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. I did what Norna of the Fitful Head*2 had, according to the novelist (Sir Walter Scott), done before me in similar circumstances, - crept for shelter into the larger bed of the cell, which, though rather scant, taken fairly lengthwise, for a man of five feet eleven, I found, by stretching myself diagonally from corner to corner, no very uncomfortable lounging-place in a thunder-shower. Some provident herd-boy had spread it over, apparently months before, with a littering of heath and fern, which now formed a dry, springy couch; and as I lay wrapped up in my plaid, listening to the rain-drops as they pattered thick and heavy a-top, or slanted through the broken hatchway to the vacant bed on the opposite side of the excavation, I called up the wild narrative of Norna and felt all its poetry….
(Here Miller quotes from Scott’s story of Norna, wondering whether the refuge was the work of Trolld the dwarf, or the tomb of a Scandinavian chief and his wife, or the abode of a hermit monk. Norna then sees the dwarf sitting opposite her and speaking to her in old Norse; she boldly replies, and it disappears “in a thick and sulphurous vapour”).
Shall I dare confess, that I would fain have passed some stormy night all alone in this solitary cell, were it but to enjoy the luxury of listening, amid the darkness, to the dashing rain and the roar of the wind high among the cliffs, or to detect the brushing sound of hasty footsteps in the wild rustle of the heath, or the moan of unhappy spirits in the low roar of the distant sea….
(Miller, quoting Scott again, says he might also have enjoyed hearing in “a bittern’s distant shriek, unearthly voices speak,” or see “a wizard priest come to claim again his ancient home”).
The Dwarfie Stone has been a good deal under-valued by some writers, such as the historian of Orkney, Mr Barry; and, considered simply as a work of art or labour, it certainly does not stand high. When tracing, as I lay a-bed, the marks of the tool, which, in the harder portions of the stone, are still distinctly visible, I just thought how that, armed with pick and chisel, and working as I was once accustomed to work, I could complete another such excavation to order in some three weeks to a month. But then, I could not make my excavation a thousand years old, nor envelop its origin in the sun-gilt vapours of a poetic obscurity, nor connect it with the supernatural, through the influences of wild ancient traditions, nor yet encircle it with a classic halo, borrowed from the undying inventions of an exquisite literary genius….(Miller offers another digression on powers of associaton).
The pillow I found lettered over with the names of visitors; but the stone, - an exceedingly compact red sandstone, - had resisted the imperfect tools at the command of the traveller, - usually a nail or knife; and so there were but two names decipherable, - that of an “H. Ross, 1735,” and that of a “P. FOLSTER 1830.” The rain still pattered heavily overhead; and with my geological chisel and hammer I did, to beguile the time, what I very rarely do, - added my name to the others, in characters which, if both they and the Dwarfie Stone get but fair play, will be distinctly legible two centuries hence. In what state will the world then exist, or what sort of ideas will fill the head of the man who, when the rock has well nigh yielded up its charge, will decipher the name for the last time, and inquire, mayhap, regarding the individual whom it now designates, as I did this morning, when I asked, “Who was this H. Ross, and who this P. Folster?” I remember when it would have saddened me to think that there would in all probability be as little response in the one case as in the other; but as men rise in years they become more indifferent than in early youth to “that life which wits inherit after death,” and are content to labour on and be obscure. They learn, too, if I may judge from experience, to pursue science more exclusively for its own sake, with less, mayhap, of enthusiasm to carry them on, but with what is at least as strong to take its place as a moving force, that wind and bottom of formed habit through which what were at first acts of will pass into easy half-instinctive promptings of the disposition. In order to acquaint myself with the fossiliferous deposits of Scotland, I have travelled, hammer in hand, during the last nine years, over fully ten thousand miles; nor has the work been in the least one of dry labour, - not more so than that of the angler, or grouse-shooter, or deer-stalker: it has occupied the mere leisure instertices of a somewhat busy life, and has served to relieve its toils. I have succeeded, however, in accomplishing but little: besides, what is discovery to-day will be but rudimentary facts to the tyro-geologists of the future. But if much has not been done, I have at least the consolation of George Buchanan, when, accoreding to Melvill, “fan sitting in his chair, tecihing his young man that servit him in his chalmer to spell a, b, ab; e, b, eb. “Better this,” quoth he, “nor stelling sheipe.”
Acknowledgement is due to Dr M A Taylor of National Museums of Scotland for this extract, and his footnotes..
HUGH MILLER ON THE CLAIM OF
JOHN LINDSAY CRAWFORD ,
TITLES AND ESTATES OF CRAWFURD AND LINDSAY
UNSCRUPULOUS CHANCERS pop up in every age. In the early 19th Century one of Scotland’s thriving cottage industries was fraudulent claiming of peerages, and Hugh Miller bore witness, in highly amusing style, to his own encounter with one such fraudster.
The website has received a most interesting article from Mr John Lauchland of 19 Dipple Court, Kilbirnie, Ayrshire concerning what was known as “The Crawfurd Peerage Claim.”
Mr Lauchland tells us that Hugh Miller gave the only account to have come down to us about what the claimant, one John Crawford was actually like, in his autobiography, My Schools and Schoolmasters.
Mr Lauchland records that the Crawfurd claim was only one of nearly four hundred claims lodged between 1830 and 1840. By then, John Crawfurd had been pursuing his peerage with grim determination for twenty years.
The landed family Crawfurd of Kilbirnie was founded in 1470. The family seat moved in 1757 to Crawfurd Priory in Fife. John Crawford (subsequently “John Lindsay Crawfurd”) came from Dungannon in the North of Ireland to Ayrshire in 1809, knowing of the Crawfurd of Kilbirnie line. He immediately set about looking in local parish records for a likely “forbear.” He then took his claim to be an heir of the first Viscount Crawfurd to court, only to have his documentary evidence shown to consist entirely of forgeries. In 1812, he and his forger accomplice were sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to Australia. He managed to get his sentence remitted and “bobbed up in Britain again” in 1820.
He had ruined one Ayrshire landed family foolish enough to support him in his first venture. He now worked his way through another £5000 of other people’s money between 1820 and 1824, in legal action which repeatedly failed. Henry later Lord Cockburn considered the claim, based on the alleged forbear having lived in Ireland for 30 years (untrue) and a supposed marriage (uncertified), as “hopeless and absurd.”
John Crawford (or Crawfurd) was not only a genealogical fraud. Towards the end of his second inheritance attempt in the courts, he is found, in Kilbirnie Parish Church records in November 1824, to have been the father of a child in adultery. Crawford was 53 years old at this point, an advanced age for the time. The Kirk Session called the deed a “scandal of an atrocious nature.” The Session thought he had left the country, but he had in fact simply escaped any consequences by flitting to Edinburgh.
Here Hugh Miller enters the story, for while working as a stonemason at Niddry House south of Edinburgh, in the winter of 1824/5, he encountered Crawford, employed as a stonemason’s labourer. Hugh’s account of Crawford is contained in Chapter XV of his autobiography, My Schools and Schoolmasters.
Hugh often saw Crawford engaged in “mixing mortar, or carrying materials to the builders.” He described him as “a really handsome man – grey-haired, silver-whiskered, with an aristocratic cast of countenance, that would have done no discredit to a royal drawing-room, and an erect though somewhat petite figure, cast in a mould that, if set off more to advantage, would have been recognised as elegant. But John Lindsay – for so he was called – bore always the stamp of misery on his striking features. There lay between the poor little man and the Crawford peerage a narrow chasm, represented by a missing marriage certificate; but he was never able to bridge the gulf across; and he had to toil on in unhappiness, in consequence, as a mason’s labourer. I have heard the call resounding from the walls twenty times a day – “John, Yearl Crafurd, bring us anither hod o’ lime.”
No more was heard of Crawford until 1829, when a book renewing his claim, “The Crawfurd Peerage”, made its appearance. Mr Lauchland writes: “Four hundred and seventy pages, and a list of three hundred subscribers show how hopes and tempers were still running high, but it produced no new evidence, and repeated all the old abuse, and complaints of corruption in high places.”
Crawford, now in his sixties, died soon after. His story has the strangest of endings, supplied by Lady Mary Lindsay Crawfurd, who seems to have taken pity on him, although he had been attempting to deprive her of her inheritance for nearly twenty years, and who was herself over seventy by then.
Mr Lauchland writes: “If the legal costs of the claim and the claimant and his supporters are any indication of what it must have cost Lady Mary Lindsay Crawfurd to defend her inheritance, it says much for her forbearance at his death… for it could have been no one else who authorised his remains to be interred in the Crawfurd family vault, under the Crawfurd Gallery in the Auld Kirk of Kilbirnie.
“Perhaps this is the most curious part of the whole story. Clearly, he was an unprincipled scoundrel, and in more ways than one, but one wonders if his undoubted charms worked on the noble lady, at the last.”
"The Cleopatra, as she swept past the town of Cromarty, was greeted with three cheers by crowds of the inhabitants, and the emigrants returned the salute, but, mingled with the dash of the waves and the murmurs of the breeze, their faint huzzas seemed rather sounds of wailing and lamentation, than of a congratulatory farewell."
"A brave and hardy people, favourably placed for the development of all that is excellent in human nature, form the glory and strength of a country; - a people sunk into an abyss of degradation and misery, and in which it is the whole tendency of external circumstances to sink them yet deeper, constitute its weakness and its shame."
"The two main cupples of the building he made of huge trees dug out of a neighbouring morass; they resembled somewhat the beams of a large sloop reversed. The stones he carried from an outfiled heath on a sledge; the interstices in the walls he caulked with moss; the roof he covered with sods. The entire erection was his workmanship, from foundation to ridge."
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