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Hugh Miller lived from 10 October 1802 to 24 December 1856. Usually described as a "geologist and writer", Miller's life and work still gives rise to controversy and heated debate, especially about the tensions between his work as a geologist and paleontologist on the one hand, and his deeply held religious beliefs on the other. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Hugh Miller was the elder son of Hugh and Harriet Miller and was born in Cromarty, on the Black Isle. His father was a ship's captain, and was lost at sea when Hugh was five. Hugh's formal education was restricted by the family's financial circumstances and came to an end after what some have described as a violent disagreement between the able but lazy child and the local schoolmaster.
Hugh's interest in the world around him had been prompted and maintained by two uncles, and at the age of 17, Hugh apprenticed himself to a stonemason, using his spare time to continue his education in the fields of natural history and literature. His interest in geology arose in part because of his work as a mason and in part because of his growing love of the history of the Highlands.
In 1834 Miller, by now suffering from silicosis as a result of his work as a mason, became an accountant in a bank in Cromarty. Miller had already published a book of poems, in 1829, but in 1835 he published the book that was to draw him to the attention of the wider scientific community in Scotland, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland. In 1837 Hugh Miller married Lydia Fraser, an author of children's books. From 1839 Miller became involved in the increasingly fierce debates that led to the 1843 Disruption of the Church of Scotland over who had the power to appoint ministers (the congregations or the wealthy landowners) and the seceding from it of the Free Kirk. In 1840 he was invited to live in Edinburgh and edit The Witness, a highly influential journal that did much to bring about the Free Kirk.
Shortly after arriving in Edinburgh, Miller attended a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science where he was able to meet the leading British paleontologists of the day. One result was his realisation that in his earlier work on sandstone as a mason, he had discovered fossils that overturned a number of the accepted truths. The result was the publication in 1841 of the first of his three books on geology, The Old Red Sandstone. The others were Footprints of the Creator (1850) and The Testimony of the Rocks (1856).
Miller also wrote a number of other books. These are First Impressions of England and its People (1847); the modestly entitled My Schools and Schoolmasters, an autobiography of remarkable interest (1854); and The Cruise of the Betsey (1857).
The last of these carries the full title of The Cruise of the Betsey, or a Summer Holiday in the Hebrides, with Rambles of a Geologist or Ten Thousand Miles over the Fossiliferous Deposits of Scotland. It brings together Miller's accounts of his travels across Scotland, and was published by his wife Lydia after his death. Hugh Miller shot himself at his home in Edinburgh on Christmas Eve 1856, after checking the final proofs of his book The Testimony of the Rocks. Some say he did so because he could no longer reconcile his scientific work with his religious beliefs. Some say he did so because of overwork and stress. Some say he did so because of his recognition of the effects of a degenerative brain illness that only came to light during his post mortem.
Whatever the reason or reasons, his legacy remains in his books, and in his collection of 6,000 fossils, which went on to form the core of the collection at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. And his legacy is particularly strong in his home town of Cromarty, at Hugh Miller's Birthplace Cottage & Museum.