Autobiography

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THE RIVERSIDE PRESS LIMITED, EDINBURGH



BIOGRAPHICAL INTRODUCTION


WHEN Hugh Miller, in 1853, began "My Schools and Schoolmasters," in the columns of the Witness [note] newspaper, he could look back on a diversified and dramatically ordered life, during which he had figured, always with some distinction, as stonemason, bank clerk, editor, geologist, and author.  He had just passed his fiftieth year, having been born in the little seaport and manufacturing town of Cromarty on the 10th October 1802.  A sailor's son, the outstanding event of his boyhood had been the death by drowning of his father—last of a line of seamen, not one of whom for a hundred years had found a grave on shore.  An erratic and truant school career came to a violent end when Hugh was fifteen.  He had shown the makings, but not the self-discipline, of a scholar.  Ever a great reader, he early developed literary ambitions.  Even his schooldays had not been without their formal compositions; the years that passed before he took up a regular trade were enlivened by occasional exercises in MS.; and the opening months of his apprenticeship as a stonemason gave forecast of his ultimate occupation in the production of the MS. Village Observer, which ran to three numbers of solid magazine matter.  The nomadic character of his craft afforded him much varied material for the indulgence of his habit of observation, developed and directed by the unconscious tuition of his uncles; and its enforced leisure during the winter months left him time for reading and steady practice in the art of authorship.  For even in those most ungenial days he aspired to literary fame, and as the by-product of laborious years issued, at his own expense, the "Poems of a Journeyman Mason" (1829).  But he was only a 'prentice poet, if even that.  More successful in every way were his "Letters on the Herring Fishery in the Moray Firth," contributed in the same year to a local newspaper, afterwards published in pamphlet form, and now included in a volume of his collected works ("Tales and Sketches").  A few selections from the "Poems" appear in the following pages.

    By this time the atmosphere of the hewing-shed had left its deadly impress upon his frame.  The years of his apprenticeship had induced severe physical over-strain, the beginnings of insomnia, and fits of mental depression; to these was now added trouble with his dust-tortured lungs.  In the autobiography his references to such cruel experiences are brief, though sufficiently telling.  They were all in the day's work; and certainly he always had resources of consolation and forgetfulness unknown to his fellows, though he is disposed to believe that Bacon by firelight was of less hygienic value to him as a hewer than their regular bout of intoxication was to them.  For the present, matters ended in his having, in the interests of his health, to fall back on the scanty and precarious earnings of a cutter of inscriptions upon tombstones; cheered by his local reputation, on the strength of the "Poems" and incidental newspaper contributions, as a somewhat misplaced literary lion.  These penurious years, however, also had their output from his pen in the "Scenes and Legends o f the North of Scotland" (1835), in the production of which work he was engaged when, a year before, he had been appointed accountant in the newly founded local bank.  Two years later he married the accomplished lady, also possessed of a literary gift, whose wooing and winning is told in the autobiography with so much chivalrous tenderness and charm and pride.

    But not yet had Miller found what he regarded as his true place—not though he had congenial occupation for his leisure hours in contributing to magazines. During those five years at the bank desk he was still only making himself. His destiny, however, was now taking final form. His amateur studies in natural history were narrowing down to geology, and some startling discoveries in the local strata were sufficient to confine his attentions to this single branch. Pterichthys was already shaping itself wondrously on his study table.  The fish-beds of the Cromarty shore were a freshly opened window into the past; and the news of his discoveries brought him the attention and interest of some of the leading geologists.  Luckily for him, he had hit upon the very department of nature study which could afford him fullest opportunity for the exercise of his gifts.  It was still comparatively new, and offered a rich field for first-hand work.  Its material gave scope for the furthest flights of imagination; it demanded nothing less than the creation of new worlds.  Unfortunately for Miller it was seriously placed in one way: it had still to run the gauntlet of theological opposition and general religious distrust.

    And while he was thus being initiated into the scientific craft he was also taking his first lessons in ecclesiastical debate.  The occasion was local and trivial, but Miller was hot in the fray.  Meantime, the Non-Intrusion controversy in the Church of Scotland, the attempt to control on behalf of the congregations the powers of the patrons, was rapidly assuming serious proportions.  The decision against the Church in the House of Lords over the Auchterarder Case fell on Miller's ears like the blast of a trumpet.  Raising it to the height of a national issue, he penned his "Letter to Lord Brougham from One of the Scotch People" (1839), the single contribution to the debate of independent literary interest.  Within a few days of its publication Hugh Miller was the best-known name in Scotland.  In the course of a few months (December 1839) he was seated in the editorial chair of the Witness newspaper, the chosen journalistic champion of a cause which in him united the emotions of patriotism, of justice and of religious principle.  He was at last in a position where he could have wished himself to be: he had finally left school, and outgrown his schoolmasters, and at this point the autobiography fittingly closes.

    It was, of course, a different Miller who looked back over those experiences a dozen years later.  To help out his strong and well-stored memory he had his own copies of his early letters, as well as the brief and rather more ingenuous autobiographical sketch prepared for Principal Baird in 1829.  But now, mentally detached, more practised in the literary art, and having a keener perception of literary values, he invests his narrative with a vividness and an elaboration and precision of detail impossible to him at an earlier stage.  We fail utterly to realise, in the sureness of his handling, the scientific ignorance with which he must at first have groped among the natural phenomena so fully condescended upon.  There is something pedantic in his insistent use of technical names; the most ordinary sea-shell must disguise itself in a Latin dress.  Of the admirably told story of his adventure in the "Doocot Cave" three other versions are extant—two in verse—and through them we can trace its development in detail and artistic effect as the writer's knowledge becomes fuller and his art more sustained and sure.

    For even in his autobiography Miller is a literary man writing with a purpose.  It is no mere summary of leading events, or series of unimpassioned jottings directed by psychological interest, but a carefully planned, consecutive, skilfully fashioned, and charmingly written narrative, scarcely ever tending to diffusiveness save in some passages of inevitable moralising.  Fully aware of the peculiar perils of this form of composition—such as that expressed by Hume in his own case: "It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity"—Hugh Miller, in spirit, for all his self-consciousness, avoids this besetting danger by his frankness and essential simplicity of mind; and formally, by giving his autobiography an impersonal note, presenting it as primarily an account not of himself, but of his "schools and schoolmasters."  Its further intention is to help in a cause always dear to his heart—"that of rousing the humble classes to the important work of self-culture and self-government"—and incidentally to throw light, for those above them, on their conditions of living.  His pictures of humble life, north and south, are invaluable documents.  For all that, he cannot help that he himself is at once the real theme of his book and the most permanent and effective part of its teaching.

    Almost simultaneously with his appointment to the editorship, Hugh Miller made his reputation as a scientist with "The Old Red Sandstone," which first, to the extent of a third, ran through the columns of the Witness as a serial—an extraordinary serial for a newspaper, and that newspaper an ecclesiastical organ—and was published as a volume in the year following (1841).

    In this the earliest and, as it also happens, the most original and valuable of his geological volumes, appear all the characteristics of his scientific contributions—his remarkable vividness and charm of exposition, his native insight into novel forms of structure, the ingenuity and force with which he made scientific truth serviceable to wider human interests, and even the outlines of future controversial positions.  But in the meantime, and more insistently, he had to fight the journalistic battle of the newly born Free Church.  Henceforward, in fact, his life is one of conflict—a fate, indeed, not altogether unpleasing, at least in the prime of his energies, to his forceful, pugnacious disposition.  No sooner had the stress of the ecclesiastical struggle passed than he found himself under the necessity of fighting for his own hand: as editor and co-proprietor of the Witness, against an attempt, four years after the Disruption, to get rid of him on account of his independence of attitude; as a religiously minded geologist to meet the attacks of men who looked upon geology as an open assault upon Scriptural truths.  At the same time he was eager in taking the offensive against the revival of the Development Hypothesis with the "Footprints of the Creator" (1847), a powerfully written and plausible counter plea, though, it is now easy to see, inaccurate in its data and erroneous in its assumptions.  Two long and, we may be sure, absolutely necessary holidays provided more restful material for his "First Impressions of England and its People" (1847), and "The Cruise of the 'Betsey' among the Inner Hebrides" (1858), though controversial matter is not by any means absent in either work.  Of minor quarrels—religious, social, and philosophical—there was no lack, and a glance through the volumes of "Leading Articles and Essays" published after his death shows the readiness and resource of his controversial powers.  Fighting he fell; for at his death he was putting the finishing touches to a reconcilement, as he thought, of the Mosaic and geological accounts of the earth's formation, in "The Testimony of the Rocks" (1857)—fighting forlornly in the breach he had helped to make.

    Through all this latter period Hugh Miller is, of course, a public personage, and the story of his life is the story of public events.  Keenly sensitive, he suffered the inevitable disillusionments, the sense of which, indeed, seems to sadden the closing pages of the autobiography, and, no doubt, led him to dwell so lovingly upon the earlier incidents of his life—the tension of struggle being gone, and the enchantment of distance in time having gathered round them.  Shy and strangely reserved, he lived much alone; he had but a few devoted friends, and moved in no circle.  He occasionally lectured to public bodies, though in such appearances he did not excel.  A course of lectures in Edinburgh makes up "The Sketch-Book of Popular Geology."  But his health was again suffering seriously from his exhausting and multifold labours.  Desirous of something like learned leisure, he became a candidate for the Natural History Chair in Edinburgh University, but failed to secure the position.  A post as Distributor of Stamps for Perthshire he refused: he had been many things in his time, but felt himself unable, even in such a routine affair, to make a fresh start.  Early troubles rose once more, and fatally fell upon him; lung weakness, fanciful fears of aggression, long-sleeping superstitions, insomnia.  A subtle brain disease aided and intensified them all, and in a fit of unimaginable horror he deliberately shot himself in the left breast in the midnight hours of the 23rd-24th December 1856.  He left behind him much more than his books—a widespread influence ever unselfishly directed to what he considered the highest ends; popularity for his science among thoughtful readers who were not themselves of a scientific turn, but ready to learn from one who, as he did, could bring it within the grasp of the common intelligence; and finally, an example and promise of heroic perseverance and versatile accomplishment—the best work of all.  Carlyle, not usually generous, or even just, to his contemporaries, has said the final word on the following narrative:—"Luminous, memorable; all wholesome, strong, fresh, and breezy like the 'Old Red Sandstone Mountains' on a sunny summer day;—it is really a long while since I have read a Book worthy of so much recognition from me, or likely to be so interesting to sound-hearted men of every degree."

    In appearance Hugh Miller was tall, and squarely built: he had some conceit of his muscular powers.  His chest weakness and studious habits had slightly bent his figure, and he was inclined to be neglectful of his dress: at his best he looked a well-to-do tradesman in his churchgoing clothes.  A "grey maud" or shepherd tartan plaid was a characteristic adornment.  His most striking feature was his abnormally large head, set off by hair and whiskers of reddish hue.  Ever quaintly courteous, and even deferential, in company, though apt to be smitten by a "singular speechlessness" (Masson), he carried with him an air of mysterious power.  Like Chalmers, he pronounced his vowels strangely—"the butter kip of affluction" for "the bitter cup of affliction" is an example—but otherwise spoke as he wrote, in clear, carefully constructed English, nobly unaffected in manner, and unspoiled by success.

    For nearly twenty years after his death Miller's influence upon general opinion was still something to be reckoned with, though less and less as time went on, and the generation that had known him passed away.  His obscurantist attitude towards the principle of organic Evolution, and his theological importations into scientific matter, were the main causes of his eclipse.  But these do not cover the whole man, and, after all deductions, enough still remains to keep his memory bright, and make the record of his life and work of perennial interest.

 
* The first instalment appeared on 18th June 1853, and it continued in the Saturday issues as far as Chapter XX.  The volume was published in 1854.




TO THE READER


IT is now nearly a hundred years since Goldsmith remarked, in his little educational treatise, that "few subjects have been more frequently written upon than the education of youth."  And during the century which has well-nigh elapsed since he said so, there have been so many more additional works given to the world on this fertile topic, that their number has been at least doubled.  Almost all the men who ever taught a few pupils, with a great many more who never taught any, deem themselves qualified to say something original on education; and perhaps few books of the kind have yet appeared, however mediocre their general tone, in which something worthy of being attended to has not actually been said.  And yet, though I have read not a few volumes on the subject, and have dipped into a great many more, I never yet found in them the sort of direction or encouragement which, in working out my own education, I most needed.  They insisted much on the various modes of teaching others, but said nothing—or, what amounted to the same thing, nothing to the purpose—on the best mode of teaching one's-self.  And as my circumstances and position, at the time when I had most occasion to consult them, were those of by much the largest class of the people of this and every other civilized country—for I was one of the many millions who need to learn, and yet have no one to teach them—I could not help deeming the omission a serious one.  I have since come to think, however, that a formal treatise on self-culture might fail to supply the want.  Curiosity must be awakened ere it can be satisfied; nay, once awakened, it never fails in the end fully to satisfy itself; and it has occurred to me, that by simply laying before the working men of the country the "Story of my Education," I may succeed in first exciting their curiosity, and next, occasionally at least, in gratifying it also.  They will find that by far the best schools I ever attended are schools open to them all—that the best teachers I ever had are (though severe in their discipline) always easy of access—and that the special form at which I was, if I may say so, most successful as a pupil, was a form to which I was drawn by a strong inclination, but at which I had less assistance from my brother men, or even from books, than at any of the others.  There are few of the natural sciences which do not lie quite as open to the working men of Britain and America as Geology did to me.

    My work, then, if I have not wholly failed in it, may be regarded as a sort of educational treatise, thrown into the narrative form, and addressed more especially to working men.  They will find that a considerable portion of the scenes and incidents which it records read their lesson, whether of encouragement or warning, or throw their occasional lights on peculiarities of character or curious natural phenomena, to which their attention might be not unprofitably directed.  Should it be found to possess an interest to any other class, it will be an interest chiefly derivable from the glimpses which it furnishes of the inner life of the Scottish people, and its bearing on what has been somewhat clumsily termed "the condition-of-the-country question."  My sketches will, I trust, be recognised as true to fact and nature.  And as I have never perused the autobiography of a working man of the more observant type, without being indebted to it for new facts and ideas respecting the circumstances and character of some portion of the people with which I had been less perfectly acquainted before, I can hope that, regarded simply as the memoir of a protracted journey through districts of society not yet very sedulously explored, and scenes which few readers have had an opportunity of observing for themselves, my story may be found to possess some of the interest which attaches to the narratives of travellers who see what is not often seen, and know, in consequence, what is not generally known.  In a work cast into the autobiographic form, the writer has always much to apologize for.  With himself for his subject, he usually tells not only more than he ought, but also, in not a few instances, more than he intends.  For, as has been well remarked, whatever may be the character which a writer of his own Memoirs is desirous of assuming, he rarely fails to betray the real one.  He has almost always his unintentional revelations, that exhibit peculiarities of which he is not conscious, and weaknesses which he has failed to recognise as such; and it will no doubt be seen that what is so generally done in works similar to mine, I have not escaped doing.  But I cast myself full on the good-nature of the reader.  My aims have, I trust, been honest ones; and should I in any degree succeed in rousing the humbler classes to the important work of self-culture and self-government, and in convincing the higher that there are instances in which working men have at least as legitimate a claim to their respect as to their pity, I shall not deem the ordinary penalties of the autobiographer a price too high for the accomplishment of ends so important.



CONTENTS
_________


CHAPTER I.
A sailor's early career—First marriage—Escape from shipwreck—Second Love—Traits of character.

CHAPTER II.
Childhood and childish visions—A Father's death—Favourite books—Sketch of two maternal uncles.

CHAPTER III.
Dawn of patriotism—Cromarty Grammar School—Prevalent amusements—Old Francie—Earliest geological researches.

CHAPTER IV.
Uncle Sandy as a Naturalist—Important discovery—Cromarty Sutors and their caves—Expedition to the "Doocot "—Difficulties and dangers—Sensation produced.

CHAPTER V.
A would-be patroness—Boyish games—First friendship—Visit to the Highlands—Geologizing in the Gruids—Ossian-worship.

CHAPTER VI.
Cousin George and Cousin William—Excursion with Cousin Walter—Painful accident—Family bereavements—Links between the present and the past.

CHAPTER VII.
Subscription school—Vacation delights-Forays and fears—Quarrel with the schoolmaster-Poetical revenge-Johnstone the forester.

CHAPTER VIII.
Choice of a calling—Disappointment to relatives—Old Red Sandstone quarry—Depression and walking-sleep—Temptations of toil—Friendship with William Ross.

CHAPTER IX.
Life in the bothy—Mad Bell—Mournful history—Singular intimacy—Manners and customs of north-country masons.

CHAPTER X.
Evening walks—Lines on a sun-dial—A haunted stream—Insect transformations—Jock Mo-ghoal—Musings,
. . . .
CHAPTER XI.
An antiquary in humble life—Poor Danie—Proficiency in porridge-making—Depressed health—A good omen—Close of apprenticeship.

CHAPTER XII.
Swimming the Conon—Click-Clack the carter—Loch Maree—Fitting up a barrack—Highland characteristics.

CHAPTER XIII.
The Brothers Fraser—Flora of the Northern Hebrides—Diving in the Gareloch—Sabbaths in Flowerdale woods—Causes of Highland distress.

CHAPTER XIV.
A cragsman's death—Providential escape—Property in Leith—First sight of Edinburgh—Peter M'Craw—Niddry Woods—Re-searches among the Coal Measures.

CHAPTER XV.
A worthy Seceder—The hero of the squad—Apology for fanaticism—Strikes—Recollections of the theatre.

CHAPTER XVI.
Great fires in Edinburgh—Dr. Colquhoun—Dr. M'Crie—Return to the North—Stanzas written at sea—Geological dreams.

CHAPTER XVII.
Religious phases—True centre of Christianity-Bearing of geology upon theological belief—Delicate health—A gipsy wedding.

CHAPTER XVIII.
 Convalescence—Pursuit of algeology—Jock Gordon—Theory of idiocy—Mr. Stewart of Cromarty.

CHAPTER XIX.
Stone-cutting at Inverness—A jilted lover—The Osars—Death of Uncle James—Farewell letter from William Ross.

CHAPTER XX.
Publication of poems—Newspaper criticisms—Walsh the lecturer -Enlarged circle of friends—Miss Dunbar of Boath.

CHAPTER XXI.
Arenaceous formations—Antiquity of the earth—Tremendous hurricane—Loligo Vulgare—Researches amid the Lias—Interesting discoveries.

CHAPTER XXII.
Religious controversies—Ecclesiastical dispute—Cholera—Preventive measures—Reform Bill.

CHAPTER XXIII.
Visitors in the churchyard—The Ladies' Walk—First interview—Friendship—Love—Second visit to Edinburgh—Linlithgow Sank—Favourable reception of "Scenes and Legends"—Marriage.

CHAPTER XXIV.
Married life at Cromarty—Ichthyolitie deposit of Old Red Sandstone—Correspondence with Agassiz and Murchison—Happy evenings—Death of eldest child.

CHAPTER XXV.
Voluntary principle—Position of the Establishment—Letter to Lord Brougham—Invitation to Edinburgh—Editorship of the Witness—Introduction to Dr. Chalmers—Visit from an old friend—Removal to Edinburgh.

 


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