Hugh Miller Essay - Critical Essays

Miller, Hugh


Hugh Miller 1802-1856

Scottish nonfiction writer, essayist, journalist, folklorist, autobiographer, and editor.

Miller is best known for nonfiction works that critics describe as “literary natural history.” Such books as The Old Red Sandstone; or, New Walks in an Old Field (1841) and Foot-prints of the Creator; or The Asterolepis of Stromness (1849) reflect both Miller's studies as a scientist, particularly in the field of geology, and his skills as an engaging prose stylist. These works, along with Miller's autobiography, My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854), reveal their author as one of the most remarkable figures in nineteenth-century Scottish letters.

Biographical Information

Miller was born in Cromarty into a line of Scottish seafaring men. When he was five, his father died at sea, and Miller was subsequently raised by Harriet Roy, his father's second wife. Miller's stepmother and his uncles Alexander and James all imparted their strong religious values to Miller. Miller's family also instilled in him a love of reading. An intelligent but easily bored student, Miller was forced to leave school at the age of fifteen because of disciplinary problems. Between February 1820 and November 1822, he worked as an apprentice stonemason to his mother's brother-in-law, David Wright. His work as a stonemason in the subsequent years led to the publication of his first book, Poems, Written in the Leisure Hours of a Journeyman Mason (1829). That same year, he also published Letters on the Herring Fishing in the Moray Firth, a work that utilizes the detailed and highly descriptive prose style for which he later became known. While pursuing his literary interests, Miller met a member of the Cromarty women's literary society, Lydia Mackenzie Fraser. They loved each other but Miller refused to marry her so long as he remained a stonemason and thus a member of the working class. While continuing to write, publishing newspaper articles that revealed his special interest in geology, Miller became an accountant at the Commercial Bank in Cromarty, a position that provided him with sufficient income to marry Fraser. He found the routine of the position unpleasant, however, and began corresponding with geologists such as Sir Roderick Murchison and Louis Agassiz. Murchison later suggested to Miller that he undertake publishing a reference work that compiled his geological observations, advice which Miller eventually followed. In 1839, Miller was offered the opportunity to be the editor for The Witness, a Free Church of Scotland newspaper founded by the Reverend Robert A. Candlish. Under Miller's editorial guidance, it developed into a publication concerned with a variety of subjects, including literature and science. Miller's journalistic writings, some of which were posthumously collected in Essays: Historical and Biographical, Political and Social, Literary and Scientific (1862), illustrate Miller's interest in social reform and church policies. Miller's outspokenness in many of his articles caused tension between him and the Free Church of Scotland. Candlish unsuccessfully tried to replace Miller, who remained at the newspaper until his death. As a consequence of his years as a stonemason, Miller came to suffer from a malady common to workers in that occupation, in which stone and dust collects in the lungs. As his physical health declined, Miller also began to experience a deteriorating mental stability whose manifestations included frequent nightmares, delirium, and sleepwalking. Miller died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1856. His suicide note indicated that he believed his sleepwalking was evidence of a diseased mind.

Major Works

Miller's religious faith and his fascination with the natural history of Scotland provided the subject matter for much of his writing. Miller was a defender of the Bible as the ultimate source of knowledge pertaining to both the supernatural and the natural worlds, and he was thus an opponent of evolutionary theory. His attempts to reconcile geology and religion were combined with a passion for history and literature, giving works such as The Old Red Sandstone and Foot-prints of the Creator the broad scope and highly readable prose style that made them best-sellers in his lifetime. The combination of literary writing, scientific observation, and deeply held spiritual beliefs are also present in his autobiography, My Schools and Schoolmasters. In this work Miller represents himself as someone who raised himself above his working-class origins through hard work, religious faith, and intellectual pursuits. Because of this emphasis on personal development, some critics have viewed Miller's autobiography as an early example of the self-help book.

Critical Reception

A groundbreaking figure in the history of the sciences, Miller's works on natural history “were to be found in the remotest log-hut of the Far West, and on both sides of the Atlantic ideas of the nature and shape of geology were largely drawn from them” according to geologist Archibald Geikie. Modern critics still continue to study Miller's geological works, largely considering them seminal to the development of literary natural history as a genre. In addition to his legacy in natural history, Miller's works reflect the cultural changes in nineteenth-century Scottish society, specifically those deriving from the debate over the theory of evolution versus biblical doctrine. Although Miller's contributions to folklore are not as well recognized as his work in the sciences, some scholars such as David Alston consider Miller's importance as a folklorist to be significant, praising his thorough examination of the folklore and beliefs of a small geographical area. In addition, his political writings for The Witness illuminate various issues of reform that are vital to an understanding of mid-nineteenth-century Scottish society. They also, as George Rosie maintains, cover a wide variety of subjects pertaining to countries outside the British Isles—from parliamentary proceedings in Canada, to the introduction of the guillotine in Constantinople. For their complex mingling of scientific, personal, religious, and sociopolitical themes, and for their engaging and highly readable style, Miller's works continue to be esteemed by scientists and literary scholars alike.

Principal Works

Letters on the Herring Fishing in the Moray Firth (letters) 1829

Poems, Written in the Leisure Hours of a Journeyman Mason (poetry) 1829

Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland; or, The Traditional History of Cromarty (folklore) 1835

The Whiggism of the Old School, as Exemplified by the Past History and Present Policies of the Church of Scotland (journalism) 1839

The Old Red Sandstone; or, New Walks in an Old Field (nonfiction) 1841; revised as The Old Red Sandstone; or, New Walks in an Old Field, to Which Is Appended a Series of Geological Papers Read before the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh 1858

Foot-prints of the Creator; or The Asterolepis of Stromness (nonfiction) 1849

*My Schools and Schoolmasters; or The Story of My Education (autobiography) 1854

The Testimony of the Rocks; or, Geology and Its Bearings on the Two Theologies (nonfiction) 1857

The Cruise of the Betsey; or, A Summer Ramble among the Fossilferous Deposits of the Hebrides, with Rambles of a Geologist; or, Ten Thousand Miles of the Fossilferous Deposits of Scotland (nonfiction) 1858

Sketch-book of Popular Geology: Being a Series of Lectures Delivered before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh (lectures) 1859; expanded as Popular Geology: A Series of Lectures Read before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, with Descriptive Sketches from a Geologist's Portfolio 1860

The Headship of Christ, and the Rights of the Christian People (essays) 1861

Essays: Historical and Biographical, Political and Social, Literary and Scientific (essays) 1862

Tales and Sketches (folklore and sketches) 1863

Edinburgh and Its Neighborhood, Geological and Historical, with the Geology of the Bass Rock (essays) 1864

Leading Articles on Various Subjects (essays) 1870

Works. 13 vols. (autobiography, essays, folklore, nonfiction, and journalism) 1870-79

*This work has also been published under the titles An Autobiography: My Schools and Schoolmasters; or, The Story of My Education and My Schools and Schoolmasters; or, The Story of My Education: An Autobiography.

†This work has also been published under the title The Witness Papers: Headship of Christ and the Rights of the Christian People, A Collection of Essays, Historical and Descriptive Sketches, and Personal Portraitures.


John M. Clarke (essay date January 1903)

SOURCE: Clarke, John M. “Hugh Miller and His Centenary.” New England Magazine n.s. 27, no. 5 (January 1903): 551-63.

[In the following essay, Clarke assesses Miller's reputation in his native Scotland and in America on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth.]

The people of Scotland have just been celebrating with unbounded enthusiasm the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Hugh Miller.

In America Miller's name is not very familiar to the younger generation, but to those in the prime of life who, thirty or forty years ago, were reading with susceptible minds, it recalls diverse impressions: the story of a remarkable life, telling with...

(The entire section is 4142 words.)

W. M. Mackenzie (essay date 1905)

SOURCE: Mackenzie, W. M. “Literary Style.” In Hugh Miller: A Critical Study, pp. 25-50. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1905.

[In the following excerpt, Mackenzie analyzes Miller's prose style and the literary models that influenced his development as a writer.]

So far, then, have we been able to follow Miller in the careful training of himself for literary achievement. Without exactly playing “the sedulous ape,” he studies closely the general form, the tones and turns of expression characterising a well-defined group of writers, and shapes his own performance accordingly. It need not, therefore, be pronounced either futile or pedantic to endeavour to trace out...

(The entire section is 3514 words.)

George Rosie (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Rosie, George. “Hugh Miller: A Biography.” In Hugh Miller: Outrage and Order, pp. 13-87. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Rosie discusses Miller's editorship of the Witness.]


The first issue of Hugh Miller's Witness made its appearance on the streets of Edinburgh on 15 January 1840 (under a slogan coined by John Knox: “I am in the place where I am demanded of conscience to speak the truth, and therefore the truth I speak, impugn it whoso list”). From the outset Miller made it plain he meant business. “We enter upon our labours at a period emphatically momentous,” he...

(The entire section is 5155 words.)

Lynn L. Merrill (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Merrill, Lynn L. “Hugh Miller and Evocative Geology.” In The Romance of Victorian Natural History, pp. 236-54. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Merrill maintains that Miller's The Old Red Sandstone appealed to Victorian readers because of its attention to the particulars of natural description.]

Where can be seen an intenser delight than that of children picking up new flowers and watching new insects, or hoarding pebbles and shells? … Every botanist who has had children with him in the woods and the lanes must have noticed how eagerly they joined him in his pursuits, how keenly they searched out...

(The entire section is 7755 words.)

Harry Hanham and Michael Shortland (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Hanham, Harry and Michael Shortland. Introduction to Hugh Miller's Memoir: From Stonemason to Geologist, edited by Michael Shortland, pp. 1-86. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Hanham and Shortland discuss Miller's autobiography and its relationship to the emerging field of self-help literature.]



Miller had been experimenting with prose before the Poems appeared. The task he had set himself was to reconcile the easy colloquial style of his own juvenile stories with the classical style of the eighteenth century,...

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James G. Paradis (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Paradis, James G. “The Natural Historian as Antiquary of the World: Hugh Miller and the Rise of Literary Natural History.” In Hugh Miller and the Controversies of Victorian Science, edited by Michael Shortland, pp. 122-49. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Paradis examines Scenes and Legends, The Old Red Sandstone and Footprints of the Creator.]


Standing in the Newcastle town museum on his English ramble during the rainy autumn of 1845, Hugh Miller reflected upon the extensive geological fragments and Anglo-Roman antiquities, collected from the countryside near Hadrian's Wall:...

(The entire section is 13733 words.)

David Alston (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Alston, David. “The Fallen Meteor: Hugh Miller and Local Tradition.” In Hugh Miller and the Controversies of Victorian Science, edited by Michael Shortland, pp. 206-29. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Alston emphasizes Miller's analytical and literary contributions as a folklorist of Scottish legends, myths, and stories.]

Hugh Miller collected around 350 traditional tales and customs,1 the bulk of which were published in Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (1835) and in his autobiographical My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854). This number does not include stories from written sources, which he wove...

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Further Reading


Bayne, Peter. The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller. 2 vols. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1871, 928 p.

Examines Miller's life and writings.

Leask, W. Keith. Hugh Miller. Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1896, 157 p.

Comprehensive study of Miller's life and career as a writer and scientist.

Shortland, Michael. “Bonneted Mechanic and Narrative Hero: The Self-Modelling of Hugh Miller.” In Hugh Miller and the Controversies of Victorian Science, edited by Michael Shortland, pp. 14-75. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Psychological analysis of...

(The entire section is 382 words.)