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Hugh Miller

Hugh Miller


Originally a stonemason, Hugh Miller was a self-taught palaeantologist who indulged a lifelong interest in fossils and single-handedly popularised the new science of geology. But Miller also had a literal approach to the Bible, which sat uneasily with the scientific and logical consequences of his discoveries. Miller was prone to fits of depression and, unable to reconcile the old certainties with his researches, he killed himself. Darwin’s The Origin of Species appeared three years after Miller’s death.

Hugh Miller was born on October 10, 1802, in the fishing village of Cromarty in the north of Scotland. His father was a ship's captain who was lost at sea when young Hugh was five. The father left his family fairly well-off; instead of having to go to work at an early age, young Hugh had time to attend the town's public schools, and to explore the shores and countryside. At the age of eighteen, he became an apprentice stonemason, traveling from place to place and job to job. To the end of his life, he portrayed himself as a simple laboring "man of the people." Yet he read widely, aspired to a life as a man of letters, and in 1829 published a book of poetry (which did not sell well and was generally panned by the critics). Convinced that prose was a better career option, Miller began writing articles on local culture and on political issues of the day. He developed a polished, yet forceful style that would serve him well in the future. Offered the post of a bank accountant in 1835, Miller had more time to write -- and more time to devote to studying the rocks of the Cromarty region, which he had first become interested in as a stonemason.

The Cromarty region includes rock beds known as the Old Red Sandstone (now classified as Devonian. The Old Red Sandstone was thought to lack fossils, and there was much debate as to where they fit into the geological column as it was then known. Thus, when Miller began finsing beautifully preserved specimens of unusual armored fish -- such as the Pterichthys seen at the left -- the specimens attracted a great deal of attention, and established Miller's reputation in scientific circles. Miller began sending them to Louis Agassiz, who was the greatest expert on fossil fish at the time. The two men became good friends, and shared many of the same religious convictions. Miller's own book on his finds, The Old Red Sandstone, attracted attention both for the exquisite fossils it described and for Miller's clear, powerful writing.

In 1940 Miller became editor of The Witness, a newspaper devoted to the cause of the Free Church of Scotland. . . Miller also wrote many of its articles: commentary, news, criticism, invective, and popular science all flowed from his busy pen.