Hugh Miller: fossils, landscape and literary geology
journal contributionposted on 11.10.2006, 11:20 by Simon J. Knell, Michael A. Taylor
KNELL, S. J. & TAYLOR, M. A. 2006. Hugh Miller: fossils, landscape and literary geology. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 117, 85–98. The bicentenary of the birth of Hugh Miller (1802–1856) in Cromarty (in northern Scotland) has enabled a reappraisal of this fine spare-time geologist, in turn stonemason and banker, and eventually Edinburgh newspaper editor. In Cromarty he had the usual advantages and limitations of a local collector far from metropolitan centres. But Miller was different from other collectors: he was author of classic books such as The Old Red Sandstone, making famous the Old Red Sandstone fishes and Jurassic marine fossils of the area around Cromarty. Miller’s ironically titled autobiography My Schools and Schoolmasters recommended geology as an improving recreation. His writings are suffused with the thrill of discovery and the wonder and beauty of fossils, inspiring future geologists such as John Muir (1838–1914), pioneer of environmental conservation, and George Jennings Hinde (1839–1918), microfossil researcher. In his often autobiographical writings Miller made geology an integral part of the world as he saw it: he was not ‘just’ a ‘popularizer’, but (as he always wanted) a literary man in the all-encompassing Victorian manner. Geology merged with local history and folklore – all ‘libraries’ of the past. But his writings remain rooted in insightful observation – as scientist and poet – of specimen and scenery, from microscope slide to landscape, and in careful reconstruction, for instance, of fossil animals from fragmentary remains. When Miller dealt with wider issues of God in creation and the truths of geology, he deployed his fossils, as in Footprints of the Creator (1849) which attacked the reheated Lamarckian evolutionism of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). But, contrary to the common misconception that he was driven to suicide by a conflict between science and religion, Miller simply saw these as different facets of the same truth. Indeed, he notably defended geology against religious literalists. Miller’s fossil collection is now mostly in the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, with some specimens in the new Hugh Miller museum, Cromarty, which derives from that founded by his son, also called Hugh (1850–1896), a professional geologist with the Geological Survey. This appraisal reveals further depths to Hugh Miller’s appreciation of geological specimens, and to the significance of his surviving collection. Miller’s relationship with the material world of objects shows remarkable consistency and an unwillingness to compartmentalize: Miller’s fossils exemplify the deep continuity of his world.