The Gravity of Hugh Miller

There are certain places that prove quite irresistible. We can find ourselves under a compulsion to know or inhabit or encircle a particular site.

I am enlivened by one such place; I pass it daily and often feel its pull. It is an unlikely spot: the Istanbul kebab shop at 80 Portobello High Street.

Some time ago this building was known by a different address, by a different appearance and for the renown of its celebrated occupant, whose name is no longer met with universal recognition.

‘Shrub Mount’, as Istanbul was then called, was the Portobello home of the eminent Victorian geologist, editor and writer Hugh Miller.

It was to this building he escaped from the stresses of editing a national newspaper, The Witness – it then outsold The Scotsman – and where he retreated to study in the private museum he had built in the grounds of a once extensive garden.

The bounds of this property are now unwittingly marked by the daily ebb of parents discharging their children at the adjacent Towerbank Primary School. These ordinary residential streets give little indication of the histories that precede them.

Hugh Miller was one of the most important figures in nineteenth century science. A correspondent of the preeminent scientific figures of his day, from Louis Agassiz to Charles Darwin, he was also a leading proponent of the ecclesiastical Disruption that saw the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.

In his Edinburgh life, he was close to the other Disruption ‘worthies’ – Thomas Chalmers, William Cunningham and James Begg – at a time when the young Free Church was brimful of intellectuals.

Miller, however, never quite fitted in with either his scientific or ecclesiastical contemporaries. He didn’t look like them, nor did he sound like them. He eschewed urban fashions for the heavy woollen plaid, a knowing self-presentation as the outsider that was famously captured in the stills of David Octavius Hill.

Steeped in the folklore and superstitions of his native Cromarty, Miller had left school at 14 to become an itinerant stonemason and had educated himself through reading, corresponding and by closely observing ‘the testimony of the rocks’.

His rise from wayfaring workman to scientific luminary, brilliantly narrated in his bildungsroman memoir My Schools and Schoolmasters, is a canonical story of nineteenth century Scotland.

Miller’s modest origins in combination with his forthright politics meant he was often rejected by the scientific establishment. The University of Edinburgh, for instance, turned him down for the Chair in Natural History – a position for which he was more than qualified.

Hugh Miller was subject to depressive episodes and periodic ill health throughout his life. In the spring of 1839, his beloved daughter, Eliza, died aged two. For this firstborn child, he made his last work of masonry – a headstone for her grave in the kirk of St Regulus, Cromarty.

There is a page about Eliza’s death in My Schools and Schoolmasters where Miller does not give her name but writes only of ‘a little girl’. Thereafter, she becomes ‘it’: ‘it had left us for ever, and its fair face and silken hair lay in darkness amid the clods of the churchyard’.

In bereavement, even a pronoun can be too personal.  Still reeling from this loss, the family relocated to Edinburgh.

In time, the exchange of Marchmont and Jock’s Lodge for the seaside village of Portobello might have been something of a relief. In any case, Edinburgh’s east was already familiar to Miller from a spell of masonry work on Niddrie Marischal House twenty years earlier.

Demolished by the council in the 1930s to re-house families of slum clearance, Niddrie Marischal House was the seat of the Wauchope family.  It is now one of the more deprived places in Scotland.

Here the young Hugh Miller fashioned stone mullions for the windows of the big house. In the shadow of this same house he had also witnessed at first hand the widespread poverty of the Scottish colliers, some of whom, upon birth, had become the private property of the Wauchopes.

At Niddrie Mill, he described a ‘wretched assemblage of dingy, low-roofed, tile-covered hovels’, the occupants of which were ‘a rude and ignorant race of men, that still bore about them the soil and stain of recent slavery’.

This is classic Miller. Though he could recognise well enough the brutality of the system that produced such misery, it rarely softened his judgement of those thus emmiserated.

When Hugh Miller returned to Edinburgh in 1840 as the archetypal self-made man he had no desire to proclaim his ascent into respectability. Shrub Mount was, to be sure, no Niddrie Marischal.

He sought a quiet life, at a distance from his peers in science and religion.

He worked. This meant writing, walking and reading the landscape.

I imagine that being in Portobello would have been a welcome reminder of his beloved Cromarty, both being situated on the south side of grand eastern Firths. Miller could take his four children down to the beach; or fossil-hunting among the rocks at Joppa; or guddling for invertebrates in the Figgate burn.

Guddling was always purposeful. By such means, Miller worked out that the red clays of the Figgie burn – famed for the production of Portobello bricks – ‘must have been slowly deposited in comparatively tranquil waters’.

At an exposure from a local brick works  – a site near the old Roman road of the Fishwives’ Causeway – Miller found a bed of ancient shells. Though a long way inland, these were identified as Scrobicularia piperata, a distinctly intertidal species.

There was no mistaking the force of such evidence: the coastline had retreated. This land was once sea.  Edinburgh itself had to be re-imagined:

We are first presented with a scene of islands – the hills which overlook the Scottish capital, or on which it is built – half sunk in a glacial sea. A powerful current from the west, occasionally charged with icebergs, sweeps past them … and in the sheltered tract of sea to the east of the islets, amid slowly revolving eddies, the sediment is cast slowly down, layer after layer, the brick clays are formed along the bottom.

One can only suppose that an unveiling of this magnitude, one not always welcomed by his co-religionists, might have proved exhausting. Miller’s life and death have all too often been interpreted as a simple tension between a commitment to Biblical inerrantism on the one hand, and empirical science on the other – with the vexed question of evolution in the middle.

This is why – so the popular version goes – that one Christmas Eve, in his upper room at Shrub Mount, Hugh Miller scribbled a note to wife, lifted his fisherman’s jersey and shot himself through the heart.

Miller’s suicide cannot be so readily explained. A fuller account might point to his failing health, overwork or domestic unhappiness. It’s complicated; and ultimately unknowable.

It is fair to say that at the end he was haunted by the apparent gap between the natural and the supernatural, between mystery and revelation.

‘Last night I felt as if I had been ridden by a witch for fifty miles’ he told his doctor, ‘and rose far more wearied in mind and body than when I lay down’.

So convinced that he had been involuntarily abroad in the night, that he would check his clothing for signs of the journey.

All of this was, for those left behind, a reassuring mark of insanity – such was needed to exonerate the sin of suicide.

And then there is his desperate suicide note:

Dearest Lydia

My brain burns. I must have walked; and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. Dearest Lydia, dear children, farewell. My brain burns as the recollection grows. My dear, dear wife, farewell.

Hugh Miller

All of this happened in a room above Istanbul. And I feel the gravitational pull of this site, this centre of geo-logic calculation: a modest retreat for thinking, for reading and writing, for arranging the long history of the Earth, for life and love and family.

It is his life, not his death, that moves me.

 

On Harry Smart – poet, geographer, artist etc.

There has been a bit of background chat in recent years about the correspondence between geography and poetry. A conference session was organised at the IBG in 2010. Last year, Royal Holloway inaugurated a new MA in Place, Environment, Writing with a lecture by Sir Andrew Motion.

One of the animating figures of this new programme is the geographer Tim Cresswell who has his own new collection of poetry out later this year.

And here in the parish of @EdinGeography, we hold our seminars under the mustachioed visage of poet and geographer James Wreford Watson – a doppelgänger of Bruce Forsyth – whose acclaimed landscape elegies in the 1950s were laced with an edge of genteel smut.

Much less attention, however, has been given to the geographer-poet, Harry Smart, who published three collections of work with Faber in the early 1990s – Pierrot (1991), Shoah (1993) and Fool’s Pardon (1995).

Fool’s Pardon, Faber, 1995

Admittedly, Smart is less of a geographer-poet than a poet who happens to have a PhD in geography. His thesis, submitted to the University of Aberdeen in 1984, was later published as a Routledge monograph – Criticism and public rationality: professional rigidity and the search for caring government (1991).

One suspects that geography was not, for Smart, a formative intellectual home; in any case, he left it behind sometime before the ‘cultural turn’.

Living in Aberdeen, and later in Montrose, Smart took some cultural turns all of his own, leaving academia to become an evangelical lay preacher, then a poet. Three collections with Faber can reasonably be called success.

After poetry, fiction: his political thriller set in 1960s Africa was titled Zaire (Dedalus Books, 1997), though the fact that the country of that name immediately declared itself as Democratic Republic of the Congo probably didn’t help sales.

In 2000, Smart enrolled in a Master of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee where he undertook painting and photography – you can read some of his reflections on his art practice here.

Black Apple © Harry Smart

It’s fair to say that his visual art, like his writing, does not shy away from darker themes. His website – distinctly NSFW, as they say – is a fascinating labyrinth of essays, excerpts, poems, photos, art and erotica. Though it hasn’t been updated for many years, it is well worth a visit.

I was intrigued to discover some photographs in which the Montrose railway bridge – designed by the same architect as the ill-fated Tay Bridge – became a backdrop to some calendar shots. This is by no means the most surprising juxtaposition on the website.

The estuarine landscapes of Montrose and the east coast also appear in Smart’s poetry. The following poem, Praise, from Fool’s Pardon, is a particular favourite. A rendering of Scottish Calvinism and landscape, it takes the form of a modern doxology.

It has often come to mind when exploring the Firth of Forth in these dark January days.

 

Praise

Praise be to God, who pities wankers
and has mercy on miserable bastards.
Praise be to God, who pours out his blessing
on reactionary warheads and racists.

For he knows what he is doing;
the healthy have no need of a doctor,
the sinless have no need of forgiveness.
But, you say, They do not deserve it.

That is the point; that is the point.
When you try to wade across the estuary at low tide
but misjudge the distance, the currents, the soft ground
and are caught by the flood in deep schtuck,

then perhaps you will realise that God is to be praised
for delivering dickheads
from troubles they have made for themselves.
Praise be to God, who forgives sinners.

Let him who is without sin throw the first headline.
Let him who is without sin build the gallows,
prepare the noose, say farewell
to the convict with a kiss.

.

A Muddy Testament: Finlay Munro’s footprints and other Calvinist landscapes

For all the contemporary interest in cultural landscape interpretation and conservation, there are plenty of sites that elude official attention. Many are just too awkward or too obscure.

Finlay Munro’s footprints at Torgyle, Glenmoriston is arguably one such: a set of footprints imprinted in the clay since the 1820s as a muddy testament to the religious truths proclaimed by an itinerant evangelical preacher.

The Footprints, from GNM Collins, Principal John Macleod D.D. (1951)

Finlay Munro was, by all accounts, a strange and charismatic figure. Born in Tain, he became famous for tramping the byways of the Highlands and islands preaching an evangelical gospel to anyone who would listen.

“The clergy were mad against him,” recalled Rev Alexander Maclean of North Uist, “and the ignorant and wild people dealt brutally with him in every place”.

And yet Munro had his followers – despite the disapproval of the ministers who resented this unkempt upstart distracting their own flocks.

In Lewis, an immense congregation gathered on the low hill of Muirneag where people often met for worship. Such were the multitudes gathered on the slopes, that Munro in his sermon addressed the hill itself: “Muirneag, Muirneag, it is you that may feel well pleased today with your new coat on” (a pun on the Gaelic name, ‘little pleasing one’).

In a short portrait of Munro, Free Church Principal John Macleod (1872–1948) quotes an old crofter friend of his – Archie Crawford – who, as a boy, had heard Munro preaching in his father’s barn. “He [Crawford] formed the opinion” writes Macleod with some understatement, “that there was something unsettled about him, and, indeed, that he was odd”.*

Though by no means unaccustomed to ridicule, Finlay Munro was subject to some particularly disruptive hecklers when preaching in Glenmoriston in 1827. That his tormentors were allegedly Roman Catholics from Glengarry surely adds to the currency of the tale.

Munro stood his ground. He told them that the very clay would testify to the truth of his words; that his footprints would endure – until his hearers met their judgment or, in some accounts, until the Day of Judgment.

And there they remain – an epistemic imprint. They are not, despite their protective cairn, very easy to locate. The most reliable means of finding the site is to use the OS grid reference - NH 311138. A map can be found here.

© Copyright John Allan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Such landscapes are invariably awkward for the appointed guardians of heritage. For one thing, they tend to commemorate or evoke traditions, values and stories that don’t readily translate into the secular world.

An unthreatening veneration of Celtic Christianity is all very well but who, in officialdom, wants to recall spiritual intensities, conversions, callings, judgments, liberties in prayer and convictions of sin?

And yet these aspects of Highland experience arguably occupy a large part of the oral tradition in the last two hundred years and they, in turn, find their expression in the storied landscape.

This sort of lore stirs us – but uneasily; it draws out our aversion to the uncanny. Nothing in modern Scotland is more familiar and more foreign than Calvinism. That’s why it is interesting.

Notes

*John Macleod, ‘A Highland Evangelist’ in GNM Collins, Principal John Macleod D.D., Free Church Publications Committee (Edinburgh, 1951).