“A key figure in our ongoing national story”: Martin Gostwick on Hugh Miller

MG1Back in 1992, journalist Martin Gostwick had never heard of the geologist and writer Hugh Miller. When his wife, Frieda, was appointed custodian of Miller’s birthplace museum in Cromarty in 1992, Martin naturally followed her to the Black Isle. He was soon employed as Frieda’s assistant, and was astonished at how quickly he caught the ‘Miller bug’ after picking up a copy of My Schools and Schoolmasters.

“I was immediately gripped by the wild adventures of his boyhood, his harsh toils as a stonemason, and then his fossil discoveries, and his heroic efforts to make sense of them,” says Martin. “The book is probably still my favourite because it encompasses all the aspects of this great polymath’s achievements.”

Martin’s infectious enthusiasm regarding Miller has led him a long way since those first few months in Cromarty. He has since read much of Miller’s copious writings, building up a wealth of knowledge on the man and his many disparate subjects. Martin was so inspired by the man and his life’s work that he set up a charity both in support of Miller’s museum and to promote awareness of Miller’s living legacy.

“The Friends of Hugh Miller, formed in 2006, now has well over 100 subscribers, including many direct descendants of Hugh Miller himself,” states Martin. “I even have members of his family in Colorado, USA, on the books! Our newsletter, Hugh’s News, ranges widely over facets of his life and work. We support the museum with volunteers, and sponsor initiatives such as the Betsey/Leader voyages together with our partners.”

The charity’s website, www.thefriendsofhughmiller.org.uk, is a valuable reference point for those readers who are interested in learning more.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Miller’s work is the way he tackles almost any subject matter, seemingly without fear. Having said that, he is not afraid to admit when he is wrong – particularly if someone is able to prove a scientific theory correct. Indeed, a key theme that resonates through Miller’s work is his admiration for others working alongside him in the natural sciences, and his determination to ‘tell the world’ about science using clear, often beautiful, metaphorical language.

I asked Martin about Miller’s appeal as a writer, and why he rates him so highly. “What most compels me about Miller’s writing is his extraordinary powers of description, in any and every field, whether it be explaining a fossils’ appearance and structure, marvelling in awe at the majesty of Scottish land and seascapes, or relating encounters with people, often those facing adversity,” explains Martin. “He has been justly described as ‘the supreme poet of geology’. Perhaps his greatest ability lay in conveying understanding of even the most complex subjects by means of simple, clear metaphors and comparisons.”

Indeed, Miller’s works include some of the best metaphors for geological and palaeontological discoveries I have come across. His expressive language does not detract from the precise and accurate nature of his descriptions, but simply and effectively adds to them. For instance, he describes the sculptured patterns on the scales of ancient Devonian fish as resembling “the rather equivocal florets of a cheap wall-paper, or of an ornamental tile,” (The Cruise of the Betsey, 1858). The fish have teeth “spiky and sharp, not unlike flooring nails – some straight as needles, some bent like the beak of a hawk,” (ibid). Not the most scientific of descriptions perhaps, but evoking everyday objects that most people could relate to, no matter what their walk of life.

It is the fact that Miller is such a rich source of information and description on so many different levels that makes him such an important figure from Scotland’s past. As Martin says, Miller is worth reading today, and emulating, from any number of viewpoints:

“He is a single, rich source illuminating so much that happened in his time, from breakthroughs in the natural sciences, to the profound changes wrought by the agricultural and industrial revolutions. He is the geologist who discovered some of the earliest life forms on the planet. He is the editor denouncing the Clearances, demanding better housing and working conditions, and championing the right to roam. He is witness to the passing of the oral tradition of story-telling, and a founder of written folk history. He is a promoter of the new art form of photography, and a travel writer of unique range and style. He must be considered among the most important Scotsmen of his day, if not the most. He is a key figure in our ongoing national story.”

The Friends of Hugh Miller are partnering the Scottish Geodiversity Forum in running the Hugh Miller Writing Competition, a new initiative aimed at promoting Miller’s work on Scotland’s geology and landscapes. Entrants are asked to submit entries inspired by Miller’s geological and landscape writings, either in the form of poetry, fiction or non-fiction. Martin is hugely excited at the prospect of uncovering new talent akin to Miller through the competition.

“My advice for competition entrants would be simple: write about what you are doing, or have done, in any field embracing our country’s wonderful geodiversity, and do so in language which could inspire others, as Miller did.”

Lara Reid would like to thank Martin Gostwick for taking the time to speak to her about Hugh Miller, and for his encouragement and support in getting the Hugh Miller Writing Competition up and running this year.