Donning Deep Time Spectacles: Robert Macfarlane on Hugh Miller

Yonder, well-nigh in the opening of the Frith, gleams ruddy to the sun — a true blood-coloured blush, when all around is azure or pale — the tall Red Sandstone precipices of Dunnet Head.”
Hugh Miller, The Cruise of the Betsey, 1858

Writer Robert Macfarlane, author of such acclaimed books as The Wild Places, The Old Ways, and Landmarks, works under the gaze of Old Red, both literally and metaphorically. Over the fireplace in his room at Cambridge University, where he teaches and writes, hangs a large photographic print of a Scottish sea-stack of sandstone.

I, like Hugh Miller, have a deep affection for sandstones, especially ‘Old Red’,” says Macfarlane. “When I got my permanent lectureship here in Cambridge, 12 years or so ago, I marked it by buying a print of a Scottish sea-stack, looming out of mist like the prow of a ship. It’s hung above the fireplace, keeping a weather eye on me.”

Hugh Miller (1802 – 1856), a self-taught geologist, folklorist and writer from Cromarty in Scotland, was known affectionately by his friends as Old Red, both on account of his shock of red hair and his insightful, ground-breaking work into the vast sandstone deposits across Scotland that bear the same name. Miller’s work on the ancient fish fossils found in these stretches of Devonian sandstones – dated around 419 to 360 million years old – is still celebrated today. He spent hours, days, weeks painstakingly recreating his beloved armoured fish, scale by scale, bone by bone. His attention to detail is extraordinary, and his beautiful descriptions of the fossils in his many writings on the subject continue to inspire. MacFarlane recalls the first time he encountered Miller, and credits him with opening his eyes to the vastness of geological time.

I was introduced to Hugh Miller while I was a graduate student at Cambridge, by my friend Ralph O’Connor, who was then researching the relationship between Romanticism and geology in its early phases,” says Macfarlane. “Like me, Ralph loved Scotland, especially the far north and north-west, and I remember him reading out passages of Miller to me, as one might have read out poems. But, of course, they were poems, really; rich in metaphor and imagination.”

Early geological writing was in its very nature highly speculative, Macfarlane notes. Miller was tentatively envisaging the ‘dramas of making’ that had gone into this ancient earth – the whole concept of the Earth being older than the Bible had proclaimed was still new at this point in history, still raw, and waiting to be fully explored.

Without doubt I’m inspired most by what I’ve called the ‘Deep Time spectacles’ that Miller slips onto my nose,” says Macfarlane. “The sudden seeing-back into the forces and life-forms that have shaped the distant past, and the odd ways in which time, geologically speaking as well as imaginatively speaking, isn’t simply linear or stratified, but characterised by unconformities and eerie simultaneities that unsteady the ground you walk on.”

Macfarlane, like Miller, is a compulsive walker. Never still, always tracking boundary lines, fault lines and old ways across the landscape, both men are “explorer(s) of caves and ravines… a climber among rocks,” (My Schools and Schoolmasters, Miller, 1852). Miller’s enthusiasm and excitement for what he could find and learn whilst out walking is palpable. His careful, deliberate choice of language and metaphor in describing his fossil finds suggests he is desperate for others to follow in his footsteps, and ‘learn to make a right use of your eyes’.

Creatures whose very type is lost… boat-like animals, furnished with oars and a rudder – fish plated over, like a tortoise, above and below, with a strong armour of bone.” Old Red Sandstone, 1841

Miller’s use of language is often very tactile, using touch and feel to describe his fossil finds, likening their markings to everyday objects. Patternations on his Devonian fish are like flourishings on his aunt’s wallpaper, fish scales are roofing tiles pinned on with flooring tacks – the metaphors he uses are often linked to the trades akin to his own early career as a stonemason. He speaks the language of the working men and women of the time, deliberately referring to his own childhood memories of wonder, playing at soldiers with different coloured shell armies on the beach, likening fossils found in rock to currants in a Christmas cake; he pulls people in and helps them relate to his writing.

This detailed focus is another trait that Macfarlane applauds in Miller’s work. When I asked him how writers should approach landscape writing, and indeed produce a successful piece for our writing competition, he encouraged a certain level of obsession and a focus on changes of scale;

Obsession, because if you stare hard enough at something, or think long enough about it, then it will spring into strangeness again. Changes of scale, because landscape operates at tiny as well as vast levels; the micro-dramas of insect life, soil and rock can be as compelling as the mega-dramas of weather and orogeny. Be a starer into skies, but also be – in the words of Nan Shepherd, who wrote so well about the Cairngorms – ‘a peerer into nooks and crannies’.”

Further, Macfarlane adds, we should be very wary of cliché in landscape writing; “The sinkholes of cliche are everywhere, ready to swallow up your sentences. If a phrase rises first to your mind, it’s probably worth being very suspicious of it, as it’s likely to be a cliché, and we’ve plenty of those in existence in the history of landscape writing, especially about Scotland!”

Just as Miller recreated detail after tiny detail of the fish fossils he found in the Old Red, thereby contributing extensively to the bigger geological picture, so Macfarlane continues in a similar vein in his own work today. He encourages readers back into the realms of ‘trilobite sight’ and Deep Time that can be found in our beautiful countryside, and traces the stories of our land and the psychologies these landscapes create.

Once you have read Old Red, he has a habit of walking alongside you wherever you go. It would be intriguing to listen in on Miller and Macfarlane striding through the countryside together, deep in conversation.

By Lara Reid, January 2018

Lara Reid is a freelance science writer, geology enthusiast and organiser of the Hugh Miller Writing Competition. She extends her heartfelt thanks to Robert Macfarlane for this interview, and for his ongoing support of the writing competition this year.

The Hugh Miller Writing Competition 2017-2018 invites prose and poetry entries inspired by fossils found in Scotland over the past 30 years. Further details about the competition, together with the work of the Scottish Geodiversity Forum, The Friends of Hugh Miller and other partners, can be found here: