Walking in other worlds: Getting to know Hugh Miller

LaraBy freelance science writer Lara Reid – Blair Atholl, October 2015. You can read more from Lara on her Etched in Words blog.

The clearest, stillest autumn I can remember – true halcyon days of blue, yellow, red and orange hues. Leaves dropping through branches, spinning on impact but untouched by the wind. Each morning is icy, a thick layer of frost skimming every surface.

Into this idyllic other-world, I bring Hugh Miller with me on holiday. It may as well be the man himself – his chatty, eloquent prose speaks from the page as though he is ever-present beside me. A testament in itself to the man’s life work, written as he tramped across much of Scotland, as eager to unravel the landscape’s riddles as many a geologist before and since. In many ways, however, Miller is unique. He is completely self-taught as a scientist, starting from a fairly humble background and training as a stone-mason in his home town of Cromarty on the Black Isle. From the outset, he aims to teach others about all that he finds – and, to this day, he succeeds.

It may be true that, in terms of today’s pared-down writing styles, Miller’s prose could be considered dense at times, and difficult to bear with in places. In reality, however, compared with contemporary Victorian prose, I believe Miller wrote clearly, succinctly and above all, with humour. He also had a fantastic ability to describe elements of geology and biology with great clarity, likening many details to phenomena from everyday life. He describes the arrangement of fish scales as overlapping tiles on a roof, the distorted basaltic columns on the Sgurr of Eigg as the ribs of a ship-wreck, and the cross-section of corals as daisies pressed into the surface of a rock, to name but a few.

As I read Miller in the locale of Glen Tilt and Blair Atholl, it is worth mentioning that it is in part thanks to Miller, together with a number of his contemporaries, that we have full and open access to the land here in Scotland. Miller was among a group of early campaigners who lobbied relentlessly for the ‘right to roam’, and he wrote about Glen Tilt in a Witness leading article: Glen Tilt tabooed, 1 September 1847 (Essays Historical and Poetical, Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell). The piece was a scathing attack on the Duke of Argyll, his gillies, and other “exclusives” who barred access to their property with “illegal violence.” He quotes the glen’s importance for Hutton’s theory, where he found “the most clear and unequivocal proofs in support of his views.”*

For Miller was not ‘just’ a geologist, he was a true polymath. A man for whom myths and legends, poetry and language, and indeed the state of the human condition held as much weight in his extended vision as the search for the origins of the land on which he walked. Miller’s extraordinary enthusiasm bubbles out of the pages of his geological journals – he clearly loves what he does and takes all the more pleasure in trying to decipher the puzzles he meets along the way. Some of his guesses on the bigger picture are a little wild – but that is stated from a standpoint 170 years’ worth of knowledge beyond that which he had. Then there are the times he gets it so very-nearly right – and I would argue that any hesitancy is over-ruled by the sheer beauty and inherent simplicity of his descriptions and theories. True, he envisaged a Scotland submerged under an ocean crammed with ice-flows at the time of the last ice-age in Rambles of a Geologist (1858) – but his ice-flows were capable of shifting enormous erratic boulders hundreds of yards, if not miles, from where they originated. He simply understood that there was no supernatural or earth-shattering earthquake scenarios at play when it came to mis-placed erratic boulders (much as he loved the folklore stories of giants in endless battles, hurling rocks at one another). At one point he takes great delight in teasing those who would suggest a single rock move 300 yards in an earthquake when nothing else in the area moved an inch.

His ability to map out Scotland according to the ‘rock trails’ by which he walked is something I find altogether extraordinary. His mind appears full of layers of complex boundary-lines and borders where different rocks meet and are displaced, and he is forever thinking in three-dimensions and seeing beyond what was immediately in front of him. And at the next moment he can be engaged in examining the microscopic intricacies of fish scales preserved in immaculate detail. Would he ever have been comfortable in some of the more-restrictive niches of today’s academia?

Another of Miller’s passions I love is how he actively encourages, nay almost demands, that people engage in citizen science. The idea of ‘citizen science’ has been bouncing around a lot on Twitter this summer, particularly with Sir David Attenborough calling for more people to actively study their own ‘backyards’. Those involved in science communication and engaging people in citizen science could do far worse than choose Hugh Miller as one of their pioneers of the concept. I love the passage in Rambles of a Geologist where Miller yearns for a local to study the Loch of Stennis on Orkney, which ends; “…set himself carefully to examine its productions, and that then, after registering his observations for a few years, he would favour the world with its natural history.” There is great value, as Miller clearly understands, in encouraging those with inclination and curiosity to explore and record their ‘local patch’.

I am no expert on Hugh Miller, nor would I ever claim to be, but I feel a remarkably strong affinity with him and his desire to encourage those around him to learn and understand, to question and dissect the landscapes around him. I do know this, however – that reading Hugh Miller has awoken something in me that will stay with me forever. The man himself will accompany me, in some way, shape or form, whenever I am out and about in Scotland’s stunning landscapes, and I look forward to absorbing all that I can learn from him.

*My thanks to Martin Gostwick, Secretary of The Friends of Hugh Miller, for his help in linking Miller with Glen Tilt and his campaigns on the ‘right to roam’.