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Enduring love

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan describes a life-changing encounter

kljhThe quote "Fortune favours the prepared mind" is generally attributed to French scientist Louis Pasteur [1822 – 1895]. But it might equally be applied to geologist, evangelical writer and one-time stonemason, Hugh Miller [1802 – 1856]. 

Image, right: Hugh Miller, marble statue by Amelia Robertson Hill, 1820 - 1904, Sculptor. © National Museums Scotland

Miller was born in Cromarty on the northeast coast of Scotland. Following the death of his shipmaster father in 1807, he was raised by his mother and her brothers. His life was nothing if not varied.  Expelled from school at around the age of 16, and perhaps influenced by a passionate interest in the local geology, he first worked as a stone mason. His life changed forever when, at the age of 29, he had a fortunate encounter with a young lady who was to become his wife. 

As he recorded in his 1852 book My schools and schoolmasters:

"[I] had just closed my work for the evening when I was visited by one of my lady friends ... when a third lady, greatly younger than the others, and whom I had never seem before came hurriedly tripping down the garden-walk...  the young lady was, I saw, very pretty... nor did I observe that she favoured me with a single glance.... But what else could be expected by an ungainly, dust-besprinkled mechanic in his shirt sleeves, with a leathern apron before him"

The young lady, intelligent and well read,  was Lydia Frasier, then just 19 years old. A friendship between the two soon arose, with Miller meeting Lydia  "at the charming tea-parties of the place" where "we used to converse on all manner of subjects connected with the belles-lettres and the philosophy of mind."

Silent on the subject

However, he noted:

 “... Love formed the one solitary subject which, from some curious contingency, invariably escaped us...  Nature had not fashioned me one of the sort of people who fall in love at first sight.  I had even made up my mind to live a bachelor life, without being much impressed by the magnitude of the sacrifice"

But in the end love blossomed, and much to the disapproval of Lydia's mother, the two became engaged. In a letter to Alexander Finlay, a former school fellow, written in 1836 Miller expressed his elation at the prospect of his forthcoming marriage.   "And isn't it a still better thing that a bonny sweet lassie with a great deal of fine sense and a highly cultivated mind does'nt [sic] think me too ugly to be liked very much and promises to marry me sometime in Spring!  Miller took up a new career as an accountant for the Commercial Bank in Cromarty in 1834, and nearly five years after their fortunate meeting, the couple were married on 7 January 1837.

Keeping memory alive

The  couple's affection for each other was reinforced by their intellectual compatibility.  In 1840 Miller became founding editor of an Edinburgh-based newspaper, The Witness – a move that launched his career as a journalist and popular writer about geology. After his tragic death from a shotgun wound in 1856, Lydia, by then a successful children's author writing under the pen name ‘Mrs Harriet Myrtle’, ensured that her husband's memory – and especially his books – remained very much alive.  Her love never died.


Sources for this vignette include the DNB entry for Lydia Miller by Marian McKenzie Johnson; the DNB entry for Hugh Miller by Michael Taylor; Hugh Miller by Keith Leask (1896), My schools and schoolmasters by Hugh Miller (1852); Hugh Miller's memoir: from stonemason to geologist, ed. M. Shortland (1995)

* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.  Her latest book, The Geology of Oxford Gravestones, is available via