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Save the Miller House


Hugh MillerTed Nield issues a call to arms...

Geoscientist 19.5 May 2009

On the evening of 23 December 1856, after helping his daughter Harriet with her homework, Hugh Miller (pictured) took a bath and retired to bed. During the night, suffering from what modern medical science knows as an attack of the screaming abdabs, he woke up, reached for his gun, put it to his chest and pulled the trigger. He was 54.

So died the first and greatest geologist-journalist - in a tragic final act that stands as a monument to the need for gun control; a doughty campaigner for freedom of thought, of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, and of the individual.

When I was a student, I remember, one hot afternoon in the library, putting aside the arid and incomprehensible pages of Tectonophysics and taking down a scuffed buckram-covered copy of The Old Red Sandstone (of which I now own a much more handsome and much treasured example). From that moment, Miller has been an inspiration to me – first, because his work held out the hope that it might be possible for an innumerate natural historian, masquerading as a scientist, to find room for himself in the world as a geo-journalist. Second, because his outdoor independence of spirit appealed to my youthful Thoreauesque aspirations. Third, and most of all, because he wrote so luminously, and moreover did so despite the trammels of editing a bi-weekly newspaper – The Witness.

It came as something of a shock therefore to hear that the National Trust for Scotland is considering closing its museum to Miller, in the great man’s home on the Black Isle. NTS has announced plans to alter the way it manages 11 of its properties, including Miller’s cottage, with a view to cost savings. I found out whenThe BBC rang me up about it – and was pleased to give what I hope was a suitably trenchant quote. Alan Owen, for the Glasgow Geological Society, did likewise, as did Nigel Trewin of the University of Aberdeen.

Now - Cromarty folk, if I am any judge of them, are not likely to take this lying down. But local support is one thing. What we as geologists can do is show that Miller is much more than a local hero. Miller is a national figure, even an international one, whose one memorials deserve continued support from NTS. The northeastern coast of Scotland – St Andrews, Aberdeen, Dundee - together comprise a rich tradition of Earth sciences of which Miller was not just “a” but in that context most definitely “the” progenitor. The public must continue to have access to his greatest memorial, in the heart of the community he served, amid the landscape whose rocks he hewed for a living as a stonemason, and for all the “footprints of the Creator” that will be forever associated with him.
  • If you want to support the Miller’s Cottage, you can do so by signing an online petition, set up by local SNP councillor Craig Fraser at Please note that the donation (to online polling) that you may be asked to make is entirely optional and does not affect your signature of the petition.