Hugh Miller is Cromarty's most famous son. He lived from 10 October 1802 to 24 December 1856. Usually described as a "geologist and writer", Miller's life and work still gives rise to controversy and heated debate, especially about the tensions between his work as a geologist and paleontologist on the one hand, and his deeply held religious beliefs on the other.
Hugh Miller's Birthplace Cottage & Museum is operated by the National Trust for Scotland and the two buildings that form such a fitting and lasting memorial to Hugh Miller, and to his work, stand next door to one another in Church Street, in the oldest part of Cromarty. The fine Georgian "Miller House" that fronts onto Church Street was briefly lived in by Hugh Miller and serves as a museum allowing visitors to explore his life and work, while the thatched fisherman's cottage that presents an end gable to the street was his birthplace and early home, and has been restored to the way it might have been when he lived here.
The cottage is very obviously the older of the two buildings. It was built by Hugh Miller's great grandfather, who he once described as "a buccaneer" in his writings, and is traditionally dated to 1711. By the standards of the day, and doubtless by the standards of contemporary fisher houses in this part of Cromarty, it was a large building. Recent work on the cottage has suggested that when originally built the central part of it opened up from floor to roof as a "ha house", with floors inserted to give two storeys only at the two ends of the building.
In this configuration a large chimney at one end of the central hall would have served as a fish smokery. It seems that the cottage was converted to provide more accommodation not long before Hugh Miller was born. Miller's father was a sea captain who was lost at sea in 1807, when Hugh was just five, and the family were consigned to poverty as a result. Miller's two older sisters died of fever in the cottage while he was still a child, and he left home at the age of 17, when his mother remarried.
Hugh's interest in the world around him had been prompted and maintained by two uncles, and on leaving home, Hugh apprenticed himself to a stonemason, using his spare time to continue his education in the fields of natural history and literature. His interest in geology arose in part because of his work as a mason and in part because of his growing love of the history of the Highlands.
In 1834 Miller, by now suffering from silicosis as a result of his work as a mason, became an accountant in a bank in Cromarty. Miller had already published a book of poems, in 1829, but in 1835 he published the book that was to draw him to the attention of the wider scientific community in Scotland, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland. The original manuscript of the first six chapters of this book is on show in the museum.
In 1837 Hugh Miller married Lydia Fraser, an author of children's books. They had first met in 1831 when he was 28 and she was 19, but spent several year's overcoming her mother's complete disapproval of their relationship. After a honeymoon in Elgin, the couple set up home in Miller House, next door to the cottage in which he had been born and spent his childhood, and where his mother still lived.
Miller House had been built at a cost of £400 for Hugh Miller's father in 1797, and he intended to move his family into it. However, as the house was being finished his ship was lost in a storm, and much of his hard won wealth with it. He was able to purchase a new ship, but as an economy measure he was forced to rent out Miller House while continuing to live with his family in the cottage next door. It was only 40 years later that part of that family, Hugh Miller, would finally take up residence in Miller House. And then only for a short time.
From 1839 Miller became involved in the increasingly fierce debates that led to the 1843 Disruption of the Church of Scotland, over who had the power to appoint ministers (the congregations or the wealthy landowners) and the seceding from it of the Free Kirk. In 1840 he was invited to live in Edinburgh and edit The Witness, a highly influential journal that did much to bring about the Free Kirk.
Shortly after arriving in Edinburgh, Miller attended a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science where he was able to meet the leading British paleontologists of the day. One result was his realisation that he had discovered fossils that overturned a number of the accepted truths. The result was the publication in 1841 of the first of his three books on geology, The Old Red Sandstone. The others were Footprints of the Creator (1850) and The Testimony of the Rocks (1856).
Miller also wrote a number of other books. These are First Impressions of England and its People (1847); the modestly entitled My Schools and Schoolmasters, an autobiography of remarkable interest (1854); and The Cruise of the Betsey (1857).
The last of these carries the full title of The Cruise of the Betsey, or a Summer Holiday in the Hebrides, with Rambles of a Geologist or Ten Thousand Miles over the Fossiliferous Deposits of Scotland. It brings together Miller's accounts of his travels across Scotland, and was published by his wife Lydia after his death. Hugh Miller shot himself at his home in Edinburgh on Christmas Eve 1856, after checking the final proofs of his book The Testimony of the Rocks. Some say he did so because he could no longer reconcile his scientific work with his religious beliefs. Some say he did so because of overwork and stress. Some say he did so because of his recognition of the effects of a degenerative brain illness that only came to light during his post mortem.
Whatever the reason or reasons, his legacy remains in his books, and in his collection of 6,000 fossils, which went on to form the core of the collection at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. And his legacy is particularly strong in Cromarty, at Hugh Miller's Birthplace Cottage & Museum.