Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter III

Hugh Miller's Maternal Uncles—Mode of spending Sabbath Evenings—The Grammar School—Attempts to learn Latin—The Story Teller.

Hugh Miller had two maternal uncles, James and Alexander, who, at the death of his father, charged themselves with the education of the son. The elder, James, as described by his nephew, was a clear-headed, sagacious man, with a retentive memory, and a great thirst for information. He was a harness maker by trade, and wrought for the farmers of an extensive district of country. He prosecuted his calling without the assistance of hired hands. Work was plenty, and he had little time for reading, but be generally found some one to read beside him during the day, and at night his portable work bench was removed from the shop into the family living-room, where the younger uncle, Alexander, would read for the general good. In this way much information was gained, and as the subject of reading was discussed by the general circle, the information was well digested. Thus, busy working-men, it is quite possible to combine intellectual pursuits with your daily avocations when the will is present. James was a great local antiquary. During the summer months he was a peripatetic harness maker, and, as he journeyed to or from the farms where his labours lay, he visited whatever ecclesiastical or baronial building chanced to lie in his route, and knew more respecting their history than most of his contemporaries. He had a vast fund of legendary lore, and a pleasant way of retailing it to his auditors ; and, says his nephew, had he been a writer of books instead of merely a reader of them his style would have had the merit of being clear and terse, and more laden with meaning than words. He was also a man just in all his dealings, and regarded every species of meanness with a thorough contempt.

Uncle Alexander was a man of a somewhat different stamp. James was a humourist, and fond of a joke; Alexander never tried a joke but once, and even that was a serious one. He was originally bred a cartwright, but, in a fit of patriotism, he joined the navy when the French Revolution broke out. He dailed with Nelson, witnessed the Mutiny at the Nore, fought under Duncan at Camperdown, and under Sir John Borlase Warren, of Loch Swilly; assisted in capturing the "Generoux" and "Guillaum Tell," two French ships-of-the-line; was one of the seamen who in the Egyptian-expedition, were drafted out of Lord Keith's fleet to supply the lack of artillerymen in the army of Sir Ralph Abercrombe.; had a shard in the dangers and glory of the landing in Egypt, and fought in the battle in which Sir Ralph Abercromby fell. Although a grave and naturally taciturn man, he could discourse fluently upon any subject which interested him deeply. His narratives, however, related to what he had seen rather than to what he had done. A man of great merit is invariably a man of great modesty; and in all the stories which this good man related respecting his wanderings in the world, and his dangers by land and perils by water, he never appeared as the hero himself. He had, we are informed, a decided turn for natural history, and his nephew, in his work "First Impressions of England and its People," relates an anecdote of him which shows his intense love of science, and his remarkable coolness under fire. When he leaped from the boat on to the historic soil of Egypt to join Abercrombe, the bullets were whizzing about in every direction, and men were being thrown down on the beach, either struck dead or covered with ghastly wounds. Alexander, with the love of nature strong within him, could not help looking at the sand of the beach to see whether the shells in it differed greatly from those of his own country. One curious shell caught his eye, and amidst the raging battle he found time to transfer it from the shore to his waistcoat pocket! His nephew received that precious trophy, and it held an honoured place in his museum. These men became, so far as they could, a second father to the boy Miller. On Sabbath evenings he used regularly to attend his uncles to be questioned on the Shorter and Mother Catechisms. These evenings were finished up with a "reading" from some of the older divines; and, says Hugh, "I used to take my place in the circle, though, I am afraid, not much to my advantage. I occasionally caught a fact, or had my attention arrested a moment by a simile or metaphor; but the trains of close argument and the passages of dreary application were always lost." Lost at the time, perhaps, just as the seed seems lost when cast into the ground; but both the arguments and the applications sprung up in the future. Those old right reverend gentlemen, although ponderous—alarmingly so to the young mind—dealt in sterling argument and powerful application, and no sterling word can be lost, whatever we may think.

With books selected by and read under the direction of his uncles, and in quiet walks along the sea shore and in the neighbouring woods, with Uncle Sandy or Uncle James, the boy steadily improved the education he received in the dame's school. Under the tuition of Sandy, he learned to distinguish the difference in the myriad shells found within the Cromarty tide-mark, and in the plants which clothed the surface of the inland. He had learned as yet no nomenclature of natural history, but he was acumulating facts, and, unknown to himself, was being initiated into the rudiments of that noble science which enables man to trace the different portions of the design of the material universe. Under the direction of James, he was becoming a student of archaeology and legendary lore, and both men were striving to mould the mind of the boy into something noble, and, above all, to instil into it that knowledge which "maketh rich and addeth no sorrow."

At the age of twelve, Hugh Miller bade farewell to the dame's school, in which he had mastered the alphabet, and was sent to the Cromarty Grammar School, attended at that time by about a hundred and twenty boys, as he informs us, "and about thirty individuals more, much looked down upon by the others, and not worth the counting, seeing that they were only lassies." Some book learning had undoubtedly been picked up in this new sphere —for parish schoolmasters then, as they are now, unless in some flagrant instanced, were painstaking gentlemen, who took a real pride in the progress of their pupils. The schoolmaster of Cromarty could really teach a boy if he were willing to learn, Mr. Miller tells us, and, as he was erne of the learning boys, we say again, he no doubt made considerable progress in his education at the Cromarty Grammar School. The teacher was in the habit of recommending the parents of the clever boys to give them a classical education, and, as he considered young Hugh Miller decidedly clever, he urged Uncle James to put his protege to Latin. Accordingly, to Latin he was put, and found the Rudiments by far the dullest book he had ever read. It was, from beginning to end, "words, words, words," and apparently words without any meaning. He could not conceive how the changes should be rung so vigourously upon penna, a pen, when it did not appear to be of greater importance in the new than it was in the old language. Accordingly that simple noun staggered his faith in the propriety of being at the trouble to master the language. If this one vocable changed its form so frequently, appearing as penna, as pennœ, as pennarum as pennam, as pennas, and so forth, what might be expected of others of apparently greater importance.

Latin was obviously not his forte, and so he never took to it heartily nor made great progress in learning it. In a by no means bright class, he was generally found at its nether end, and as he derived no pleasure from the language of Virgil and Ovijl, he contrived, by stealth, in the very school where he should have been mastering their language, to become acquainted with their sentiments through the medium of an English translation.

In consequence of his being a great reader of stories and historical narratives, he became a great story-teller. Like Walter Scott, he amused his school-fellows by telling them stories, luring them, we fear, from their tasks, and making them look the opposite of bright pupils when called up to their lessons. From relating the stories constructed by others, he came ultimately to construct stories for himself, and many a terrible tale did he. fabricate from his own brain for the amusement of his classmates by the sea-shore in the bright summer time.

Thus, although the Latin was neglected, the lad was insensibly educating himself; developing imagination, acquiring some power over the English language, strengthening the powers of the memory, and, in short, doing himself a greater amount of good than the schoolmaster could have done for him. The master, good easy man, knew quite well about these story-tellings, but, instead of attempting to put them down as some autocrats of the school might have done, he, being a humourist in a small way, bestowed a nickname upon the story-teller. He dubbed Hugh Miller the Sennachie; but as he gave it the Gaelic instead of the Saxon pronunciation, the school-boys could not pronounce it, and so, as a nomme de plume, it died as soon as it was born. The boy, although not an industrious Latin scholar as we have seen, was a decided favourite with the master. He exhibited greater powers than any of his companions, and at the general English lesson, the master used to make his pupil little speeches, indicative of a certain literary ground common to them upon which the others had not entered. "That, sir,' he has said, after the class had just perused in the school collection a 'Tatler' or a 'Spectator',. 'That, sir, is a good paper—its an 'Addison,' or, 'That's one of Steele's, sir;' and, on finding in my copy-book, on one occasion, a page filled with rhymes which I headed, 'A Poem on Care,' he brought it to his desk, and, after reading it carefully over, called me up, and, with his closed, pen-knife, which served as a pointer, in the one hand, and the copy-book brought down to the level of my eyes in the other, began his criticism—'That's bad grammar, sir,' he said, resting the knife-handle on one of the lines; 'and here's an ill spelt word; and there's another; and you have not at all attended to the punctuation;—but the general sense of the peice is good—very good indeed, sir;' and then he added, with a grim smile—'care, sir, is, I daresay, as you remark, a very bad thing; but you may safely bestow a little more of it on your spelling and grammar.'" What a delightful task it must have been to study under a master of that stamp. One might have almost learned Latin, or anything else requiring the greatest sacrifice of self, to have gratified such a man. Hugh was grateful to him in his own way, no doubt, but be could not learn Latin to please him. He contrived, however, to make a respectable appearance in translation; and how, does the reader suppose? Why, this model teacher was in the habit of reading in English in the morning the passage which had to be translated in the afternoon, and his pupil, possessed of a good memory, gave the master back his own translation, word for word, when the class was called. An unfair advantage, undoubtedly, this to take of the good nature of such a master; but duller boys than Hugh Miller have done so often, and that, we suppose, must be his excuse.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus