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Tales and Sketches
By Hugh Miller (1863)


The following “Tales and Sketches” were written at an early period of the author’s career, during the first years of his married life, before he had attempted to carry any part of the world on his shoulders in the shape of a public newspaper, and found it by no means a comfortable burden. Yet possibly the period earlier still, when he produced his “Scenes and Legends,” had been more favorable for a kind of writing which required in any measure the exercise of the imagination. The change to him was very great, from a life of constant employment in the open air, amid the sights and sounds of nature, to “the teasing monotony of one which tasked his intellectual powers without exercising them.” Hence, partly, it may be imagined, the intensity of his sympathy with the poet Ferguson. The greater number of these Tales were composed literally over the midnight lamp, after returning late in the evening from a long day’s work over the ledger and the balance-sheet. Tired though he was, his mind could not stagnate — he must write. I do not mention these circumstances at all by way of apology. It has struck me, in* deed, that the Tales are nearly all of a pensive or tragical cast, and that in congenial circumstances they might have had a more joyous and elastic tone, in keeping with a healthier condition of the nervous system. Yet their defects must undoubtedly belong to the mind of their author. I am far from being under the delusion that he was, or was ever destined to be, a Walter Scott or Charles Dickens. 'The faculties of plot and drama, which find their scope in the story and the novel, were among the weakest, instead of the strongest, of his powers. Yet I am deceived if the lovers and students of Hugh Miller’s Works will not find in the “Tales and Sketches” some matter of special interest. In the first three there are, I think, glimpses into his own inner life, such as he, with most men of reserved and dignified character, would choose rather to personify in another than to make a parade of in their own person, when coming forward avowedly to write of themselves. And, then, if he could have held a conversation with Robert Burns, so that all the world might hear, I think there are few who would not have listened with some curiosity. In his “Recollections of Burns” we have his own side of such conversation ; for it seems evident that it is himself that he has set a travelling and a talking in the person of Mr. Lindsay.

But of Burns’s share in the dialogue the reader is the best judge. Some may hold that he is loo like Hugh Miller himself, — too philosophic in idea, and too pure in sentiment. In regard to this, we can only remind such that Burns’s prose was not like his poetry, nor his ideal like his actual life.

Unquestionably my husband had a very strong sympathy with many points in the character of Burns. Ilis thorough integrity ; his noble independence, which disdained to place his honest opinions at the mercy of any man or set of men ; his refusal to barter his avowal of the worth and dignity of man for the smiles and patronage of the great, even after he had tasted the sweets of their society, which is a very different matter from such avowal before that time, if any one will fairly think of it, — all this, with the acknowledged sovereignty of the greater genius, made an irresistible bond of brotherhood between Miller and Burns. But to the grosser traits of the poet’s character my husband’s eyes were perfectly open ; and grieved indeed should I be if it could for a moment be supposed that he lent the weight of his own purer moral character to the failings, and worse than failings, of the other. Over these he mourned, he grieved. I believe he would at any time have given the life of his body for the life of his brother’s soul. Above all, he deplored that the all-prevailing power of Christian love was never brought to bear on the heart of this greatest of Scotland’s sons. If Thomas Chalmers had been in the place of Russell, who knows what might have been? But, doubtless, God in his providence had wise purposes to serve. It is offen by such instruments that he scourges and purifies his church. For let us not forget, that scenes such as are depicted in the “Holy Fair,” however painful to our better feelings.were strictly and literally true. This I have myself heard from an eye-witness, who could not have been swayed by any leanings towards the anti-puritan side; and, doubtless, many others are aware of testimony on the same side of equal weight.

We may hope that the time is passing away when the more exceptionable parts of Burns’s character and writings are capable of working mischief, at least among the higher and middle classes. It is cause of thankfulness that in regard to such, and with him as with others, there is a sort of purifying process goes on, which leaves the higher and finer elements of genius to float buoyantly, and fulfil their own destiny in the universal plan, while the grosser are left to sink like lead in the mighty waters. Thus it is in those portions of society already refined and elevated. But there is yet a portion of the lower strata where midnight orgies continue to prevail, and where every idea of pleasure is connected with libertinism and the bottle; and there the worst productions of Burns are no doubt still rife, and' working as a deadly poison. Even to a superior class of working-men, who are halting between two opinions, there is danger from the very mixture of good and evil in the character and writings of the poet. They cannot forget that he who wrote

“The cock may craw, the day may daw,
Yet still we’ll taste the barley brce,”

“A man’s a man for a’ that”; and they determine, or are in danger of determining, to follow the object of their worship with no halting step. Doubtless political creed and the accidents of birth still color the individual estimate of Burns and his writings. It is but of late that we have seen society torn, on occasion of the centenary of the poet, by conflicting opinion as to the propriety of observing it; and many would fain have it supposed that the religious and anti-religious world were ranged on opposite sides. But it was not so. There were thoroughly good and religious men, self-made, who could not forget that Burns had been the champion of their order, and had helped to win for them respect by the power of his genius; while there were others — religious men of old family — who could remember nothing but his faults. I remember spending one or two evenings about that time in the society of a well-born, earnestly religious, and highly estimable gentleman, who reprobated Burns, and scoffed at the idea that a man could be a man for a’ that. He might belong to a limited class; for well I know that among peers there are as ardent admirers of Burns as among peasants. All I would say is, that even religious feelings may take edge and bitterness from other causes. But to the other class— those who from loyalty and gratitude are apt to follow Burns too far — well I know that my husband would have said, “ Receive all genius as the gift of God, but never let it be to you as God. It ought never to supersede the exercise of your own moral sense, nor can it ever take the place of the only infallible guide, the Word of God.”

But I beg the reader’s pardon for digressing thus, when I ought to be pursuing the proper business of a preface, which is, to state any explanatory circumstances that may be necessary in connection with the work in hand.

The “Recollections of Ferguson” are exquisitely painful — so much so that I would fain have begun with something brighter; but these two contributions being the most important, and likewise the first in order of a series, they seemed to fall into the beginning as their natural place. I have gone over the Life of Ferguson, which the reader may do for himself, to see whether there is any exaggeration in the “Recollections.” I find them all perfectly faithful to the facts. The neglected bard, the stone cell, the straw pallet, the stone paid for by a brother bard out of his own straitened means are not flattering to the “Embro’ Gentry”; but amid a great deal of flattery, a little truth is worth remembering. On the other hand it rejoices one to think that Ferguson’s death-bed, on the heavenward side, was not dark. The returning reason, the comforts of the Word of Life, are glimpses of God’s providence and grace that show gloriously amid the otherwise outer darkness of those depths.

The sort of literature of superstition revived or retained in “The Lykewake,” there are a great many good people who think the world would be better without.

It chanced to me some three years ago, when residing in a seabathing village, and silting one day on a green turf-bank overlooking the sea, to hear a conversation in which this point was brought very prominently forward. A party consisting of a number of young people, accompanied by their papa, a young French lady, who was either governess or friend, and a gentleman in the garb of a elergyman, either friend or tutor, seated themselves very near me; and it was proposed by the elder gentleman that a series of stories should be told for the amusement and edification of the young people. A set of stories and anecdotes were accordingly begun, and very pleasingly told, chiefly by the clergyman, friend or tutor. Among others was a fairy tale entitled “Green Sleeves,” to which the name of Hugh Miller was appended, and which evoked great applause from the younger members of the party, but regarding which the verdict of papa, very emphatically delivered, was, “I approve of farics neither in green sleeves nor white sleeves. However,”—after a pause, during which he seemed to be revolving in his mind any possible use for the like absurdities, — “they may serve to show us the blessings of the more enlightened times in whieh we live, when schools for the young, and sciences for all ages, have banished such things from the world.” So, with this utilitarian view of the subject let us rest satisfied, unless we are of those who, feeling that the human mind is a harp of many strings, believe that it is none the worse for having the music of even its minor chords awakened at times by a skilful hand.

I am unable to say whether “Bill Whyte” be a real story, ever narrated by a bona fide tinker of the name, or no. I am rather inclined to think that it is not, because I recognize in it several incidents drawn from “Uncle Sandy’s” Experiences in Egypt, such as the hovering of the flight of birds, seared and terrified, over the smoke and noise of battle, the encampment in the midst of a host of Turks’ bones, etc.

With the “Young Surgeon” I was myself acquainted. It is a sketch strictly true.

“The Story of the Scotch Merchant of the Eighteenth Century,” which also is a true story, was written originally at the request of a near relative of Mr. Forsyth, for private circulation among a few friends, and is now for the first time given to the public by the kind consent of the surviving relatives.




Chapter I. The Fellow-Student
Chapter II. The Convivial Party
Chapter III. Life's Shadowy Morning
Chapter IV. A Surprise and Joyful News
Chapter V. An Interior View
Chapter VI. Gathering Clouds
Chapter VII. The Retreat
Chapter VIII. The Final Scene



Chapter I. The Congenial Stranger
Chapter II. The Trio — A Scottish Scene
Chapter III. Burns and Mary Campbell
Chapter IV. The Home and the Father of Burns
Chapter V. Burns and the Church
Chapter VI. An Evening at Mossgiel
Chapter VII. The Poet appears
Chapter VIII. The Last Interview

III. .


Chapter I. The Fisherman, William Stewart, Lillias
Chapter II. The Sequel



Chapter I. The Cavern Scene
Chapter II. Helen’s Vision



Chapter I. Introduction
Chapter II. The Story of Elspat M'Culloch
Chapter III. Story of Donald Gair
Chapter IV. The Doomed Rider
Chapter V. Story of Fairborn’s Ghost
Chapter VI. The Land Factor
Chapter VII. The Mealmonoer



Chapter I. A Gipsy Story
Chapter II. A Narrow Escape



Or, The Power of Religion



Or, The Fortunes of a Reformer



Or, The Story of a Farmer's Boy



Chapter I. Early Advantages
Chapter II. Enterprise and Thrift
Chapter III. Manners of the Times
Chapter IV. State of Society
Chapter V. The Kelp-burners
Chapter VI. Shipping and Sailors
Chapter VII. Personal Traits
Chapter VIII. Schemes of Improvement
Chapter IX. Sports and Jokes
Chapter X. Hospitality
Chapter XI. Changes and Improvements
Chapter XII. The Closing Scenes

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