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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter I. Introductory - Dunbar - The Miller Family

THERE were few towns in Scotland at the close of the eighteenth century that seemed less fitted than Dunbar for carrying on an extensive trade in books. For many years it had been looked upon as a decayed and broken-down burgh whose great days were in the past. Among the first to disparage it was Fynes Moryson, who in 1598 wrote that although it had been a place of some importance, yet when he saw it, “it lay ruined and seemed of little moment, as well from the poverty as the small number of inhabitants.” Half a century later, Tucker, the commissioner sent by Cromwell to report on the harbours of Scotland, would deny it the name of a town altogether, saying that “ village ” would describe it better, and adding that “ all the townes of Scotland, unless the burgh townes deserve noe other appellation, did not use and custome of speech give them a bigger title.”Other travellers during the seventeenth century speak after the same manner. In 1745 an officer of the Duke of Cumberland, while testifying to the lavish hospitality the town council extended to the different regiments that passed through the burgh, yet sneers at them and their town. “They had,” he said, “a tablecloth so dirty that at other times I should with great reluctance have wiped my hands upon it.”

Nor does the appearance of the town to-day do much to remove this impression of decay from the mind of the visitor. Modern suburbs have indeed begun to grow up, but the heart of the town remains the same. “The small town of Dunbar,” says Carlyle, who made personal inspection of the district when writing his “Cromwell,” “stands, high and windy, looking down over its herring-boats, over its grim old Castle now much honeycombed—on one of those projecting rock-promontories with which that shore of the Frith of Forth is niched and van-dyked, as far as the eye can reach. A beautiful sea; good land too, now that the plougher understands his trade; a grim niched barrier of whinstone sheltering it from the chafings and tumblings of the big blue German Ocean.” The houses lie chiefly on a slope that sinks rapidly down from the general level of the land behind to this rocky shore, and their situation has exposed them to every blast that blows. The masonry of the quaint old windswept streets is everywhere weathered and scarred as if the town had become worn and exhausted by the continuous struggle against the elements.

And yet it was in this place that George Miller succeeded in building up a trade in books that for a time rivalled some of the largest businesses in the capital. To become a merchant on an extensive scale in the burgh along any line of trade seemed impossible. During its long history Dunbar had produced only one firm of more than a local reputation. As general merchants the Falls had extended their business widely—or as Miller puts it, “were well known from the upper end of the Mediterranean to the Baltic, and in my early days made much noise in the world”—and had attained not only to civic but to parliamentary honours. The spirit of the place, however, had ultimately fallen upon them. Before Miller had been long in business they had departed, leaving not a trace of their presence behind them except their huge mansion-house, which to this day dominates the chief street of the town.

Especially for success in bookselling did Dunbar appear an impossible centre.1 It seemed to be too near Edinburgh. The English coaches did indeed pass through it, but little could be expected from them. Travellers were not likely to wait till they reached it to supply their wants. Edinburgh on the one side was the literary metropolis of the country, and on the other Berwick did a fair business-in books. Nor could much be looked for from the districts surrounding the town. The year after Miller began business on his own account an “accurate survey” was made of the county, when it was found that even to-day the town has no public library or reading-room, the population of the town and parish of Dunbar amounted to 3,700. The number of persons living within a radius of ten miles did not exceed 8,000. The vast majority of these were unlikely ever to become customers at a bookshop. And yet Miller achieved what seemed impossible. He began with no capital, and after twenty-five years in business could value his stock at over £10,000.

The family to which George Miller belonged was of the yeoman class, and for generations had been engaged on the land. His grandfather was born about the close of the seventeenth century at Gifford Hall, an ancient name for Gifford, one of several places that claim John Knox as their son. He married Isabel Wilson, a native of Dunbar, and so brought the town into the fortunes of the family. One of his sons migrated to London, where he settled down, dying as late as 1815. His line is represented today in Mr. T. Fisher Unwin, the well-known publisher.

George’s father was born at Dirleton in 1725, but early in life came to reside in Dunbar, where he started and carried on till his death the business of a general merchant. His son says that he had little connection with books. Apart from his “little stock of stationery,” he could provide only “ catechisms and the Proverbs of Solomon, children’s books in all the glory of richly ornamented covers and children’s pictures in variety. He was a man of profound religious convictions, and on conscientious grounds left the Established Church and threw in his lot with the Secession. Much of his son George’s piety can be traced to his example. In addition to being a merchant he occasionally acted as a master of works for the town council, and several public improvements were carried out under his direction. He died on June 27, 1789, being survived by three sons and two daughters.

John, the youngest child, afterwards became a bookseller and printer in Dunfermline. James, the eldest, followed the occupation of his father, and really succeeded him in his business. For a time he was in partnership with his brother George, the subject of this notice, but for the greater part of his life he carried on business on his own account. Beyond the ordinary stock laid in by a country merchant he did not deal especially in books, although for a time he conducted a juvenile circulating library. He took an active and prominent share in the affairs of the Secession congregation of the town, and for many years sat in the town council of the burgh, being for several terms a magistrate. He died in 1851.

Only one of James’s sons, John Kemp Miller, showed a taste for books. He was born in 1812, and entered as a student of the United Secession Church in 1834. It was not till the 21st of May, 1844, that he was settled over a congregation at Catrine in Ayrshire. His ministry proved unfortunate, for he had to resign his charge in less than two years, his demission taking effect on February 24, 1846. No reason is assigned for the step in the records either of the Presbytery or of the congregation, but it is understood that he disagreed with his people over some of the developments of the Chartist movement then in progress. Whatever was the cause, the Presbytery formally recorded their sympathy with him in the position he took up. They stated that his reasons for retiring “appear to be well founded,” and named him “a brother highly esteemed.” He never succeeded in obtaining another appointment, and preached only occasionally. He wrote a little for the press, but his life was lived in practical retirement. He resided first in Edinburgh, but latterly at Dunbar, where he died on March 31, 1895.


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