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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter XV. Town Councillor - Downfall

UP to 1883 the method of electing the civic councils of the royal burghs in Scotland was a somewhat extraordinary one. In effect each town council had the power to elect its successor, and in practice this meant that the retiring councillors re-elected themselves, or when a vacancy occurred added to their numbers a man of like mind with themselves. The possibilities of abuse and corruption in such a system are obvious, but it was a privilege that those in power carefully guarded and defended in every way. An agitation carried on with more or less activity for half a century was required before legislation put an end to the anomaly.

Haddington is a royal burgh, and before the passing of the Burgh Reform Act its Council consisted of twenty-five members, sixteen of whom sat as merchant-councillors and the rest as deacons of the various trade incorporations in the town. The only qualification for a seat was that candidates should be burgesses of the town. Exercising the powers they then held, the magistrates and merchant-councillors met on October 14, 1825, and according to the minute, “elected and chose and hereby elect and choose Archibald Dunlop, Distiller; Thomas Howden, Surgeon; James Fairbairn, Cloth Merchant; and James Miller, Bookseller, to be merchant-councillors of this Burgh for the year to come and until they be removed off the Council.” On the following day Miller with the others attended and took the prescribed oath of allegiance. Such an election, unanimously made, gives some indication of the esteem in which Miller was at this time held in the community. The other newly co-opted members were men of substance and position in the town. The name of Dr. Howden is still held in considerable repute.

A small burgh like that of Haddington had not many positions of service to which its individual civic rulers could be called. At an early meeting Miller was chosen to serve on the important committee that dealt with the “stent ” (the local rates), and the town’s accounts. A year after, he was elected one of five to form a committee on the Town’s Library—a duty for which he had manifest qualifications and which gave him the opportunity of doing a useful bit of work.

The Library referred to cannot be neglected by Scottish bibliographers. It was gifted about 1717 to his native town by the Rev. James Gray, who had been minister at Aberlady, a parish adjoining that of Haddington. At the time of the gift the same generous donor mortified a sum of 3,000 merks Scots, equivalent to about ,£167 sterling, for charitable purposes, 25 of which were to be devoted to the upkeep of the Library. At present it consists of about 1,400 volumes, published both at home and abroad, many of which are of great interest and value. The Town Council committee evidently went into the affairs of the library with some care, for they presented a report which the council considered of such value that they ordered it to be engrossed in their minutes, an instruction which a negligent town clerk unfortunately failed to implement. Part of the committee’s recommendation evidently was that a catalogue should be prepared. The work was entrusted to Miller, who no doubt carried it out con amore. In 1828 he duly printed and published the list. It runs to 80 pages, and though it contains some mistakes in the towns to which the printing of certain books is assigned and is arranged on the absurd plan of giving complete alphabets to the various sizes, it is nevertheless a competent piece of work. Two hundred copies of the catalogue were printed, but only one is now known to exist. It was rescued from an Edinburgh bookseller’s recent catalogue and appropriately presented to the Library by the finder in July 1911.

For two years Miller’s attendance at the Town Council meetings showed praiseworthy zeal, but after October 1827 his attitude towards his civic duties changed. In that month he was one of two voted on for the important post of Burgh Treasurer, an office, it may be stated, that carried with it only a very nominal salary, but he lost the election. In October 1828 he was named one of a leet of two for the magistracy, but when the election day came he was not even proposed. In October of the following year three magistrates were required; four were nominated for the vacancies, of whom Miller was one, but again he was passed over. These repeated rebuffs were too much for him, and after the third repulse he ceased attendance at the Council. It was customary to “purge” the council roll at stated intervals, but there is no record that Miller’s name was formally removed. He was allowed quietly to drop out. The last meeting at which he was present was that held on October 13, 1829.

What was the cause of this pointed setting aside of Miller’s claim to civic honours, and why did he show such evident chagrin at the treatment he had received ? It is to be feared that the reason was one personal to himself. Town Councils are frequently not very scrupulous about the private character of the men placed in the magistrates’ chair, but it is probable that Miller’s conduct was the stumbling-block. He was already showing signs of that moral collapse which ultimately made him an outcast from all respectable society. On the very day on which the Council met to elect magistrates in 1828, his father was in Haddington and showed a strange restlessness. “I cannot easily forget,” he says, “the melancholy walk I had on the afternoon of the 14th of October when I left Haddington to go round by the Abbey in order to make some inquiries respecting a certain matter in regard to which I felt at this time a good deal of anxiety.” He does not give the reason for his anxiety, but it was sufficiently explained by what was taking place in the civic chambers.

There is evidence also that Miller’s business in Haddington was breaking up, and that did not arise from lack of work. Already two printers had found sufficient encouragement to start presses if any discussion arose over it the Council minutes give no hint of the fact.

in the town. During 1830 Miller’s printing transactions with the Town Council numbered four, each for a paltry sum. On March 2, 1832, he was paid for his last order from them. Thereafter his rival, John Wood, who described himself as “printer, bookseller, bookbinder, and stationer,” produced some prints for the Council, but in December of the same year George Neill, a firm which in a few months appeared as “George Neill & Sons,” became what may be termed the town’s official printer, and so continued for years. Miller’s name is never thereafter appended to any print. If anything further were needed to indicate what was happening it is to be found in the following fact. In 1832-3-4 James Miller’s name appears on the Roll of Registered Voters in the town of Haddington under the designation of “printer” and as tenant of a shop and dwelling-house in High Street. On September 8, 1835, it again appears, but this time in the list of those who had been struck off the roll at their own desire. Miller had lost not only his business but his home. In view of his subsequent life, there is only one explanation that apparently covers all the facts.

Various causes have been currently given for Miller’s downfall. He was admitted a member of St. John Kilwinning Lodge of Freemasons at Haddington on May 12, 18x5, and it has been suggested that the convivialities of that brotherhood sapped his self-control. There is no foundation for the suggestion. As their minutes show, he was not often at their meetings, and no record that he ever held office can be discovered. When “St. Baldred of the Bass” was published, notice was taken of the fact. In the minute of November 30, 1824, it is described as “a poem of considerable merit,” and it is recorded that the health of its author was drunk. In the book itself there is a “Masonic Song, written and sung” when the portrait of one of its worthies was hung on the walls of the lodge. But that seems to include the round of his intimate connection with the fraternity.

It has also been said that Miller traced the first step of his downfall to his sale of a book that created a storm of criticism among the orthodox. This was “A Rational Investigation of the Principles of Natural Philosophy,” by John Howdon, a farmer near the town of Haddington, and brother of the local practitioner, who had joined the Town Council with Miller. The book was a violent attack on revelation and a denunciation of the Bible in particular. There can be no doubt of the indignation its appearance caused in the community. The first volume was printed by John Grieve and published by George Tait, both of Haddington. When the second was ready they evidently shrank from the task of placing it on the market, for when it appeared a year after it bore no publisher’s name, and had for imprint merely the words: “London: Printed for the Booksellers.” Remorse for having helped to circulate such a volume cannot have produced so great an upheaval of conscience or been followed by such dreadful consequences to Miller himself that he was driven to quench his horror in the wine-cup. The date forbids, for the “Investigation” was published in 1832 and 1833 when Miller’s habit was already formed.

The real cause was the poet’s own inclination and the unusual facilities that then existed for satisfying any craving for intoxicants. Many of the writers of the Statistical Accounts of Haddingtonshire call attention to the excessive number of licences that were held in their parishes, and to the degrading influence they exerted on the community. The compiler of the Dunbar survey says: “This is a sore evil which has long been complained of and it appears to be increasing.” The town of Haddington was in fact surrounded with parish ministers whose cry was the same. If Miller was inclined to selfindulgence the way was made very easy for him. And if these were not enough he had the tempter near him at all times. “It was unfortunate for Miller,” says his biographer, “that his business was not exclusively a book and stationery one, as the grocery with which it was combined, with its usual concomitants, put an insinuating and seductive enemy near his hand.” It was apparently to clear himself of any complicity in his son’s downfall that in 1833, when the final catastrophe was near at hand, Miller’s father printed the extract from a letter which he had received from him twenty years before and which has been already quoted.

After his business came to an end in Haddington, Miller seems to have remained in the town for a time. He would find no difficulty in procuring employment, for he was a journeyman printer, and the office that succeeded to his business would give him a helping hand. The dedication of the “Shipwreck of the Czar” is dated from Haddington in February 1835. Not long after this, however, he drifted to Edinburgh. There also he would be sure of work, for the city was full of printing houses. He dates the dedications of the three volumes of verse which he published in 1836, 1837, and 1841, from Edinburgh in May, September, and May of these years respectively. Two of them were printed by Miller himself. One bears the name of no special printing office, but the other came from that of A. Turnbull & Co. in the High Street, where Miller must therefore have worked. Soon after the last date he returned to Haddington, and seems to have been engaged in the printing and publishing house of James Allan. He went into lodgings, and a certain greengrocer is named as his landlady.

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