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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
Chapter XVI. “Lamp or Lothian" - Death

ENCOURAGED by the promised reception to be given to his “History of Dunbar,” Miller began planning a similar volume dealing with the county town even before the first work was off his hands. The soil was virtually virgin, for at that time, and even since, the county has been singularly unproductive of books connected with its local interests. Only one contribution of any importance had been made towards the history of the town, and even that was fragmentary and meagre. Miller’s own description of it is that “ it was drawn up by the Rev. Dr. Barclay, one of the ministers of the parish, and communicated to the Society of Scottish Antiquaries in 1785. This article possesses great merit, and is treated in a more systematic manner than the generality of the statistical details; but notwithstanding the research it displays, a vast fund of information regarding the ancient affairs of the burgh has escaped the author’s notice.” It was to remedy this defect that Miller undertook the work.

It is evident from the various “Proposals” issued from time to time that the author intended to publish his book early in the “thirties.” The first prospectus was sent out in 1830, and subscribers were then asked for. In 1833 the promise was made that the book should be ready early in the following year. Miller, however, had by this time begun his downward career and had probably left Haddington for Edinburgh. It was not till 1844 that the volume was actually issued to the public.

During these years the plan of the book underwent considerable modification. It was at first proposed to publish it as a duodecimo at 4s. 6d. “done up in cloth.” A subsequent “Proposal” stated that it was to appear as a “post octavo uniform with the Waverley Novels, price 7s. 6d. in cloth boards.” When the book actually appeared from the press it turned out to be an octavo, price 8s. 6d. The earliest prospectus gave no indication of authorship unless it could be gathered from the fact that the book was to be “ uniform with the ‘History of Dunbar.’” It was also announced to include “ several particulars regarding the county at large, which may very properly be introduced along with the history of the shire-town.” The subsequent advertisement amplified the contents considerably. “The work,” it said, “will be embellished with engravings, 5 inches by representing the principal Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Seats, Picturesque Ruins, Public Buildings, etc., from Drawings taken expressly for this publication.” An account of agricultural progress within the county during the preceding sixty years, the fishing history of the River Tyne, as well as biographical notices of eminent and notorious natives, were to be included. The whole book was not to be the product of one pen, for the prospective publishers, at that time George Neill & Sons, had in view the co-operation of others in the work. The chief part, however, was assigned to Miller, for it was announced that the “Historical Part and Antiquities” were to be by him.

In the end the book was issued from the press of James Allan, Haddington, with much of the promised matter omitted. Only one illustration was to be found within the boards—a woodcut of the ancient Abbey church of St. Mary’s, Haddington, which appears on the title-page. The entire authorship of the book is assigned to Janies Miller.

It is generally acknowledged that Miller’s book is on the whole a sound bit of work. Its chief title is the “Lamp of Lothian,” and some criticism might be offered as to the appropriateness of such a name. One critic has remarked that “ Miller applies the term to the magnificent parish church of St. Mary. The writer of the ‘ Chronicle,’ who originated the epithet, applies it most distinctly to the church of the Franciscans or Grey Friars.” The critic himself blunders in ascribing the phrase to Fordun, but it may be questioned whether a book devoted to the general history of a whole community should bear a name which was popularly applied to the choir of a single church within it. No one, however, can deny that the title has a certain distinction, and its picturesqueness may be considered its sufficient justification. The accuracy of the contents is on the whole wonderful when it is remembered that its author had no special training in scholarship. Minor errors have been pointed out, but these do not invalidate the general trustworthiness of the book. As a local history it probably errs on the side of introducing rather much detail concerning the general history of Scotland, but for the audience it was meant to reach that cannot be considered a deadly fault. Mr. A. J. Balfour says that “all dwellers in East Lothian are permanently indebted” to it.

The germ of the book is to be found in the notes which for some years Miller wrote and published as a supplement to his “Haddington Register.” This latter publication was begun in 1820, and contained the usual tabulated information to be found in county almanacs. In the issue for 1825 he added to it the first of the supplements, naming it “A Chronological Account of East Lothian from the Earliest Records to the Present Period.” Under varying names, and with no strict chronological sequence, Miller continued the issue of these notes up to the appearance of his “History,” and even after he himself had lost control of the “Register.” Altogether seventeen parts were published, many of them bearing no indication that Miller was their compiler. It has already been said that he had no special training for historical inquiry: he was specially defective in his ability to read the ancient script in which many of the documents on which he had to depend were written. He had, however, an efficient friend in Dr. David Laing, the eminent antiquary, and in the issue for 1829 Miller made due acknowledgment of his debt to him. “The publisher,” he wrote, “must here state his obligations to Dr. David Laing, of Edinburgh, a gentleman whose skill in our early bibliography has often been noticed, for favouring him with the substance of the following extracts. The books are written in the Old English character, which when negligently executed is almost impossible to transcribe.” Only one further circumstance needs to be added in connection with the production of the “Lamp of Lothian”: it was set up in its entirety by its author. “In this connection,” says Mr. Thomas Cowan, who at one time worked alongside of Miller, “Mr. Allan [the publisher of the book] could tell how that, one day, as he was waiting till a proof came back from a writer’s office in town, he chanced to see a piece of the MS. of the c Lamp ’ on the case where Miller had just left setting. Thinking to do a good turn, he followed the ‘copy’ and set up several lines to give Miller a friendly help.

On the author’s return there was an explosion, and all the types kindly set up for him he threw back into their places in the case: no human fingers save his own must touch the sacred work. As an example of typographic skill the book can stand on its own merits. Being published by subscription the edition was limited, and a curious fate overtook the sheets that remained unsold. They lay unbound cumbering the printer’s shelves for a number of years. Seeing the hopelessness of their ever being wanted, or the futility of attempting to get up any fresh demand for the work, the printer parted with the total remainder of the sheets for a small slump sum to get rid of them as waste paper. The purchaser was a tobacconist in town,” who used, them as wrapping-paper. The passage of time, however, showed the value of the book, and copies could afterwards be obtained only at an enhanced price.

The “History” was subsequently reprinted in the columns of the Haddingtonshire Advertiser, and from the type so set a volume in double columns was published in 1900 with prefatory matter. Certain liberties were taken with the text by way of omitting parts and inserting footnotes in the body of the book, and in consequence the original edition, which the reprint considerably reduced in market value, retains its superiority.

It has been currently reported that Miller received some civic distinctions over the publication of his “History.” It is said that he was awarded a special vote of thanks from the gratified city fathers, and that he was entertained to a banquet. A moving picture is drawn of the author’s overwhelmed confusion when he rose to reply to the laudations that were heaped upon him. But these appear to be mere rumours. If such marks of honour were bestowed the town records contain no reference to them.

Miller was fifty-three years of age when the “Lamp of Lothian” appeared, and he had more than twenty years still to live. His days of credit and renown, however, were past, and it is needless to enter on the story of these closing years in any detail. In sadness they could hardly be surpassed. The fatal appetite he had encouraged at length completely mastered him, and he became a homeless waif roaming the countryside, sheltering where he could, and picking up a precarious livelihood as opportunity offered. He was not long in earning the contempt of those who saw him periodically, wandering erratically here and there, a wastrel and beggar. Numerous stories are told of him which show that to the last he carried some consciousness with him of the estate he had forfeited and the depths to which he had fallen. Even in his degradation he resented patronage from any one, and many a savage retort escaped his lips if benefactors presumed too far on his need. One of his chief sources of income came from prints of his own poems which in single sheets he hawked over the countryside. The bibliography which follows notes some of these and indicates the subjects he chose. No wedding or other public or domestic event was allowed to pass without its tribute of verse, and he made special poetic capital out of the annual training of the local militia. James Maitland Balfour of Whittingehame, father of the ex-Prime Minister, was Major-Com-mandant of the East Lothian and Berwickshire Yeomanry Cavalry. He was a man highly esteemed in the county, and when he died in 1857 Miller penned a “Monody” on the event: it begins:—

Among the blooming groves of Whittingham,
Where through the haughs the gentle streamlet strays,
The fragrant flowers were breathing summer’s balm,
The tuneful linnets chanting hymns of praise.
I met a Minstrel there, with harp unstrung,
He leant against an oak, opprest with care,
A gloom of sorrow o’er his features hung,
His soul was sad, though nature’s face was fair.
Alas ! (he cried). The ’Squire of yonder towers,
Fallen in his prime, lies lone in Funchal’s isle,
Shedding a veil of sorrow o’er these bowers,
Which bloom’d so fair ’neath Lady Blanche’s smile.

The remaining three verses degenerate into mere doggerel.

Such occasional poems he added to his stock by having them printed in Dunbar or Haddington, retailing them on his rounds at a penny each. Gratified recipients of his honours never grudged half a crown to the needy poet.

As another specimen of this occasional verse the following poem, which had a certain vogue, may be given :—


Town of the Ocean! the fresh breeze is blowing
That wafts me again to thee, bonny Dunbar,
Where youth with its smiles and its roses was glowing
Beneath the bright halo of life’s morning star.

Delighted I hail thee, with fondest devotion,
My dear native town, by the blue-rolling ocean.
A thousand glad wishes my heart wakes in motion
Again to behold thee, my bonny Dunbar.

As is to be expected, variants occur in the manuscript copies that exist. A print of the ode was recently made by an admirer.

As Miller grew older and consequently less able to care for himself, he created considerable difficulty to the parish authorities under whose guardianship he more than once came. His reckless life laid him open to exposure in all kinds of weather, and sometimes he became so ill that he had to resort to them to be nursed. In this way he had to be helped by the inspectors of poor of Tranent, Haddington, and Dunbar. Once he reached Dunbar severely mauled from a conflict he had had with a fellow vagrant. So unsettled were his habits that he latterly never remained long enough in any one place to acquire a legal “settlement,” and when he finally succumbed the parishes of Dunbar and Haddington had to threaten each other with the law courts before a compromise was reached and responsibility for him divided between them.

Considerable capital has been made of alleged kindness extended to Miller by certain county magnates, but it is difficult to discover in what way their benevolence showed itself. They have been credited with providing for his last days, but public documents leave no doubt that he was indebted solely to the public taxpayer, working through the parish authorities, for what comfort he enjoyed during the concluding twelvemonth of his life. Three years before his death an application was indeed made on his behalf to the Royal Literary Fund, and a grant of £20 was voted for his use. But this is the only trace that can be found of anything done for him. Those who acted on his behalf on that occasion evidently stated the danger of handing over such a sum to the uncontrolled keeping of Miller, and it was given to the factor of the Earl of Haddington to disburse in the manner best fitted to aid the poet. The money was judiciously applied, though the almoner had frequently to endure the insolence of the man he was helping.

At length Miller’s exhausted frame gave out. He had passed his seventy-third birthday, and it is wonderful that he had so long survived the rough life he had lived. He made application to the parish of Haddington for relief, and was by them sent to the Edinburgh Home of Refuge—an institution that had been opened in 1832 for such homeless and destitute persons as Miller. He was admitted on May 7, 1864, and died there on May 21, 1865. No one seems to know where he is buried or where the vagrant at last rests from his wanderings.

A fortnight after the death of its burgh his torian the local paper had a sympathetic notice of his life. “For many years past,” said the writer, who evidently was well acquainted with Miller, “the shrivelled-up and wasted form of the old poet might be seen at any part of the highway between Edinburgh and the eastern part of the county—points that appeared to bound his horizon feebly urging his steps along, uncertain where his next meal was to be had or where he was to lay his wearied limbs in repose at nightfall. Summer’s sun and winter’s cold were alike to him, and to many it is a marvel that the vital force did not rapidly succumb to such a strain. All efforts at doing anything to reclaim the wanderer to settled habits were in vain. ... In his life and still more in his death we have another illustration of the ‘ calamities of authors ’ ; but in poor Miller’s case the illustration is accompanied with the sad reflection that he was himself the author of those which overtook him. He was himself his own nemesis.” With which words all is said that need be said by way of moral and summary.

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