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The Millers of Haddington, Dunbar and Dunfermline
A Record of Scottish Bookselling by W. J. Couper


IT is curious that amid the multitude of books written on the history of British literature, little attention should have been given to the agencies by means of which the printed book reached the hands of those for whom it was prepared. Booksellers and bookselling have been almost entirely neglected. “No great trade,” says Mr. Augustine Birrell, “has an obscurer history than the book trade. It seems to lie choked in mountains of dust which it would be suicidal to disturb. Men have lived from time to time of literary skill—Dr. Johnson was one of them—who had knowledge, extensive and peculiar, of the traditions and practices of ‘ the trade,’ as it is proudly styled by its votaries ; but nobody has ever thought it worth while to make record of his knowledge, which accordingly perished with him, and is now irrecoverably lost.” Books like those of Charles Knight, Curwen, and Mr. Frank A. Mumby have done something to remove the reproach. Monographs on isolated periods and workers have appeared, and there is much promise in the patient researches of the learned societies devoted to the history of book production. But on the whole the field is practically unworked.

The case of Scotland is considerably worse than that of England. The great publishers of the northern kingdom have indeed been dealt with more or less adequately, and histories of the chief members of the firms of Blackwood, Black, Chambers, Constable, Ballantyne, and Blackie have been written. Even lives of Scotsmen who have settled in London, like Daniel Macmillan and Alexander Strahan, have been published. Printers also have not been altogether overlooked, although there are only two biographies that can be called important —those of Thomas Ruddiman and William Smellie. In both cases it is probable that the books were written because their subjects were men of prominence in learning rather than because they were printers. But literature devoted to the work of booksellers is almost nonexistent. The nature and extent of the business carried on in Edinburgh by the well-known bookseller, William Creech, can be learned from his own writings and from the biography recently published, but the only other firm that has been made the subject of even a respectable magazine article is that of the Morrisons of Perth, who, it should be noted, were also printers and publishers. This surely is unfortunate, because as a class booksellers have done much for the communities in which they have carried on their business. Limited as their opportunities were, they shared with the minister and the schoolmaster the credit of spreading what culture there was in many a country district.

There is room therefore for every attempt to throw light on the book trade of Scotland, and the present volume is offered as a contribution towards its history. It deals with a distinct phase of the business—that carried on in the country districts. The period covered by the book was one of transition. A new spirit was beginning to breathe over the land, and men were no longer content to have their thinking done for them. Even in remote villages the stirring was felt and a demand for books could not be long delayed. How the necessary publications reached these places must be of interest, not only for its literary meaning, but also from the effects the spread of literature had upon the social conditions of the people. None throughout Scotland played a greater part in this work of providing and popularizing literature among the common people than the Millers of Dunbar and Haddington, and for that reason alone it is proper that some record should be made of their life story.

The Miller family also deserves some memorial on its own account. More than one member of it had the literary instinct. A man of tireless energy and of considerable fertility of resource, George Miller did more than merely sell books. Within his own limits he was a social reformer. He endeavoured to educate the tastes of his customers, and to aid the cause of literary culture wrote books which in their day had a fair reputation. His son, James, was a poet and historian of some distinction, and in a county that numbers among its natives comparatively few men of literary eminence, his position is of importance.

If further justification were needed for the appearance of this volume it can be found in the fact that the publishing tradition of the Miller family has not yet died out, but is being continued in the person of Mr. T. Fisher Unwin, at whose suggestion the preparation of the book was undertaken.

I am indebted to Mr. T. Fisher Unwin for various memoranda and for placing at my disposal his collection of books from the Miller Press, which are described in Notes and Queries for July 3 and 17 and November 6, 1909. The Registrar-General for Scotland, the town clerks of Haddington, Dunbar, and Dunfermline, as well as the clerks to the parish councils of the first two towns, kindly gave me permission to inspect public documents under their care. Provost Low of Dunbar did what he could to help me in my researches. Many correspondents willingly answered questions I addressed to them, or furnished clues which when followed up yielded some interesting facts. No descendants of George Miller can be traced, but important material was gleaned from his “ Latter Struggles.” Miller was most methodical in the way he kept papers and documents connected with his life and business. Unfortunately all these seem to have disappeared with the exception of an autobiography compiled from them in 1831-3, two volumes of which, extending to over seventeen hundred closely written pages, came unexpectedly into my hands in the course of my researches. They bring Miller’s life down to 1819, and though filled with much irrelevant matter, furnished very valuable information. Interesting notes regarding the Dunfermline branch of the family were sent to me by Mr. George L. Miller, of New York, a grandson of John Miller.

The bibliographies in the appendix do not claim to be exhaustive. Many of the books published by the East Lothian Press and by the press in Dunfermline were of such a kind that whole editions of them were likely to disappear. I am indebted to Dr. Erskine Beveridge for kindly allowing me to extract the list of the products of the latter press from his laborious work, “The Bibliography of Dunfermline and the West of Fife,” and to arrange the titles in chronological order.

The frontispiece portrait of George Miller is from a painting in the possession of Mrs. Stobie, of Glasgow, a near relative of the Millers, who kindly allowed it to be reproduced. The artist is said to have been Mungo Burton, who in early life painted many portraits and died an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy. No portrait of James Miller could be obtained. He had an invincible repugnance to having his picture taken, and the only sketch known to have been made of him has disappeared. The portraits of John Miller, Dunfermline, and his wife are taken from water-colour drawings lent for the purpose by their granddaughter, Miss Lyle of Edinburgh. The artist is Henry Gilbert. The picture of John Laing Miller is from a painting, artist unknown, and that of his wife from a pencil sketch done by Amelia Paton, sister of Sir Noel Paton, and wife of D. O. Hill, the artist. She was a sculptress of some note, and was on friendly terms with the Millers. For the first of these I am indebted to his son, Mr. Robert Miller, of Boston, Mass., U.S.A., and for the second to her grandson, Mr. Moncrieff Wood, of Finchley, London.

The woodcuts which figure as tail-pieces and other ornaments are reproduced from illustrations in books published by the East Lothian Press. Several are printed directly from the original blocks made for the Millers : the titles of these are marked with an asterisk in the Table of Illustrations. For their use in this book the author is greatly indebted to Mr. Thomas Cowan, Haddington, who acquired the business formerly carried on by the Millers, and who wrote the first and till now the only account of James Miller. It is prefixed to the edition of the “Lamp of Lothian,” published in 1900. Cordial thanks are also due to Mr. J. M’Kenzie, Dunbar, the owner of No. 1 of the Cheap Magazine and the Greathead Lifeboat picture, for giving permission to have them photographed ; to Mr. T. T. Bisset, Dunbar, for the photographs from which the plates facing pp. 57 and 117 were made; and to Mr. John Anderson, Dunbar, for freely granting the use of his copyright photograph of the High Street.

Last of all I have to express my obligations to Mr. T. Fisher Unwin for his readiness to meet my wishes, and to my friends, the Rev. E. H. Fraser, M.A., and Mr. Robert Weir, for reading the MS. and furnishing me with valuable hints.


Chapter I. Introductory - Dunbar - The Miller Family


Chapter II. Childhood and Apprenticeship
Chapter III. Partnership with Brother - Marriage
Chapter IV. Starts Business on his own Account - Authorship
Chapter V. The East Lothian Press - Cheap Tracts
Chapter VI. His Family - Removes Press to Haddington
Chapter VII. Business Life - Dunbar Lifeboat
Chapter VIII. The “Cheap Magazine" - Circulating Library
Chapter IX. Canvassing Trade - Depression - Bankruptcy
Chapter X. Further Adversity - Authorship
Chapter XI. Closing Years


Chapter XII. Birth and Apprenticeship
Chapter XIII. Partnership with Father - In Business for Himself - Marriage
Chapter XIV. Poet and Historian
Chapter XV. Town Councillor - Downfall
Chapter XVI. “Lamp or Lothian" - Death


Chapter XVII. John Miller - Early Years - Begins Business in Dunfermline - Author
Chapter XVIII. John Laing Miller - His Verdatility - Failure

Bibliography (pdf)

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