THAT James Miller should
have had a poetic gift and should have exercised it is in the
circumstances not very astonishing. His father had a strong “itch for
scribbling,” and his compositions occasionally took the form of verse.
To judge from the examples that remain, his muse barely succeeded in
rising from the ground. His son’s was destined to higher flights.
The earliest examples of James’s verse that found their way into print
probably appeared in the Cheap Magazine and the Monitor. He did not,
however, often seek the aid of the periodical press in giving his rhymes
to the public. A first draft of one of his poems was printed in the
Scots Magazine for 1817, and twenty years later another appeared in a
literary magazine issued by his uncle and cousin in Dunfermline. In 1822
George Tait, a Haddington bookseller, made a valiant attempt to
establish a literary journal for his own town. Jane Welsh Carlyle was
asked for help with it, and in a letter of date March 3rd makes merry
over the proposal. The projector called on her, and, as she wrote, she
“proceeded to exercise all her powers of argument in trying to convince
this candidate for literary fame that it would be more advisable for the
hitherto latent genius of Haddington to distribute itself among the
various periodical works in the metropolis, when, if not admired, the
strength of others would sustain their weakness and they might hope to
pass unobserved, instead of, by uniting in a body, rendering darkness
visible.” But in spite of her scepticism The East Lothian Magazine was
actually issued and ran through a year. It was a project in which Miller
could not fail to be interested, even although the journal was to be
published by a rival bookseller, nor could those who were making the
attempt afford to overlook the help that he might be able to give them.
They succeeded in including him in their list, and he contributed two
poems to the new venture under the signature of the initial of his
The first poem to appear in book form was “Verses in Memory of Dunbar
Collegiate Church,” which was published in 1819. The poem was occasioned
by the rebuilding of the parish church and contains many references to
its history and to the events that were associated with the district.
Nor be thy pulpit dignities forgot,
Tho’ differing in their creeds, one common lot
Awaits them now before their awful judge.
I see them rise, in sacerdotal robes,
With meditative eye “that loves the ground.”
First sage Dunbar, of Moray’s noble house,
Deck’d in his gaudy Romish garb appears,
Avowedly zealous. . . .
He speaks of his own connection with the building :—
How changed, since in the sunny morn of life
I sat amidst these dear-remembered pews,
Nor thought the service long. The Roman youth
Hung not with more delight when Cicero spoke,
Than I have listened to the holy man.
Returning to these scenes, but late I saw
A crowd of stranger-faces worship there,
And I was left alone. Where have ye fled
Ye dear companions of those pleasant days
When hope was young like you, fair as the blooms
Before the winter wind has sear’d their bud :—
Ye rosy-cheeked host, where have ye fled?
He refers in passing to the grave of a sister who had died in infancy:—
. . . And I have wished
That we had made our pilgrimage together,
Then had I 'scaped a world of guile and woe,
And fallen like her upon the lap of heaven,
Pure as a snowdrop on a virgin’s breast.
A sentiment which is not infrequent in his books. The poem is preceded
and followed by numerous antiquarian notes—a feature of all Miller’s
rhymes, whether long or short. With that literary economy which
characterized both him and his father, the prose was afterwards
incorporated in his “History of Dunbar.”
In 1820 Miller followed with a more ambitious poem, “The Luckless
Drave,” or, as it afterwards was named, “The Lost Drave.” It is founded
on a minute of July 27, 1712, in the Kirk Session records of Dunbar.
There an account is given of how on that date the minister was engaged
ordaining elders, and in the course of the proceedings read from a
minute by one of his predecessors regarding the fearful doom that
overtook some Sabbath-breakers. It was to this effect: “Mr. Simpson,
minister at Dalkeith, son to Mr. Andrew Simpson, minister at Dumbar, in
his exposition of the xxxii Psalm, hath these words: ‘A fearfull
judgement of God fell furth at Dumbar, about the year of God 1577, ref I
was an eye witness. My father, Mr. Andrew Simpson, of good memory, being
minister thereof, Qho, going to the church, saw a thousand boatts
setting their netts on the Sabbath. He weeped, and feared that God would
not suffer such contempt. It being a most calm day as ever was seen at
that season; at midnight, when they went furth to draw their netts, the
wind arose so fearfully, that it drowned Eight Score and Ten Boatts, so
that there was reckoned in the coast side fourteen score of widdows.’”
In the popular imagination the disaster was due to witchcraft, and
Miller took these two aspects of the story as the setting for his poem,
The poem contains some vigorous lines :—
That morning’s calm was like the meteor’s glare,
That dazzles to destroy its wareless victim ;
For when the boatmen, at night’s lonely hour,
Return’d to draw their nets, loud roar’d the gale,
As if from Greenland’s cold unfathomed caves,
Winter had come with all his host of storms.
The seaman’s face turn’d pale, as boats on boats
Rush’d fearfully o’er yawning vortices;
While, like a monster, lash’d the sea around,
Now gorging and next vomiting its prey,
And shoals of scally fry, sheer upward thrown,
Came down like sheeted hail upon the decks!
Prows split on prows,—the splinter’d oars were slipt;
And shiver’d sails flew from the shatter’d masts
In dread confusion, as when horror stalks
Amid the thunder of the British line.
“The Luckless Drave” attracted the attention of Sir Walter Scott,
although it exhibits the usual defects of Miller’s verse—exaggerated
metaphors, an occasional unfortunate use of words, and halt-ings in
rhythm. In the original edition he incorporated a song by another hand
without specifically stating the authorship. When the
poem was reissued in 1824 the song was cut out.
Emboldened by the success that attended these ventures in verse, Miller
resolved to make appeal to a wider audience. Accordingly in 1824 he
gathered together what he had already published, and, adding several
compositions of greater importance, issued the whole under the title of
“St. Baldred of the Bass, The Siege of Berwick, with other Poems and
Ballads.” Almost everything in the book was founded on local legends,
and consequently the volume was bound to have a very limited circle of
admirers. It is quite evident that the writer considered it his best
work, for in all subsequent publications that bore his name he carefully
describes himself as its author. Its circulation could not have been as
great as Miller expected; as late as 1865 it could be obtained unbound
and in the original sheets from a local bookseller who held the stock.
“St. Baldred of the Bass,” that gives title to the volume, is perhaps
Miller’s most sustained effort, and contains several passages of
considerable merit. The story is of that legendary saint who made his
solitary cell within sight of the Bass Rock, and the contention for
whose body by three different parishes was happily settled on the
morning of the burial by the discovery of three separate corpses of the
“St. Baldred of the Bass”
They raised the sheet from Baldred’s face,
They turn’d the corpses where they lay,
In each his features clearly trace,
Crown’d with a tuft of silvery grey.
They deem his bright ethereal flame,
Which mortal form could not control,
From heav’n had held a trio frame
To suit his zealous warmth of soul;
That he might stray in paynim lands
A pilgrim lone in Palestine;
Now tread the desert’s burning sands—
Now preach the faith by Pictish Tyne;
With that sweet angel for his guide,
Who led St. Serf by Bosphorus’ strand,
Attendant duteous by his side,
Like earth and heaven hand and hand!
Miller revels in the description of the gathering crowds, the solemn
processions, and the angry discussions. A tender note is occasionally
heard, as in the “First Requiem”:—
Be hallow’d the place of thy rest,
O soft be thy bed in the tomb !
Thou’rt gone to the land of the blest,
With the souls of the happy to roam :
As planets in loveliness roll,
And light the lone wanderer’s way,
Thou beamed on the night of the soul,
And left us at dawning of day.
With bay we’ll embroider that stone,
That tells us of glory and thee !
While the changes of seasons roll on,
Thy memory unfading shall be.
Though fled on the seraphim’s wing,
And left us in darkness to mourn,
With earliest blossoms of spring
We duly will garland thy urn.
a passage which is characteristic of many in the poet, for grammar has
not always its due from him, nor is the thought always sustained to the
The play preserves the unities and shows that Miller had made diligent
study of good models. The diction is sometimes stilted, but there is a
rough eloquence scattered over the pages. The chief value of the whole
book, however, now lies in the notes.
In subsequent years Miller published several booklets of verse, most of
which took the shape of personal tributes to public men connected with
the county. In this way he issued in 1836 “Verses to Lord Ramsay” on his
marriage to Lady Susan Hay. Parliament was dissolved in 1837 on the
accession of Queen Victoria, and two candidates appeared for the
representation of the Haddington group of burghs. The election took
place in July and the Whigs carried the seat by a majority of thirty-one
on a poll of 505. Somewhat to compensate the defeated candidate, Sir
Thomas Buchan Hepburn of Smeaton, Miller addressed certain verses to
him. The field was a suitable one for his talent. He had the opportunity
of voicing his political opinions and of delving into the family history
of his hero. He is lavish in his epithets, and it must be confessed that
the exuberance of his metaphors leads him into mixing them. He
No upsprung mushroom from its tungus bed,
Shall lead the men for whom great heroes bled,
The Hays and Hepburns of the days of yore,
Who Scotland’s lion still triumphant bore ;
These still shall guide fair Lothian’s gallant sons
While rural Tyne o’er fertile meadows runs.
In the same vein he describes the adversary:—
Like baubles floating in the sunny ray
They shine awhile, and live their little day;
Expand, like wasps, their rainbow glittering wings
That serve to shade the venom of their stings !
His polemic is sometimes fierce, and the generality of Ins accusations
alone prevented them from becoming legally libellous. In his later years
elegy made a strong appeal to Miller, and several of his longer poems
have the decease of prominent men of East Lothian as their subject.
As a poet Miller drew his inspiration mainly from Sir Walter Scott, the
form of whose verse he imitated closely. His love of abundant notes was
suggested by those that accompanied the Wizard’s poems. Like Sir Walter
he had stored his mind with local traditions and family history, and his
lines frequently contain felicitous references drawn from these sources.
In the mere mechanical part of his art, Miller was not always perfect.
He had little regard for the accent of words if the number of syllables
in them spaced out his line. His range was limited. He had little or no
lyrical gift, and what excellence he possessed lay in his powers of
narrative and description. More than once the poet’s love for the fair
county in which he lived breaks out, and then his verse is not only
robust but melodious.
O Lothian ! much I love thy sunny vales,
Where Ceres leads improvement in her p-ain ;
Where agriculture’s choicest skill prevails,
Exalts the peasant and adorns the thane.
0 Lothian ! much I love thy eastern shore,
Where boyhood mark’d the elemental war,
Beyond the mighty Bass, sublimely hoar,
Amidst the rocky caverns of Dunbar ;
And oft by Preston’s venerable fane,
1 musing court the solitary scene,
Where scarce distinguish’d rest the mingled dead,
And lowly swains with lordlings make their bed!
But much as he courted the muse, few of his lines cling to the memory,
and he wrote nothing which took a permanent hold on the public. He was
well aware of the literary celebrity achieved by certain indwellers
within the county, and with perhaps an unspoken desire to be numbered
among them by some future bard, sang their praise. Robert Blair had been
minister of Athel-staneford, in which charge he had been followed by
Home, the much persecuted author of the famous “Douglas.” Robertson, the
historian, had occupied the pulpit of Gladsmuir, and he claims kinship
with them all.
Anon the muse, borne on the ambient air,
Spreads her broad pinions o’er the “Grave” of Blair;
By grey Kilduff with Elibank she strays,
The shade of Home by magic touch to raise;
Now weeps the tragic drama’s sad decay,
While pantomime usurps the histrionic bay,
And hails the immortal priests,
Who with the fire Of Shakespeare thrill’d the form-creating lyre:
Or fond of pastoral ease and rural charms,
Skims with the buskin’d maid our cultured farms,
And circling flies to settle by Lochill
To spy the young enthusiast at the plough;
To hold deep vigils with the shade of Mylne,
And bind the holly on the poet’s brow.
Thence soars by Gladsmuir’s shades, where Robertson, With his loved
Plutarch, sat reclin’d at ease;
While history’s page like a bright mirror shone,
Taught by his art to edify and please.
With all his effort, however, Miller cannot be reckoned even among the
best of the Scottish minor poets.
In 1830 he followed up his ventures in poetry with a history of his
native town. An octavo of nearly 300 pages, it was printed by its author
in Haddington, and published in Dunbar by his brother William. The
prospectus which preceded its appearance said that “as the high prices
of books on antiquarian subjects places them beyond the pale of ordinary
readers, there is still a vacuum in regard to the minutiae of Scottish
history, which these provincial descriptions, mixed up with details of a
light and amusing nature, alone can supply. There is also much of a
civil and domestic nature which has lived its day and been forgotten,
that has acquired an importance from the lapse of time ; and there are
not a few incidents of a more recent date, connected with the history of
the town, which are worthy of being rescued from oblivion.”
Judged by this standard and by the time when the book was written,
Miller’s performance may be considered on the whole a creditable piece
of work. It has certainly obvious defects. Its references to original
authorities are meagre, and the author seems to have made little use of
the stores of information that were lying to his hands in the town’s
records. He sometimes passes over a century without recording anything
concerning the progress and development of the burgh, although stirring
events were taking place at the time throughout the country. On many
subjects the narrative is of the slightest. But the book shows
considerable enthusiasm for historical work, and it was a step towards a
larger enterprise he already had in hand. Many facts that came under his
own notice and that would otherwise have been lost are preserved. A
second edition, considerably enlarged and brought down to date, was
published in 1859 by James Downie, Dunbar, who by that time had
restarted the printing business carried on by the Millers.
Reviews of the book were not numerous. A favourable notice appeared in
the Edinburgh Literary Journal, a periodical that had a wide reputation
for the wisdom and culture of its staff. It said that the work
“indicated considerable research and ability,” and that Miller had
“executed his task in a manner that reflects credit upon himself, and
which cannot fail to make his name respected and esteemed throughout all
East Lothian.” One fault alone was found. The critic disputed the
author’s estimate of Queen Mary. The summary of Scottish history that
Miller had perforce occasionally to introduce, he said, "appears to be
accurate in all respects, except in the view it gives of the character
of Queen Mary, which seems to us in the highest degree erroneous and
unjust,” a judgment which is sufficiently explained when it is recalled
that the editor of the Journal was that fervent partisan of the Scottish
Queen, Henry Glassford Bell.