The savant of Shrub Mount




From William Baird’s Annals of Duddingston and Portobello 1898



Hugh Miller, stonemason, banker, geologist, and editor, is identified with Portobello by a residence of over four years ‑- from 1852 to 1856 ‑ and unhappily by the way in which his brilliant career was brought to a tragic close.


He has himself given the world an account of his early life in his Schools and Schoolmasters so full that little more need be done here than simply to recall his connection with the locality.


While he was in the zenith of his fame as editor of the Witness newspaper, and the leading Scottish geologist of his day, he took up his residence in Shrub Mount, a detached two‑storey house, or villa, within its own grounds, situated in the High Street, about fifty yards west from Tower Street. It would not be considered by any means an elegant, or even a commodious house nowadays.  Its ceilings were low, and its rooms by no means large ; but though it stood close on the High Street it had then an air of comfort and retirement which made it an excellent family residence.


It was one of the old original Portobello mansions of the previous century, and its well‑stocked garden, which at one time extended to the sea, though in Miller's time only half the original size, gave ample recreation ground for his family.  Here he erected a museum, into which he gathered the geological specimens which his researches in the neighbourhood were constantly bringing to light ‑ not a few being discoveries in the Joppa Quarries or the Niddrie Coal Pits.  At his death the contents of the museum were presented to the Edinburgh Industrial Museum where they form a large portion of the geological section.


Hugh Miller's interest in Portobello was repeatedly evinced during these years by his readily consenting to deliver lectures of a popular kind on his favourite science in the town.  There was no lecture hall in Portobello sufficiently large at that time to accommodate the audience desirous of hearing the great geologist, and on one winter, two lectures were given in the U. P. Church in Bath Street, and at another time, two were given in the Free Church in Regent Street, which were largely attended.  Here he rehearsed to delighted audiences his Story of the Flood, the Old Red Sandstone, Footprints of the Creator, and in his last lecture, a portion of the Testimony of the Rocks, which at the time of his death, he was preparing for the press.


Plain in outward appearance, unassuming in character and demeanour, Miller's manly figure was a well‑known one in the streets of Portobello, where he might be frequently seen explaining to some acquaintance the markings on a slab of stone which he was taking home from Joppa Quarry, or showing fossils of the flora of a bygone age, which his keen eye had discovered. He was seldom called Mr Miller by his acquaintances or by the common people.  They would no more have done this, says his biographer, " than they would have called Robert Burns by the name of Mr Burns; they identified themselves with him, and identified him with themselves by calling him Hugh Miller. "  His museum was his hobby, and any acquaintance interested in geology found him ever ready to exhibit its treasures, and to open his mind on his favourite science.  Noblemen and savants from all quarters were proud to visit him at Shrub Mount and to be instructed in the mysteries he had dragged from the strata of the earth.  The celebrated Professor Louis Agassiz ‑ one of the greatest of modern naturalists ‑ visiting Miller once, was shown the broken fragments of a large fossil fish which he had found, but had failed to piece together, owing to the want of some prominent parts.  For a long time it had puzzled Miller, but Agassiz taking the fragments, spread them out one by one on the museum table in their proper order and arrangement until he had outlined the complete skeleton.  Miller was surprised and delighted.  Holding up his hands, as he himself afterwards described the occurrence, “I was never," said he, “so near worshipping a man."


In the autumn of 1855 appeared the first symptoms of the malady which ultimately closed the tragedy of his life. He had been working for some time on the last of his works, the Testimony of the Rocks.  The mental strain of his editorial work, with the addition of long night vigils after his family had retired  to rest began to tell upon him.  He fancied his house and museum were being haunted by robbers.  One evening his eldest boy William. had been in the garden, and returned with the news that he had seen a lantern moving among the trees, and had heard whispered voices.  Miller went out, and though no trace of footpads could be seen, the attention of the household was excited, and night after night servants and children alike declared they had heard mysterious sounds and had seen strange sights.  All this influenced his imagination, and pistol and sword were ever in readiness to repel attack.


The whole thing was a complete hallucination, and arose, we believe, through the playful spirit of adventure peculiar to children, ever ready to imagine dangers, and to assist in the making of them.  The garden, which was thickly planted with trees and shrubs, was a favourite place of resort in the evenings, even in winter, of Miller's two sons, William and  Hugh.  A rustic hut had been erected in it, and there, with a few companions of their own age, they would sit for hours reading or retailing ghost stories, or adventures such as their father had recorded in his Schools and Schoolmasters.  The author remembers well taking a part in these nocturnal symposiums.  Lanterns were of course often to be seen flitting about the garden, but whether the scare as to robbers originated from the frolic of some youthful companion we cannot pretend to say.  Hugh Miller, however, never got the idea out of his head, it haunted his imagination and helped to upset his reason.  Firearms were constantly beside him at night, and he would be found wandering through the house at midnight, disturbed in the midst of his labours by fancied noises, and looking for burglars who never appeared.


So serious did the mental malady become, that extra medical aid was deemed advisable, and in December of 1856 he underwent an examination by Professor Miller and Dr A. H. Balfour of Portobello, both of whom recommended entire rest for his over‑wrought brain.  The last of his proofs of the Testimony of the Rocks he had finished on the 23rd December, and the Doctors’ commands he readily promised to obey.


But the time of rest for the wearied brain came too late.  That evening he spent happily with his wife and four children, reading to them some of Cowper's poems.  After taking a warm bath, he went upstairs to his study, passed on to his sleeping room, which immediately adjoined it, and lay down on his bed.


Hitherto. his mental paroxysms had revealed no symptoms of suicidal mania, and no danger seemed to have been anticipated, though it was well enough known that every night a revolver lay within his reach, while a broad-bladed dagger and naked sword lay at his bed head.  His fear of robbery had returned with renewed power.  Whether some such phantom had suddenly seized him with irresistible force cannot be known, but either in the dead of night or in the grey dawn of morning, he rose from his bed and half dressed himself.  A horror came over his spirit, and under that strain reason gave way.  He rushed to the table and on a sheet of paper hurriedly wrote the following lines to his wife‑" Dearest Lydia, my brain burns.  I must have walked; and a fearful dream rises upon me.  I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me.  Dearest Lydia, dear children, farewell.  My brain burns as the recollection grows.  My dear, dear wife, farewell. Hugh Miller."  This done, he then hurriedly, but deliberately seized the pistol, and placing it to his heart fired.  Death was instantaneous ; the revolver dropped from his hand into the bath, and he sank to the floor a corpse.


Thus died on 24th December 1856, one of Scotland's greatest sons.  The overwork and excitement to which he had subjected himself had dethroned reason from her seat, but the actual mania which ultimately mastered him had indeed been defined by himself some days before his death.  The words, “I must have walked," seem to indicate, says his biographer, Mr Bayne, that he fancied himself “driven by witches and demons in the darkness."


Only a few days before, on Sabbath, the 21st December, he sat in his usual place at the forenoon service in Portobello Free Church, under the ministry of the Rev. Alexander Philip, but he could not have been feeling well, as it was observed that throughout nearly the whole service he scarcely ever looked up, but rested with his shaggy head buried in his hands over the book board.


To the last he worked on at his favourite science, completing at the cost of his life his great work ‑The Testimony of the Rocks.  Only a week before his death he was announced to lecture in Bath Street United Presbyterian Church -now St John's Hall- and though personally he was unable to be present, the lecture was read for him by one of the ministers of the town on the very night preceding his untimely end.  Hugh Miller's services to science have undoubtedly been great, but he is even more distinguished and held in loving recollection in Portobello as a man than as a savant.  Honest, high‑minded, earnest, and hugely industrious, a true Scot; a hearty, but not a sour Presbyterian (for he loved Burns as much as he loved John Knox), there are few men of whom his country has better reason to be proud than “Hugh, the stonemason of Cromarty. "


The sensation in Portobello when the news of Miller’s death became known was intense.  Nothing else was talked about, and when the funeral cortege passed along the streets on its way to the Grange Cemetery, it was followed by hundreds of tearful eyes.




The house in which this tragedy occurred is now much changed.  Our illustration, taken from the large entrance gateway off the High Street, will doubtless recall its appearance to some of the older inhabitants.  The front garden approach has since been built upon by shops and dwellings, while a narrow entry leads to the front porch.  The house is sub‑divided among tenants of the working‑class, while Miller's fine garden is occupied as a builder’s yard, and his museum as a plasterer's shop.  Thus the spirits of the mighty pass away, and their earthly residence knows them no more for ever.


Using the evidence of Baird’s book, Portobello maps, and the evidence on the ground today, Ian Campbell and Julian Holder of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, Edinburgh College of Art, have recently prepared a paper: Hugh Miller’s Last House and Museum: the Enigma of Shrub Mount, Portobello.



For more about Hugh Miller, see Michael Taylor’s book published by NMS in May 2007



See also: Hugh Miller's collection by Michael Taylor & Martin Gostwick



Hugh Miller From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hugh Miller (1802-1856) the Scottish geologist and writer was born in Cromarty.  He had a parish school education, and soon showed a remarkable love of reading and power of story-telling. At 17 he was apprenticed to a stonemason, and his work in quarries, together with rambles among the rocks of his native shore, led him to the study of geology. In 1829 he published a volume of poems, and soon afterwards threw himself as an ardent and effective combatant into the controversies, first of the Reform Bill, and thereafter of the Scottish Church question. In 1834 he became accountant in one of the local banks, and in the next year brought out his Scenes and Legends in the North of Scotland. In 1840 the popular party in the Church, with which he had been associated, started a newspaper, The Witness, and Miller was called to be editor, a position which he retained till the end of his life, and in which he showed conspicuous ability. Among his geological works are: The Old Red Sandstone (1841); Footprints of the Creator (1850); The Testimony of the Rocks (1856); Sketch-book of Popular Geology.  Other books are:  My Schools and Schoolmasters, an autobiography of remarkable interest; First Impressions of England and its People (1847); and The Cruise of the Betsey (1858).  Of the geological books, perhaps that on the old red sandstone, a department in which Miller was a discoverer, is the best: but all his writings are distinguished by great literary excellence, and especially by a marvellous power of vivid description.  The end of his life was most tragic. He had for long been overworking his brain, which at last gave way, and in a temporary loss of reason, he shot himself during the night.  See The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, by Peter Bayne (2 vols, 1871).


1847: Revd Burns & the Railway Emigrants

Hugh Miller at the 1843 Disruption of the Church of Scotland


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