Hugh Miller
Portrait of Hugh Miller from “My Schools and Schoolmasters”, 1879

Sometimes when cataloguing/or doing some other exciting library work I’ll spot something and think “that looks interesting”. This “something” was a death. Hugh Miller (1802-1856) was a Scottish geologist, as well as an essayist, newspaper editor, banker, folklorist, and mason, whose books were both informative and entertaining. His sad demise came on the night of Christmas Eve 1856 when he shot himself while at home in Edinburgh after writing the following note to his wife Lydia:  “My brain burns. I must have walked; and a fearful dream rises upon me. I can not 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”. First reports of his death claimed it was the result of an accident after he heard a possible burglar. Later it was revealed that he had been ill and was suffering from mental confusion due to overwork. He had consulted doctors in the few days before his death who advised complete rest.  A post mortem was carried out and concluded “From the diseased appearances found in the brain, taken in connection with the history of the case, we have no doubt that the act was suicidal under the impulse of insanity”[1]

We will never actually know what finally made Miller take his own life but many suggestions have been made. In Life and Letters of Hugh Miller by Peter Bayne, with the input of Lydia, the blame is clearly laid at the feet of Miller’s mother due to her believes in the supernatural and the stories she told him when he was a boy. She was granddaughter to the renowned Highland seer Donald “Roy” Ross and may have had medium abilities herself. At the time of his death Miller had been experiencing respiratory problems and other complaints which left him incapacitated, lacking sleep and in low spirits. Add to this reports of him suffering from paranoia, fearing personal attacks in the street and thieves breaking into his museum where he kept his valuable geological specimens, and we can see how much strain he was under.   All it took was a very vivid waking nightmare to finally push him over the edge.

Bookplate & inscriptions
Bookplate & inscriptions from The Old Red Sandstone

I had a look on our catalogue to see if we had any of his books and we have quite a nice selection, one particular item grabbed my attention. The old red sandstone : or, New walks in an old field has a bookplate with “Ex libris Hugh M. Miller” plus the inscription “Hugh Miller 1894”. It is also inscribed “M. Holland aug 1842”. Are these Hughs related to the author? Hugh Miller did have a son, born in 1850, who was also named Hugh. So perhaps this 1894 Hugh is him and the Hugh M. is in turn related to him somehow. I’ve not have any luck tracing Hugh M. but it is interesting to see the ownership history of this volume and to imagine that it does has some connection to this great Victorian populariser of science.

As a possible interesting/morbid aside: a gunsmith was killed while examining the pistol used by Miller on that fateful night.  He was checking if it was still loaded[2].

Title page of The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller
Title page of The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller (vol. 1), showing the cottage where he was born

[1] Rosie, G. Hugh Miller: Outrage and order.  Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1981.

[2] Taylor, M. Hugh Miller: stonemason, geologist, writer.  Edinburgh: NMS Enterprises, 2007.