Hugh Miller was born in 1802, in Cromarty. It is a lovely little town, a former royal burgh, situated at the end of the so-called “Black Isle” which, contrary to what the name suggests and also, on a quite different register, contrary to Herge’s description of the place in his volume of Tintin entitled The Black Isle, is not an island but a peninsula jutting out into the sea between the Cromarty Firth and the Moray Firth. The violence of the elements can be terrible there and, over the centuries, the village has suffered many floods and witnessed many shipwrecks. Hugh Miller’s own father was lost at sea when he was only five.
It is not much more than twenty years since a series of violent storms from the hostile north-east, which came on at almost regular intervals for five successive winters, seemed to threaten the modern town of Cromarty with the fate of the ancient. The tides rose higher than tides had ever been known to rise before; and as the soil exposed to the action of the waves was gradually disappearing, instead of the gentle slope with which the land formerly merged into the beach, its boundaries were marked out by a dark abrupt line resembling a turf wall. Some of the people whose houses bordered on the sea looked exceedingly grave, and affirmed there was no danger whatever; those who lived higher up thought differently, and pitied their poor neighbours from the bottom of their hearts. The consternation was heightened too by a prophecy of Thomas the Rhymer, handed down for” centuries, but little thought of before. It was predicted, it is said, by the old wizard, that Cromarty should be twice destroyed by the sea, and that fish should be caught in abundance on the Castle-hill—a rounded projection of the escarpment which rises behind the houses, and forms the ancient coast line.
Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland or, The traditional history of Cromarty
Hugh Miller was a self-taught Scottish geologist and writer, a folklorist and an evangelical Christian. He first became famous with the publication of Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland or, The traditional history of Cromarty (1834), a book of local folk tales he collected from his friends and family as did Walter Scott and James Hogg in the Scottish Borders.
Cromarty is situated on the western coast of the Northwest Highlands and when you examine a general map of Scotland you immediately notice that it is one of the most jagged places of the eastern coast, the western coast of Scotland being much more rugged.
In the olden times Moray was in the heart of the Pictish realm and one can find many beautifully carved Pictish stones scattered all over the area. In Chapter IV of Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, Hugh Miller gives us a very interesting and detailed description of three of them together with their legendary origin: Shandwick Stone, Hilton of Cadboll stone and Nigg stone.
To visit Hugh Miller’s native place we had come by car from Inverness to Cromarty, following the A9, crossing the magnificent bridge over the Moray Firth and then driving along the A 832 up to Fortrose, Rosemarkie and Cromarty. We had pitched our tent at Bunchrew Caravan Park Ltd, one of our favourite Scottish campsites situated on the lovely banks of Moray Firth. But when the wind is blowing there the weather can become icy cold. and, unfortunately for us, it happened to be the case each time we went there, the first time in September 2012 and the second time in May 2015. A good alternative to the tent, though a more expensive one, is to rent one of the very comfortable bungalows which are offered there. That was what we decided to do last time.
If Hugh Miller is the most famous son of Cromarty, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611–c. 1660), a Scottish writer and translator who has remained famous for his translation of Rabelaisis, is the other local celebrity, linked to the old castle which was destroyed in 1772. Chapter VII of Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland is dedicated to this amazing character. Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty belonged to a clan faithful to the Stuart dynasty and he himself fought for this cause all his life which, in the era of Cromwell, owed him to be jailed for a long time in the Tower of London. Thomas Urquhart is reputed to have had 25 sons, 7 of whom were killed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547. A legend says that he died in a fit of laughter on receiving news of the Restoration of Charles II!
I’ve already mentioned Hugh Miller in a former post entitled Scotland’s rich heritage of folk tales, myths and legends published in 2014. We visited Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage & Museum in Cromarty in September 2012 after carefully checking the opening hours because in our previous trips we had found the door closed. From 15 April to 30 September both buildings are open from 12.00 to 17.00 but the last entry is at 16.30. The two buildings stand next door to one another in Church Street, in the oldest part of the village, and they are in charge of the National Trust for Scotland.
Hugh Miller was born in the white-painted thatched fisherman’s cottage you can see on the above photo, with its end gable facing the street. He briefly lived in the other house facing the street and which today shelters a very interesting museum dedicated to the writer. Both houses are owned by the National Trust for Scotland as well as the beautiful pink house standing at the entrance of a lovely cobbled lane and which is known as the “Pay House”. It was built at the end of the 18th century and served successively as a general store, an antique shop, a chip shop, a doctor surgery and a wholefood store. You can find accommodation for a family here and, last but not least, the pets are accepted (two dogs maximum ;-))
Though it looks new this white painted cottage with its thatched roof and crow-stepped gables is an old house which was built around 1700 by Miller’s great-grandfather John Feddes, a seaman who had made his fortune as a pirate. Hugh Miller’s father was also a seaman but of a more respectable genre, carrying cargoes up and down the coast of Scotland from Edinburgh to Cromarty aboard his own ship. At the age of forty-four Hugh Miller senior, a childless widower, had married Harriet Wright, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a local businessman. Young Hugh was the first of three children but his two sisters died of fever in 1816. The house has been prettily well restored by the National Trust for Scotland. I’m sure they did their best so that Hugh Miller could recognize it if he happened to come back. Maybe he does… who knows 😉
Hugh Miller’s cottage is one of the three oldest buildings in Cromarty…
and the only one with a thatched roof.
The house contains many memorabilia of Hugh Miller’s life, like this old wooden desk where we can imagine the author busy writing down the old tales he had collected for a long time, listening to the old people of his neighbourhood.
Following in the steps of his illustrious predecessors, Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, Hugh Miller was a passionate collector of local folk tales and legends. He recorded almost 350 legends, stories and customs, mostly from his native town of Cromarty and the surrounding area, and was the first person to make a systematic collection of folklore in the north of Scotland.
Most of Miller’s collection of folklore can be found in Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (1835, expanded edition 1850), in his autobiographical My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854) and in Tales and Sketches (1863), published after his death.
“When a little fellow of about ten or twelve years of age, I was much addicted to reading; but found it no easy matter to gratify the propensity ; until, having made myself acquainted with some people in the neighbourhood who were possessed of a few volumes, I was permitted to ransack their shelves, to the no small annoyance of the bookworm and the spider. I read incessantly; and as the appetite for reading, like every other kind of appetite, becomes stronger the more it is indulged, I felt, when I had consumed the whole, a still keener craving than before. I was quite in the predicament of the shipwrecked sailor, who expends his last morsel when on the open sea, and like him too, I set myself to prey on my neighbors. Old grey-headed men, and especially old women, became my books; persons whose minds not having been preoccupied by that artificial kind of learning, which is the result of education, had gradually filled, as they passed through life, with the knowledge of what was occurring around them, and with the information derived from people of a similar cast with themselves, who had been born half an age earlier. And it was not long before I at least thought I discovered that their narratives had only to be translated into the language of books, to render them as interesting as even the better kind of written stories.”
“It has often been a subject of regret to me that this oral knowledge of the past which I deem so interesting should be thus suffered to be lost.” (…)
“I therefore set myself to the task of storing them up” (…)
In this extract of his first book, in a most lively way, Hugh Miller explains how his early addiction to reading led him to become a collector of traditional local stories and, indeed, not only did he become the first but also one of the most recognised folklorists of the Highlands of Scotland. Let us try to discover some of these traditional tales.
The legend of Sludach is the first tale to appear in Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland.
Legend of Sludach
In the upper part of the parish of Cromarty there is a singularly curious spring, termed Sludach, which suddenly dries up every year early in summer, and breaks out again at the close of autumn. It gushes from the bank with an undiminished volume until within a few hours before it ceases to flow for the season and bursts forth on its return in a full stream. And it acquired this peculiar character says tradition, sometime in the seventeenth century. On a very warm day of summer two farmers employed in the adjacent fields were approaching the spring in opposite directions to quench their thirst. One of them was tacksman of the farm on which the spring rises, the other tenanted a neighbouring farm. They had lived for some time previous on no very friendly terms. The tacksman, a coarse, rude man, reached the spring first, and taking a hasty draught, he gathered up a handful of mud, and just as his neighbour came up, flung it into the water.’ Now,” said he, turning away as he spoke, ”you may drink your fill.” Scarcely had he uttered the words, however, when the offended stream began to boil like a caldron, and after bubbling a while among the grass and rushes, sunk into the ground. Next day at noon, the heap of grey sand which had been incessantly rising and falling within it, in a little conical jet, for years before, had become as dry as the dust of the fields ; and the strip of white flowering creases which skirted either side of the runnel that had issued from it, lay withering in the sun. What rendered the matter still more extraordinary, it was found that a powerful spring had burst out on the opposite side of the firth, which at this place is nearly five miles in breadth, a few hours after the Cromarty one had disappeared. The story spread ; the tacksman, rude and coarse as he was, was made unhappy by the forebodings of his neighbours, who seemed to regard him as one resting under a curse ; and going to an elderly person in an adjoining parish much celebrated for his knowledge of the supernatural he craved his advice. ‘Repair’ said the seer, “to the old hollow of the fountain and as nearly as you can guess at the hour in which you insulted the waterand after clearing it out with a clean linen towel,lay yourself down beside it, and abide the result. He did so, and waited on the bank above the hollow from noon until near sunset ; when the water came rushing up with a noise like the roar of the sea, scattering the sand for several yards around ; and then subsiding to its common level, it flowed on as formerly between the double row of cresses. The spring on the opposite side of the firth withdrew its waters about the time of the rite of the cleansing, and they have not since reappeared.
A traditional Scottish rite practised at Halloween…
The charm of the egg
There belonged to the north of Scotland two Halloween rites of augury which have not been described by Bums: and one of these, an elegant and beautiful charm, is not yet entirely out of repute. An ale-glass is filled with pure water, and into the water is dropped the white of an egg. The female whose future fortunes are to be disclosed (for the charm seems appropriated exclusively by the better sex) lays her hand on the glass’s mouth, and holds it there for about the space of a minute. In that time the heavier parts of the white settle to the bottom, while the lighter shoot up into the water, from which they are distinguished by their opacity, into a variety of fantastic shapes, resembling towers and domes, towns, fleets, and forests; or, to speak more correctly, into forms not very unlike those icicles which one sees during a severe frost at the edge of a waterfall. A resemblance is next traced, which is termed reading the glass, between the images displayed in it and some objects of either art or nature; and these are regarded as constituting a hieroglyphic of the person’s future fortunes. Thus, the ramparts of a fortress surmounted by streamers, a plain covered with armies, or the tents of an encampment, show that the female whose hand covered the glass is to be united to a soldier, and that her life is to be spent in camps and garrisons. A fleet of ships, a church or pulpit, a half-finished building, a field stripped into furrows, a garden, a forest—all these, and fifty other scenes, afford symbols equally unequivocal. And there are melancholy hieroglyphics, too, that speak of death when interrogated regarding marriage;—there are the solitary tomb, the fringed shroud, the coffin, and the skull and cross-bones. “ Ah ! ” said a young girl, whom I overheard a few years ago regretting the loss of a deceased companion, “ Ah! I knew when she first took ill that there was little to hope. Last Halloween we went together to Mrs.- to break our eggs. Betsie’s was first cast, and there rose under her hand an ugly skull. Mrs.-said nothing, but reversed the glass, while poor Betsie laid her hand on it a second time, and then there rose a coffin. Mrs.-called it a boat, and I said I saw the oars; but Mrs.-well knew what it meant, and so did I.”
And last but not least a real anecdote experienced by Hugh Miller one day he had accompanied some friends on a fishing expedition. The author doesn’t lack humour. This story shows how deeply rooted are some beliefs.
Invoking the wind
People acquainted with seafaring men, and who occasionally accompany them in their voyages, cannot miss seeing them, when the sails are drooping against the mast, and the vessel lagging in her course, earnestly invoking the wind in a shrill tremulous whistling—calling on it, in fact, in its own language; and scarcely less confident of being answered than if preferring a common request to one of their companions. I rarely sail in calm weather with my friends the Cromarty fishermen, without seeing them thus employed—their faces anxiously turned in the direction whence they expect the breeze; now pausing, for a light uncertain air has begun to ruffle the water, and now resuming the call still more solicitously than before, for it has died away. On thoughtlessly beginning to whistle one evening about twelve years ago, when our skiff was staggering under a closely-reefed foresail, I was instantly silenced by one of the fishermen with a “Whisht, whisht, boy, we have more than wind enough already; ” and I remember being much struck for the first time by the singularity of the fact, that the winds should be as sincerely invoked by our Scottish seamen of the present day, as by the mariners of Themistocles.
I am very grateful to Electric Scotland for having made accessible on their website a good-quality version of Hugh Miller’s Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland: its 32 chapters + Notes to the edition + annexes!
English not being my native language, I sometimes find it difficult to understand Hugh Miller’s writing all the more since this writing dates back to the 1830s. So far, I’ve just read the first seven chapters of Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland but I’m very happy to have discovered so much already about local history, folk tales and the old way of life of people in this part of Scotland. As I am progressing in my reading, I realize I’m getting more and more used to Hugh Miller’s very special way of writing and sophisticated style. I particularly enjoyed the pages devoted to the perpetual fight against the elements by the people of Cromarty, especially “Donald Miller’s Wars with the Sea”, the description of several Pictish stones and of the old houses of Cromarty in the 17th century, also the extensive description, with so many architectural details, of the old castle which no longer exists. Hugh Miller’s descriptions are very lively and always lead to very entertaining anecdotes told by local people or even experienced by the author. The stories about the cruel sheriff reads like a newspaper article but we must remember that Hugh Miller was also a journalist. His thought and writing are nourished by a deep sense of place and people, which he gained over the years through his work as a mason and a geologist and the many discoveries he made in the area. He was a great humanist too, full of empathy for people and always ready to defend their rights. I’ve become a great admirer of Hugh Miller and I’m eager to go back to his native place to discover more about the area.
Hoping to have made you feel like reading more of Hugh Miller’s stories and also visiting his native cottage and …