HUGH MILLER IN
His Part in the Disruption
"In close fights a champion grim,
In camps a leader sage."
"WE have had," says Dr. Guthrie in a letter dated 6th
September 1839, "a meeting about our newspaper.(The Witness) Miller, I may say,
is engaged, and will be here, I expect, in the course of two or three weeks.
His salary is to begin with £200, and mount with the profits of the
paper. I think this too little, but I have no doubt to see it double that sum
in a year or two - Johnstone to be the publisher, we advancing £1000, and
he will need other two. I am down with Brown, Candlish, and Cunningham for
£25 each. A few individuals only have as yet been applied to, and already
£600 of the £1000 has been subscribed."
His household he left behind him in Cromarty for the time, and he lodged in St. Patrick Square. Fortunate was it for the people that at the right time its ear should have been caught by such a writer, one whose voice in the arena was at once recognised by the individuality of its tone. The Edinburgh press had long been held by the Moderate party, and the belief had been that the conflict was a mere clerical striving for power. It remained for Miller to educate the party, and to such effect was this done that, while the non-intrusion petition to Parliament in 1839 from Edinburgh had borne but five thousand signatures, the number, says Robert Chambers, mounted in the first year of The Witness to thirteen thousand. It was clear to all Scotland that there was a new Richmond in the field. It is the more necessary to insist on this, because the clerical mind, which after Malebranche is too prone to see everything in itself and its own surroundings, has never fully confessed the services to the country of the layman. As Guthrie points out, a silence is maintained all through Buchanan's Ten Years Conflict on Miller. This he regrets, not only on the ground that it would be Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark, but also for its missing the cardinal principle that at such a time the press and public meetings form the most influential of factors. This such a kindred spirit and public orator as Guthrie is quick to see, nor does he go beyond the facts of the case, or the judgment now of the country, in maintaining that "Miller did more than any dozen ecclesiastical leaders, and that, Chalmers excepted, he was the greatest of all the men of the Ten Years' Conflict."
He certainly was no half advocate or mere "able editor" in the Carlylean phrase. If Chalmers, Candlish, and Cunningham were the leaders in the ecclesiastical courts, Murray Dunlop the jurist, Miller was the penman of the party.
"His business," says Guthrie, the orator of the movement, "was to fight. Fighting was Miller's delight. On the eve of what was to prove a desperate conflict, I have seen him in a high and happy state of eagerness and excitement. He was a scientific as well as an ardent controversialist; not bringing forward, far less throwing away, his whole force on the first assault, but keeping up the interest of the controversy, and continuing to pound and crush his opponents by fresh matter in every succeeding paper. When I used to discuss questions with him, under the impression, perhaps, that he had said all he had got to say very powerful and very pertinent to the question, nothing was more common than his remarking, in nautical phrase, Oh, I have got some shot in the locker yet - ready for use, if it is needed
And that it was needed, in his own and the Church's interest, the pamphlets of abuse by which he was attacked, and which would form a small library, would remain to show. Thus he was really, all the more from his isolated position, as we shall see, indebted to what Professor Masson, in an appreciation of him in Macmillan's Magazine for 1865, describes as the Goethean "demonic element." He had a better knowledge, he shows, of the country and its ecclesiastical history than was possessed by his clerical colleagues, and along with this went what he calls "a tremendous element of ferocity, more of the Scandinavian than the Celt, leaving his enemy not only slain but battered, bruised and beaten out of shape."
This, though in a sense exaggerated, is true to the extent that he entered the lists not as a mere servant, but as a convinced defender of the liberties of the people. To touch on anything that infringed upon the Presbyterian history of the country - be it by the Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Sutherland, or other site-refusing landlords of the day, or by some flippant alien and Episcopalian pamphleteer among the briefless of the Parliament House, was certainly to court a bout from which the unwary disputant emerged in a highly battered condition. Yet his pugnacity was really foreign to the nature of the man. His surviving daughter informs the writer he was "a very mild and gentle father, and his whole attitude was one depressed with humility." It was, however, well for site-refusers and factors riding on the top of their commission from absentee landlords to feel that attacks upon their policy in The Witness were not to be lightened by any hopes of an apology or by appeals to fear. "The watchman," he writes in a letter before us, dated 9th October 1840, "IS crying half-past twelve o"clock, and I have more than half a mile to walk out of town between two rows of trees on a solitary road. Fine opportunity for cudgel-beating factors I carry, however, with me a five-shilling stick, strong enough to break heads of the ordinary thickness, and like quite as well to appeal to an antagonist"s fears as to his mercy."
From "Hugh Miller" by Keith Leask
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