Christian Living Equality History Politics Scotland The Free Church

Hugh Miller – The Christian Radical

This is a paper I presented to a conference of academics in Cromarty celebrating the work of Hugh Miller.  Miller is one of Scotland’s unsung great historical heroes.  I was reminded of this when listening to Nicola Sturgeon’s conference speech last week – which contained a short section on Scottish history that was more interesting for what it missed out rather than what it said.

The ignorance and misuse of Scottish history in Scotland is quite shocking.  But what is even worse is the way it is re-written to suit the zeitgeist or ideology of the day.  In the subsequent debate on my article one know-it-all triumphantly tweeted “Scotland is the land of Clerk-Maxwell, Fleming and Logie-Baird. You know, real things in the world not some made up fairy story.”  To which the response for anyone who is historically literate was quite simple – “Clerk-Maxwell was an evangelical elder in the church; Fleming was a Roman Catholic and Logie-Baird was a son of the Manse. As I said you can’t talk about Scotland’s history without Christianity. Thanks for proving my point about making up history for some fanciful ideology!”.

Which brings me on to Hugh Miller.  We have much to learn from our history which is useful for the present.  In this paper we learn about land reform, nationalism, education, housing, non-violent resistance, religion and politics, the courts, poverty, the unions, land reform and the Highland Clearances.

As it happens this week  I was reading Lloyd Jones on Romans 13:1-7 (in preparation for preaching on it this Sunday evening)  and finding myself disagreeing with both his history and application.  Lloyd Jones sees the role of the State as mainly negative.  In my view Miller and the Free Church fathers like Chalmers and Guthrie had a better wholistic view.  Miller was an antidote to both Sturgeon’s ahistoricism and Lloyd Jones’ apoliticism.

Understanding and Learning from the Politics of Hugh Miller

The historian always has to be aware of a certain amount of bias in ones analysis of any historical character. I confess to be guilty in this respect as regards Hugh Miller, but I am sure you will forgive an element of personal subjectivism in this paper for it is a subject that is very close to my heart. I am from Easter Ross. I was brought up in this area. I lived on top of the Nigg cliffs and many times swam off Nigg beach or climbed the cliffs looking towards Cromarty. I was fascinated by the rocks and the stones found in the quarry on top of Nigg. As a boy I was aware of Hugh Miller and the fact that he was someone famous from this area. When I read My schools and Schoolmasters I not only recognised many of the places and descriptions but could also identify with much of what Miller experienced as he discovered the Footprints of the Creator.

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The Duke of Sutherland

Having gone to Edinburgh University and then the Free Church College, I then returned to the North as Free Church minister of Brora. There I came into contact with living history. I met a man whose grandfather had told him of his personal experiences in the clearances. I read of Gordon Ross the tragic SSPCK schoolmaster of Clyne – whose child was killed in the Clearances. Each time I return to my parent’s home at Portmahomack I sit and look out the window across the Dornoch Firth to that monstrosity of a statue celebrating the Duke of Sutherland. Again reading Hugh Miller was a thrilling experience. Here was a man who understood and who was able to campaign on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.  Being from Easter Ross and being a Free Church minister you will thus forgive me a certain amount of identification with the one founding father of the Free Church who came from this area.

I have been surprised in recent days to read accusations that Miller was in essence a political conservative – someone who belonged to a church which acquiesced in, if not supported the Clearances. This paper will demonstrate that that view is at best a misunderstanding of Millers politics. Many is the time I have had to listen to those who, with very little knowledge, have pontificated on how the church acquiesced in the Clearances – either by supporting the landlords or by being so pietistic that they discouraged any kind of resistance. This is more often something that is assumed rather than proven. As we shall see from Hugh Miller it is an assumption that is largely without warrant. His politics have often been misunderstood. Was he the scourge of the landlords – the radical? Or was he the upholder of a conservative order which ultimately opposed the poor?

In looking at Miller’s politics we need to be careful of both a 21st century subjectivism and chronological snobbery. We also need to realise that interpreting Miller through the lens of a Marxist, or indeed anti-Marxist, historiography is not helpful in terms of understanding him. Therefore what I will do in this paper is present you with the evidence from Miller’s own writings on a wide range of political subjects. Only then will we be in any kind of position to judge. It is interesting to see how these impact on current affairs.  It should also be borne in mind that Millers views were filtered through his Highland experiences and above all, his religious convictions.

The sources for this overview of Millers political views – especially as regards the Clearances are the essays, the Witness, and a pamphlet written by Miller and published in 1843 “Sutherland as it was and is“.

In this pamphlet Miller cites earlier sources such as General Stewart of Garth, Sismondi and Cobbett. It itself was widely used as a source by John Prebble and Alexander Mackenzie. There is a copy held in the National Library of Scotland.

The Land and the Landowners

Miller begins by citing Sismondi “A count or an Earl has no more right to expel from their homes the inhabitants of his county, than a King to expel from his country the inhabitants of his kingdom”. Miller is bitter about the economists in his own country and praises Sismondi for his essay on the late Duchess of Sutherland. It is interesting how widely read Miller is and how aware of the politics of other countries. For example he contrasts the law in Switzerland which protects the peasant whereas the law in Scotland protects the landlord. He laments that the English doctrine of property has replaced the Highland system so that whereas, the chief was once leader of his clansmen, now he regards them as hired labourers.

As regards the Sutherland Clearances Miller points out that 15,000 people had been removed from their “snug inland farms“. Certainly the population had increased in Sutherland overall – but that was mainly on the coasts. The Sutherland Highlanders were now a “melancholy and dejected people, that wear out life in their comfortless cottages on the seashore“.

51Wiv3+A7OL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_There are those who argue that Miller had too romanticized a view of the pre-clearance conditions. This is an argument that Miller himself was well aware of. He declares that the Highlands was indeed a different culture and in some ways was a thousand years behind. But he argues against assuming that the poverty of the glens was any worse than the poverty of the central belt industrial areas. He also points out that one should not assume that the Highlands were poor because the people ate nettle broth and black pudding any more than one should assume the poverty of the French because they ate frogs’ legs, or the Italians because they ate snails!

Miller argues that there had indeed been a significant change in the Highlands but this was because the Highlanders no longer had capital (in the shape of cattle), because of the detrimental effects of the introduction of the potato and because of emigration – the best people leaving.

Miller’s solution to this? Greater land ownership “The first thing to improve the labouring man is to hold out to him the prospect of an independent position, which he may hope to attain by prudence, economy and honest labour“. This greater land ownership is also necessary in order to improve food production. As the land has been concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals in the Highlands, this has, unlike England, led to lesser rather than greater food production.


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Hugh Millers Cottage

Miller notes that in the rapidly industrialising Lowlands, as manufacture increased so the quality of housing declined. In the Highlands the introduction of the Bothy system was also a detrimental step. He was deeply concerned about this because he regarded housing as being crucial to social well being, human dignity and the prevention of crime. For that reason he believed strongly in private ownership but also advocated planned housing. The housing market should not be left to the hazards of “avaricious speculation“. Surely there is something applicable here to our current housing market where properties are increasingly viewed as a financial investment rather than a home.

Crime and Punishment

The basic principle here was that people should be governed according to the laws  that they themselves, or at least their representatives, had made. It was not for 15 ‘irresponsible judges chosen by the Monarch’ to make law. The Court of Session was there in a judicial capacity (to interpret the law), it was not there in a legislative capacity (to make law). Above all judges must not go against laws that are made by the representatives of the people.

Miller notes that there are laws which turn people into criminals. He asks what would happen if all red heads over 6ft tall were to be made illegal? Would they not start behaving like criminals? Likewise with the recent spate of ‘gamekeeper murders’. Not that this would justify murder but if the laws on game are unjust then surely it will make those who break them act more like criminals. He writes – “There are few things more truly natural to man than a love of field sports”. The Countryside Alliance might love that but have more difficulty with his other observation concerning “the mere idle amusements of a privileged class, comparatively few in number, and who have a great many other amusements fall within their reach“. He is puzzled as to the laws which make hares property but not rabbits. And why are the birds of the air and the fish of the sea for all and yet not the salmon? In a lengthy and humorous satire he castigates the Court of Session for declaring that the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths are not sea, but rather rivers. “yes, gentle reader, it has been legally declared by that ‘infallible civil court’ to which there lies an appeal from all the decisions or our poor ‘fallible church’, that Scotland possesses two rivers of considerably greater volume and breadth than either the St Lawrence or the Mississippi. “. Miller then goes on to comment that the Cromarty Firth is in open rebellion against the Court of Session. It continues to think it is sea, refuses to produce fresh water and carries on producing its ocean products. What should the Court of Session do with this flagrant rebellion? It should seek to bring it to the Bar – perhaps Canute like it should rebuke it from the North Shore! “The Lords of Session must assuredly either bring the rebel to its senses, or to be content to leave their legislative wisdom sadly in question. For ourselves, we humbly propose that, until they make good their authority, they be provided daily with a pail of its clear fresh water, drawn from depths not more than thirty fathoms from the surface, and be left, one and all, to make their toddy out of the best of it, and to keep the rest for their tea“.

As well as ridiculing the Court of Session and arguing for just laws Miller suggested that rather than send criminals to Australia, Britain should establish a penal colony on the Falkland Islands.

Religion and Politics

Sketch_of_Hugh_MillerMiller would not have recognised the argument that religion and politics do not mix. It was obvious to him that Christianity affected everything – including politics. This was especially clear in his comments on the Sutherland Clearances. He argues that a major factor was the antagonism of the Duke of Sutherland to the Free Church. And why was the Duke so opposed to the Free Church? Because he was scared that the Church would expose his evil and unjust dealings. There was a great inconsistency in the Duke of Sutherland, who in order to protect the Establishment, persecuted the Free Church. Yet he himself did not belong to the Establishment. Thus he denied his tenants a right he took for himself. Miller was scathing in his sarcasm and denunciation.

In terms of political action Miller argued for the power of the pen – the power of persuasion. The battle must be fought in the area of public opinion. He was vehemently anti-Chartist because of the violence involved. But that did not mean he was a political pietist. Rather he argued for matters such as the Clearances to be raised in Parliament, the General Assembly of the Free Church and all bodies of evangelical dissenters. He wanted public meetings throughout Scotland and in London and America. It was the duty of the Church. “The case of the poor must be wisely considered, or there will rest no blessing on the exertions of the church“.

This is a far cry of the image of the evangelicals so often presented by some writers. Fiona MacColla in her novel “and the cock crew’ suggests that the guilt for the Clearances was shifted by the ministers to the sin of the people and the ministers message of submission to God. Yet this was not the message. It is easy to pontificate from a distance about offering violent resistance – but what would have been the practical effects of so doing? Miller argued that the Scots should not go the route of the Irish. He argued for passive resistance and proves that there was such. We should be thankful that, given the subsequent history of Ireland and Scotland, Millers message of non-violent passive resistance was largely heeded. It surely says something about the Scottish psyche that we laud those such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King who preached such a message, but when it is an evangelical Presbyterian who advocates this position, he is condemned as a conservative collaborator!


Miller was not however a pacifist. Far from it! His fascination with guns was to have fatal consequences at the end of his life. However he did have some interesting comments to make on the various Peace Societies that were all the rage in the late 1840’s. He remarks that these societies even seem to be making a mark on “the American mind, albeit naturally a war breathing mind, combative in its propensities and fiery in its elements”.

Rousseau’s idea of a European Court of Arbitration was a good one but how was it possible with despotic governments? We must first of all be pure then peaceable. However he did have a great deal of sympathy with the peace movement – “that dislike of war which good men have entertained in all ages is, we are happy to believe a fast spreading dislike“. “And of course, the more the feeling grows in any country, which, like France, Britain, and America, possesses a representative Government, the less chance there will be of these nations entering rashly into war. France and the United States have always had their senseless war parties. It is of importance, therefore, that they should also possess their balancing peace parties, even though these be well-nigh as senseless as the others. Again in our own country, war is always the interest of a class largely represented in both Houses of Parliament. It is of great importance that they also should be kept in check, and their interest neutralised, by a party as hostile to war on principle as they are favourable to it from interest.”.

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Cromarty from Nigg


Miller accepts that poverty is often attended by vice and crime. He was opposed in  principle to the Poor Law legal assessment and yet gave evidence in favour of it for the Highlands our of sheer desperation. His objection to the law was that it would “of necessity widen that gulf, so perilously broad already, which separates the upper from the lower classes”. As regards the effects of pauperism Miller argues that it is easier to deal with the effects than the causes. He cites the example of 20 workmen who were young and two thirds of whom were irreligious. They were paid fortnightly on the Saturday night and some took until the following Wednesday to return to work. On the other hand Miller observed a poor labourer who received half the wage and yet managed to support his mother and to save money. This man attended church and thus received the motivation and teaching necessary. Perhaps this would suggest that Miller believed that poverty was self inflicted. However that was not the case. He recognized that there were people who were poor through no fault of their own – indeed he argued that it was the duty of the State to maintain “the heaven ordained poor – the halt, the maimed etc”. He also believed in the right and duty to work – “of all non-theological things, labour is the most sacred, of all non ethical things, labour is the most moral”.

Chartism and Nationalism

Miller, like most in his day, had a dread of universal suffrage. Even if it were attainable it would be useless. It would lead to the poor oppressing the poor. It is for this reason that he was so opposed to the Chartists – “And it is according to our experience that there is more of this injustice and tyranny among that movement now known as Chartists”.

Those who want to argue for Miller’s ‘conservatism’ point to his attitude towards strikes. “Strikes”, he wrote “are unquestionably great evils”. They hand power to the rabble and the moral character of their leaders has to be called into question. However Miller was not opposed in principle to strikes – more to the practical results of them. “And yet, disastrous as strikes almost always are, it cannot be questioned that the general principle which they involve is a just one – quite as just as that of the masters who continue to resist them”. One of the major difficulties and injustices in industrial relations was that legislators and employers in Britain were synonymous.   Miller felt that the reconciliation of capital and labour was a major concern. He argued that the capitalist’s version of striking was to refuse to employ labour and he upheld the right to strike. “If men strike at all let them strike for the Saturday half holiday”.

Miller was a great Scottish patriot – from the days he first heard as a child about William Wallace. Although he had a great pride in his country it was not the kind of nationalism which depended on hatred of others. However he had no great love for the English aristocracy – especially the Staffordshire family. He explained the apparent heartlessness and indifference of the Duchess of Sutherland as being due to the fact that she was brought up in the South of Scotland “away from her clan and the influence of the Sutherland religion”.


 It is impossible to understand Millers politics without understanding his view of the Highlands and his deep Christian faith. He believed in human dignity, hard work, education, social justice, good housing, private property, greater land ownership and the state/church partnership. He believed that changing laws did not change people yet he also believed that it was the responsibility of government to provide just laws.   In some ways his views seem quaint and outdated, yet in many others they seem contemporary and relevant. They are certainly a fine example of a Christian mind wrestling with the great social and political issues of the day and making a considerable impact. We have much to learn from him.

 Good News for the Poor – The September Record Editorial


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