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Hugh Miller, 1802-1856, Geologist and Writer:
His Links with 19th Century Girvan

© Margaret McCance, 2002.

This year [2002] sees the bicentenary of the birth of Hugh Miller at Cromarty on October 10th 1802. Although well-known in the town of his birth as a pioneer geologist, folklorist and writer, Hugh Miller is a less familiar name elsewhere. The bicentenary has provided an opportunity for the Cromarty Arts Trust - a charitable trust set up in 1987 - to collaborate with other organisations including the National Trust for Scotland and Scotland’s Museums in a series of events and exhibitions across Scotland.

Hugh Miller’s early years in Cromarty are recounted in his own writings, My Schools and Schoolmasters, which has now been reprinted. Following the loss of his sea-captain father - in a storm at sea, when Hugh was just five years old - it was his uncles, James and Sandy Wright, who Hugh later acknowledged became his real educators. With his Uncle Sandy there were explorations along the shoreline; finds of seashore wildlife and varied rock types instilling an interest and capacity for accurate observation. At home there were books and from family friends the recounting of local folk-lore and superstitions.

Hugh Miller’s working life as a stonemason began in February 1820 as an apprentice to a relative. This trade was chosen so as to allow six winter months free to pursue his real interests - ‘literature and mayhap natural science.’  The subsequent work in the stone quarries was arduous, and did long term damage to his health: the compensations were the free time and the fossil finds revealed by his hammer on the rocks.  After a period as a journeyman stonemason, and following a six months convalescence back in Cromarty, he became an ornamental stonecarver - supporting himself for some ten years as an inscriber of tablets and tombstones, an occupation less hazardous to his health than the previous living in damp bothies and the work in the quarries.

In the early 19th Century, geology - the story of the rocks - was a rapidly developing science. Findings by the self-taught enthusiasts in their own localities were of great interest to the generally city-based academics and professors, so that descriptions and drawings of fossil discoveries communicated in correspondence were in general followed up by on-site visits and meetings. While for Hugh Miller the thrill was in the discovery and the detail, for the academics the new discoveries allowed them to progress more theoretical considerations as to geological sequences and relative ages of particular strata. Academics acknowledged the contributions so made in the field by naming the new find after the finder - hence a Hugh Miller discovery, a fossil flying fish, became Pterichthys milleri.

Hugh Miller’s interest in the rocks extended beyond his immediate environs of Cromarty and north-east Scotland, and in visits to south Carrick and the Girvan area he sought out as a local guide another enthusiast for rocks and natural history, Alexander McCallum, more generally known in Girvan as Lang Sandy.

'Lang Sandy'

Girvan fossil collector Alexander McCallum.
[Courtesy of Hew McCallum.]

Alexander McCallum (1804-1854) was just two years younger than Miller, and was by trade a weaver and occasional fisherman, and though always in struggling circumstances and with a large family, he retained an overpowering interest in natural history. Described as tall, hardy and athletic, and reportedly following his favourite pursuits with the force of a passion, he undertook an immense amount of travelling, enduring exposure, fatigue and hard work in searching out the fossils of the area, later making a living as a collector of fossils and antiquities, and as a mineralogist and guide to geologists and others visiting the area.2

Hugh Miller, in his lecture read before the Physical Society in November 1852, expressed his obligations to Mr McCallum who had accompanied him on his Girvan explorations and from whom he had obtained many interesting fossils. The Reverend Roderick Lawson, years later in his discourse on the Geology of the District quotes from Hugh Miller’s own writings in The Witness, 27th November 1852, reporting on the fossils of Mullochs Quarry near Dalquharran, where he found the remains of ‘more trilobites, shells and corals than he had at one time supposed all the Greywacke deposits of the south of Scotland could have furnished, and Miller makes reference also to the limestone quarries of Craighead.

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison was another visitor and distinguished professional geologist who appreciated the practical and expert assistance provided by Alexander McCallum. In his book ‘Siluria’, when referring to the Silurian rocks of Ayrshire, he writes: ‘Accompanied by Professor Nicol, I examined this tract in 1850. Our fossil collector was the late Alexander McCallum of Girvan who searched every locality with great assiduity.’

There are further references to Alexander McCallum in Murchison’s paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, volume 7, 1851. During his visit to the Girvan Valley near Dalquharran where problems were encountered in interpreting certain limestone formations it was fossil specimens provided by Alexander McCallum which resolved the problem. Murchison wrote: ‘Fortunately since the visit of my friend and myself, the successful fossil collector of Girvan, Mr Alexander McCallum has forwarded me organic remains which he has detected in courses of this limestone and shale, and which clearly overlie the coal-bearing strata of Dalquharran, and are seen between them and the foot of Mulloch Hill.’

Also documented in the paper to the Geological Society in 1851 are Alexander McCallum’s discoveries ‘both on the coast and in the interior - a very large species of Orthoceratites, together with other forms of that genus, a Cyrtoceras and one or two species of Graptolites, and some flattened brachiopods including Orbicula.’ As a special acknowledgement of assistance, and as reported in the Ayr Advertiser obituary, Sir Roderick Murchison named one of the fossils after Lang Sandy as Orthoceratites mccallumi: the fossil itself deposited in the Geology Museum in London.

It is Alexander McCallum’s obituary in the Ayr Advertiser of 28th December 1854, recording his death as a victim of the Girvan cholera epidemic - ‘Death of a Geologist in Humble Life’ - that provides most ready access to biographical information. There is also the family tombstone in Girvan’s Old Churchyard, erected by his son Fergus McCallum and recording his death on 20th December 1854, aged 50, and just two years before Miller’s own death on 24th December 1856.

Interest in the geology of the Girvan area did not abate with the loss of both Hugh Miller and Lang Sandy. The dialogue between the locally-based discoverers and their academic contacts continued into the late 19th Century and beyond - due especially to the efforts of Mrs Elizabeth Gray (1831-1924) and her family.

Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Thomas and Mary Anderson, was born in the Burns Arms Inn, Alloway, then in 1836 moved to Girvan when her father gave up innkeeping to become a farmer. Elizabeth attended a small private school in Girvan until the age of 15 years, when she was sent to a boarding school in Glasgow, returning thereafter to the farmhouse home at Enoch. Her father, Thomas Anderson, took a keen interest in the fossils of the area, for instance by collecting those exposed in the local road stone quarries. In a paper by academic geologists Nicholson and Etheridge (1879), a trilobite - Bronteus andersoni - was dedicated by them ‘to this intelligent and enthusiastic collector’, and they later named a coral after him.

Elizabeth’s own interest in fossil collecting as a family occupation continued following her marriage in 1856 to Robert Gray who, while working in banking, initially in Glasgow, then in Edinburgh, assisted Elizabeth in her fossil-collecting. He had also a strong interest in ornithology and later with his father-in-law published a joint paper on the birds of Ayrshire and Wigtownshire. Family holidays for the Grays were spent away from Glasgow or Edinburgh in Girvan - fossil collecting, with their two daughters Agnes and Alice also involved.

In his ‘History of Scottish Palaeontology’ Clarkson shows how the discovery and description of the fossil assemblages of the Palaeozoic sedimentary rock sequences of Scotland were largely revealed by self-taught amateurs and that this was particularly the case with the thick sequence of Ordovician rocks, of shallow water origin, with their rich, often unique, faunas, occurring around Girvan. Mrs Gray’s own collecting efforts were encouraged by the research requirements for fossil speciments, and the efforts then in progress by the professional academic geologists to interpret the stratigraphy of the region.

Robert Gray made contributions to the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Glasgow and short papers and accounts based on the joint work of Robert and Elizabeth Gray appeared in these Proceedings between 1868 and 1878. It was at this time that Professor Young instituted a class in geology for women at Glasgow University and presented a ticket to Mrs Gray - her only formal geological education. Robert Gray died in 1887, but the fossil collecting holidays in Girvan continued, and in 1903 Mrs Gray was awarded the Murchison Geological Fund by the Geological Society ‘for her great services to geological science.’

The Gray Collection of Fossils has a particular value because their exact geographical localtion and horizon and associations have been recorded. They are the basis for many early descriptive papers and monographs, and many are British Fossil Type Specimens. The first Gray Collection was presented to the Hunterian Museum in 1866, while later collections went to Edinburgh and, following negotiations, in 1920 to the British Museum of Natural History in London. Mrs Gray died of acute bronchitis on 11th February 1924, just a few weeks short of her 93rd birthday. She is commemorated in the names of the many Palaeozoic fossils that bear her name or of one of the localities of the Girvan area, and by the observation that for anyone wanting to work on the faunas of the Ordovician period the Gray Collection remains required study.


The programme of Hugh Miller celebratory events has continued through 2002, and culminates in an international conference at various venues in Cromarty from the 10th to 13th October. In Girvan, the members of the Girvan and District Geological and Natural History Society are offering their own tribute - an exhibition to run from 5th October to the end of November in the McKechnie Institute, Girvan. Exhibits will include fossils from their own collections, and memorabilia relating to Hugh Miller, to Lang Sandy (whose family associations with Girvan are continued by his great great nephew) and to Mrs Elizabeth Gray.

Margaret McCance

This article appeared in Ayrshire Notes No.23, published in Autumn 2002.

© Margaret McCance 2002.


R. J. Cleevely, R. P. Tripp & Y Howells, Mrs Elizabeth Gray (1831-1924): a Passion for Fossils, Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series, Vol.17, no.2, 167-258, November 1989.

A S Alexander, Across Watersheds, Glasgow, 1939

Ayr Advertiser, 28th December 1854

Lester Borley, editor, Hugh Miller in Context: The Cromarty Years and the Edinburgh Years, Cromarty, 2002

Martin Gostwick, The Legend of Hugh Miller, Cromarty, 1993

Roderick Lawson, "The Geology of the District", in his Girvan and its Neighbourhood, Edinburgh, 1868.

Roderick I Murchison, "On the Silurian Rocks of the South of Scotland", in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, Vol 7, 1851.

Roderick I Murchison, Siluria, 4th edition, London, 1867.


  1. The author wishes to thank her fellow members of the Girvan Geology Group for assistance with this article, and with the forthcoming exhibition in the McKechnie Institute.

  2. 'The Girvan are is world-famous for its geological features.'  So begins Chapter 6, "The Girvan Area", of James Lawson and Judith Lawson, Geology Explained around Glasgow and South-West Scotland, including Arran, Newton Abbot, 1976, which can be recommended as an introduction to this often abstruse subject.

  3. The Burns Arms was the former name of the Burns Monument Hotel, now Brig o' Doon House.  Thomas Anderson was the first tenant, probably taking up occupancy at Whitsunday 1831.

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Some Girvan Fossils

Photographs by Gerard Connelly and Colin Blain - copyright Girvan and District Geological and Natural History Society.

Lonchodomas.gif (127082 bytes) Lonchodomas drummuckensis
Aulechinus.gif (142943 bytes) Aulechinus grayae
Cothurnocystis.gif (78843 bytes) Cothurnocystis elizae
Cybeloides.gif (84916 bytes) Tribolite - Cybeloides girvanensis
Paraproetus.gif (79310 bytes) Tribolite - Paraproetus girvanensis

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