The Story behind the Stone – the families, estates and stories of Kirkmichael, Cullicudden, the Black Isle and beyond

Hugh Miller’s Dream, and the Letter Carving of Hugh Miller

text by Dr Jim Mackay; photography by Jim unless otherwise annotated

 

Hugh Miller was employed by Widow Elizabeth Stewart to carve an inscription on a tablestone in Kirkmichael. She was one of the Junors of Blairnaclach, Little Farness and Ardeville who are buried beside the chancel in Kirkmichael. She bought the new plot, beside the original west wall of the nave, back in 1814 on the same day that relative William Stewart bought the adjacent plot from another Junor.


The memorial at Kirkmichael on which Hugh Miller spent a week, with the marshes by Udale Bay across which the mason’s apprentice was drawn in his dream; photo by Andrew Dowsett

We don’t know what triggered the purchase of Widow Stewart’s plot. However, it was certainly needed a few years later when, tragically, three of her adult children would all die within the space of one year.

Hugh Miller (1802–1856) was related to the Junors. Indeed, his father had been “farmed out” to them as a boy until he had returned to Cromarty with a bundle of young puppies he had been asked to drown but decided to rescue instead! See our Story on the Junors of Ardeville for details. Widow Stewart, who had been Elizabeth Junor, had been running Ardeville on her husband’s death in company with her son William, before that young man had also died.

Hugh had been present at the funeral of her oldest son, William Stewart, and it was the setting of one of Hugh’s brushes with the supernatural.


The famous photograph by Hill and Adamson in which Hugh poses with the memorial sculptor’s tools


1906 postcard of the Hugh Miller monument in Cromarty; postcard courtesy of Angus Bethune


Image of Hugh Miller from his publications

Hugh lived in Edinburgh for many years after leaving the Black Isle and is buried there. He had risen to become a household name; a respected scientist, a successful author, a devout Free Church editor. When I was a boy, growing up in the Black Isle, every home would have a few old Hugh Miller books tucked away in a corner, usually Tales and Legends or My Schools and Schoolmasters but the occasional copy of his travel or scientific volumes.


Hugh Miller’s own memorial, Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh; photo by Neil Cameron during Coronavirus Lockdown 2020


Hugh Miller plaque on the High Street, Edinburgh, on the front of the former office of the Witness, once edited by Miller; photo by Jim Mackay

When William Stewart’s funeral cortege entered Kirkmichael, Hugh found to his horror that William’s grave had been dug on the very spot indicated in a dream he had had five weeks earlier. During this dream he had been drawn across the marshes of Udale Bay from Poyntzfield, where he had been working as an apprentice mason, to wander Kirkmichael, until a feeling of dread came over him. A giant metal pointer shaped like a gnomon from a sundial was swinging from the west wall of the nave, backwards and forwards. It suddenly came to a halt and the mason’s apprentice fled in terror. “he awoke, and lo! it was a dream. Only five weeks elapsed from this evening, until he followed to the burying-ground the corpse of a relative, and saw that the open grave occupied the identical spot on which the point of the gnomon had rested.

Spooky stuff! An early version of the story had Miller experiencing the event himself; he was advised to change this, and so in the published tale in Miller’s autobiographical My Schools and Schoolmasters the protagonist is (such a deep disguise) the anonymous apprentice of a mason. The relative is not identified in the story, but will be William Stewart who died on the 31st of December 1822.


photo by Andrew Dowsett

Let’s look at the factual side for a moment. It would have been some years after the funeral before the tablestone was erected (the practice was to let the ground stabilise). By now, Hugh had given up for health reasons the heavy manual labour of the mason, and was focusing on the more delicate carving side of the trade.

My general health, too, had become far from strong. As I had been almost entirely engaged in hewing for the two previous seasons, the dust of the stone, inhaled at every breath, had exerted the usual weakening effects on the lungs – those effects under which the life of the stone-cutter is restricted to about forty-five years.

I have to say that despite it being common knowledge that masons reached only 45, there never seemed to be any shortage of those seeking to become masons. How terrifying entering a trade where you were earmarked for early death – presumably everyone hoped “It won’t happen to me!” Anyway, leaving that aside, we can assume Widow Stewart appointed Hugh to carve the inscription, which by now had to address the deaths of three of her children.

The period when Hugh was therefore working in Kirkmichael was the mid- to late-1820s. He says that whilst he laboured he was listening to the bell, which would occasionally toll as the wind passed through the bell-tower atop the then extant west wall of the nave.


The west wall and belltower of Kirkmichael

I was one day listening to this music, when, by one of those freaks which fling the light of recollection upon the dark recesses of the past, much in the manner that I have seen a child throwing the gleam of a mirror from the sunshine into the shade, there were brought before me the circumstances of a dream, deemed prophetic of the death of him whose epitaph I was then inscribing.

Unless you believe in the occult, of course, the dream then remembered by Hugh was in reality created there and then during his reverie whilst he was carving the inscription. He must have been working on the first few lines of the epitaph at the time:

PLACED HERE / by ELIZABETH STEWART, / in Memory of her son / WILLIAM STEWART, / farmer Ardivall, / who died the 31 Decr 1822 / aged 30 years, / of her son / JOHN STEWART, / who died the 8 Jany 1823 / aged 28 years, / and of her daughter / JANNET STEWART, / who died the 21 Novr 1823 / aged 33 years.

The epitaph (which is all carved in one style) as a whole took him a week – “During the course of the week which I spent in the burying-ground”. It takes time to set out and carve a long inscription well. Indeed, when the Kirkmichael Trust commissioned a new replacement tablestone, our stone carver told me that the actual letter carving is the quickest part of the process! However, I think during this week Hugh must also have carved the farming symbols on the west support. On the inscription itself, Miller will have asked Widow Stewart how she wanted the family name spelled. Stewart and Stuart seem to have been used interchangeably in documentation involving the family at the time. In fact, one of the surviving branches chose Stuart. Miller went with Stewart.

The inscription is carefully executed, with none of the sometimes unintentionally humorous errors which litter the slabs and tablestones of Kirkmichael and other old graveyards. The masons of earlier generations simply did not plan out their carving, easily achieved you would think with a pencil or a chalk before committing to a size of lettering. Strangely enough, and as Miller himself observed, there was far higher standard with much older stones.


Some entertaining mason fails in Kirkmichael

However, Hugh’s inscription is neat and tidy and clearly well planned out. In our appendix we examine his inscription technique on this tablestone and on other memorials in kirkyards in Easter Ross and the Black Isle. Unfortunately, in Kirkmichael, some family descendant through good intentions had two of the Stewart/Stuart stones chemically cleansed back in 2001 which seriously eroded both inscriptions. Nevertheless, the lettering is still easy to read when the light falls obliquely upon it, particularly when, as photographer Andrew and I found, raking light is applied at night-time. The other memorial to be treated with chemical at the same time as this tablestone was the adjacent headstone erected in memory of Widow Stewart’s grandson, John Stewart farmer at Newmills, and the inscription on this stone was then repainted – but with numerous mistakes. The original carved characters have to be hunted out below the paint. Moral: leave well alone!

The main period when Miller executed his memorial work lies between 1825, following his recovery from the serious condition brought on by his rough mason-work, and 1834, when he left Cromarty to be trained for working in a bank. In approximately a ten year period he must have executed many commissions involving inscriptions and other memorial work, only a small fraction of which we are aware of. It seems to have all started with his sundial, still to be seen at his birthplace cottage in Cromarty (National Trust for Scotland, Hugh Miller Museum & Birthplace Cottage). Artist Mike Taylor, who has created some excellent artwork for Kirkmichael during its restoration, has drawn with clarity and colour the convalescent Hugh working on the sundial for his uncles, whose tablestones in due course he would move onto.


© National Trust for Scotland. Photo credit: National Trust for Scotland, Hugh Miller Museum & Birthplace Cottage. Artist: Mike Taylor.

During my period of convalescence, I amused myself in hewing for my uncles, from an original design, an ornate dial-stone; and the dial-stone still exists, to show that my skill as a stone-cutter rose somewhat above the average of the profession in those parts of the country in which it ranks highest. Gradually as I recovered health and strength, little jobs came dropping in. I executed sculptured tablets in a style not common in the north of Scotland; introduced into the churchyards of the locality a better type of tombstone than had obtained in them before, save, mayhap, at a very early period; distanced all my competitors in the art of inscription-cutting; and at length found that without exposing my weakened lungs to the rough tear and wear to which the ordinary stone-cutter must subject himself, I could live.

Hugh Miller did not believe in hiding his light under a bushel and this passage definitely sounds a little boastful. But there is no doubting his skill.

Several tablestones where Hugh Miller was responsible for dressing the slab as well as carving the inscription are easily identified due to his characteristic “scalloped” style.


The Hugh Miller scalloped tablestone in Nigg Old kirkyard; photo by Andrew Dowsett

This scalloped style is not to everybody’s taste, and Widow Stewart obviously was one of those who preferred to keep their memorials plain and simple!

In 2017, the Kirkmichael Trust erected in the vicinity of this tablestone an interpretive panel describing Miller’s work beneath the west gable. We did not wish to excavate intrusive holes to take the supporting legs of the structure, so we devised an ingenious design – a wide metal sheet is bolted into the base of the legs and covered with some shallow soil and turf. The structure is as firm as if the legs were sunk into three feet of earth.


The innovative interpretation panel design


Sack-barrow deployed


a small amount of soil to weigh down the interpretation panel, to be followed by some turf


giving the turf a good dowsing to ensure it gets a grip

 

The Trust had planned some work on the stone inscribed by Hugh Miller anyway, but with the discovery of carvings on the west support, this work will be given a higher priority. Keep an eye on this story as it will be updated when our planned changes are implemented. And take a look at our complementary Story behind the Stone about the Stewart or Stuart family commemorated on the slab itself here.

 

The letter-carving of Hugh Miller


Advertisement by Hugh Miller in the Inverness Courier of 23 July 1828

 

Kirkmichael

There was little subtlety about the letter carving of memorials in the Black Isle and Easter Ross in the early 1800s. Whilst the poorly-planned and executed inscriptions of the 1700s had been superseded by more considered lay-outs, the carving itself tended to be of a uniform depth without subtleties such as serifs.

Miller developed a more sophisticated style of Roman type where he carved certain parts of a character more deeply and widely so that the eye running along the line of text could pick out the words more readily. Presumably not cutting all letters to equal depth helped to avoid spalling as well. Diagonal elements were particularly deeply and widely cut. Small serifs on the characters enhanced this effect. The linguist in the Kirkmichael Trust draws comparison between Miller’s use of thin and thick carved lines and the light and heavy strokes of a quill, usually associated with the downward and upward strokes of the hand respectively, so that Miller was aiming for a look which drew from handwriting.


The Kirkmichael Hugh Miller lettering example from some years ago; photo by Andrew Dowsett


A night-time image from July 2020; photo by Andrew Dowsett

The down-side of this style is that as the inscriptions have eroded, the lighter touches have faded to a point where they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. But nevertheless you can see from the examples that Hugh’s inscriptions were laid out with care and executed perfectly. He himself claimed that he had distanced all my competitors in the art of inscription-cutting and in our examples his skill is evident.


Typically only the introductory phrase and the names of the departed were given upper-case (although sometimes Hugh would carve only in capitals); photo by Andrew Dowsett

The Kirkmichael Trust has always been interested in the physical carving process, and has run training events to encourage the public to have a go. One such event was on our Open Day in September 2017. David Lindsay and the late Richard Groom of Stoneworks, who re-carved several medieval slabs and the shattered Mary McDonald tablestone slab for us, provided expert training (David supervising on left and Richard supervising on right).





Miller’s italicised sections are very well executed, but being less deeply cut have suffered more from erosion. Curves are slower to cut than straight lines, and there are more curves in Miller’s italics, so perhaps there was a temptation not to cut so deeply. He certainly was very sparing in his use of italics; thus far, this is the only sample of his italics I have located.


photo by Andrew Dowsett

His lower case “g” has distinctive features, and it can be used to confirm the various memorials where it cannot be confirmed in other ways that he was the stone carver. I note that on the Alexander Peter memorial in Cromarty East Church kirkyard, where the inscription was added to several decades later, the new stone carver, obviously a skilled artisan himself, did a very good job of matching his text to Miller’s original inscription, but the “g” is just that bit different.

There are other means of confirming Miller as the letter carver on individual stones, of course. There is written evidence, as in Nigg Old and Kirkmichael itself. There is the distinctive scalloped edge he placed on many of the slabs of his tablestones. Even here, though, he varied: the Alexander Peter slab in Cromarty East Church kirkyard bears a Greek key or simple meander edging pattern. And even the slab on which he carved his scalloped edging might vary: some are thin scalloped slabs (which do not look very strong but clearly are made of sturdier material than the usual sandstone) and some are the normal thick slab with bevel above and below and scalloped edge in between.

And there are distinctive patterns on the tablestone supports as well. Examples of these will be given as we look at specific stones in the different kirkyards considered.

At Kirkmichael, the east support of the Widow Stewart tablestone is completely plain. In July 2020, I noticed that there was however a pattern on the top of the west support that was not there on the other side. The west support has sunk badly and unevenly and a big chunk of a broken sandstone slab has been jammed in to prop it up. Only the very top of the support is visible and even that is very difficult to access as a Stuart relative, having made money in Honduras, had a low wall and metal railing erected around his adjacent family enclosure. It was with some difficulty that volunteer Alastair excavated the soil from the narrow gap between support and low wall, but we were surprised and delighted to find that the support bears an exquisitely carved set of farming symbols: plough, rake and scythe, absolutely appropriate for the farming family of Stewart of Ardeville. Rural Black Isle kirkyards do not usually carry ostentatious ornamentation on their gravestones, unlike in southern regions like Perthshire and Angus. This is the only detailed example of symbols of employment within Kirkmichael, except for the simple tailor’s shears on the headstone outside the door of the nave.


The blank east support on the Hugh Miller-carved tablestone at Kirkmichael


but the discovery of the carved symbols on the west support delighted the Trust volunteers; photo by Andrew Dowsett

And this is what we were surprised to find!


photo by Andrew Dowsett

But you can see the problems with access, and the precarious condition of the support itself.


photo by Andrew Dowsett


photo by Davine Sutherland

At time of writing the Trust is considering options regarding this carving. It was obviously meant to be displayed and admired, but at present it is underground on an unstable, tipping support, blocked off by a low wall and railing. We are considering stabilising the tablestone by putting down some proper foundations for the supports and at the same time swapping the east and west supports so that the carving can be appreciated as was originally intended.

 

Nigg Old


The stump of a severed tree protrudes below the James Gallie tablestone in Nigg Old kirkyard; photo by Davine Sutherland

The Nigg tablestone carved by Hugh Miller commemorates James Gallie of Ankerville, who died in 1829. The supports are ornamented with the common motifs of an hourglass and a winged soul (who looks to my eye disconcertingly like Boris Johnson) flying to heaven, although the latter is set in a most unusual surround. Any suggestions as to the context of the surround gratefully received! And to either side there is a most unusual feature that I have not seen before. Did Miller find it in a book of designs? I suspect he copied the simple Greek meander on the Alexander Peter stone in East Church Cromarty from an architectural book, but where did he find this odd design?




The slab itself bears Miller’s hallmark scalloped edging. All four sides have a bevel, the scalloped section and another bevel, the overall effect to make the slab seem thinner and more delicate than it actually is.


Hugh Miller’s scalloped edging on the James Gallie tablestone, Nigg Old; photo by Andrew Dowsett


there is a small ridge where the bevel meets the scallop so the bevel must have been created after the scalloping was carved; how did Miller do it?

This slab has eroded a little, and the incription is most easily picked out when the sun is at a low angle.

SACRED / to the memory of / MR JAMES GALLIE, / Late Farmer at Ankerville, / who died on the 11th April 1829, / in the 59th year of his age. / He was an affectionate Son / and Brother, / a kind Master / and the poor man’s Friend.


Gallie died intestate, and the subsequent inventory of his estate amounted to more than £2,000 sterling – so a good memorial would be expected. The inscription on this stone provides a good base reference for many of Miller’s letter-carving features, and there is no questionmark over the identity of the carver, so let’s have a look at a few of those features. On the left, below, a good range of his lower case Roman characters and several numerals. In the middle you will see his distinctive “g” with the ear held tenuously by a thin cutting well above the mean line (the top of the lower case letters), and the collar and loop curving down below the baseline (the bottom of the lower case letters). The “a” is represented by different carvers very individually and is a good “tracker”. And on the right, another of his “a”s and his distinctive “s”s. These characters all remained consistent over his carving career.




We can now see how this lettering features on slabs where Miller carved the stone itself, but there is a questionmark over who carved the inscription.

 

East Church, Cromarty

There are nine tablestones thought to have been carved by Hugh Miller in the East Church kirkyard in Cromarty. Two do not carry inscriptions, and I think that on at least two of the others none of the inscription was carved by Miller. However, the remainder represent the richest collection of Hugh Miller letter-carving. Clearly Miller would have inscribed stones not cut by himself, and, vice versa, he would have cut stones which would have been later inscribed by others. It would be useful to go through the stones in the correct period locally to identify those inscriptions which deserve closer inspection.

 

East Church 1: Tablestone commemorating Alexander Peter and Christian Stot


This is a magnificent memorial, with classically ornamented supports and slab. The slab is one of Miller’s bevel-pattern-bevel designs, only in this case instead of the pattern being his scallops it is a backwards simple Greek meander or key. The drapes on the supports continue the classical theme. Alexander Peter was, according to the inscription, a brewer in Cromarty. However, he had been a labourer when his and Christian’s children were born, in Oldmachar, in the 1790s. At some point, therefore, he had made good, and his memorial is designed to reflect the material wealth he had accumulated by the time he died. The inventory attached to his testament dative indicates that his estate was worth more than £1,100 sterling on his death. A substantial and imposing memorial was clearly called for.

The slab is obviously quality sandstone which has retained the sharpness of the lettering for two hundred years, with the inscription providing one of the clearest examples of the letter-carving of Hugh Miller.


ERECTED / to the Memory of / ALEXANDER PETER, / Brewer in Cromarty, / who departed this life / on the 8th day of September / MDCCCXXIX, / in the 65th year of his age. / And also to the Memory of / his wife, / CHRISTIAN STOT, / who departed this life / on the 24th day of February, / MDCCCXXXI, / in the 78th year of her age. / And also ther Daughter / Margret Peter who departed this / life upon the 5th of September 1853 / aged 63 years.

The original inscription was added to several decades later when their daughter Margaret died. The new carver continues Miller’s style and does it very well initially. Note Miller’s “g” in the first red ellipse, with its “ear” well above the mean line (the line of the tops of the lower case characters). In the next line, added much later, the carver imitates this style (second red ellipse), but then relapses into his usual style where the ear does not project above the mean line in the next two examples (third and fourth red ellipses). We won’t hold his mis-spelling of “Margaret” and “their” (blue ellipse) against him as Miller was prone to the occasional spelling mistake himself!


 

East Church 2: Tablestone commemorating James Thomson and Ann Ross


Whilst the tablestone commemorating wright James Thomson and his wife Ann Ross has the Miller scalloped edging, and the first part of the inscription falls within the timeframe when Miller was lettering memorials, I don’t think any part of the inscription is his work. The “THOMSON” is similar to Miller’s style but the numerals in particular differ from his treatment on other stones.


ERECTED / To the Memory of / JAMES THOMSON / who died on the [blank] July 1824, / aged 67 years. / ALSO / To the Memory of / ANN ROSS [blank] / who died on the 1st of Aug / 1846 aged 74 years / Also […]

 

East Church 3: Tablestone commemorating Hugh Urquhart and Ann Bruce


Similarly, I am not convinced by the other thin, scalloped slab, in this case to Hugh Urquhart and Ann Bruce. The inscription here seems to display internal variations with the same characters both like and unlike Miller’s style. The “5” is very different to Miller’s usual “5”. These thin slabs must obviously be of tougher material than your usual sandstone, and perhaps the carver had difficulty working with it, but even so I suspect that none of the inscription here is by Miller.


I have superimposed a section of the Urquhart stone bearing a “5” (inside a red circle) and an “ea” (inside a blue circle) above a section of the Nigg stone with the same characters above a section of the Peter stone with the same characters. You can see that the characters are identical on the Nigg and Peter stones but the “5” and the “a” are very different on the Urquhart stone.


 

East Church 4: Tablestone commemorating James Wright, Hugh Miller’s uncle, and East Church 5: nearby similarly styled tablestone


Kirkmichael Trustee Mrs Helma Reynolds inspects the stone commemorating Hugh Miller’s Uncle James

Hugh Miller was very fond of his uncles Sandy (Alexander) and James, who feature in his autobiographical “My Schools and Schoolmasters”. The tablestone commemorating James, erected by Sandy, stands in the secluded eastern edge of the East Church kirkyard. Not far away is a similarly styled tablestone, but which is devoid of inscription. I would assume they were both carved by Hugh Miller, perhaps one for each uncle. Alexander died in 1841, and it may be that it was hoped that Hugh on a return visit to Cromarty might carve a complementary inscription for the other uncle.


The bevel-scallop-bevel design can be seen clearly here on the James Wright tablestone


Similar tablestone without inscription but close to the James Wright tablestone – could it be Uncle Sandy’s?

The inscription is all in capitals, never ideal for reading, but perhaps that was the desire of Uncle Sandy. The use of Roman numerals is also unusual. However, the punctuation added by Miller assists the readability of this beautifully expressed inscription. Did Hugh have a hand in the writing as well as the carving?

PLACED HERE BY / ALEXANDER WRIGHT, / IN MEMORY OF HIS BROTHER / JAMES WRIGHT, / AN HONEST WARM-HEARTED MAN, / WHO HAD THE HAPPINESS / OF LIVING WITHOUT REPROACH, / AND OF DYING WITHOUT FEAR. / HE DEPARTED THE XXVIII TH AUGUST / MDCCCXXVIII / IN THE LXII ND YEAR OF HIS AGE.


 

St Regulus, Cromarty

Hugh Miller and Lydia Mackenzie Falconer, a writer of children’s fiction, married in 1837. Their first child, Elizabeth Logan Miller, born later that year, sadly died of a fever when aged only 15 months, and the couple were devastated. Hugh himself carved the small headstone that stands in St Regulus. It is thought that the inscription was his last piece of memorial work.

IN MEMORY OF / ELIZABETH / LOGAN / INFANT DAUGHTER / OF HUGH AND / LYDIA MILLER / BORN 28 NOV 1837 / DIED 25 APRIL 1839.


Headstone to Elizabeth Logan Miller in St Regulus; photo by Andrew Dowsett


Excellent close-up of the inscription by Martin Gostwick; photo courtesy of The Friends of Hugh Miller

The inscription is all in capitals, of three sizes. Rather than being sunk into a base like modern headstones it is of a piece with the undressed remainder of the slab which is buried in the earth. Traditionally the mason would carve a line up to which the headstone would then be sunk, but Miller’s headstone appears to use the undressed shoulders as the depth indicator. It stands out from other headstones, partly because of the scalloped edges, but also because Hugh used small capitals where perhaps another mason would have used lower case letters for readability. Capitals are more easily carved, and I wonder if Miller, though a grieving father, was pressed for time. As a headstone, it has collected quite a range of lichens which obscure the detail of some of the lettering. Nevertheless, this inscription is another excellent reference point for Miller’s lettering, including his distinctive “M”s, “G”s and numerals, and is a testament to the quality of his carving.

 

Final touch

The deterioration of the headstone in St Regulus has been successfuly slowed by conservation work carried out a few years ago. This raises the more general question as to whether or not we should stabilise the deterioration, caused by inappropriate conservation in the first instance, of the memorial at Kirkmichael? Are there others which are a candidate for conservation? Many of the inscriptions carved by Hugh Miller are slowly being eroded away and with their disappearace a very physical local connection to a great Scotsman will be lost forever.


the Kirkmichael carving (photo by Andrew Dowsett) and the man who carved it (photo by Hill & Adamson)

 

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