Miller’s fish fossils now in museum

The cottage is just off the Portobello High Street .
The cottage is just off the Portobello High Street .

In my previous article I described our visit to the museum in Cromarty, birthplace of Hugh Miller (1802-1856).

Miller had lost his chance to go to university after a serious disagreement with his schoolmaster, and he left school aged 16. Apprenticeship to a stonemason gave him useful skills for his fossil hunting and he soon made amazing discoveries as he quarried around the local coast.

By chance he broke open a limestone nodule washed up on the shore to find his first ammonite and then later discovered fish scales, fossil leaves and wood.

Other workmen directed him two miles further west to find curious belemnites, which were referred to as “boarding pikes” or “thunderbolts”. These resemble metal bullets and belonged to extinct Jurassic (Lias) squid–like molluscs.

Miller’s keen intellect was aroused by these discoveries and he spent as much time as possible exploring the rocky landscape and collecting fossils, especially around Eathie and the bay between Cromarty and the South Sutor headland where the Cromarty Firth opens into the sea. It was only years later when he was an established author, living in Edinburgh, that the significance of many of his fossils was fully realised.

The science of geology was relatively new. Nowadays the whole shoreline from Rosemarkie to Shandwick is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Before he left Cromarty for Edinburgh he spent about ten years collecting “ichthyolites” which he knew were relics of ancient fish. He attempted to improve his knowledge of living fish caught by the locals from the dog-fish and skate to the herring and mackerel but could not match their type of scales to the enamelled bony scales that he was unearthing. Some of his fish were new to science and once he had mingled with experienced geologists he gained confidence and patiently matched fragments to build up credible creatures.

Perhaps his most famous Pterichthys milleri was a “singularly formed animal with lateral wing-like process”.

Agassiz, the Swiss fish expert, insisted on naming this specimen after Miller and included Miller’s finds in his own ‘Poissons fossils du Vieux’ [Fossils fishes of the Old Red Sandstone].

Today some of Miller’s fossil fish are in the National Museums Scotland attaining the status of type specimens. Replicas and originals are amongst many specimens in the Cromarty museum too.

He used his influence to encourage other younger geologists such as Archibald Geikie to be recruited for the Geological Survey being extended to Scotland in 1852.

His writings about the Ice Age were quite lyrical and he sought out evidence for climate change whilst hunting for arctic species of mussels and other fossil shells from claypits near Portobello, confirming changes in sea level.

Huxley praised Miller’s descriptive work but did not agree with his religious interpretations. Miller’s death preceded the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species”.