The Isle of Eigg and Hugh Miller

Saturday, March 1, 2003

Peter I. Russell

The Sgurr of Eigg

(Above) The Sgurr of Eigg

Everyone has special mileposts in their lives where interests take off. My interest in field geology received a burst of energy after reading "The Cruise of the Betsy," a book by 19th century geologist, Hugh Miller.

In August 1962 Fred Waller, a friend and mentor that I had met at meetings of the Leeds Geological Society, in England, traveled to Eigg and explored the island. We used Miller's book "Cruise of the Betsy" as a guide, together with information gathered from other sources. 

My wife and I visited the Isle of Eigg again in October 2002 as a 40th anniversary visit. This happened to coincide with the 200th anniversary celebrations marking Hugh Miller's birth. 

Why visit the Isle of Eigg you ask? For such a small isle, Eigg is blessed with much of interest: history, geology, scenery and minerals, all within an island 6.5 km by 8.5 km. Eigg is a fragment of a volcano which formed when the Atlantic Ocean was opened by plate tectonic movements (these volcanoes were formed over the mid Atlantic Ridge). The volcanic centres along the west coast of Scotland form a chain of volcanoes from the Isle of Arran in the south, to the Isle of Skye at the northern end. 

The dominant feature of the island is the Sgurr. Here the highest part of the island has 375 metres high vertical columnar pitchstone cliffs, 120 metres sheer. The pitchstone flowed down tree covered valleys which had been eroded into the basalt flows. The resistant pitchstone remains as the softer basalt weathers away. Under the Sgurr is a cave, formed by erosion of Eocene sediments. Pieces of fossil pinewood may be found in these sediments. 

Pitchstone dike cutting basalt(Left) Pitchstone dike cutting basalt.

Along the southern shore of the island pitchstone dikes, looking like ribbons of shiny tar, cut through the basalt flows. There are two caves in these basalt cliffs. In 1577 the population of Eigg was massacred by suffocation in one of these caves. A fire was built at the entrance to the cave killing 395 people. The fire was set by clansmen from the Isle of Skye who were seeking revenge.

On the northeast coast lies Hugh Miller's reptile bed. Here among the fish scales and teeth, bones of plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs may be found. As you walk along this coast, the seals take an interest in visitors as they bob their whiskered faces out of the water. Further along the shore, the hull of a coal carrier (puffer) sits near the cliff. The salvage boat lies beneath the sea a hundred yards away after a futile salvage mission.

If I have peaked your interest in visiting my favorite Hebridean island, you may wish to visit and take part in a summer course. 

Summer Course " Geology and Landscape in the Inner Hebrides" 
9th - 16th August 2003. 

Glebe Barn Field Study Centre, & independent Hostel, Isle of Eigg, PH42 4RL

Cost £315 (reduced to £275 if you are prepared to share a bunk room.) 

Tutor: Professor John Hudson. Recently retired from the University of Leicester, Prof Hudson has spent over 40 years studying the area, and is the author of The Geology of Eigg , and many papers on the subject. 

No previous geological experience is necessary. However, long walks are involved and participants must be fit for walking over rocky shores and rough, hilly terrain with some steep ascents. 

For details of the accommodation in the charming and characterful Glebe Barn and a booking form, contact: Karen and Simon Helliwell. 

Tel/fax: 01687 482417 

Hugh Miller

Hugh MillerHugh Miller was born in Cromarty, Scotland in 1802. Miller started his working life at 18 years of age as a stonemason. Hugh Miller worked on the rebuilding of Edinburgh after the great fire in 1824. Stone dust from this project damaged his lungs forcing him to return to his home in Cromarty. Once he recovered, he took a job as a monumental mason in Inverness, but soon gave this up to become a bank clerk. He then worked in Edinburgh and Linlithgow. Miller was an evangelical Christian and self-taught geologist who wrote about the history of the Earth with imagination and wonderful descriptions. Some of his geological writings first appeared in the Free Church of Scotland biweekly newspaper "The Witness." Miller edited this publication and near the end of his life contributed 10,000 words of his own to each issue.

Hugh Miller helped to found the Presbyterian Church, and gave it its name, the Free Church of Scotland. His inability to reconcile his religious views with his scientific research, together with the strain of his work and silicosis, led to him taking his own life in a bout of depression. He shot himself in his home on Portobello High Street on Christmas Eve and was buried in Grange Cemetery (Edinburgh), following a funeral attended by thousands. 

After his death, his wife, Lydia who was also a writer, finished the publication of some of his books in progress. His well-known geological works are "The Old Red Sandstone," "The Cruise of the Betsey" and "Testimony of the Rocks."

Miller's fossil collection of over 6,000 specimens was the founding core for the Scottish national collection in the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh.

Volcanic centres map

2002 marked the 200th anniversary of Hugh Miller's birth. His life was celebrated during the year, in Cromarty at the Miller Museum and the Isle of Eigg. Symposiums were held in Edinburgh and London by the geological community to celebrate Hugh Miller's contributions to geology.

The father of American landscape conservation, John Muir, named a glacier for Hugh Miller in Alaska; Some Devonian cliffs on the Restigouche River in Quebec also bear his name, as does a fossil species, Hughmilleria socialis, a type of euripterid and the state fossil of New York State. The euripterid was named in memory of Hugh Miller at the 100th anniversary of his birth. One of today's greatest Australian palaeontologists, Alex Ritchie, discoverer of the huge Canowindra Devonian fishbeds in New South Wales, always carries a copy of "The Old Red Sandstone" in his pocket. The Miller oil and gas field in the North Sea is still in production. 


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