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Scottish Research Book of the Year 2023

Book linked to the Hugh Miller Collection in National Museums Scotland wins this prestigious award

Book linked to the Hugh Miller Collection in National Museums Scotland wins this prestigious award

Professor Ralph O’Connor (University of Aberdeen) and Dr Michael A. Taylor (Research Associate, National Museums Scotland and Honorary Research Fellow, University of Leicester) have just carried off one of Scotland’s 2023 National Book Awards, the Scottish Research Book of the Year, for their new two-volume edition of and monograph about Hugh Miller’s 1841 bestseller The Old Red Sandstone, or New Walks in an Old Field. The Saltire Society presents these prizes each year 'to highlight Scotland’s outstanding talent, raise the profile of writers and introduce audiences to exceptional new works'.

Professor Ralph O’Connor with the Saltire Society award plaque and the new book.

The Old Red Sandstone sold well over the years and many editions were published, some produced in Miller’s newspaper’s printshop in Guthrie Street just round the corner from the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. But no new edition has appeared for over a century. In it, self-taught Ross-shire stonemason, folklore collector and geologist Hugh Miller wove together his passions for geology, history, scenery, literature, folklore and his own deeply held religious beliefs. The result is a compelling meditation on Scotland’s deep history, a literary classic that also tells the story of Miller’s own beginnings as a geologist. It remains remarkably fresh and readable to this day.

Like the Old Red Sandstone strata themselves, the book packs in lots of fossil fishes, many from Miller’s own collection. Those fossils, interestingly, have real cultural and historical significance for their impact on the Victorians. But they also have scientific importance. Dr Andrew J. Ross, Principal Curator of Palaeobiology at National Museums Scotland, and Taylor wrote an appendix on the fossil specimens Miller illustrated in his book, many from his own collection. Identifying as many as one can in the Miller collection is important as these specimens need to be available to scientists working on taxonomy (classification and naming) and the description of fossil fishes, to verify their predecessors' work and because the names of species and genera are founded on such 'type specimens'. Of course, previous curators had already located some of the illustrated specimens. But the fresh look located a few more either in the museum or elsewhere. In one instance, Miller was found to have copied a published drawing of a fossil from the Geological Society of London (but Miller did not draw the actual fossil: he’d repeated a slight quirk in the outline of the rock slab as drawn). So this specimen, now in the British Geological Survey at Keyworth, can now be accounted for. A few specimens remain AWOL – but may yet be discovered in other collections or museums.

One of the type specimens illustrated in Miller’s book, the armoured fossil fish Pterichthyodes milleri from the Middle Old Red Sandstone of Cromarty, rock matrix about 7.5cm across, NMS G.1859.33.5.


More on Hugh Miller’s fossils can be found in Search our Collections.

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