Writing in The Railways of Britain (1961), Jack Simmons expresses the view that Miller "ought to be more widely recognised as one of the great British railway engineers". In an unpublished biography of Miller (2005), Roddy Simpson describes him as "the forgotten man of Scottish railways". And Professor Roland Paxton has dubbed Miller "Scotland's Brunel" in this context and "the greatest masonry viaduct engineer of all time".
It is surprising that Miller is not more widely known, considering that by the time of his retirement in 1850 at the age of 45, he had built more railways in Scotland than any other engineer. He had worked hard, confident in his abilities and prescient in realizing the future importance of rail.
Miller embodied the Victorian values of success through self-improvement and education. He approached everything with a determination to succeed, even if events beyond his control sometimes thwarted his ambition. He invested in the railways he built, often becoming a shareholder, but he was also generous with his money.
His father, James Miller, had triumphed over humble beginnings to become a public figure and man of property. This set a compelling example for his son. In retirement, John Miller continued his own life as a public figure, culminating in election as a Member of Parliament. He too used his money to acquire land and property.
Over the years Miller developed into an erudite and cultured man. He enjoyed art, especially painting and the emerging field of photography. For him, learning never stopped and he was keen to help others increase their knowledge too. His financial generosity extended to members of his family, his associates and to the church and, particularly in retirement, he devoted time to worthy causes.
In his will, Miller noted that "as my family were all young during the active part of my life ... it may be interesting to them and perhaps profitable to have a short history of my life drawn up for which there are materials in my Diaries, Memorandum Books and other papers". As no trace of these has been found, many of the details of his life are not known to us.
However, in his lifetime, Miller's achievements were recognised and lauded. In 1852, the Falkirk Herald called him "one of the ablest and most celebrated civil engineers in the country".
Jumping forwards, a portrait of Miller by Sir John Watson Gordon (1788-1864) was exhibited on 6th September 2002 at the School of the Built Environment at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. Miller's great great grandson David Cunningham travelled from Australia for the unveiling. This picture is on extended loan from the Scottish Borders Council to the ICE Scotland Museum.
In 2005, a plaque dedicated to Miller was unveiled on Platform 4 of Edinburgh's Haymarket Station by Sarah Boyack MSP. The plaque was commissioned jointly by the Institution of Civil Engineers, Network Rail and ScotRail. Miller's great great granddaughter Paula Clarke and great great great granddaughter Dr Natasha Clarke were among those who attended.
The plaque reads, "In commemoration of the outstanding achievement of John Miller (1805-83), C.E., F.R.S.E. Engineer for most of the early main line railways in Scotland, including the North British, the first line across the border, and the Edinburgh & Glasgow, the first inter-city line, for which Haymarket Station was the Edinburgh terminus from 1842-46. Presented by the Institution of Civil Engineers and dedicated on 26th July 2005, the bicentenary of Miller's birth".
Miller may not have had 'a short history' of his life written until the beginning of this century (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 2 1830-1890) but his memorial is in everything he designed. His legacy to us is that many of his structures are still standing and most of his railways are in daily use, incorporated into the network of Scotland's mainlines.
main reference BDCE1
portrait of John Miller
courtesy Roland Paxton