Early years and family life
John Miller's family came from the Ayrshire coast on the Firth of Clyde in south west Scotland. His father, James Miller (1760-1849), began his working life as a 'wright' — a carpenter or joiner — in the village of West Kilbride in the north of the county. James later moved south to Ayr, the county town and its largest settlement, famous as the location of the first Scottish Parliament (April 1315). Scotland's celebrated poet Robert Burns (1759-96) was born 3km to the south in Alloway.
James Miller worked hard and soon became a noted builder. He was the contractor for Ayr's Academy, Barracks and Assembly Rooms. He was also a Convener of Ayr, which indicates that he played a leading role in the town's municipal life.
At some point, James met and married Margaret Caldwell. All their children were born in Ayr — they had at least 10, born between 1788 and 1807, though only eight survived into adulthood. John was the penultimate of these, born on 26th July 1805. He had three older brothers (Hugh, James and Robert), three older sisters (Mary, Margaret and Hannah) and a younger brother Thomas.
Miller's father rented, then purchased (1821), a works yard in the town's High Street. This was one of a series of acquisitions on the High Street and elsewhere in Ayr. In 1821, he also bought Springvale House, a Georgian residence with 0.6ha of land. With enlarged grounds, this became the family home. The practice of investing in property was one John Miller would follow enthusiastically in later years.
The family was secure financially and aware of its civic duties. John's brother Hugh (1792-1858) served as Provost of Ayr 1841-55, and Miller Road (originally Miller Place) is named after him. The provost was usually the chief magistrate or convener of a Scottish burgh council. South Ayrshire had five burghs (Ayr, Troon, Girvan, Maybole and Prestwick) and so five provosts. The role is unique to Scotland and is akin to that of a mayor elsewhere in Britain.
John Miller attended Ayr Academy until at least 1817, when he was 12 years old. The school had been founded c.1233 but only called Ayr Academy after 1796, and later moved from Sandgate to Fort Street.
There are two versions of Miller's first employment after leaving school — both relate to the legal profession. He may have begun working at twelve and a half years of age in the office of solicitor Charles Dalrymple Gairdner (1794-1867), who later became a banking agent. Or he may have been apprenticed to Alexander Murdoch (1777-1843), the town clerk of Ayr. It's also possible he did both.
In 1823, aged 18, Miller left Ayr to travel eastwards to Edinburgh. There he was employed by Thomas Grainger (1794-1852), who had established himself as an independent civil engineer and land surveyor in 1816. This was the very earliest days of the railways in the UK, but Grainger was quick to see their potential and much of his work concerned them.
It is also likely that Miller enrolled at Edinburgh University, perhaps influenced by Grainger who had studied there a decade earlier. He could have studied part-time while working, and may have taken law in 1823 and 1824. Records show that in 1826 two John Millers matriculated in arts, which then included engineering.
His prowess in either scholarly or practical work (or both) was sufficient for Grainger to offer him a full partnership in the business in 1825. Miller was just 20 years old, and this remarkable achievement was just the beginning of a fruitful career.
main reference BDCE1
portrait of John Miller
courtesy Roland Paxton