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Saturday 15 February 2014

Alexander Nicolson: Skye Historian

Aside from writing a definitive history of his native Isle of Skye, Alexander Nicolson (1884–1966), was also a noted Gaelic scholar. An extract from an obituary notice from The Oban Times reads as follows:

The death took place at his Glasgow home on December 12 of Mr Alexander Nicolson, who was perhaps the greatest living authority on Scottish Gaelic and certainly the greatest authority on the island of Skye…

Nicolson was born in 1884 in Achnahanaid in the Braes of Trotternish, the eldest son of ‘Big Sorley’ Nicolson, styled Somhairle Mòr mac Iain ‘ic Shomhaire Phìobaire. His mother, Iseabail was the daughter of Donald Bàn MacLeod, styled Dòmhnall Bàn mac Alasdair ‘ic Iain ’ic Ailein Ruaidh. Life was hard in the congested township of Achnahanaid, as Alexander Nicolson suggests, his people having been evicted from their ancestral land in Holm to make room for sheep and cattle on the extended farm of Scorrybreck, and having to find a foothold in the Braes overcrowded with the jetsam of that and other clearances in Skye.

After his formative education at local schools, and through the encouragement of his mother, who recognised and nurtured his talents, Nicolson qualified for University entrance as a primary school teacher and later a pupil teacher. In 1906, Nicolson took the Glasgow University entrance examination and travelled to Glasgow to study for a Master of Arts. However his financial support appears to have run out before he could complete his studies. In the summer of 1907 he spent a month as a teacher in Lochmaddy, North Uist, and from 1909 onwards he taught full-time in primary schools in the Glasgow area to support himself, continuing his University studies on a part-time basis. He finally graduated in 1913.

University and the schools of Glasgow also brought him into contact with the world of radical politics. Among others, he got to know James Maxton, a teacher who had graduated from Glasgow University in 1909 and later became leader of the Independent Labour Party. According to his nephew Sorley MacLean: “The most intellectual of my relations was a sceptic and a Socialist (my uncle in Jordanhill, Alex Nicolson). Apart from his dangerous opinions he appeared a better man than all my religious acquaintance.” MacLean was particularly impressed by hints that his uncle had come into contact with the great Scottish revolutionary socialist, John MacLean. Such political involvement led Nicolson to become a conscientious objector in the First World War and from 1916 to 1919 he was imprisoned in ‘Princeton Work Centre’ (Dartmoor Prison). He later said that when locked in a narrow cell with a high small window he sometimes despaired but seeing the planet Venus through that small window kept him sane.

After the war was over, he returned to teaching in Glasgow, where he met his wife, Janet Davidson. In the years that followed, they raised a family and he continued his studies and writing. 

The obituary notice from The Oban Times continues:

At the university he gained medals and distinguished places in many of his classes, and he was a particularly able student in geology. After graduation, he was for many years a teacher in several Glasgow schools. He knew the island of Skye as no-one else did, having studied all there was to know of its geology and history and having been by foot to every village in the island. In 1930 he published a large history of Skye which he had been preparing for a second edition at the time of his death. For the past 40 years or so Mr Nicolson’s main work was on Scottish Gaelic in particular, and to a lesser extent on Irish.

In an obituary notice elsewhere from the pen of the Rev. Thomas M. Murchison, one time Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland:

Perhaps even more important that his History of Skye is Alexander Nicolson’s ‘Modern Gaelic: A Basic Grammar’, which appeared in 1936. There are many Gaelic grammars in existence, but Nicolson’s has a place and authority of its own. Certainly few people had a better right to add to the number of Gaelic grammars, for he had many years’ experience of teaching Gaelic, to young and old. Nicolson aimed in his Grammar at simplifying the somewhat complex intricacies of the declension of the Gaelic noun.

His daughter Ishabel recalls that, “His Master of Arts degree was widely-based and hard-won. As medallist in geology he was offered a job in South Africa but the beginning of the First World War prevented that. His maths qualified him for his teaching career but his love of Gaelic and the history of his island prevailed.”

Moreover, Nicolson’s influence upon his nephew Calum cannot be underestimated for he encouraged him to take an interest in his native culture, particularly Gaelic oral traditions. Such an influence certainly bore fruit.

Among Nicolson’s other works, were books on Gaelic riddles (Gaelic Riddles and Enigmas, 1938), and children’s games and rhymes (Oideas na Cloinne, 1948). Nicolson also delivered scholarly lectures and contributed a number of articles to prestigious journals such as the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, one on Mary MacLeod, the poetess of Harris and Dunvegan in the seventeenth century, and the other on the MacBeths, hereditary physicians to the Gaelic nobility. He was for more than twenty years lecturer in the colleges of Jordanhill and Notre Dame, and during the war, in the absence of the late Professor Angus Matheson, he was lecturer in Celtic at Glasgow University.

Undoubtedly, Nicolson is best remembered as the author of History of Skye: A Record of the Families, the Social Conditions, and the Literature of the Island, first published in 1930, and subsequently reprinted and edited by Dr Alasdair Maclean. A third publication was edited by Cailean Maclean. Alexander Nicolson’s career and literary ambitions were clearly influential on his near relations and extended family, some of whom would go on to follow in his footsteps.

Alexander Nicolson, History of Skye, ed. by Cailean Maclean (Kershader, Isle of Lewis: The Islands Books Trust, 2012)

Alexander Nicolson, c. 1913, by courtesy of Cailean Maclean on behalf of the MacLean family

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