Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicholson, William (1782?-1849)

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NICHOLSON, WILLIAM (1782?–1849), the Galloway poet, son of a carrier between Dumfries and Galloway, was born at Tannymaas, Borgue, Kirkcudbrightshire, 15 Aug. 1782 (or, perhaps, August 1783). He received a little school education at Ringford, Kirkcudbrightshire, but his shortness of sight and his indifference to systematic study precluded the possibility of scholarship. His mother, a farmer's daughter, interested him in reading, and he was soon master of a store of chap-books, ballads, &c. At the age of fourteen he became a pedlar. For a number of years he had a varying success, occasionally touching low levels through closer attention to romance than to the disposal of his wares. Renowned for superior stuff for ladies' dresses, and for the quality of his tobacco-pipes, he attained sufficient prosperity in 1813 to enable him to buy a horse, which, however, on some romantic flight, broke its neck at a fence. Nicholson had habitually written verses ‘as a consolation in his solitary wanderings;’ he had been encouraged by Hogg; and now, on the recommendation of Dr. Alexander Murray (1775–1813) [q. v.] and Dr. Duncan of Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, he secured fifteen hundred subscribers to a collection of his poems, distributing the volumes from his pack, and earning thereby about 100l.

Nicholson's habits subsequently became less steady. A skilful piper, he would sometimes be found playing to young cattle and colts, and declaring himself better pleased with the antics of the animals than ‘if the best leddies in the land were figuring before him’ (Memoir, by John M'Diarmid). Constantly restless and thriftless, he at length yielded to tippling habits. Abandoning his attendances at fairs and country gatherings as singer or piper, he turned his attention to theology, and conceived himself specially commissioned to urge in high places the doctrine of universal redemption. In 1826 he visited London, and was much disappointed on failing to secure an interview with George IV. Befriended by Allan Cunningham and other Gallovidians, he had some curious adventures before returning to Scotland in the autumn. He was again in England a year later as a drover. Nicholson died at Kildarroch, Borgue, on 16 May 1849, and was buried in the churchyard of Kirkandrews, Kirkcudbrightshire.

Nicholson's ‘Tales in Verse and Miscellaneous Poems, descriptive of Rural Life and Manners,’ appeared in 1814, with a manly and unaffected preface, in which Hogg is specially thanked for his ‘generous and unwearied attention.’ The second edition, with a memoir by John m'Diarmid, was published in 1828, and a third edition, with new memoir by Mr. M. M'L. Harper, appeared in 1878. Nicholson's highest achievement is the ‘Brownie of Blednoch,’ a charming contribution to ballad folk-lore, which is appreciatively noticed in John Brown's ‘Black Dwarf's Bones’ (Horæ Subsecivæ, 2nd ser. p. 355, ed. 1882). With a befitting air of remoteness, the ballad is memorably weird and vivid in conception and development. ‘The Country Lass,’ ‘The Soldier's Home,’ and others, are faithful and dexterous narratives; while the miscellaneous pieces and the ‘Ballads and Songs’ all indicate an energetic fancy and a poetical and tuneful temper. ‘Will and Kate’ is an appropriate reply to the ‘Logan Braes’ of John Mayne (1758–1836) [q. v.] Several of the songs—such as ‘Dark Rolling Dee’ and ‘Again the Breeze blaws thro' the Trees’—are kindred in spirit with Motherwell's pathetic lyrics, being marked by sympathetic tenderness and graceful melody.

To Nicholson's memory a monument was erected by his brother, John Nicholson, publisher, of Kirkcudbright. John Nicholson (1777–1866) had been a handloom weaver and a soldier, but he found his true vocation in Kirkcudbright as antiquary, local historian, and publisher. He owned the ‘Stewartry Times,’ and he published several works of local importance, especially the ‘History of Galloway’ and the ‘Trades of Galloway.’ He died at Kirkcudbright on 11 Sept. 1866 (Harper, Rambles in Galloway, 1876).

[Second and third editions of Nicholson's Poems, as in text; Harper's Bards of Galloway; Rogers's Modern Scottish Minstrel.]

T. B.