Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicolson, Alexander

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NICOLSON, ALEXANDER (1827–1893), sheriff-substitute and Gaelic scholar, son of Malcolm Nicolson, was born at Usabost in Skye on 27 Sept. 1827. His early education was obtained from tutors. After the death of his father he entered Edinburgh university, intending to study for the free church of Scotland. He graduated B.A. in 1850, and in 1859 received the honorary degree of M.A. ‘in respect of services rendered as assistant to several of the professors.’ At college Nicolson had a distinguished career. In the absence, through illness, of Sir William Hamilton, Nicolson, as his assistant, lectured to the class of logic, and for two years he performed a similar service for Professor Macdougall in the class of moral philosophy. Abandoning the study of theology at the Free Church College, he took to literature, and for some time acted as one of the sub-editors of the eighth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ Shortly afterwards he became one of the staff of the ‘Edinburgh Guardian,’ a short-lived paper of high literary quality. For a year he edited an advanced liberal paper called the ‘Daily Express,’ which afterwards merged in the ‘Caledonian Mercury.’ But Nicolson was not fitted for the career of a journalist, and, turning to law, was called in 1860 to the Scottish bar. He had little practice, however, and for ten years reported law cases for the ‘Scottish Jurist,’ of which he was latterly editor. He acted as examiner in philosophy in the university, and examiner of births, &c., in Edinburgh and the neighbouring counties. In 1865 he was appointed assistant commissioner by the Scottish education commission, in which capacity he visited nearly all the inhabited western isles and inspected their schools. His report—published as a blue-book—contained a vast amount of information regarding the condition of the people in the various islands. In 1872 Nicolson, despairing of a practice at the bar, accepted the office of sheriff-substitute of Kirkcudbright, and declined an offer of the Celtic chair in Edinburgh University, which Professor Blackie and he had been mainly instrumental in founding. In 1880 he received the degree of LL.D. from Edinburgh University. In 1883 he was one of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the condition of the crofters. When the gunboat Lively, with the commissioners on board, sank off Stornoway, the sheriff had great difficulty in saving the manuscript of his ‘Memoirs of Adam Black,’ on which he was engaged at the time.

In 1885 he became sheriff-substitute of Greenock; but he retired in 1889, with a pension, on the ground of ill-health. He returned to Edinburgh, where he occupied himself in literary work of no great importance. He died suddenly at the breakfast table on 13 Jan. 1893, and was buried in Warriston cemetery.

It is as a Gaelic scholar that Nicolson has left a reputation behind him, principally acquired by his articles in ‘The Gael,’ a Celtic periodical, his collection of Gaelic proverbs, and his revised version of the Gaelic Bible, which he undertook at the request of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. He was also an excellent Greek scholar. He was popular in society, and his stories and songs, such as ‘the British Ass’ and ‘Highland Regiments’ ditty, live in the memory of those who heard them delivered by their author. Nicolson was a keen lover of athletic sports and an enthusiastic volunteer.

Besides writing many articles in prose and verse for ‘Good Words,’ ‘Macmillan's Magazine,’ ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ ‘The Scotsman,’ and other periodicals and newspapers, Nicolson's chief publications were:

  1. ‘The Lay of the Beanmòhr: a Song of the Sudreyar,’ Dunedin [Edinburgh], 1867, 4to.
  2. ‘A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases. Based on Macintosh's Collection. Edited by Alexander Nicolson,’ Edinburgh, 1881, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1882.
  3. ‘Memoirs of Adam Black,’ Edinburgh, 1885, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1885.
  4. ‘Verses by Alexander Nicolson, LL.D., with Memoir by Walter Smith, D.D.,’ Edinburgh, 1893, 8vo. Nicolson also edited in 1857 a volume entitled ‘Edinburgh Essays,’ written by a number of his friends connected with the university.

[Obituary notices in Times and Scotsman, 14 Jan. 1893; Edwards's Modern Scottish Poets, 3rd ser. pp. 417–19; Scottish Law Review, ix. 38–40; Memoir by Dr. Walter Smith, prefixed to Nicolson's Verses, which volume contains a portrait of their author.]

G. S-h.