Nicoll, Robert (DNB00)

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NICOLL, ROBERT (1814–1837), poet, was born on 7 Jan. 1814 at the farmhouse of Little Tulliebeltane, in the parish of Auchtergaven, Perthshire, about halfway between Perth and Dunkeld, and was the second son in a family of nine children. When he was only five his father was reduced to the condition of a day labourer on his own farm by the default of a relative for whom he had become security. Robert's education was thus exceedingly imperfect, but he read all the books he could find, and profited by the opportunities he obtained by his removal to Perth, where, at the age of sixteen, he apprenticed himself to a female grocer and wine merchant. By a small saving he enabled his mother to open a shop, and greatly improved the circumstances of his family. He had already begun to write poetry, but destroyed most of his compositions in despair of ever attaining to write correct English; and his first literary production that saw the light was a tale, ‘Il Zingaro,’ founded on an Italian tradition, which appeared in ‘Johnstone's Magazine’ in 1833. In the same year his indentures were terminated on account of ill-health, and, after a short stay at home to recruit his strength, he proceeded to Edinburgh, where he met with considerable notice, but no employment beyond that of an occasional contribution to ‘Johnstone's,’ which shortly afterwards became ‘Tait's Magazine’ [see Johnstone, Christian Isobel]. He had meditated emigrating to America, but was induced to remain in Scotland and open a circulating library at Dundee, which did not eventually prove successful. In the autumn of 1835 his poems, printed at the office of a Dundee newspaper, were published by Tait of Edinburgh, and proved somewhat of a commercial but not much of a literary success. In 1836 the circulating library was given up, and Tait obtained for Nicoll the appointment of editor of the ‘Leeds Times.’ The salary was only 100l. a year; nevertheless, before leaving Dundee Nicoll married Alice Suter, niece of a newspaper proprietor in the town, who is described as beautiful and interesting, and in every respect suited to him. Nicoll had always been a strong, even a violent, radical politician. The vigour which he introduced into the ‘Leeds Times’ greatly stimulated the sale of the paper, but wore out his delicate constitution, which completely broke down after the general election in the summer of 1837, in consequence of his arduous and successful exertions in the cause of Sir William Molesworth. He returned to Scotland to die. Everything possible was done for him. Mr. and Mrs. Johnstone received him into their house. Andrew Combe and Robert Cox attended him gratuitously. Sir William Molesworth sent him 50l., ‘accompanied,’ says Mrs. Johnstone, ‘by a letter remarkable for delicacy and kindness.’ But his health continued to decline, and he died at Laverock Bank, near Edinburgh, on 7 Dec. 1837. Two days before his death his father and mother left their home, and, walking fifty miles through frost and snow, arrived just in time to see him alive. He was buried in North Leith churchyard. The inappropriateness of the situation to the last resting-place of a poet is the subject of some touching lines by his brother William, who a few years afterwards was himself buried in the same grave.

It is probably to the credit of Nicoll's lyrical faculty that his songs in the Scottish dialect should be so greatly superior to his poems in literary English. The latter, with some well-known exceptions, are of small account, but as a Scottish minstrel he stands very high. The characteristics of the native poetry of Scotland are always the same: melody, simplicity, truth to nature, ardent feeling, pathos, and humour. All these excellences Nicoll possesses in a very high degree, and deserves the distinction of having been a most genuine poet of the people. He certainly falls far short of Burns; but Burns produced nothing so good as Nicoll's best until after attaining the age at which Nicoll ceased to write; and it is not likely that the young man of twenty-three had arrived at the limits of his genius. His mind grew rapidly, and he might have produced prose work of abiding value when his political passion had been moderated and his powers disciplined by experience of the world. Personally he was amiable, honourable, enthusiastic, and warmly attached to his friends.

[Nicoll's poems were republished in 1844 with copious additions, principally of pieces written subsequently to the original publication in 1835, and an anonymous memoir by Mrs. Johnstone, which has continued to be prefixed to more recent editions, and is the best authority for his life. An independent biography, by P. R. Drummond, 1884, adds some interesting letters and anecdotes, but does not materially modify the impression left by Mrs. Johnstone's memoir. See also Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, 1856, v. 487; Walker's Bards of Bon-Accord, p. 438; Charles Kingsley, in the North British Review, vol. xvi.; and Samuel Smiles, in Good Words, vol. xvi.]

R. G.