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The Scottish Nation

NICOLL, ALEXANDER, D.C.L., an eminent oriental scholar, was the youngest son of John Nicoll, Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, where he was born, April 3, 1793. His parents belonged to the Scottish Episcopal communion, in the principles of which he was strictly educated. He received the first rudiments of learning at a private seminary; and, after being for some time at the parish school, he was sent in 1805 to the grammar school of Aberdeen. Having soon after obtained a small bursary, he attended the classes of Latin and Greek at the Marischal college of that city; and, at the close of his first session at college, he gained the prize of the silver pen, bestowed on the best Greek scholar in the first class. In 1806 he entered the class of mathematics, then taught by Dr. Hamilton, the celebrated writer on finance, and also attended the prelections of Professor Beattie in natural and civil history.

In 1807 he went to Oxford, having been informed that there was a vacancy at Baliol college, in one of the exhibitions on Snell’s foundation. He carried with him a letter of recommendation from Bishop Skinner of Aberdeen to Dr. Parsons, the Master of the college, and was at once elected to the vacant exhibition. For the next four years he prosecuted his studies with great diligence and success, and in 1811 obtained the degree of B.A. In 1813 he turned his attention to the oriental languages, and of these soon acquired an extensive knowledge, on account of which he was appointed one of the sub-librarians of the Bodleian library, with the salary of about £200 a-year. In 1817 he received deacon’s orders, and became curate of one of the churches in Oxford.

He now applied himself to cataloguing the oriental manuscripts in the Bodleian, a very arduous task, when it is considered that these amounted to about thirty thousand. After preparing and publishing a catalogue of the MSS. Brought from the east by Dr. E. D. Clarke, he set himself to complete the unfinished general catalogue of the eastern MSS., which had been begun about a hundred years before by Uri, the celebrated Hungarian. His first fasciculus of this great work made his name known throughout Europe. He had made himself master of so many of the modern languages, that it was commonly said of him that he could walk to the great wall of china without requiring an interpreter.

In June 1822, on the promotion of Dr. Richard Lawrence to the archbishopric of Cashel, Nicoll was, without solicitation on his part, appointed regius professor of Hebrew in the university of Oxford, to which chair was attached the canonry of Christ church. In the letter in which the earl of Liverpool, then prime minister, announced the appointment, he said, that it had been conferred by his majesty on account of his high reputation as an oriental scholar and the value attached to his labours. His income was now about £2,000. He soon after took the degree of doctor of civil law. He died of bronchitis, September 24, 1828, in the 36th year of his age. He was twice married; first to a Danish lady, who died in 1825; secondly, to Sophia, daughter of the Rev. J. Parsons, editor of the Oxford Septuagint, who wrote a Memoir of Dr. Nicoll, prefixed to a posthumous volume of his Sermons. By his second wife he had three daughters, who survived him.

NICOLL, ROBERT, one of the most precocious poets that has appeared in Scotland, was born January 7, 1814, at a farmhouse at Little Tullybeltane, in the parish of Auchtergaven, Perthshire. He was the second son in a family of nine children. His father, at the time of his birth, was tenant of a small farm in Archtergaven, but having become security, to the amount of five or six hundred pounds, for a connexion by marriage, who failed and absconded, the utter ruin of his own family was the consequence; he gave up his whole property to his creditors, and engaged himself as a day-labourer on the fields he had formerly rented. Robert received the little education he ever got at the parish school, and at an early age he was sent to a neighbouring farmer, who employed him to tend cattle, or assist in rural operations, during the summer months, while he continued to attend the parish school in winter. His propensity for reading early showed itself. In going to, or returning from school, or when herding upon his own “Ordie braes,” he was never without a book, and his friends bestowed upon him the familiar nickname of ‘the minister.’ When he was about thirteen he first began to write, and at the same time became a correspondent of one of the Perth papers.

When he was eighteen years of age he left his home, “by the bonnie Ordie’s side,” and became an apprentice to a grocer in the High Street of Perth. Being employed in the shop from seven in the morning until nine in the evening, it was chiefly during the night that he wrote and studied. During his stay in Perth, and when no more than nineteen years of age, he wrote his prose tale, entitled ‘Il Zingaro,’ his first production of any length, which was published in Johnstone’s Edinburgh Magazine. It is the story of an ardent youth, who, smitten with love for a beautiful girl, became a water-carrier in an Italian city, and who, by enduring privations, and exerting wonderful energy, gets to be the pupil of an eminent painter, and in course of time, becomes himself eminent, and finally obtains the hand and affections of the object of his love.

On the expiry of his apprenticeship, Nicoll went to Dundee, and opened a small circulating library, with something less than £20, which he had borrowed for the purpose. In 1835, he published a thin volume, entitled ‘Poems and Lyrics,’ which was largely subscribed for by his friends in his own rank of life. It received from the periodicals of the day a degree of praise seldom bestowed upon the work of so young a man; for he was then only twenty-one years of age. The most elaborate notice of the volume appeared in Tait’s Magazine, in which a high estimate is given of his poetical powers.

Having no capital to carry on his business, he received into partnership a young tradesman, possessed of some money, and also started a local periodical, which did not succeed. He soon after retired from the business, making it over entirely to his partner. On his leaving Dundee, Mr. William Tait, the then publisher and proprietor of Tait’s Magazine, offered him temporary employment on that periodical, and through Mr. Tait’s exertions, he was appointed, in the summer of 1836, editor of The Leeds Times. About the end of the same year he married Miss Alice Souter, of Dundee.

At the time of his entering on this journal, its circulation was only a thousand, but before he left the paper, it had increased to nearly four times that amount, a fact which shows the characteristic force and vigour of his mind, and the untiring perseverance with which he followed out every undertaking in which his heart was engaged. Besides the duties of his own paper, he also wrote leaders for a Sheffield print, but the exhausting nature of newspaper work soon began to tell fatally on his constitution. It was his close application to his duties which first undermined his health, and brought on rapid consumption. At the conclusion of a general election, when Leeds was contested by Sir William Molesworth and Sir John Beckett, Nicoll, who had devoted his whole energies to the interest of the former, was seized with a severe illness, and at the urgent request of his friends in Edinburgh, he resigned his situation and returned to Scotland, in the hope that his native air would, in some measure, aid in restoring him. He was received into the house of Mr. And Mrs. Johnstone, at Laverock Bank, near Leith, and every means which the best medical skill could suggest was tried for his benefit, but in vain. His case having been represented to Sir William Molesworth, by a literary friend in Edinburgh, that gentleman immediately placed fifty pounds in his hands for the dying poet’s service. He breathed his last, December 9, 1837, aged only 24, and his remains were interred in North Leith churchyard.

In private life, Mr. Nicoll was universally respected. His talents were of a very high order, and his writings are full of promise. As he said himself, he had “written his heart in his poems.” Above the middle size, his figure was slender, his features pleasing, and he had a pair of large dark eyes which Mary Howitt declared to be the finest she had ever seen. He was styled by Ebenezer Elliot “Scotland’s second Burns.” His disposition was frank, social, and kindly; his feelings warm and generous, and his friendships lasting. A complete edition of his poems, which are mostly in the Scottish language, with a memoir of his life, by his steady and affectionate friend, Mrs. Johnstone, authoress of ‘Clan Albyn,’ ‘Elizabeth de Bruce,’ &c., was published by Mr. Tait in 1842. It contains upwards of 140 pieces, all of them of merit, and many of them showing undoubted proofs of genius, which was fast maturing when he was called away. His love songs are remarkable for purity, tenderness, and beauty, and his lighter pieces are marked by a spirit and humour entirely his own.

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