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Significant Scots
John Nichol


Professor Nichol, as he was affectionately known to a generation of students at Glasgow University, was the second of the name known to the city. He was born at Montrose, when his father was Rector of the Academy there, 8th September, 1833. Four years later the father was appointed to the chair of Astronomy in Glasgow. Here, first of all in the old College court in High Street, and afterwards in the new Observatory, to which the household migrated in 1841, Nichol’s boyhood was spent. In his early years he was an omnivorous reader, and was attracted to the study of geology and astronomy. From the Western Academy, with a year at the Grammar School of Kelso, the reserved, timid lad passed to Glasgow University and Balliol College, Oxford.

Even in his boyish clays he wrote verses, and in 1854 he contributed a poem on Ailsa Craig to the Glasgow University Album, a production which he organised and edited. In the same year he printed privately his first volume of verse, under the title of "Leaves." Among the friends of his earlier years at Glasgow were Alexander Smith and Sydney Dobell, and at Oxford he founded an essay-reading club, the Old Mortality, which included James Payne, T. II. Green, and A. C. Swinburne. Jowett was his kindly mentor and life-long friend. After taking his degree with first-class honours, he kept his terms in London for the English Bar, and he built up a reputation as one of the most successful "coaches" at Oxford. In 1861 he married the eldest daughter of Henry Glassford Bell, who proved, in a peculiar sense, the good angel of his life. By her he became the father of a son and two daughters.

Defeated by John Veitch in his candidature for the chair of Logic and English Literature at St. Andrews, he was appointed to the new chair of English Literature at Glasgow in 1862, and occupied it for a quarter of a century with brilliant success. He afterwards was an unsuccessful candidate for the chairs of Logic and Moral Philosophy at Glasgow and of English Literature at Oxford. In 1873 he published "Hannibal, an Historical Drama," and received the degree of LL. D. from St. Andrews University. In the crash of the City of Glasgow Bank he was involved as trustee for a shareholder, but through the honourable conduct of the relations for whom he held the trust he ultimately suffered little loss.

In 1889 Nichol resigned his chair With failing health, and failing enthusiasm for the rough work of the Scottish class-room, he had begun to believe there was a conspiracy against him in the world of letters, and his idea was to devote himself more freely to literature and to conquer his opponents by a tour de force. He had always been a contributor to the Glasgow Herald and Manchester Guardian, especially of obituary notices, and he had contributed a series of articles on the Scottish poets to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He had compiled in 1877, on a suggestion of Professor Knight, his laborious "Tables of European History, Literature, Science, and Art "; had produced a valuable "Primer of English Composition" in 1879; had contributed to the English Men of Letters Series in 1880 a monograph on Byron  which Swinburne called "the very best apologia for another man that ever was made"; had published his best poetical work, The Death of Themistocles and Other Poems" in 1881; had issued "Robert Burns, a Summary of his Career and Genius," and a history of American literature in 1882; and in 1888 he had published a monograph on Francis Bacon. Alas ! after his resignation of the chair he was to produce only one book more, though indeed it was his best, his monograph on Carlyle. This appeared in 1S92. A year earlier his portrait by Orchardson had been presented to him in Glasgow University. Two years later he was dead. lie had taken up residence in London, and he died there 11th October, 1894.

Nichol’s greatest work was probably that done in the class-room at Gilmorehill, where he inspired a generation of the picked young minds of Scotland with a love for the real graces and glories of our literature. But his monographs on Byron, Burns, Bacon, and Carlyle are themselves among the vital criticism of his time. And, in poetry, if his portraits of Hannibal and Themistocles depict subjects perhaps too remote for modern enthusiasm, 'his sonnets and short poems are in many cases pure gold. A memoir of Nichol, by his friend, Professor Knight, was published by Messrs. MacLehose in 1896.

Memoir of John Nichol
Professor of English Literature in the University of Glasgow
By Professor Knight   (1896)
St. Andrews

You can download this book here

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