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Significant Scots
Alexander Nicoll


NICOLL, (The Rev.) ALEXANDER, D. C. L., canon of Christchurch, and regius; professor of Hebrew in the university of Oxford, was the youngest son of John Nicoll, at Monymusk, in Aberdeenshire, where he was born, April 3, 1793. The subject of this memoir was carefully reared by his parent in the principles of the Scottish episcopal church; and, while little more than four years of age, was placed at a private school, conducted by a Mr Sivewright, where he received the first rudiments of learning. Two years afterwards, he was put to the parish school, then and still taught by Mr Duff, who grounded him in classical literature. His behaviour at school was that of a modest, assiduous student, and nothing but a reprimand ever disturbed the composure which was natural to him. At this school, his attainments were such as to attract the notice of the clergymen of the presbytery, in the course of their professional visitations. In 1805, he removed to the grammar school of Aberdeen, at which city, his elder brother, Mr Lewis Nicoll, advocate, was able to take charge of his personal conduct. At the commencement of the winter session of the same year, he became a candidate for a bursary at the Marischal college, and obtained one of the smallest in the gift of that institution. He, therefore, attended the classes of Latin and Greek during the session 1805-6, at the close of which he gained the prize of the Silver Pen, always bestowed on the best scholar. This honour, being, as usual, announced in the provincial newspapers, caused him to be noticed by various eminent individuals, as a young man of peculiar promise. Before the next session, he had studied mathematics at home, and pursued a course of miscellaneous reading. Besides attending the classes formerly mentioned, he entered, in 1808, that of mathematics, then taught by Dr Hamilton, the well-known expositor of the national debt; and also attended the prelections of Mr Beattie, in natural and civil history. During the ensuing vacation, he directed his attention to drawing, and produced several maps, sketched in a very neat manner.

Soon after the commencement of his third year, in 1807, Bishop Skinner, of Aberdeen, informed him, that there was a vacancy at Baliol college, in one of the exhibitions upon Snell’s foundation, which he thought might be obtained. By the advice of his elder brother, he proceeded to Oxford, with a letter of recommendation from Bishop Skinner to Dr Parsons, the master of the college, and was at once elected to the vacant exhibition. Having been put under the charge of a tutor, (the Rev. Mr Jenkyns,) he commenced his studies with great eagerness, particularly in the department of Greek, where his chief deficiency lay, and where he found himself, with only seven months’ study of that language in a Scotch university, pitted against youths who had studied at the much superior schools of Oxford for three years. His native capacity and unwearied application soon placed him on a level with his companions, and a college life then began to have great charms for him. At Baliol, he had the society of a little knot of Scottish students, partners with himself in the enjoyment of Snell’s foundation, and among whom were several individuals now distinguished in public life. For several years he prosecuted his studies with much diligence and success; and, in 1811, after the usual examination, obtained the degree of bachelor of arts. It was not till 1813, that he directed his attention to the Oriental languages, in which he was destined to become so noted a proficient. In a letter to his brother, dated in December that year, he says: "For the last year, I have been chiefly engaged in the study of the Oriental languages, the Hebrew, Arabic, and Persic, and occasionally the modern languages. I have latterly obtained some knowledge of French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. There is no place where there are finer opportunities for studying the Oriental languages, than in Oxford. The Bodleian library, to which I have had access for the last two years, is said to be richer in that department than any other. I have lately been introduced to Dr Winstanley, principal of Alban Hall, one of the best linguists in Oxford. I also know Dr Macbride, who has lately been appointed principal of Magdalen Hall, and lecturer in Arabic, who has already shown me great kindness." Soon after, on account of his knowledge of languages, particularly those of the East, he was appointed, without solicitation, one of the sub-librarians of the Bodleian; a situation which greatly favoured the progress of his studies.

In 1817, Mr Nicoll received deacon’s orders, and was appointed the curate of one of the churches in Oxford, where he had part of the duty to perform. This, however, did not in the least retard his studies, or his exertions in the Bodleian. On considering various circumstances in the history of this institution, he had marked out for himself a line of duty, by which he greatly benefited its interests, and elevated his own reputation. He perceived that the enormous treasure of Oriental manuscripts, about thirty thousand in number, was in a great measure useless, from being imperfectly catalogued; and to remedy this defect he forthwith applied himself. He first drew up a catalogue of the manuscripts brought from the East by Dr E. D. Clarke, and, by publishing it, at once established his fame as an Orientalist of the first class. He then entered on the gigantic task of completing the general catalogue of the eastern manuscripts, which had been begun about a hundred years before by Uri, the celebrated Hungarian. The first fasciculus which he put forth of this work, embracing manuscripts in nearly a dozen different tongues, analyzing their contents, and estimating their merits in clear, forcible, and elegant Latin, diffused Nicoll’s reputation throughout Europe, and brought him into acquaintance and correspondence with all the eminent Orientalists at home and abroad. Every summer thereafter he visited the continent, in order to examine various celebrated collections; and, ere he died, there was not one of any note which he had not seen. His epistolary correspondence with the eminent foreign literati was conducted chiefly in Latin, which he wrote with perfect facility; but his knowledge of the modern European languages was hardly less extraordinary than his orientalism. He spoke and wrote, with ease and accuracy, French, Italian, German, Danish, Swedish, and Romaic. In short, it was the common saying of the Oxonian common-rooms, that Nicoll could walk to the wall of China without need of an interpreter. In the midst of all the honours that were paid to him, and though his intercourse with so many distinguished men had given ease and elegance to his manners, he never lost the original modesty and reserve of his nature. It was forcibly said of him by an eminent scholar, after conversing with him, "Sir, he is not modest,—he is modesty itself."

The time at length arrived when he was to receive a reward due to his great merits and exertions. In June, 1822, on the promotion of Dr Richard Laurence to the archbishopric of Cashel, Nicoll was, without solicitation, appointed to the vacant chair of regius professor of Oriental languages; the following being the letter in which lord Liverpool announced the appointment:--

"Fife House, 19th June, 1822.

"SIR,—In consequence of the promotion of Dr Laurence to the archbishopric of Cashel, the regius professorship of Hebrew in the university of Oxford, together with the canonry of Christ Church attached to it, becomes vacant. The high reputation which you have acquired as an Oriental scholar, and the value attached to your labours, have induced his majesty to approve of you as Dr Laurence’s successor; and I can entertain no doubt that this mark of royal favour, conferred upon you without solicitation, will be a strong inducement to you to persevere in those studies by which you have acquired so much credit, and to use your utmost endeavours to promote the study of Oriental literature in the university of Oxford.—I have the honour to be, Sir, your very obedient humble servant,

(Signed) "LIVERPOOL."

Nicoll was thus elevated from a salary of about 200 a-year, and the comparatively humble situation of a sub-librarian in the Bodleian, to the enjoyment of 2000, and two of the highest dignities in the university. He soon after took the degree of D. C. L.

For some years, Dr Nicoll performed the duties of his high station with the greatest zeal and success, producing a considerable increase in the attendance of his class, and not neglecting, at the same time, the important task which he had undertaken at the Bodleian. He had nearly completed the catalogue, when, on the 24th of September, 1828, having previously weakened his constitution by intense study, he was cut off by an inflammation in the windpipe, in the thirty-sixth year of his age.

Dr Nicoll was twice married; first, to a Danish lady, who died in 1825; secondly, to Sophia, daughter of the reverend J. Parsons, the learned editor of the Oxford Septuagint, and by whom a memoir of Dr Nicoll was prefixed to a posthumous volume of his sermons. By his second wife, Dr Nicoll had three daughters, who survived him. "This great scholar," said one of the journals, in alluding to his death, "has left behind him a reputation which his family may well consider as their dearest treasure. While his attainments were of the first order, his personal character was without spot or blemish. He was virtuous in every relation of life; cheerful in poverty; humble in prosperity; sincere, kind, generous, and eminently pious."


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