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Significant Scots
Robert Nicoll


307

NICOLL, ROBERT.—The life of a poet born and nursed in poverty, is generally continued in poverty to the close: his career is a struggle of want and privation, of which the end too often is nothing but defeat and disaster. Such was the history of Robert Nicoll, a poet of great promise, but whose career was terminated before the promise was fulfilled: he was only shown to us, and then snatched away. He was the second son in a family of nine children, and was born at the farm of Little Tulliebeltane, in the parish of Auchtergaven, in Perthshire, on the 7th of January, 1814. At the time of his birth his father was a farmer in comfortable circumstances; but having rashly become security to the amount of 500 or 600 for a friend who failed, he was reduced to the condition of a day-labourer on the fields which he had formerly rented. It was one of those numerous cases in which Scottish caution is no match for Scottish clannishness. Not only was the worthy ex-farmer thus a sufferer, but his family also; for as fast as they grew up to active boyhood they were sent out to work for their living. Such was the fate of poor Robert Nicoll, who, when only seven years old, was employed in herding all summer, that he might be able to afford attendance at school during the months of winter. It was fortunate for him that with means of education so scanty and precarious, he had, in his mother, the best of all teachers. She taught him to cherish the love and practice of truth—to struggle boldly with adversity, that he might eat, however sparingly, the bread of independence—and, what was better still, she instructed him to rest his hopes and aspirations upon something nobler than mere earthly subsistence. These lessons, moreover, were given not merely in formal words, but also in living practice, for she too was frequently employed in field labour, to contribute her full share in the maintenance of the family, while she endured her hard fate not only with resignation but cheerfulness. When Scotland ceases to abound in such mothers, it will no longer have a history worth recording.

Having thus laid an educational foundation that could bear a superstructure however broad or weighty, Robert Nicoll found that he was fitted for something better than tending cattle. It had now done its good work, as he after-words testified:—

"A wither’d woodland twig would bring
The tears into my eye:—
Laugh on! but there are souls of love
In laddies herding kye."

He bound himself apprentice to Mrs. J. H. Robertson, wine merchant and grocer in Perth, and during the little spare time which his new duties allowed him, he commenced the work of self-education in good earnest. For this purpose he purchased "Cobbett’s English Grammar,"and did not rest till he had made himself master of its principles. He thus writes to his brother: "I am grown very industrious. I read in the morning while sluggards are snoring; all day I attend to my business; and in the forenights I learn my grammar." He thus also specifies the amount of his opportunities: "I am employed in working for my mistress from seven o’clock in the morning until nine at night, and I must therefore write when others sleep." His means of intellectual improvement were greatly facilitated by the kindness of a friend, who lent him his ticket to the Perth Library, and the books which he especially selected for study were such as showed the serious cast of his mind: they were "Milton’s Prose Works," "Locke’s Works," and several of the writings of Jeremy Bentham, the last of which became his chief favourites. And that he was studying to purpose, the following extract from a letter to his mother will sufficiently attest: "I look upon the earth as a place where every man is set to struggle and to work, that he may be made humble and pure-hearted, and fit for that better land to which earth is the gate. I think, mother, that to me has been given talent; and, if so, that talent was given to make it useful to man. I am determined never to bend to the storm that is coming, and never to look back on it after it has passed. Fear not for me, dear mother; I feel that, whether I be growing richer or not, I am growing a wiser man, which is far better."

On finishing his apprenticeship, Nicoll repaired to Edinburgh; but not finding employment there, he opened a circulating library in Dundee, for which undertaking his affectionate mother lent him 20—to her an absolute fortune— the raising of which must have involved her in trying difficulties, but which he gave himself no rest until he had repaid. It was the year 1835, the year in which he became "of age," and by the character as well as amount of his labour, he soon showed how conscious he was of the duties of full-grown manhood. He became an extensive contributor to the newspapers of the liberal party in Dundee; he delivered political lectures; he made speeches at public meetings. It will be seen from these that he was an enthusiastic politician, as well as a devout believer in the fact that everything good in government can be made better still. But that species of intellectual labour by which he will be best and longest known, and with which we have most to do, consisted of poetry, of which he published a volume, under the title of "Songs and Lyrics." The chief faults of these were, that they were written in many cases in the Scottish dialect, of which he had not full mastery—and that his language, when impassioned, overflowed into redundancy. Had he lived longer, it is probable that a more matured experience would have induced him to abandon the former, and correct the latter error. Even as it is, however, these poems are admirable, considering that they were written at such an early period: they strike those keynotes of the heart which matured age cannot always reach, but to which old age as well as youth can gladly listen. Indeed, the character and spirit of his poesy, so gentle, so thoughtful, and devout, and withal so imbued with deep truthful feeling, are perhaps best embodied and illustrated in the following extract:—

"The green leaves waving in the morning gale—
The little birds that ‘mid their freshness sing—
The wild-wood flowers, so tender-ey’d and pale—
The wood-mouse sitting by the forest spring—
The morning dew—the wild bee’s woodland hum,
All woo my feet to nature’s forest home.

"There I can muse, away from living men,
Reclining peacefully on nature’s breast—
The wood-bird sending up its God-ward strain,
Nursing the spirit into holy rest!
Alone with God, within this forest fane,
The soul can feel that all save Him is vain.

"Here I can learn—will learn—to love all things
That he hath made—to pity and forgive
All faults, all failings. Here the earth’s deep springs
Are open’d up, and all on earth who live
To me grow nearer, dearer than before—
My brother loving, I my God adore."

There were times, however, when the heart of Nicoll, otherwise so gentle, could express its feelings in the most indignant outburst. In proof of this, we have only to allude to his "Bacchanalian," a wild, but eloquent and heartrending appeal in behalf of the poor, on account of the reckless intemperance with which the pangs of starvation, and the precariousness of utter poverty are too generally accompanied.

The shop which Nicoll opened as a circulating library gave little promise of success: an attachment, also, which he had formed for a young and amiable woman, whom he wished to make his partner in life, induced him to seek more remunerative occupation, for which he had already shown himself to be fully qualified. He therefore left Dundee in 1830, and was soon after appointed editor to the "Leeds Times," through the kind interposition of Mr. Tait, the Edinburgh publisher. He now considered himself settled for life, so that after a short continuance in Leeds he ventured, at the close of 1836, to bid adieu to the love of change, by becoming a married man. Everything now wore the rose-hue of happiness: he had a delightful home, and an affectionate partner, to animate him in his literary duties; and these duties were so successful, that the journal which he conducted was weekly increasing in circulation. But a cankerworm was at the root of this fair-spreading gourd, and even already it was about to wither. The origin of this is to be found more or less in the nature of provincial journalism over the whole of Britain. Although the "Leeds Times" was a large weekly paper, filled within and without, and so ably managed that its circulation was increasing at the rate of 200 subscribers per week, the salary it afforded was nothing more than 100 per annum. Thus it is that the great political Jupiter Tonans of a county town, whose We seems to "shake the spheres," is often the miserable thrall of a knot of shareholders, whose only aim is to secure a large dividend at the smallest amount of outlay; and thus he is compelled to occupy a position in society for which his income is totally inadequate. It is, in short, the very perfection of poverty, because the show of respectability eats up the substance: the larder is empty, that the neat drawing-room may be kept up. All this Robert Nicoll soon experienced; and although he was already overtoiled with the labours of his journal, which he performed without an assistant, he found that additional toil must be endured to meet the necessary expenditure of his station. He therefore undertook, in the spring of 1837, the task of writing the leading articles of a journal newly started in Sheffield; and this, with his duties in the "Leeds Times," which he continued without abatement, soon turned the balance. His health gave way, and his constitution was broken. He continued to struggle on, and perhaps might have rallied for a new life of exertion, for as yet he had only entered his twenty-third year, but the general parliamentary election, in the summer of 1837, interposed, in which the representation of Leeds was contested between Sir John Becket and Sir William Molesworth; Nicoll espoused the cause of the latter, and entered the contest with such ardour that his health was injured beyond recovery. Unable any longer to toil at the editorial desk, he returned to Scotland, in the hope that his native air would cure him; but after a few months of painful lingering, he died at Laverock Bank, near Edinburgh, on the 9th of December, 1837. It is gratifying to know that his last days were solaced by the kindness of influential friends, whom his genius and virtues had deeply interested in his behalf. After his death, a complete edition of his poems was published by Mr. Tait, with a biographical sketch prefixed, from which, and a short article in "Tait’s Magazine," Robert Nicoll and his Poems by Ebenezer Elliott, we have derived the foregoing particulars.


Poems of Robert Nicoll with a Memoir of the Author

The Life if of Robert Nicoll
By P. R. Drummond


164

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