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Clan Nicolson

In a district mostly in Ross-shire, anciently known by the name of Ness, there was originally located a small and broken clan, known as the Macnicols. The only districts, according to Skene, which at all answers to the description of Ness, are those of Assynt, Edderachylis, and Duirness.

The Macnicols were descended from one Mackrycul (the letter r in the Gaelic being invariably pronounced like n), who, tradition says, as a reward for having rescued from some Scandinavians a great quantity of cattle carried off from Sutherland, received from one of the ancient thanes of that province, the district of Assynt, then a forest belonging to them. This Mackryeul held that part of the coast of Cogeach, which is called Ullapool. In the MS of 1450, the descent of the clan Nicail is traced in a direct line from a certain Gregall, plainly the Krycul here mentioned, who is supposed to have lived in the twelfth century. He is said to have been the ancestor, besides the Macnicols, of the Nicols and the Nicholsons. When Gregall lived, Sutherland was occupied by Gaelic tribes, and the Macnicols may therefore be considered of Gaelic origin.

About the beginning of the 14th century, the family of the chief ended in an heiress, who married Torquil Macleod, a younger son of Macleod of Lewis. Macleod obtained a crown charter of the district of Assynt and other lands in Wester Ross, which had been the property of the Macnicols. That sept subsequently removed to the Isle of Skye, and the residence of their head or chief was at Scoirebreac, on the margin of the loch near Portree.

Even after their removal to Skye the Macnicols seem to have retained their independence, for tradition relates that on one occasion when the head of this clan, called Macnicol Mor, was engaged in a warm discussion with Macleod of Rasay, carried on in the English language, the servant of the latter coming into the room, imagined they were quarrelling, and drawing his sword mortally wounded Macnicol. To prevent a feud between the two septs, a council of chieftains and elders was held to determine in what manner the Macnicols could be appeased, when, upon some old precedent, it was agreed that the meanest person in the clan Nicol should behead the laird of Rasay. The individual of least note among them was one Lomach, a maker of pannier baskets, and he accordingly cut off the head of the laird of Rasay.

In Argyleshire there were many Macnicols, but the clan may be said to have long been extinct.

Another account of the Clan

Mac NicolOf the ancient races of the West and North which have been dignified with the title of the Great Clans, only one may be said to have fallen entirely to pieces in the course of time. The fact speaks volumes for the vitality of these warrior tribes, and the healthiness of the seemingly hard conditions amid which they lived and struggled. The conclusions of Skene in his Highlanders of Scotland have not always been approved by later writers, but it is worth noting that he identifies Clan Nicol with the Kairinoi of the early geographer Ptolemy. Skene identifies the Ness district of the Norwegian sagas with the region in the north-west of Scotland now known as Edyrachillis, Duirinish, and Assynt, and he declares that "the most ancient Gaelic clan which can be traced as inhabiting these districts is the clan Nicail or MacNicols." In the article on " Assynt "in the Statistical Account of Scotland, the Rev. William Mackenzie records that "Tradition and even documents declare that it was a forest of the ancient Thanes of Sutherland. One of these Prince Thanes gave it in vassalage to one Macrycul, who in ancient times held the coast of Coygeach, that part of it at the place presently called Ullapool. The noble Thane made Assynt over in the above manner, as Mackrycul had recovered a great quantity of cattle carried off from the county of Sutherland by foreign invaders. "Mackenzie adds in a note, Mackrycul is reputed by the people here to be the potent man of whom are descended the Macnicols, Nicols, and Nicolsons." According to the Gaelic genealogical manuscript of 1450, on which Skene founds so much of his writing regarding the clans, this account is probably correct, for in that manuscript the descent of the Clan Nicail is traced in a direct line from a certain Gregall, who is obviously the Krycul of the tradition. Further, as the letters r and n are interchangeable in Gaelic, it can easily be seen how Macrycul became MacNicail or MacNicol, of which the English translation is of course Nicolson. The recovery of the great herd of Sutherland cattle from Norwegian invaders is believed to have been accomplished by Macrycul or MacNicol of Coygeach some time in the twelfth century. To accomplish such a feat he must have been at the head of a considerable army or clan, so the probability is that the race of Krycul or Gregall had been chiefs at Ullapool for a long period before that. This would take their ancestry back to the days of Malcolm Canmore at least.

About the time of the battle of Bannockburn the line of the MacNicol chiefs ended in an heiress who married Torquil, a younger son of MacLeod of the Lewis, and the pair obtained a Crown charter of the lands of Assynt and others which had been the MacNicol property. From this marriage descended fourteen successive MacLeod lairds of Assynt. It was one of these MacLeods of Assynt who in 1650 earned the execration of the Highlanders by handing over the Great Marquess of Montrose to the Covenanting Government at whose head was his implacable enemy, the crafty Marquess of Argyll. MacLeod was then in money difficulties, which perhaps explained his willingness to earn the Government reward. Ten years later his chief creditor, the Earl of Seaforth, foreclosed his wadsets and took possession of the Assynt estates. Still later Assynt was purchased by the Sutherland family. The more northern part of the old MacNicol country remained in other hands till MacLeod of Edyrachillis and Morison of Duirinish took occasion to engage in a feud, whereupon their neighbours the MacKays, then at the height of their power, stepped in and wrested these estates from both families, and from that time Edyrachillis and Duirinish became parts of the Lord Reayís country.

Meanwhile, on the death of the last MacNicol of Coygeach, Assynt, Edyrachillis, and Duirinish, the chiefship of the clan had by patriarchal law, passed to the nearest male of the race, and the seat of this line was afterwards removed to Scoirebreac, a beautiful spot on the coast of Skye near Portree. Here they appear to have shown their piety, prevision, or ostentation by benefactions to the religious house, of which the ruins may yet be seen on an island at the head of Loch Snizort. A small chapel on the south side of the main buildings is still known as MacNicolís Aisle, and within it is to be seen the effigy of a warrior in conical helmet and long quilted coat or habergeon, who must have been a man of much power in his time.

Of one of these chiefs of Scoirebreac a tradition is recorded which furnishes a curious illustration of the ancient ideas of clan honour and the rules of blood vengeance. The chief concerned, known as MacNicol Mor, from his great size, was one day engaged in a warm discussion with MacLeod of Raasay, his neighbour across the sound. At the height of the debate MacLeodís servant came into the room. The two were talking in English, so the man did not know the meaning of what was said, but under the impression that a serious quarrel was on foot, he drew his sword and dealt MacNicol a blow from which he died. To decide how the deed should be avenged and a feud between the two families avoided, a meeting of chiefs and elders was at once called. These men of wisdom decided that as the MacNicol chief had been slain, the hand of a menial MacLeod, the Laird of Raasay should be beheaded by the meanest of MacNicolís clansmen. The humblest of the latter was found to be one Lomach, a maker of horse panniers, and by him Raasay was duly put to death. The execution took place near Snizort. At the fatal moment the victim was in the act of speaking, and so deftly did Lomach take off his head that as it rolled down the hill the onlookers distinctly heard the sounds "ip ip" from its lips. From this circumstance the little mount was afterwards known as Cnoc an h-ip. It is satisfactory to know that the sacrifice of the Laird of Raasay prevented all further shedding of blood between the MacLeods and the MacNicols.

Stories of the MacNicols of Scoirebreac come down to the beginning of the nineteenth century. About that time, according to the author of the letterpress in MíIanís Clans of the Scottish Highlands, at a banquet of the clansmen given to celebrate some joyful occasion, there was a call for the bards to come to the upper end of the room. Convinced of the hopelessness of the summons MacNicol of Scoirebreac exclaimed, "The bards are extinct! " He was promptly taken to task by one of the company, Alastair buií Mac Ivor, who retorted, "No, they are not extinct, but those who delighted to patronise them are gone."

While the seat of the MacNicol chiefs was in Skye there were many of the name scattered throughout the county of Argyll, and of these there were several individuals whose characteristics or exploits have been perpetuated in tradition. One of them, reputed to be a seer, obtained the name of Gualan Crostadh from his rule never to look behind him. For the same reason he was also known as "an Teallsanach" or the Philosopher. As might be expected of such a personage, a crop of stories was long extant regarding him. Another of the clan, Gillespie MacNicol, attained fame by a rescue he effected at somewhat serious cost to himself. After the last Jacobite rising a widowís son had fallen into the hands of the "red soldiers," as Government troops were called, and they were carrying him off, when the redoubtable Gillespie came to the rescue. Attacking the soldiers, be slew one or two, put the others to flight, and set the captive free. Unluckily, as he did so, he received a swordstroke in the face which carried off his nose.

Strangely enough, notwithstanding the evident importance of the MacNicols in their early days, the clan seems never to have had a tartan. After the beginning of the fourteenth century, when the heiress of the early line of chiefs married a MacLeod, they seem to have merged in the following of that clan, and probably they adopted the MacLeod tartan.

Among members of the clan who have attained more than local repute was the Rev. Donald MacNicol, whose best known work was his defence of the Highlands against the accusations made by Dr. Samuel Johnson in his Journey to the Hebrides. Of the same period also were the Rev. Francis Nicoll, D.D., Principal of St. Leonardís and St. Salvatorís Colleges, St. Andrews, and Robert Nicoll, the poet who became editor of the Leeds Times in 1836. Still later were the Nichols, father and son, professors, one of astronomy and the other of English literature at Glasgow University. There was also Alexander Nicolson, the Gaelic scholar who died Sheriff-Substitute of Greenock in 1893. He is chiefly remembered by his revision of the Gaelic Bible and his collection of Gaelic proverbs. One of the ablest journalists of recent times, too, was Sir William Robertson Nicol, founder of The British Weekly and "discoverer " of Sir J. M. Barrie and other well-known writers.

It should be noted that the lowland name Nicholson, once represented by the Nicholsons of Carnock, a family now merged, with the Shaws of Greenock, in that of the Stewarts of Blackhall and Ardgowan, are not of the MacNicol clan. Their name, like that of the English Nicholls, is derived from the original form Nicholas.

Thanks to Murray Nicolson for this explanation on how MacNicol and Nicolson became two separate clans.

I am the former President of Clan MacNicol in the USA, where I founded the Society about 14 years ago. I'm originally from Edinburgh, went to the Royal High School and the University, and then emigrated to the Boston area in the USA.
To explain why there are two clans: I've always been interested in genealogy, and in the early 80's got in touch with the fellow who is the Clan Chief in Australia, Ian Nicolson. His ancestor had emigrated from the Isle of Skye about 1825, from Scorrybreck near Portree. The family had lived at Portree for many generations before that, and had entertained Bonnie Prince Charlie during his flight in 1746 - he was hidden in their cow shed! I and a lady in Australia decided to get the Clan societies up and going, but in the process of stirring things up a rival emerged - Lord Carnock, AKA Sir David Nicolson of that Ilk claimed the title of Chief of Clan Nicolson, by virtue of an ancestor who was given the title of John Nicolson of that Ilk and a Baronet of Lasswade in 1629. He was recognised as Chief of Clan Nicolson by the Lord Lyon in 1984. We discussed the clear claim of the Nicolsons of Scorrybreck to have a Chief, and in 1988 the Lord Lyon decided that our man could be titled Ian MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac, Chief of the Highland Clan MacNeacail. This required Ian to change his surname officially to MacNeacail from Nicolson - one is the Gaelic form of the other. This resulted in there being the two clans, and hence your problem about distinguishing them.
To establish the foundation of Clan MacNeacail, we commissioned a book to be written which was published in 1999, entitled The Highland Clan MacNeacail (MacNicol), by W.D.H. Sellar and Alasdair Maclean. Copies can be obtained from our Clan Society. We have branches in Scotland, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. We also own 130 acres of land that we bought in 1987 near Portree.



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