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The home of W. Robertson Nicoll

Category Articles
Date February 24, 2003

I became aware for the first time of the hardship of the world, and looked with new eyes on my father’s shabby clothes and anxious expression; that is why memory has held the incident so tenaciously that to this day I could point you to the exact place where his words were spoken, and never pass the spot without thinking of them

by Jane T. Stoddart written in 1903

W. Robertson Nicoll’s father, Harry, was born at Kildrummy, the next parish to Auchindoir where he worked as a schoolmaster and collected the most remarkable private library in Scotland. The best students at the University aspired in those days to the position of parish schoolmasters in the counties of Aberdeen and Banff. By attending theological classes for a few weeks each year, teachers might find their way into the Kirk. Some of them might rise to any educational post, even to a professorship in the University.

At the Disruption the parish schools remained with the Church of Scotland, and the teachers who "came out" were deprived of employment. During the "Ten Years’ Conflict" Harry Nicoll had taken a very decided attitude on the non-intrusion side, and he was therefore obliged to leave his position. He had completed his theological studies, and was already a probationer, and he was invited to become minister of the newly founded Free Church of Auchindoir, in the village of Lumsden. The Manse dated from 1850, and was one of the modest homes of the Disruption fathers, which were themselves a witness to heroic character and memorable achievement.

Over the door of each might be inscribed the motto, "As poor, yet making many rich." These cottage manses of the early Free Church are among the sacred places of Scotland, for they tell of a poverty which existed side by side with a spiritual wealth not unworthy of the Church’s greatest days. They were "small two-storey houses, very plainly furnished, sometimes not carpeted, with books for their adornment. You would see a clock, or some article of furniture with a silver plate, bearing an inscription to the effect that it had been presented by an affectionate congregation. You found yourself at once in an intellectual atmosphere."

The Free Church at Lumsden was one of many small plain sanctuaries which arose when Scotland shook off the yoke of Moderatism. It had not the slightest pretension to architectural beauty. Within and without it was devoid of ornament, the walls were white-washed and the pews unpainted. "Under the narrow and high pulpit sat the precentor, who sang in the course of the service about thirty-six lines from the metrical psalms. The first prayer was about a quarter of an hour long, and a shorter followed, during both of which the people stood. But the main feature of the service was the sermon, which generally lasted from three quarters of an hour to an hour. As a rule the people listened with a grave, subdued air, but without obvious signs of interest. Interested they were, however: they understood what was said to them, and in process of time came to understand all the characteristic doctrines of Evangelicalism." The peasantry of the north loved these humble churches as the psalmist loved the temple. The doctrines of grace were preached by men who believed in them with all their souls. So intense was the concentration on the central facts of religion, that no room was left for the display of worldly knowledge. The sermons of the Rev. Harry Nicoll revealed little of that scholarship and profound learning which he had gleaned from his library.

Only the possessor of that treasure-house could have told the true story of his riches. His passion for knowledge was not hereditary, for his father, an Aberdeenshire farmer, had cared little for books. The opportunities his children enjoyed from childhood influenced and indeed shaped their careers.

For forty years it was the custom of Mr. Alexander Milne, the well-known Aberdeen bookseller, to send a weekly parcel of books to Lumsden. They arrived by the carrier’s cart on Thursday, and this was the great day of the week for father and children. All were present at the opening, and only on rarest occasions were any volumes returned, for when Mr. Nicoll had once got a book in his hands, he could not bear to part with it. Twice a year he travelled to Aberdeen and was followed home by gigantic parcels. Robertson Nicoll remembers how when these arrived his father was wont to take a wheel-barrow, and go shamefacedly up a back way to the carrier’s office, returning with his books to enter by another door. By judicious purchasing and patient waiting, Mr. Nicoll succeeded during his life of nearly eighty years in accumulating 17,000 volumes, an almost miraculous achievement when we remember that his income never reached £200 a year. In later life he began to buy duplicates, for as he said to his son, " You are never really safe with one copy of a good book." Every shilling which he could spare from a strictly frugal life went to the enlargement of his library. He bought with the help of second-hand catalogues, and half a crown was usually the highest price he paid. He never bought books as curiosities and could seldom afford a rare edition. Yet in his collection there were volumes which represented a real sacrifice. His beautiful set of Locke, for example, has the price marked on it in pencil of over four pounds. A book which Mr. Nicoll greatly admired was Pearson on the Creed, and he purchased each edition as it appeared, till his library contained nine copies.

Harry Nicoll was one of those exceptional men who study from pure love of knowledge, with no ulterior object. In his early schoolmaster days, he was a frequent contributor to the Aberdeen Banner, the local organ of the Evangelical party, and poems from his pen occasionally appeared in the Aberdeen Journal. After his settlement at Lumsden, he was an occasional reviewer for the Free Press. But he was a man entirely without ambition. He rarely talked about books, never formed a literary project, had no dreams of personal advancement. Cut off as he was in his remote village from the great movements of the Church and the world, he lived in silent communion with the mighty dead, and found in his library " the friends for every season, bright and dim." He could put his hand on any of his books in the dark, and if a friend asked him for references on almost any subject, he would search about till he had gathered a little heap of ten or twelve volumes, in which relevant passages were marked. It was lonely at Lumsden in the winter, when huge snow-drifts sometimes impeded traffic for days, but Mr. Nicoll never felt any need of society. He was genial in company, but was not depressed in solitude.

The longest journey he made was a visit to his son’s home at Norwood, London, in the early days of the British Weekly. Once he travelled to Loch Lomond, and talked about it to the end of his life. He went to Edinburgh three or four times for the meetings of the General Assembly, and used regularly to attend the Synod at Aberdeen, taking a prominent part in the proceedings. The Alford Presbytery, of which he was Clerk, frequently met at his house. He had an active share in the formation of new congregations at Alford, Towie, and Strathdon.

In 1850 Harry Nicoll married Miss Jane Robertson, niece and adopted daughter of the Rev. William Robertson of Aboyne. The village of Lumsden, to which on the wedding-day he drove home with his beautiful girl-bride of twenty-three, is still one of the remotest spots in the United Kingdom. The nearest railway stations on either side were Gartly and Alford – eight miles distant. A pleasant day may be spent in driving through the Donside country. The deep winding stream, beloved of anglers, flows between wooded banks and tree-lined gorges, and its scenery has all the loveliness, though little of the wild grandeur that we expect from a Highland river. There is a popular saying in Aberdeenshire, "He has as many crooks as Don."

The church of Kildrummy occupies a conspicuous position between the road and the river, and in its quiet graveyard Harry Nicoll and his wife Jane are buried. The older houses of Lumsden have thatched roofs; the newer, more comfortably and solidly built, are covered with slate. In Dr. Nicoll’s childhood the villagers regarded butchers’ meat as a luxury, and lived frugally on potatoes, rice and kale. An English village of the same size would have two or three butchers’ shops; in Lumsden there was not one. On the other hand, the newspaper was a necessity of existence, and there was an enormous demand for weekly journals. Dr. Alexander, the great authority on Aberdeenshire life and customs, says, "When the newspaper only appeared once a week the leading articles of the ‘Able Editor’ were not only read with deliberation and care, but formed topics of discussion for days on end, and the village tailor, ‘souter’ or weaver, was often a keen and exactly informed politician." Such was the village where, on October 10th, 1851, William Robertson Nicoll was born.

Someone said that, "Our village contained, when I was a child about five hundred people and eleven thousand books." Ten thousand of these books were under the same roof with the Free Church minister’s children. There were two sons and two daughters – William, Maria, Eliza and Henry, and each, from earliest years, acquired a true love of literature. Every corner was library, and in the Lumsden Manse books overflowed into every room and corridor. To strangers and perhaps to its own inhabitants, the Scottish hamlet might have seemed "remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow." Human fellowship was not abundant, and it was natural, especially in the dark and roaring nights of winter, to seek comrades in the library. The young eyes rested on books with the same delight with which other children look on costly toys. The little ones regarded printed matter with a sort of Chinese reverence. "The loneliness of those years," Dr. Nicoll says, " I look back upon with gratitude."

Strict economy ruled the life of the Manse, for the salaries provided for Free Church ministers under the Equal Dividend were far from princely. In this connection I may recall a touching story which Robertson Nicoll has told of his childhood. "One day I was trotting proudly by my father’s side. He was a country minister and was going for a round of visitation. I knew well enough that we lived very sparingly, and that the expenditure of every penny was seriously considered. But then I never doubted that my father was saving a great deal, and that in reality, little as appearances went to confirm the idea, he was a rich man. He talked to me about some book which he wanted to buy, but, said he: ‘I cannot afford it.’ I replied ‘But you have plenty of money in the bank.’ ‘No, my boy,’ he rejoined, ‘I have nothing in the world but a few pounds in my desk. They will, perhaps, be enough till the Equal Dividend comes.’ I knew what the Equal Dividend was. It came from the Free Church offices in Edinburgh every half year and was my father’s share of the Sustentation Fund. . . The Equal Dividend was the sheet anchor of our home as of the Free Church. We did not receive one farthing save from it. But the reply was a great shock and sent towers and temples reeling. I became aware for the first time of the hardship of the world, and looked with new eyes on my father’s shabby clothes and anxious expression; that is why memory has held the incident so tenaciously that to this day I could point you to the exact place where his words were spoken, and never pass the spot without thinking of them."

Robertson Nicoll’s earliest recollection was of seeing his mother Jane in the garden in her sun-bonnet. The yearly holiday came in August, when the whole family drove in a cart to Aboyne, and spent a week in her father’s Manse, which, to the young folk appeared a palace of delight. All the children loved reading the Brontes for it seemed to them that life in the moorland parsonage of Haworth must in many respects have resembled their own. They knew almost by heart Mrs. Gaskell’s "Life of Charlotte Bronte."

It was only for that a few years that Jane Nicoll could accompany her little ones to the happy home of her girlhood, for at the early age of thirty-one, she died of consumption. This fatal malady reappeared in several of her children, cutting short the life of her gifted daughter Eliza in the dawn of womanhood, and of her younger son Henry, just as he was entering on a career of the highest promise in literature. Robertson Nicoll was the only eight when the little group was left motherless, and he well remembers the dark night of their bereavement. Writing of the Manse life in those days he remarks, "To pecuniary considerations the ministers were, as a rule, almost entirely indifferent. Their wives shared in their views. More devoted wives could never be found; no women ever lived who more completely identified themselves with every thought and word and labour of their husbands." The old nurse, Mary, and one of the most loyal of Highland servants, did her best to replace a mother’s care, and she would welcome the bairns into her kitchen of an evening, and let the schoolboy learn his lessons has before her glowing fire.

In 1863, when he was 12, his father took Robertson on his first railway journey to Aberdeen to see Queen Victoria. Two years later in 1865 he accompanied his father to the General Assembly at Edinburgh. He heard Dr Begg (the Moderator of the church that year) speaking on exclusive psalmody. He saw Dr Candlish of Free St George’s, Dr Guthrie and Dr Buchanan who were all his father’s heroes.

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