Introducing: William Robertson Nicoll

William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923), journalist, was born on 10 October 1851 at Lumsden, Aberdeenshire, the elder son of the Revd Harry Nicoll (d. 1891), Free Church of Scotland minister of Auchindoir, Aberdeenshire, and his wife, Jane Robertson. Nicoll acquired his lifelong love of books in his father’s copious library of 17,000 books, to which much of his salary was devoted. He attended the parish school of Auchindoir and Aberdeen grammar school. At fifteen, he entered Aberdeen University, graduating MA in 1870. After four years’ training at the Free Church Divinity Hall, he was ordained to his first charge at Dufftown, Banffshire, in 1874. He was already writing regularly for the Aberdeen Journal, by the age of twenty earning £100 p.a. from journalism. In September 1877 he was inducted minister of the Free Church, Kelso, and the next year, on 21 August in Edinburgh, he married Isa, only child of Peter Dunlop, a prosperous Berwickshire farmer; their son and daughter were born in the manse at Kelso. Witnessing Gladstone’s first Midlothian campaign captured Nicoll for the Liberal cause. While in Kelso, he began to edit The Contemporary Pulpit for Swan, Sonnenschein, and The Expositor, which he directed until his death, for Hodder and Stoughton. Nicoll visited Germany and Norway, where he caught typhoid in 1885. Pleurisy and the fear of tuberculosis, which had killed his father, brother, and sister, ended his promising preaching career, and he moved to Glenroy, Highland Road, Upper Norwood, London, to devote himself to journalism. With his wide intellectual base, his liberal political and theological enthusiasms, and his clerical experience, Nicoll was ideally positioned to write for the huge nonconformist constituency, hitherto rather narrowly served by journalists. Hodder and Stoughton began publication on 5 November 1886 of the British Weekly: a Journal of Social Progress, a penny weekly with Nicoll as editor. It quickly became a success, with J. M. Barrie, S. R. Crockett, and John Watson (‘Ian Maclaren’) as regular contributors; for thirty years he was assisted on it by Jane T. Stoddart. Nicoll often wrote as ‘Claudius Clear’, his letters under that name being later republished (1901, 1905, 1913). He portrayed his abandoned, rural Scotland in a number of rather sentimental pieces, and may be said to have founded the ‘kailyard school’ of Scottish writing by discovering Barrie, who initially wrote Scottish character sketches for the British WeeklyThe Bonnie Briar Bush (from 1887), and encouraging Watson to write for it in 1893. In 1891 Nicoll founded the successful literary monthly The Bookman, and in 1893 Woman at Home, an illustrated magazine intended as a Strand Magazine for women, and subtitled ‘Annie S. Swan’s Magazine’, the Scottish novelist (Anne Burnett Smith) being its chief contributor.

Nicoll and his wife were often unwell. In 1892 they moved to Bay Tree Lodge, Hampstead, with room for 24,000 books. In 1894 Isa Nicoll died, following an operation, and Nicoll was left to rear their children. If anything, he increased his literary output, with Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century (2 vols., 1894–6), edited with T. J. Wise. In 1896 he visited the USA with J. M. Barrie and on 1 May 1897 he married Catherine, daughter of Joseph Pollard, of Highdown, Hitchin, Hertfordshire; they had one daughter. Catherine Nicoll was the model for Percy Bigland’s painting A Quaker Wedding, and was herself a competent water-colourist. His second marriage rejuvenated Nicoll: the years from 1897 to 1914 were the most energetic and fruitful of his always productive career. In addition to his usual journalism, he began again to preach and lecture widely. He played a prominent role in the ‘passive resistance’ movement against the 1902 Education Act, and campaigned for a fair settlement between the United Free Church of Scotland and the ‘Wee Frees’, which was achieved in 1905. Nicoll supported the Lloyd George group in the Liberal governments of 1905–16, though he was lukewarm about home rule. His knighthood in 1909 recognized his position as ‘the intellectual leader of nonconformity—the chief exponent of its thought, and the most effective advocate of its cause in the press’ (Daily Chronicle, cited in Darlow, 210). He was a strong supporter of war with Germany and his ‘War notes’ in the British Weekly often reflected Lloyd George’s thinking and supported him as he rose to the premiership.

Nicoll’s health began to fail in 1920, though he wrote until his death. He was made CH in 1921. He died, from an abscess, on 4 May 1923 at his home in Hampstead, and was buried in Highgate cemetery. He was a tubby man, with a scrappy moustache, who smoked heavily. He disliked fresh air, and always had a fire blazing in his study. Much of his literary output was dictated from his bed. He was fascinated by palmistry and was notorious for absent-mindedness, often returning from house parties with other men’s clothes. H. A. Vachell recalled:‘he had a dry, pawky wit. He was well-named “Sense and Sensibility”’ (Darlow, 415). Nicoll was among the most prolific of British journalists and succeeded in being both popular and erudite; it was said of him that he had ‘the keenest nose for a book that will sell of any man in the book business’ (Clement Shorter, in Price, 73). His nonconformist readership declined after the war and from that point of view his death was well timed.

Literary Output:

  1. Calls to Christ, (1877) Morgan & Scott: London.
  2. The Yale Lectures on Preaching: (1878) Reprinted from the British and Foreign Evangelical Review.
  3. Songs of Rest [First Series], (1879) Macniven & Wallace, Edinburgh: combined with Second Series (1893), Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  4. The Incarnate Saviour, (1881) T. & T. Clark: Edinburgh.
  5. The Lamb of God, (1883) Macniven & Wallace: Edinburgh.
  6. ‘John Bunyan’ (1884) in The Evangelical Succession, Macniven & Wallace: Edinburgh.
  7. James Macdonell, Journalist, (1890) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  8. Professor W.G. Elmslie, D.D., (1890) (with Macnicoll, A.N.) Hodder & Stoughton: London: revised and enlarged as Professor Elmslie: A Memoir (1911) by W Robertson Nicoll [but minus sermons].
  9. The Key of the Grave, (1894) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  10. Ten Minute Sermons, (1894) Isbister & Co: reprinted 1910, Hodder & Stoughton.
  11. The Seven Words from the Cross, (1895) Hodder & Stoughton, London.
  12. When the Worst comes to the Worst, (1896) Isbister & Co.
  13. ‘Henry Drummond: A Memorial Sketch’, (1897) prefixed to Drummond’s posthumous volume, The Ideal Life, Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  14. The Return to the Cross, (1897) reprint 1910, Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  15. Letters to Ministers on the Clerical Life, (1898) (with others) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  16. The Ascent of the Soul, (1899) Isbister & Co.
  17. Letters on Life: by Claudius Clear, (1901) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  18. The Church’s One Foundation, (1901) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  19. A Memorial Article, Hugh Price Hughes as we knew him, (1902) H Marshall & Son.
  20. Robert Louis Stevenson, in the Bookman Booklet Series, (1902/6) Hodder & Stoughton, London.
  21. The Garden of Nuts, (1905) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  22. The Day Book of Claudius Clear, (1905) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  23. The Scottish Free Church Trust and it’s Donors, (1905) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  24. Thomas A History of English Literature [3 Volumes, originally published as The Bookman Illustrated History of English Literature] (1906) (with Seccombe) Hodder & Stoughton, London.
  25. The Lamp of Sacrifice, (1906) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  26. ‘Introduction and Appreciation, Memoirs of the Late Dr Barnardo, Mrs Barnardo & James Marchant, (1907) Hodder & Stoughton, London.
  27. My Father. An Aberdeenshire Minister, (1908) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  28. Ian Maclaren, The Life of the Rev. John Watson D.D., (1908) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  29. ‘Introduction’ to Jane Stoddart’s Against the Referendum, (1910) Hodder & Stoughton, London.
  30. The Round of the Clock: The Story of Our Lives from Year to Year [Claudius Clear], (1910) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  31. Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon, (N/D: but after 1910) Nelson & Sons: London.
  32. The Christian Attitude Towards Democracy [reprinted from the British Weekly], (1912) Hodder & Stoughton, London.
  33. The Problem of ‘Edwin Drood’ (A study in the Methods of Dickens), (1912) Hodder & Stoughton. London.
  34. A Bookman’s Letters, (1913) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  35. The Difference Christ is Making [reprinted from the British Weekly], (1914) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  36. Prayer in War Time, (1916) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  37. Reunion in Eternity, (1918) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  38. Edited with ‘Appreciation’, Letters of Principal James Denney to W. Robertson Nicoll, (1920) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  39. Princes of the Church, (1921) Hodder & Stoughton: London.
  40. Dickens’s Own Story: Sidelights on his Life and personality, (1923) [reprints from ‘Claudius Clear’ in the British Weekly], Prefatory Note by St John Adcock, Chapman & Hall Ltd, London.
  41. Memories of Mark Rutherford (William Hale White), (1924) [reprints from ‘Claudius Clear’ in the British Weekly], T Fisher Unwin, London.

A list of his publications up to 1902 is included in a monograph on Nicoll by Jane T. Stoddart (New Century Leaders, 1903). The official biography was written by Nicoll’s friend T H Darlow and published in 1925 as a more complete list.

Sources:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

T. H. Darlow, William Robertson Nicoll (1925)

A. Whigham Price, ‘W. Robertson Nicoll and the genesis of the Kailyard school’, Durham Journal, 86 (Jan 1994), 73–82

Archive:

U. Aberdeen L., corresp., news-cuttings, incl. letters of sympathy to Lady Robertson Nicoll · U. Edin. L., corresp. with Charles Sarolea

National Archives of Scotland

Note: Additional dictionary content from The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography can be obtained free in the UK from public libraries thanks to a national deal with the MLA.

See here for more biographies in the Introducing Series.

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