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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Nicol, William (1744 - 97)

Son of a tailor in Ecclefechan, he was born at Dumbretton, in the parish of Annan. His father died when he was a child, and he received most of his education from a travelling teacher, John Orr. While still a young lad, he opened a school in his mother's house. Later, he attended Annan Grammar School and Edinburgh University, studying first for the ministry, and then medicine. In 1774 he became classical master in the High School, Edinburgh, having won the position in open competition. He remained at the High School until 1795, when, after a violent quarrel with the Rector, Dr Alexander Adam, he opened a school of his own, which he ran until his death two years later.

A man of great talent and ability, his vanity and irascibility made him an embarrassing friend on occasion. In Memorials of his Times Lord Cockburn, who had once been Nicol's pupil, thus described his discipline:

'The person to whose uncontrolled discipline I was now subjected, though a good man, an intense student and filled, but rather in the memory than in the head, with knowledge, was as bad a schoolmaster as it is possible to fancy. Unacquainted with the nature of youth, ignorant even of the characters of his own boys, and with not a conception of the art or of the duty of alluring them, he had nothing for it but to drive them: and this he did by constant and indiscriminate harshness.

'The efforts of this were very hurtful to all his pupils. Out of the whole four year of my attendance there were probably no ten days in which I was not flogged, at least once. The beauty of no Roman word or thought, or action ever occurred to me nor did I ever fancy that Latin was of any use except to torture boys.'

In spite of his readiness to flare up in anger, Nicol had a fondness for convivial relaxation; and it was probably this which first attracted Burns to him.

No one knows how or when the two men first met. Though a good teacher Nicol, because of his irascibility, was no favourite in Edinburgh society, and he does not feature among the lists of celebrities and friends whom Burns met at Edinburgh parties and whose names he recounted in his letters. But on 1st June 1787, Burns, on his Border tour, addressed his only surviving letter in Scots to 'Kind honest hearted Willie'. The second hall of the letter deals with his travels and 'wi' twa dink quines in particlar'. The first part of the letter is about his mare, Jenny Geddes. Alexander Young, the Edinburgh lawyer, knew Nicol as a client, and considered him 'one of the greatest Latin Scholars of the age... He had considerable, indeed constant, employment in translating the Medical Law Theses of the graduates at the University, for which he made liberal charges, but was very ill paid. I was employed by him to recover many of these claims.'

Nicol accompanied Burns on his Highland tour when, by Nicol's wish, they travelled in a chaise. He proved a tiresome travelling companion, for when Burns was invited to dine at Castle Gordon, Nicol, piqued at having been kept waiting at Fochabers inn before being invited to join the party, insisted on pressing on with their journey immediately, if necessary alone. Writing to the Duke's librarian and companion, James Hoy, from Edinburgh on 20th October 1787, Burns expressed his feelings on this incident: 'I shall certainly, among my legacies, leave my latent curse to that unlucky predicament which hurried me, tore me away from Castle Gordon. May that obstinate son of Latin Prose be curst to Scotch-mile periods and damn'd to seven league paragraphs; while Declension and Conjugation, Gender, Number, and Time, under the ragged banners of Dissonance and Disarrangement eternally rank against him in hostile array! ! ! !'

But the two men remained friends. Burns humoured his touchiness. Writing to Nicol's fellow-master, William Cruikshank, on 3rd March 1788, Burns remarked: 'I would send my compliments to Mr Nicol, but he would be hurt if he knew I wrote to any body and not to him.'

When Burns was farming Ellisland, Nicol loaned him an old bay mare, Peg Nicholson - named after a mad woman, Margaret Nicholson, who tried to assassinate George III in 1776 - to use or to sell. Burns reported the position to Nicol on 13th December 1789:

'Now for your unfortunate old mare. I have tried many dealers for her, and I am ashamed to say that the highest offer I have got for her, is fifty shillings. However, I tried her yesterday in the Plough, and I find the poor creature is extremely willing to do what she can, so I hope to make her worth her meat to me, until I can try her at some fair.'

But the poor horse did not survive the winter, and on 9th February 1790, Burns told Nicol: 'That d-mned mare of yours is dead. I would freely have given her price to have saved her; she has vexed me beyond description. Indebted as I was to your goodness beyond what I can ever repay, I eagerly grasped at your offer to have the mare with me. That I might at least shew my readiness in wishing to be grateful, I took every care of her in my power. She was never crossed for riding above half a score of times by me or in my keeping. I drew her in the plough, one of three, for on poor week, I refused five shillings for her, which was the highest bode I could squeeze for her. I fed her up and had her in fine order for Dumfries fair; when four or five days before the fair, she was seized with an unaccountable disorder in the sinews, or somewhere in the bones of the neck; with a weakness or total want of power in her fillets; and, in short, the whole vertebrae of her spine seemed to be diseased and unhinged and in eight and forty hours, in spite of the two best farriers in the country, she died and be d-mned to her!... While she was with me, she was under my own eye, and I assure you, my much valued friend, everything was done for her that could be done.' He commemorated her in his 'Elegy on Willie Nicol's Mare'.

During the winter of 1792-3, Burns, in difficulties with the Board of Excise, was accused of refusing to rise when the orchestra in the Dumfries theatre played 'God Save the King', and of being concerned in a call for the French Revolutionary song, 'Ca Ira'. Wrote Nicol:

'Dear Christless Bobbie:

What has become of thee? Has the Devil flown off with thee, as the gled does with a bird? If he should do so there is little matter if the reports concerning thy imprudence are true. What concerns it thee whether the lousy Dumfriesian fiddlers play "Ca Ira" or "God Save the King"? Suppose you had an aversion to the King, you could not, as a gentlemen, wish God to use him worse than he has done. The infliction of idiocy is no sign of friendship or love.....'

Nicol counselled the behaviour of the Vicar of Bray.

Burns replied on 20th February 1793, with a screed of brilliant fooling, beginning: 'O thou, wisest among the Wise, meridian blaze of Prudence, full moon of Discretion, & Chief of many Counsellors! How infinitely is thy puddle-headed, rattle-headed, wrong-headed, round-headed slave indebted to thy supereminent

goodness, that from the luminous path of thy own right-lined rectitude, thou lookest benignly down on an erring wretch, of whom the zig-zag wanderings defy all the powers of Calculation, from the simple copulation of Units up to the hidden mystery of Fluxions!'

Burns called one of his sons William Nicol, because, as he told George Thomson in a letter of May 1795, of: 'that propensity to witty wickedness and manfu' mischief, which even at twa days auld I foresaw would form the striking features of his disposition....'

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