Nicol, James (1810-1879) (DNB00)

NICOL, JAMES (1810–1879), geologist, born 12 Aug. 1810, at Traquair Manse, near Innerleithen, Peeblesshire, was a son of James Nicol [q. v.], by his wife, Agnes Walker. On the latter's death in 1819 the family removed to Innerleithen, where the son was educated till he entered the university of Edinburgh in 1825. Attendance on the lectures of Professor Jameson increased an interest in mineralogy, already awakened, and young Nicol, after passing through the arts and divinity courses at Edinburgh, studied that subject, among others, at the universities of Bonn and Berlin.

On returning home he devoted himself to investigating the geology of the valley of the Tweed, and obtained the prizes offered by the Highland Society for essays, first on the geology of Peeblesshire and then of Roxburghshire. He was appointed in 1847 assistant secretary to the Geological Society of London, after nearly eight years' service in a subordinate position; in 1849 professor of geology in Queen's College, Cork, and in 1853 professor of natural history in the university of Aberdeen, holding this post till he resigned it in 1878. He was elected F.G.S. and F.R.S.E. in 1847. He died in London on 8 April 1879. In 1849 he married Alexandrina Anne Macleay Downie, who survived him.

Nicol was a good mineralogist, and published two useful text-books on that subject, but his reputation will always rest on his contributions to geology. Some of his earlier work on the Scottish uplands was of much value, but he has the high honour of having been the first to perceive the true relations of the rock-masses in the complicated region of the highlands. When he had convinced himself that the Torridon sandstone underlay the quartzite and limestone of Durness—a point on which much uncertainty had existed—Nicol devoted himself to a study of the position of these strata in regard to the two great masses of gneisses and schists in the north-west highlands. As the result of four years of patient labour he was persuaded that, contrary to the views expressed by Sir R. Murchison [q. v.] in 1858, these two masses in reality belonged to a single group of pre-Cambrian rocks, and that the apparent superposition of the so-called ‘upper gneiss’ to the limestone was a result of faulting. He announced this conclusion in a paper read at a meeting of the British Association in Aberdeen in 1859, and in one communicated to the Geological Society of London in 1860. Murchison, after a journey in company with Andrew C. Ramsay [q. v.] in the summer of 1859, and another with Archibald Geikie in 1860, persisted in asserting that the upper gneiss succeeded the limestone, and therefore must be a metamorphosed group of Lower Silurian age. Murchison had won the ear of scientific society; so his views were generally adopted, and Nicol, pained at the personal feeling evoked by his opposition, withdrew from the controversy, though he continued to work steadily at the question, and became yet more strongly convinced of the accuracy of his own views. He met with a common fate, the neglect of contemporaries and the praise of posterity. It is now universally admitted, even by his former opponents, that substantially in all the essential points of this controversy Nicol was right and Murchison was wrong. The so-called ‘newer gneiss’ is nothing more than a part of the mass, to which the older gneiss belongs, brought up by a system of gigantic folds and faults, and thrust over the admittedly Cambrian deposits, so as to simulate a stratigraphical sequence. One point only Nicol failed to recognise (at that date it is not surprising), and in this lay the strength of his opponent's position: that the bedded structure, which apparently made such an important distinction between the so-called upper gneiss and that beneath the Torridon sandstone, was a structure, not original, but the result of these movements.

Nicol was popular with his pupils and friends. ‘His sturdy frame and indomitable strength of will bore him unharmed through countless geological journeys that would have overtasked the majority of men. … Ever of singleness and purity of purpose, he disdained to swerve from what he felt to be the proper path, either in the interest of authority or expediency; but for those whom he could aid by his friendship or example his patience was inexhaustible, and his generosity unbounded’ (‘Presidential Address,’ Geol. Soc. Proc. 1880, p. 36). A portrait in oils is in the possession of Mrs. Nicol. Nicol was an indefatigable worker. Under his name eighteen papers are enumerated in the ‘Royal Society's Catalogue,’ the first being the prize essay on the ‘Geology of Peeblesshire,’ published in 1843. His great paper on the highland controversy appeared in the ‘Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society,’ 1861, xvii. 85, and was followed by an important one on the ‘Southern Grampians’ (xix. 180), in which he contends (in opposition to the views of Murchison) for ‘the great antiquity’ of the ‘gneiss and mica-slate’ of that region. In the same journal for 1869 and 1872 appear papers on the ‘Parallel Roads of Glenroy,’ in which Nicol advocates the marine origin of these terraces. On this question also the last word has not yet been said. Nicol also contributed numerous articles to periodicals, and to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (8th and 9th edits.) Among his separately published works are, ‘A Guide to the Geology of Scotland’ (1844), ‘Manual of Mineralogy’ (1849), ‘Elements of Mineralogy’ (1858, 2nd edit. 1873), ‘The Geology and Scenery of the North of Scotland’ (1866), in an appendix of which he replies to some sweeping strictures which had been passed upon his work by Murchison. He was one of the editors of the ‘Select Writings of Charles Maclaren’ (1869), and published an excellent geological map of Scotland in 1858.

[Obituary notice in Proc. Geological Society, 1880, p. 33; information from Mrs. Nicol. For a summary of Nicol's work in Scotland, see Professor J. W. Judd's Address to Section C, British Association Report, 1885, p. 995.]

T. G. B.