Nicol, William (DNB00)

NICOL, WILLIAM (1744?–1797), friend of Burns, was son of a Dumfriesshire working man. After receiving elementary education in his parish school, he earned some money by teaching, and thus was able to pursue a university career at Edinburgh, where he studied both theology and medicine. Allusions in Burns's ‘Elegy on Willie Nicol's Mare’ seem to indicate that he was a licentiate of the church (Scott Douglas, Burns, ii. 291). Throughout his college course he was constantly employed in tuition, and he was soon appointed a classical master in Edinburgh High School. The rector was Dr. Adams, and Walter Scott was a pupil. The rector disliked and condemned Nicol as ‘worthless, drunken, and inhumanly cruel to the boys under his charge’ (Lockhart, Life of Scott, i. 33, ed. 1837). Once, when Nicol was considered to have insulted Adams, Scott chivalrously rendered him ridiculous in the class-room by pinning to his coat-tail a paper inscribed with ‘Æneid,’ iv. 10—part of the day's lesson—having boldly substituted vanus for novus to suit his man—

    Quis vanus hic nostris successit sedibus hospes?

(ib. p. 100).

Burns early made Nicol's acquaintance—their first meeting is not recorded—and his various letters to him, and his allusions to him as his ‘worthy friend,’ prove that the poet found in him more than the drunken tyrant described by Scott, or the pedantic boor ridiculed by Lockhart (Life of Burns, chap. v.). Nicol was one, says Dr. Stevens in his ‘History of the High School of Edinburgh,’ ‘who would go any length to serve and promote the views and wishes of a friend,’ and who was instantly stirred to hot wrath ‘whenever low jealousy, trick, or selfish cunning appeared.’ Burns was Nicol's guest from 7 to 25 Aug. 1787 in the house over Buccleuch Pend, from which he visited the literary ‘howffs’ of the city. Nicol accompanied him in his three weeks' tour through the highlands, Burns at the outset (according to his diary) anticipating much entertainment from his friend's ‘originality of humour.’ Knowing Nicol's fiery temper, he likened himself to ‘a man travelling with a loaded blunderbuss at full cock’ (Chambers, Life and Works of Burns, ii. 107, Library ed.) The harmony of the trip was rudely broken at Fochabers. Burns visited and dined at Gordon Castle, leaving Nicol at the village inn. Incensed at this apparent neglect, Nicol resolved on proceeding alone, and Burns surrendered the pleasure of a short sojourn at Gordon Castle in order to join his irate friend. He made reparation with ‘Streams that Glide in Orient Plains,’ and in his letter to the Castle librarian did not spare the ‘obstinate son of Latin prose.’

Nicol is immortalised as protagonist in ‘Willie brewed a peck o' maut.’ He had bought the small estate of Laggan, Dumfriesshire—had become in Burns's words ‘the illustrious lord of Laggan's many hills’ (Scott Douglas, Burns, vi. 55)—and Burns and Allan Masterton, an Edinburgh writing master and musical composer, visited him when spending his autumn recess there in 1789. The result was the great bacchanalian song, of which Burns wrote ‘The air is Masterton's; the song, mine. … We had such a joyous meeting that Mr. Masterton and I agreed, each in our own way, that we should celebrate the business.’ Nicol died in April 1797, ‘at the age,’ says Chambers, ‘of fifty-three’ (Life and Works of Burns, ii. 105, Library ed.)

[Currie's Life of Burns, i. 177; editions in text; Steven's Hist. of the High School of Edinburgh; Lockhart's Lives of Burns and Scott.]

T. B.