Alexander Nicolson (1827–1893) was a Scottish lawyer and man of letters, known as a Gaelic scholar and sheriff-substitute of Kirkcudbright and Greenock, and as a pioneer of mountain climbing in Scotland.
The son of Malcolm Nicolson, he was born at Usabost in Skye on 27 September 1827. With an early education from tutors, he entered Edinburgh University after the death of his father, intending to study for the ministry of the Free Church of Scotland. He graduated B.A. in 1850, and later in 1859 received an honorary degree of M.A.: in the absence through illness of Sir William Hamilton, Nicolson as his assistant lectured for his class on logic, and for two years he performed a similar service for Patrick Campbell Macdougall in the class of moral philosophy.
Giving up theology while at the Free Church College, Nicholson for some time worked as one of the sub-editors of the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He moved on, to the staff of the Edinburgh Guardian, a short-lived literary paper of high literary quality. For a year he edited an advanced Liberal paper, the Daily Express, which later was merged into the Caledonian Mercury.
Nicolson was called in 1860 to the Scottish bar. With little practice, for ten years he reported law cases for the Scottish Jurist, of which he became editor. He acted as examiner in philosophy in the university, and examiner of births, etc., in Edinburgh and the neighbouring counties.
In 1865 Nicolson was appointed assistant commissioner by the Scottish education commission, in which capacity he visited widely in the Western Isles, inspected their schools, and reported in a detailed blue-book. In 1872 he accepted the office of sheriff-substitute of Kirkcudbright, declining the offer of the Celtic chair in Edinburgh University, set up largely by his own efforts and those of John Stuart Blackie. In 1880 he received the degree of LL.D. from Edinburgh University.
In 1883 Nicolson was one of the Napier Commission on the condition of the crofters. The gunboat HMS Lively, with the commissioners on board, sank off Stornoway, and he had some difficulty in saving the manuscript of his Memoirs of Adam Black, on which he was working at the time. In 1885 he became sheriff-substitute of Greenock, retiring in 1889, with a pension, on grounds of ill-health. He returned to Edinburgh, died suddenly at the breakfast table on 13 January 1893, and was buried in Warriston cemetery.
Nicolson was popular in society, being known for stories and songs, such as the British Ass and Highland Regiments. He wrote: "I would rather be remembered as the composer of one good song, than as the writer of many respectable and superfluous books." His interest in climbing has seen him called "arguably the first modern mountaineer". He was a pioneer of climbing in the Cuillin hills of Skye, and in 1873 made the first recorded ascent of Sgùrr Alasdair, their highest peak, which is now named after him ("Alasdair" being a Gaelic form of "Alexander"). He was also a keen athlete and a volunteer.
It is as a scholar of Scottish Gaelic that Nicolson has a lasting reputation, based mainly on his articles in The Gael, a Gaelic periodical, his collection of Gaelic proverbs, and his revised version of the Gaelic Bible, made for the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. He was also a Greek scholar. His main publications were:
- The Lay of the Beanmòhr: a Song of the Sudreyar, Dunedin [Edinburgh], 1867.
- A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases. Based on Macintosh's Collection. Edited by Alexander Nicolson, Edinburgh, 1881; 2nd edit. 1882. An updated version of the collection by Donald Macintosh. Still available: ISBN 9781841589831.
- Memoirs of Adam Black, Edinburgh, 1885; 2nd edit. 1885.
- Verses by Alexander Nicolson, LL.D., with a Memoir by Walter Chalmers Smith, Edinburgh, 1893.
Nicolson also edited in 1857 a volume Edinburgh Essays, written by a number of his friends connected with the university. He wrote articles and verse for Good Words, Macmillan's Magazine, Blackwood's Magazine, The Scotsman, and other periodicals and newspapers.
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1895). "Nicolson, Alexander". Dictionary of National Biography 41. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- "Biography - Sherriff Alexander Nicolson". The Carmichael Watson Project. Retrieved 8 May 2014.
- Chris Townsend (30 March 2011). Scotland. Cicerone Press Limited. p. 35. ISBN 978-1-84965-353-4.