An American ‘Labor Day’ theme this week for #52Ancestors: work.  The vast majority of my ancestors were crofters and farmers, combined in varying proportions with fishing or, less frequently, a trade. This time I’m focusing on James Nic(h)olson, my paternal granny’s father, so one of my great grandfathers. (The ‘h’ creeps into the family name later.)

James Mowat Nicholson (1847-1937)

James was born in Brims, Orkney on 25th February 1847, the fourth of Ralph Nicolson and Helen McCaulay Ritch‘s nine surviving children. The family may have lived at Skipster at the time.  Brims is part of the island of Hoy and rightly famed for the sea-faring abilities of its inhabitants.

He married Helen Wilson on 12th December 1878 and they brought up their family of four, including my granny and her brother Wilson, at Afrigate, Brims. James died on 14 April 1937, at just over 90 years of age.

Looking at the censuses, James’ occupation was fisherman in 1871, crofter and fisherman in 1881, farmer in 1891 and 1901, and crofter fisherman in 1911.

For now, this photo is all I’m going to say about his fishing, though it was a major part of his life, living only a short distance from the challenging waters of the Pentland Firth.

James in Skippigeo, Brims


In 1888 he applied to the very new Crofters Commission to have a fair rent assessed. His application provides a good deal of information about his croft not least because in addition to his written submission, he, along with other crofters, appeared in person before the Commission. Here is a summary of his oral evidence, my comments in [square brackets].

“James Nicolson, Affrigae [sic – should be Afrigate, Brims], deponed: I have 2 cows, 2 stots, sometimes 2 horses, and sometimes 1 horse, and 2 sheep. Arable, 14 acres; and 7 acres outrun. My rent is £15 14s. 3½ acres have been reclaimed during my father’s tenancy. My predecessor and myself put up buildings to the value of £40. We put in 27 chains* of stone drains, and 30 chains of ditches. Mr Heddle [the landlord] put up a dwelling house at a cost of £49. The first rent was £7 15s; in 1873 another croft, the rent of which was £5 10s, was added, and the rent was increased to £13 5s; in 1874 the interest of the £49 was added, bringing the rent up to £15 14s. I have the worst croft on the estate – from damage from sea-gust and shaking of crops.

Decision. The rent was reduced from £15 14s to £11 5s.”

(Mackintosh, William R (1889)The Orkney Crofters pp 73-74. For background to the Crofters Commission see this page and scroll to the foot.)

The written submission adds that James carted the stones to build his dwelling house and paid 5% interest on the building cost of £49 (Land Court records. Orkney. Landholders Holding Books 1887-1889. LC23/2/1. NRS Edinburgh)

Lifeboat service

As well as farming and fishing, James was also a member of the first Longhope Lifeboat stationed at Brims in 1874. He served for 24 years and was then signal man for a further period. Even before 1874, he took part in rescues:

Snip from James Nicolson's letter

Excerpt from James’ letter possibly when he resigned from lifeboat service

(I have a photocopy of the whole document which looks like a letter as it includes his address but there is no addressee or date.)

An active man who lived a long life.

* 1 (imperial) chain = 22 yards or 21.12 metres

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8 comments so far

  1. Margaret Clair says:

    This is always so fascinating. Can I say that in Skye the Nicolson Clan is very strong (note: no H) especially around Portree. Could there possibly a connection – perhaps sea-based?

  2. Sally Forshaw says:

    Amazing story and what a long life.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Janealogy says:

    The 'h' came in early in my granny's life; I don't think it is significant. There were a few Nicolsons in Walls but the seaborne connection is intriguing.

  4. Yvonne Wright says:

    So interesting- thank you for directing me to this blog.

  5. Marg Hunter says:

    Hi Jane…
    Thanks for responding on the old photo. I am really new to the site, and afraid I was too "wordy".

    The Nicolson family is where my late hubby's paternal Grandmother attaches.

    She was Mary Nicholson b February 15, 1881 (Crockness, Walls)
    her prnts:
    Hugh Nicolson b January 15, 1844 d. October 12, 1895.
    died Crockness…don't know where he is buried.
    Mary Robson – b. abt. 1846 Bower, Caithness
    died January 05, 1934 -Berryhill. bur. St. Johns Cemetery, Melsetter, Hoy – Their son James also buried there. (the inscription – or transcription of same) is in error as to Mary's age…but the death date is correct)

    As you mention in your James Nicolson article… I understand our Nicolsons were also poor Crofters. Hence the puzzle of who those folks in the old photo were. More likely from a generation or so back in time. (It was my daughter who visited her late Great Uncle's Widow's home a couple of years ago, and spotted the elaborately framed photos on her wall – and my daughter's submission to the site. (The Widow was a second much younger wife..still living at 82, had no idea who they might be, only that her late husband had brought them with him after they married and she mentioned they were "someone" in his family).
    Kind regards
    Marg Hunter

  6. Janealogy says:

    Very interesting. I will email you.

  7. Edna. Gibson says:

    Hello Jane, I am doing above Tree for a friend. James Nicolson born 1847 was her 2nd Grt Uncle. James sister Ellon b. 1862 married a Alexander Groat. Widow. After her having a illegitimate son named Gordon Nicolson. He took the middle name Magnus .[ Gordon was friends Granda.] Ellon died in 1911 Walls, Orkney.

    1. Janealogy says:

      Hi and thanks for your comment. Your friend will be my third cousin. I knew of Gordon but not his family.

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