The First 50 Years

Although it was not named as an Institute until 1901, the Nicolson can stretch its roots back as far as 1865, when a young business man died in Shanghai, bequeathing a considerable sum of money to a charity school in his native town of Stornoway.

Francis Street

Francis Street

Alexander Morrison Nicolson was born in 1832, the fifth child in a family of seven sons, to Roderick Nicolson, a fishcurer of Bayhead Street in Stornoway. He received his early instruction in the Stornoway Parish School and proceeded to the High School in Glasgow for his secondary education. Thereafter, he served an apprenticeship with Messrs J. & G. Thomson, shipbuilders, Glasgow.

On completing his apprenticeship he made his way to the Far East where he flourished and, in due course, acquired the joint partnership of a substantial foundry and shipbuilding business in Shanghai. In 1865, at the age of 33, he was tragically killed in a boiler explosion on board one of his own vessels.

His papers contained a request that his father and his brothers Roderick and Angus might supervise the disposal of his estate of £5,672, one third of which was to be donated “to the most approved charitable institution in my native town for the education and rearing of destitute children in the hope that I may be the indirect means of rendering some assistance to the children of some of my oldest acquaintances.”

Matheson Hall

Matheson Hall

The bequest amounted to £1,898, and, with their father now dead, Roderick and Angus were left to decide on the best use to which this sum should be put. Stornoway, at that time, boasted four schools: The General Assembly School adjacent to the Parish Church; the Free Church School on Francis Street; Lady Matheson’s Female Industrial Seminary at the corner of Scotland Street and Keith Street; and John Mackay’s School, a boys’ institution run by a noted and much respected figure in the town.

In due course, Roderick and Angus determined that Mackay’s School qualified as “the most approved charitable Institution” and paid into its bank the sum of £1,898. The school building, however, was deemed to be unsuitable and it was agreed that a new school and teacher’s house should be erected out of the available funds. Sir James Matheson gave both a site for the new school on Sandwick Road and an endowment in perpetuity of £35 per annum to supplement the teacher’s salary.

At noon on Thursday 27 February 1873, in the presence of the recently formed Board of Trustees, local dignitaries and parents, the School was formally opened and the keys of the building handed over to the newly appointed Headmaster, Mr John Sutherland, formerly Head Teacher of the General Assembly School who joined this new establishment with all 105 of his existing pupils.

In its early years, the School catered only for primary pupils and was beset by financial problems. In 1888, the responsibility of the School was handed over to the School Board and with this change of management, came a change of name to ‘The Nicolson Public School’.

In January 1893, the then headmaster, Mr Forbes, was placed in charge of the new Secondary department which introduced the teaching of Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Geography, History, English, French, German, Music, Domestic Economy, Drawing and Needlework. The school was now the most advanced educational centre in the islands and, under the influence of its next headmaster, Mr WJ Gibson in 1894, the Nicolson really began to take off. Gibson was one of the greatest and most enlightened educationalists of his day and in his later years, was awarded the CBE for his efforts – the first headmaster in Scotland to be so honoured.

Nicolson Clock Tower

Nicolson Clock Tower

Today, there is no trace of this first building of the Nicolson Institute. The clock tower, which still remains, was an addition in 1902, with a clock and chimes in 1905. All of these were gifts to the school by the Founder’s brothers Roderick and Kenneth. The Clock School, as it became known, was demolished in 1972 to make way for the Nicolson-Lewis Sports Centre and swimming pool into the design of which was incorporated the Clock Tower.

In 1896, the Free Church School in Stornoway was closed and its pupils transferred to the Nicolson’s roll. After lengthy negotiations with the Church and School Board, the Free Church School building was handed over to the Nicolson and a new building of four classrooms was added to the site. This new building was opened in 1898, and is now the home of Museum nan Eilean in Francis Street.

In 1901, by decree of the Court of Session, the name of the School was changed to The Nicolson Institute – the title it still keeps today. The school’s continued success led to an ever growing roll and, in spite of the new building, the pressure on accommodation steadily increased. A small wood and iron block had been erected adjacent to the original school to house the Infant Department but this soon proved inadequate and, in 1904, a purpose built stone infant school was erected on Matheson Road comprising five classrooms and a central hall. Described affectionately by all its pupils as the ‘wee school’, it is now referred to as Matheson Hall. The wood and iron structure, now vacated, became, in time, a laboratory (the lower lab) and the domestic science room. With primary numbers still increasing, a new timber and iron building had soon to be constructed at the Springfield site, inevitably earning the name ‘the tin school’.

By 1906, the Female Industrial Seminary too, faced closure, necessitating the transfer of some 85 pupils to the Nicolson. When the Seminary closed, the Nicolson became the only school in Stornoway and, of course, the only secondary school in the island. It was at this time, that Mr Gibson’s title was changed from Headmaster to Rector.

Tech Building

Tech Building

Mention should be made of the growing importance of the Secondary Department. In 1898 the first two pupils to leave the Nicolson and enter directly into University were Donald Maclean of Bragar to Aberdeen and Robert M Maciver of Stornoway to Edinburgh, each of whom graduated with first class honours and went on to have distinguished academic careers. From then, and up to the present day, there has been an ever increasing number of pupils proceeding from the Nicolson into tertiary education.

In 1907, with a school roll of more than 800, a decision was made to erect a new building in Springfield to relieve the now overcrowded Secondary Department in Francis Street. This new building was built with the aid of a £7,000 grant from the Scottish Education department and incorporated five classrooms, a science laboratory, technical workshop and art room. The new building was opened in 1910 and adjacent to this, a gymnasium was erected, paid for by money received from the estates of the last surviving brothers of the Founder, Alexander Morrison Nicolson. The total benefactions of the Nicolson family to the School amounted to almost £20,000. In 1931, a new School badge was adopted with a most appropriate design of five lit torches, symbolising the school’s founder and his brothers.

Mr Gibson retired in 1925 and was succeeded as Rector by Mr John Macrae MA, a native of Stornoway, who had taught in the School since 1908.

Norman Macgregor

‘The Nicolson Institute, Stornoway 1873-1925’ by WJ Gibson MA. Published by the Stornoway Gazette 1925.
The Nicolson Institute Centenary “Sgathan” 1973
The Nicolson Institute 125th Anniversary Magazine 1999