Stem of The Nicholsons

In connexion with the Nicholson (No. 1) pedigree, contained in pp. 281-285, Vol. I., we feel pleasure in here giving the following paper by our friend Mr. Patrick William Nicolson, of Laird’s Hill, Coleford, Gloucestershire, England; and of Millaquin Refinery, Bundaberg, Queensland. (See also in p. 282; Vol I., his “Notes anent Clan Mac Nicol.”) Nicolsons of the present time are unanimous in asserting that the settlement of the family in Skye took place one thousand years ago. Their assertion is confirmatory of the tradition respecting No. 91 on the Nicholson (No. 1) pedigree, who is said to have been the first of his race in the Island of Skye; other members of the family think that the first of their sept who settled in that Island was Niocholl, who (see p. 280) is No. 88 on the “Coffey” (of Munster) pedigree, and who was grandfather of Niocholl, No. 91 above mentioned.

There is a legend that at one time General Washington was informed that some portion of his army was running short of gunpowder. One of the Nicolson family, who was well up in chemistry, and who was intimate with Washington, immediately undertook to manufacture powder for them; and thus had a considerable share in making Washington’s army independent of any imports of powder.

The following is the paper above referred to:

69. Con-a-Cille was contemporary with Læghaire MacNiall who became Monarch of Ireland in 428. Con-a-Cille, or Con of the Churches, was converted to Christianity by St. Patrick. It is probable that he witnessed the sacrifice of the 50 prisoners at the tomb of Fiachra, King of Connaught, in A.D. 402; and that the contrast between Pagan and Christian custom was not without its use in Con-a-Cille’s experiences.

73. Cobtach Fionn went with Fergus Mór Mac Earca to Scotland. It is tolerably certain that he and his two gigantic descendants, Donoch Mór his son, and Donald Mór his grandson, were with their clansmen the founders of the race of the Daireinoi or Kairinoi of Ptolemy, in Scotland, identified by Skene and other competent historians with the clan Mac Nicol or Nicolson. The tradition that the progenitors of the family of the chiefs of this clan were men of extraordinary stature is fully borne out by the fact that many of their descendants, mere pigmies in comparison, are known to have been men of nearly 7 ft. in height. Fergus Mór himself was unusually tall even in his day, and is known to have had all Frederick the Great’s partiality for giants as his body guard. Every one has heard of Frederick’s favourite 9 ft. Irishman! Cobthach, Donald, and Donoch were certainly not less tall than he.

76. MacReithe had the honour and happiness of being intimate with St. Columba, who, in A.D. 565, left Ireland and landed in Iona. Columba was kinsman to Conal, king of the Scots, at whose court MacReithe was in attendance. Every circumstance attending the history of Con-a-Cille (No. 69), and attending the history of his descendants, to the time of MacReithe (No. 76), tends to show that the influence of St. Patrick had not died out in the family, and that the natural consequence was intimacy between Columba and MacReithe.

77. Conor or Conchobar.—In his infancy was held the last of the contentions of Tara. He certainly obtained his surname of “Helping Warrior” by reason of his share in the struggles for independence maintained by the Scots against Ireland, their mother country. The Annals of Ulster record that the people of Skye, i.e. the clan now known as “Nicolson,” paid tribute to Bœdun, son of Conill, king of Ireland; and that Aidun, son of Gabhran, king of Dalriada, submitted himself to him. The Scotch historians however assert that Aidun carried his arms into Ireland, and in several battles was so successful, that he succeeded in abolishing the tribute of Dalriada and the Western Isles to Ireland. It was in these battles that Conor or Conchobar became known as the “Helping Warrior”; nevertheless, we opine that these battles would never have been fought had the conventions of Tara been maintained.

78. Magnus the Huge was evidently of as great stature as his forefathers; to this day the tradition that the chiefs of clan MacNicol were giants is extant in Skye.

79. Conor the Swift.

80. Maithan Dall or “Blind Matthew.”—In his day the custom of putting out the eyes of conquered Sampsons was rampant, and he was probably the victim of this cruel practice.

83. Fergal was contemporary with Fergal, the 156th Monarch of Ireland, and his kinsman; as can be proved from O’Hart’s “Pedigrees.”

84. Donoch was contemporary with Donoch the 163rd Monarch of Ireland, and his kinsman: like proof.

85. Aodh was contemporary with Aodh the 164th Monarch of Ireland and his kinsman: like proof.

86. Magnus Mór was another traditionally gigantic man. In his day the Danes were invading Ireland; and voyages of the people of Skye to Ireland are mentioned in the Irish Annals. He probably was at the head of some of them.

87. Conor or Conchobhar was contemporary with Conor the 165th Monarch of Ireland, and of kin to him: like proof.

88. Niochol: his son; was contemporary with Niall Caille, the 166th Monarch of Ireland, and of kin to him: like proof. Query: Is not the great similarity between the names Niochaill or Neachdaille as now spelt, and Niall Caille, capable of being orthographically accounted for, as indicative of the relationships above pointed out? The tradition of royal lineage is strong in the Nicolson clan. The identity of names above noted, in view of kinship easily traceable, appears to confirm the idea that these Chiefs were namesakes of the Monarchs.

91. Niochol, who, with his father, grandfather, and a considerable body of Irish kindred, settled in Skye. The writer was assured by an aged Highlander, well up in folk lore, that it is now exactly 1000 years since this chief made Skye the head quarters of the Clan. Previously, though the Daireinians had settled on the mainland of Scotland and in Skye, they regarded Ireland as their home. Now, however, Nous avoua changé tout cela. The reason is not far to seek. In 812-13, the Danes made a raid into Munster, a principal habitat of the clan of O’Niochal, and thenceforth committed such ravages that O’Niochal had eventually to flee for his life to his kindred in Skye. He is traditionally remembered as “Nicol of the unbounded Hospitality,” and the huge vat kept ever full of boiling broth and choice morsels to which all comers were welcome to partake of unquestioned, is yet the theme of the clan comment. MacNicol of the Brose most decidedly took the best way in the world to strengthen his clan, physically and morally. Some mishap in his harvesting or housekeeping, however, led to an appendix to this title, and he became known as MacNeachdaille a brochains an droch arain corna—“MacNicol of the brose and the bad barley bread.”

93. Asmain seems to have married a Norwegian princess of the families settling in the Western Isles of Scotland after the revolution of A.D. 880, which took place in Norway, by which Harold Harfager established himself sole king of that country.

94. Arailt or Harold of the golden hair, so named after Harold Harfager.

95. Torc Athcliath. This Athcliath was a castle near Sligo, demolished in 1317. Torc was about 22 years of age at the time of the battle of Clontarf. In spite of his Norwegian and Danish relationships, he was an adherent of Brian Boru. It is noteworthy that Brian whilst declining the offer of troops by the King of Ulster, accepted the aid of Sitrig the Dane;[1] and it is opined that this was the result of Torc’s leanings and counsel. Torc Athcliàth is known as the “Wild Boar of Dublin,” and undoubtedly he had a Danish retinue; for, we find, later on, Sitrig O’Niochal and Ottar Snacoll,[2] the latter a king of the Danes in Dublin.

That Torc was an adherent of Brian Boru is evident from the fact that it was not until Brian Boru’s day that the Daireinoi took the name of “Clan Mac Nicol or O’Niochol.” It was in consequence of Brian Boru’s ordinance that every family and clan should adopt a particular surname, in order to preserve exactly the history and genealogy of their tribe, that the Daireinoi nearest of kin to Nichol the the Hospitable (No. 88 or 91, no matter which) took the name now metamorphosed into Nicolson.

96. Amlæimh or Aulaf was contemporary with the Aulafs kings of Dublin. It is palpable, in the scrutiny of average duration of lives in the family of the chiefs of clan Mac Nicol, that the fact that many of them bore names identical with those of Danish kings can only be accounted for by the intermarriages then so frequent between the leading families of the invaders and the invaded. The Celtic custom of invariably naming children after best known kindred is not less capable of proof than the like custom amongst the Hebrews:—Vide the case of Zacharias, whose son was about to be named Zacharias also, of whom when named “John” all the neighbours urged: “But there is not one of thy kindred called by that name”!

Herein we discover the foundation for the assertion of some Nicolsons, that the Clan is of Danish[3] lineage, whereas the fact is their Sires are Irish wholly and solely, of whatever race their mothers might be.

97. Taid or Teague, son of Aulaf, was doubtless so named after Taid or Teague of the White Steed, King of Connaught, who died in 1030. This Teague was a poet and musician, and from his era dates the Gælic proverb: Far am bi fiodhal na piob bi Mac Neachdaill: “Find a fiddle or piper and you find Mac Nicol.” Contemporary with Taid was Ottir Snackoll or Nicolson Iarl of the Hebrides and King of Dublin, slain by Torcil M‘Leod in 1148. See Annals of the Four Masters, and Cameron’s “Skye.”

101. Fogail the Fugitive. Query, is this the Fergal MacTagadain (query MacNeachdam or Machneachdail) who was slain by Conor MacTighernain on Inis Fraoch, in Lough Gill, county of Sligo? The writer was about twelve years ago informed that one of the chiefs of the Clan MacNicol came to a violent death in Inis Fraoch, and that he was thenceforth known as “Fraochbhair”: query as to spelling and meaning of the termination bhair.

102. Mureadach: his son; became a Viking—a pirate in fact. The fate of his father and his own taking to the sea, in lieu of remaining on land, is fully accounted for in the troubles of the times; for, in their day, occurred the English invasion of Ireland. In Mureadach’s time Donoch O’Taireceirt, the representative and chief of clanna Nicolson in Ireland, was slain: see Annals of the Four Masters. Donoch O’Taireceirt and Mureadach were probably first or second cousins. The Four Masters couple clanna MacNeachtain and Snedgile or MacNicol together at this period; and in this respect confirm the tradition of the MacNicol and MacNaughten in Scotland, whose tartan is all but identical.

In 1204, another Sitrig O’Niochol: “Sitrig O’Sruithen, Airenach of Congbhala, leader of the Hy Murtele, and chosen chief of clanna Snedgille (Nicolson), died after true penance, and was buried in the church built by himself.”

Giollareigh, chief of clan Sneidghile, is named as chief also of clan Fingin (MacKinnon): the Nicolsons and Mackinnons are as of near kin by intermarriages as are the MacNeachdain and MacNeachdaill, i.e., MacNaughten and Nicolson.

In 1213, we find Ainmire O’Coffey died; a very near kinsman of No. 104, Erlile;[4] “as abbot of the church of Derry, an ecclesiastic of noble birth, distinguished for piety, charity, wisdom and other virtues.” In him Erlile, then a child, seems to have lost a friend and protector. O’Hart, to whom is due the credit of tracing the O’Coffey and Nicolson kinship, has the writer’s warmest gratitude for transmission of the clue to the facts just noted. In 1224 the people of Connaught sustained irreparable loss and calamity by the death of Cathal Crovdearg, “a man who had during a long time destroyed more of the traitors and enemies of Ireland than any other man had done. He was a benefactor of the poor and indigent, a chief supporter of the clergy, a man in whom God had implanted more goodness and greater virtues than in any other of the Irish nobility of his time.”

106. Fuileadh the Destitute, born circa A.D. 1225. The Four Masters state that, during the time when he lived, “no man spared his neighbour, but took advantages of his misfortunes, and plundered him, and that untold numbers of women and children perished in war.”

We are now come to the period when the Nicolsons begin to lose their prestige and power, not only in Ireland but in Skye.

In the Annals of Ulster, under the year 1208, it is stated that the sons of Reginald, son of Somerled Gillebride na-hnamha, gave battle to the men of Skye the O’Niochol or MacNiochol, who were in that year defeated with great slaughter; nevertheless, the MacDonalds did not obtain a permanent footing in Skye until upwards of two centuries later. In 1247 many of the Skye Nicolsons were with the men of Tirconnell fighting against the English; again and again we meet with indications in Irish history, that the MacNicol of Skye continually aided, as far as they were able, their Irish kindred in their struggle for independence; and in Irish history we find the cause of the otherwise unaccountable submission of the Nicolsons to the MacDonalds, who thenceforth became paramount in Skye.

In 1252 Conor MacCathmoil, the peacemaker of Tirconnell, was slain by the people of Brian O’Neill. The Nicolsons were, as we have seen, on the side of the Tirconnellians in all their struggles with the English. In 1257 another fearful battle was fought by the Tirconnellians against the English, under Geoffrey O’Donnell, the then Lord of Tirconnell. Geoffrey was severely wounded, and eventually died of his wounds. Brian O’Neill thereupon demanded of the Tirconnellians and their allies, that they should accept him as lord, and give him hostages and other pledges of submission, A.D. 1258. While they were consulting what to do in this extremity, Donald Oge, son of Donal Mór O’Donnell, who had arrived from Skye, spoke up boldly, saying: Go mbiadh a domhan fem ag gach fear: “That every man should possess his own country.”

Though only 18 years of age, Donal Oge was, on account of his patriotism and wisdom, then unanimously chosen chief of the Tirconnellians and of the Nicolsons: Fogail, the true chief of the Nicolsons being a fugitive, Mureadach at sea, Erlile all but unknown, and Fuileadh only known as Fuileadh the destitute, Donal Oge naturally became leader of the Nicolsons from Skye also; and thus was with the best intentions the thin end of the wedge inserted, which was to make the Nicolsons a broken clan.

In 1263, we find another Sea Rover, Andrew Nicolson, chief of the Nicolsons in Skye. Of him it is recorded that he fought on the side of the Danes against Alexander III. and the Scots, and sliced one Peter Currie, (MacVourigh) in halves with one sweep of his sword, cutting him in twain from the crown of his head to the seat in the saddle; so that in sight of the opposing hosts one half of MacVourigh fell on one side of the horse he rode, and the other half on the other side.

Andrew Nicolson settled at Scoribreac in Skye, which until within the last hundred years was the seat of all the chiefs of the clan MacNicol from that day. Andrew Nicolson is said to have been as gigantic and powerful a man as any of his race. The feats of arms performed by him are still to be found in Scandinavian stories.

In consequence of the now thoroughly Danish alliances of the Nicolsons, many of them are found to have settled for a long prior period in Cumberland and Northumberland, where their descendants are to be found yet; nevertheless, the fact remains that they are of strictly Irish lineage: the custom of the Celts being strictly that of the Hebrews in genealogical and other matters—Every man being reckoned to the tribe of his ancestors!

107. Sdacaill the Estate loser. About his time we find the Macdonalds setting up a claim to be chiefs of the Nicolsons; the submission of the MacNicol from Skye with the Tirconnellians to Donal Oge O’Donnell being doubtless the precedent wanted, and Sdacaill being for sundry now unknown reasons unable to contest the point. An ancient MacDonald MS. states that MacDonald of the Isles brought the Magnagills to Skye from Nonody; with how much truth the foregoing narrative has shown. Any pretext for lordship sufficed.

In 1263 O’Donell led his forces (amongst whom as usual there were many Nicolsons) into Connaught and joined Hugh O’Conor at the Curlew mountains. In 1265 Hugh O’Conor became King of Connaught.

Thenceforth the Tyronians who had joined the English were at feud with the Tirconnellians; and in 1281 Donal Oge O’Donell was by them slain in battle, being but 41 years of age. It is the writer’s opinion that the sons of Sdacaill (if any) must have been slain in the contests following this period; for, whilst it could be no disgrace for the Nicolsons in default of their proper leaders to be followers of Donal Oge, a man spoken of by the Four Masters as eminent for hospitality, generosity, prudence, and magnanimity, at his death they could have no excuse for abandoning clan rights if they had any chance of retaining them. Hugh, son of Donal Oge, was appointed chief, in room of his father by the Tirconnellians, but was deposed through the influence of his brother Torlogh O’Donnell and several other Scots. In 1295 the contest between the brothers was renewed, and Torlogh was expelled from Tir-connell.

In 1296 Edward invaded Scotland, there was war, war, war, everywhere. Under such circumstances Sdacaill became the Estate loser.

In 1309 the only representative of the family of the chiefs of clan MacNicol was a daughter, probably daughter of Sdacaill. Torcill MacLeod, son of Tortin, son of Thorstain—a friend and supporter of Robert the Bruce—married her and obtained from Bruce a grant of the Nicolson lands in Skye, and presumably elsewhere wherever the fragments of clan MacNicol could be by Celtic laws found. Strictly speaking, there being no such thing as female succession, there could be no clan heiress, and the Bruce exceeded his powers in granting to MacLeod lands contrary to provision of Brehon laws; but these were essentially lawless times, when no man scrupled at means of obtaining power. To the era of Sdacaill and his immediate progenitors must be assigned the date of the proverb: Bumasdair de Chlann Mhic Neachdaill agus amadan de chlann McCuin: “A fool of the clan Nicolson and an idiot of the clan McQuinn.”

It will be remembered that Ottar Snackoll slew the Torkill MacLeod of his day. By the irony of fate the Torcill MacLeod of another period becomes the chief of the entire clan MacNicol, but not legitimately, as in the case of Donal Oge O’Donnell. It would seem by careful comparison of generations and duration of human life in those days that the genealogy: Seaill ic Torcill (ic Totin ic Torstan) MacSdacaill ic Erlele O’Fuileadh is to be read as indicative of interregnum, and not of regular descent.

Scaill would be son of Torcill and the so-called Nicolson “HEIRESS.”

Torcill would be Torcil MacSdacaill by virtue of his marriage with that heiress; and Scaill becomes Scaill O’Fuileadh, a more flattering form of Sdacaill, and indicates that even Torcil MacLeod was as anxious to persuade the clan MacNicol that in Scaill they had their chief again; as King Edward was to persuade the Welsh that in his son they had what he promised them, a Prince of Wales for their head and chief.

Without some such explanation or adjustment of the chronology as is here involved, it is impossible to bring Gregall, No. 113 on the pedigree, within the era of conflicts with the Danes—a noteworthy fact; and that he fought with the Danes is a matter of history. It is possible, however, that Gregall, No. 113,may be but a namesake of the Gregall who fought with the Danes and settled at Assyut; if so, this would give probability to the writer’s view that Gregall the 1st was contemporary with Andrew Nicolson, and that, as in Brian Boru’s time, the Nicolsons were often engaged in fratricidal war. If this be not mere conjecture, Gregall No. 1, and Andrew Nicolson, may each have shared the responsibility of contributing to make the Nicolsons a brother clan. From this period the Nicolsons gradually sink into comparative oblivion.


[1] Was this really Sitrig the Dane, or Sitrig O’Niochol?

[2] Ottir Snackoll is known to be Ottir O’Niochol.

[3] Danish Lineage: The celebrated Ragnar Lodbrog, King of Denmark, in his song “We fought with swords” celebrates his slaughter of the men of Skye, i.e., Nicolsons, and says of them that the Kites or Hawks were grieved for the death of their friends. The Hawk is the cognisance of the Nicolsons to this day; and, since the grant of armorial bearings to the family, the Hawk or Kite is thrus emblazoned:

Arms: Or, a chevron between three hawks’ heads couped gules. Crest: A hawk’s head as in the Arms. Motto: Generositate non Ferocitate.

The Motto commemorates the character of O’Taireceirt or O’Darieceirt, chief of the clanna Snedgile, Snacoll, or O’Niocholl, of whom the Four Masters record that he was the “mainstay of hospitality, generosity, wisdom, and counsel of all Tir-connell.

The “Song of Swords,” above mentioned, commemorates the slaughter of the O’Niochal or MacNicol, thus:

“We hewed with swords in the Sudreyan Isles (Hebrides);

Herthioff (Cobthach?) himself was forced to fly;

And Royvalder fell amid the shower of arms;

The kites were grieved for the death of their friend,

The breaker of helmets in the strife of swords,

Who from his bowstring shot the unerring darts.

We smote with swords the sons of Endil (McNeachdail),

Cut up for wolves a plenteous prey

For seven days at Scaias fight (the Isle of Skye).

Red were our ships with reeking gore,

As if ’twere damsels carrying wine

Amid the din of clashing arms.

Full oft were Scoguls (Snackolls or Nicols) buckless rent

By Skiolds warriors (Warriors of Skye) in that battle.”

The foregoing quotations sufficiently prove the Irish and non-Danish affinities of the Nicolsons; they being Daireinians and not Danes.

[4] Erlile: It has by some been conjectured that Erbhle, Erlile, and Giollareigh, mentioned in this paper, are equivalent terms; and even that “Giollareigh” is another form of the word Giolla-ard-Righ. But we cannot see the equivalency.