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John Nicolson Collection


John Nicolson (1843-1934) was a Caithness farmer with a talent for painting and sculpture as well as a deep interest in local history. He was born at Stemster near John O' Groats in 1843, but moved in 1858 to Half Way House at Auckengill, (now Summerbank) where he continued to farm until his death in 1934. Nicolson's interest and knowledge in the history of Caithness was such that he was regularly approached for information on its archaeology, and by people researching family histories. He was approached by RCAHMS Secretary Alexander O Curle in 1909 during the survey of ancient monuments in Caithness, for which he supplied plans that were published in the inventory two years later.

John Nicolson played an important role in Sir Francis Tress Barry's archaeological investigations of Caithness. Nicolson acted as Barry's foreman, supervising the excavations and using his artistic talents to illustrate the archaeological sites they investigated and the finds they recovered. Together Barry and Nicolson excavated around twenty five sites in Caithness. Nicolson played an important role in creating visual records of the sites and of the items found. The John Nicolson Collection is therefore significant archaeologically and integral to our understanding of the early history of the region and the work they carried out.

As well as archaeological drawings, John Nicolson, a self taught artist, sketched and painted many portraits of local people, and also the landscapes of Caithness. His interest in history led him to recreate imaginative scenes from Caithness' history, including sketches of the Norse settlers who occupied the area, and a group portrait of the family of John O' Groat. Nicolson was a prolific artist with a distinctive style, providing Caithness with a unique cultural legacy.

Nicolson was also a talented sculptor, executing sculptures of people as well as accepting commissions for monuments, including gravestones, of which numerous examples can be seen in Canisbay Churchyard. Nicolson's most iconic sculpture is perhaps 'Meryvn's Tower' at Nybster Broch, a monument created in commemoration of Sir Francis Tress Barry. Nicolson used the "spoil" from their excavation to provide building material for the monument which is situated on the promontory headland at Auckengill, north of Keiss, just meters along from the Nybster broch itself.

The collection was gifted to RCAHMS by Nicolson's grandson in 2005/6.