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The name-father of the Nicolsons, Nicail or Nicholas, a name popular in Scandinavia, must have flourished in the mid-13th century. The MacLeods of Lewis appear to have inherited their considerable possessions through marriage with a Nicolson heiress in the 14th century. The ancestral Nicail, therefore, probably lived in Lewis, where he and his ancestors would have servied the kings of Mann and the Isles in a mixed Norse and Gaelic environment.
The first Nicolson on record, early in the 14th century, is John, son of Nicail. He appears in the company of leading Hebridean Chiefs, the MacDonald, MacDougall and MacRuairi descendants of Somerled (k. 1164), who had wrested control of the southern Hebrides from the king of Mann. John was perhaps the leading man on Lewis. In the next generation most of the Nicolson lands passed to the Lewis MacLeods, but the male line of the Nicolsons continued finding a home in the Trotternish peninsula of Skye.
Later in the Middle Ages the Nicolsons followd the MacDonald Lords of the Isles and sat on their council. In 1540, James V, King of Scots landed at Portree during a naval expedition, and tradition maintains he was entertained at Scorrybreac. Another tradition is that Bonnie Prince Charlie, fleeing after the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, was hidden overnight in a cow-shed by the then Chief.
In the 19th centruy the Nicolsons were badly affected by the Highland Clearances. The Chief was forced to abandon Scorrybreac, and his family settled in Tasmania, where the present Chief was born. Clansmen were evicted from their crofts and also sought refuge in emigration , Prince Edward Island being a favored destination.
Over the centuries, Clan MacNicol has given the world numerous poets and preachers, writers and warriors, historians ahd heraldists. The greatest Gaelic poet of modern times, Sorley MacLean, is a Nicolson on his mother's side. Oral tradition in his family has preserved some Nicolson songs of considerable antiquity and great beauty.