One would not need to be long in the company of the late Jean Nicolson to discover that her background and pilgrimage here in time were of no ordinary interest. She, doubtless, would have shrunk away from the comparison, but those who knew her best might well say that she was of the same disposition as the psalmist: “I will meditate also of all Thy work, and talk of Thy doings”. When she spoke and wrote of the Lord’s dealings with her in His holy providence and grace, it was not in any vainglorious manner that she did so, but rather as a humble and loving Christian. It could not be hid that she had a wealth of Christian experience to draw on, and when she was in a reminiscent frame of mind her ability to command and maintain the attention of her hearers was quite remarkable. She has left on record, in her own handwriting, what is largely autobiographical and thus of great interest. As a result, it is hoped, the Lord willing, to publish at a future date a more extended account of her life.
Meantime, the design of this obituary is to place on record in the pages of our Magazine what we hope will be of interest to readers and will help to perpetuate the memory of one whose life was devoted to the service of Christ, most of it under an African sky. She loved the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and to the end of her life declared her sincere attachment to its witness. Her love for the Rev Neil Cameron bore ample testimony to this, as did her cherished memories of him, and of other worthy men and women contemporary with him, who completed the race and obtained the prize long before she herself finished her course in time.
Jean was of Assynt stock. Her father, Norman Nicolson, was born in Culkein and the house in which her mother, Jessie, first saw the light of day still stands in the coastal village of Inverkirkaig, three miles south of Lochinver. Her maiden name was MacAskill. Jean has left on record a most interesting narrative of her parents’ courtship, marriage and subsequent history. Her father left home as a young man and, after serving as a policeman in Liverpool for some time, found his way to San Francisco, where his uncle was a sea captain. There he also became a seafarer and eventually rose to be a sea captain himself, in command of a ship which plied between San Francisco and Alaska. It was while visiting his native land in 1900 that he met his future wife and three years later they were joined in marriage by the Rev Neil Cameron.
In view of subsequent events, it is of interest to note that, just before leaving home, the young bride-to-be was taken aside by an old, gracious Assynt woman who earnestly requested her to retain in her memory certain verses of Scripture which she proceeded to quote: “Thus saith the Lord; cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.” They were not to be forgotten, although their significance for her future life was not then plainly understood. (Years later, as she and her dying husband sat by their tent on the edge of the barren Arizona desert, she was to draw his attention to them and to the fact that she was now beginning to understand their meaning as never before.)
After marriage, the young couple settled in Seattle and in 1904 a son, MacKinlay, was born to them. Before long, however, the wheel of providence was to take a very unexpected turn and their prosperous state was to be turned into adversity. In 1906, at the end of a very stormy voyage, Norman Nicolson arrived at San Francisco with what appeared to be a very heavy chest cold, contracted as a result of the ship having had to weather a very severe storm on the way to port. On consulting a doctor, his condition was diagnosed as very serious, and the specialist’s advice was that the only hope of recovery was for him to go to the Arizona desert and live in the open air. Leaving Seattle, the family eventually settled on a ranch “up in the mountains”, 50 miles from Tucson, Arizona. It was there that Jean was born on 8 January 1908. An account of the hardship they endured and the courage and fortitude with which Jessie Nicolson faced adversity at this trying time will appear in due course. Here, it will be sufficient to note that after four years her husband died “trusting in the righteousness of Christ”, according to his own testimony, and while, at his own request, his heart-broken helpmeet was in the act of reading to him the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel. There, in Tucson, Arizona, the desolate widow with her two infants saw her dead being buried out of her sight.
In due time the widow and her family – Jean then being one year old – returned to Scotland and for a time they lived at Inverkirkaig, before eventually settling in Glasgow, where Jean attended Hutchesons Girls Grammar School and Glasgow University. It would appear that it was in Glasgow, sitting under the ministry of the Rev Neil Cameron, and while still young in years, that Jean was attracted to that Saviour set before her by His faithful ambassador and was effectually called by the Spirit of God “out of darkness into His marvellous light”.
Although the writer has in his hands a little handwritten notebook, there is little left on record in it which sheds light on the nature of her own personal spiritual experience in passing from death to life. Shortly before her death, when sending this notebook to the writer, she wrote: “When I was 18 to 19, I became interested in the Truth. I began keeping a diary of Mr Cameron’s preaching. I thought it would be wrong to write in church, so I would write after I got home. . . . I was so shy about writing a religious diary that I began at the back of the notebook.” That accounts for the fact that it is to be read backwards. Most of the pages are filled with fragments from Mr Cameron’s sermons, but there are also notes from one or two sermons preached by the Rev Roderick MacKenzie which obviously left an impression on her mind and memory. Later in life, we are told, she was wont to speak of having also received spiritual help from the preaching of the Rev Malcolm Gillies.
The first entry is a verse from Proverbs: “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise”, and the second entry, written in Gaelic, is obviously a quotation from Mr Cameron. In translation it reads: “If your godliness will not keep you from the dance floor and the vain song, it will not keep you out of hell”. On 8 October 1928 she wrote: “Mr Cameron said yesterday that to receive Christ was to sell all else, as the man did who sold all the pearls he had gathered, in order to buy one of exceeding great value”. The same entry records his comment on the words: “So walk ye in Him”. “To walk in Christ is not to find myself becoming better and better, day by day, but to feel one’s need of Christ more and more daily.” This first entry also refers to the visit of the Rev Neil Cameron and Mr Angus Fraser to the Mission. She first quotes Mr Cameron as saying that “in the cool of the evening we listened to the pleasant sounds of Psalm-singing from the African huts”, and she then comments that he had a warm affection for the Africans since he first became acquainted with the Rev J B Radasi and had visited our Mission. In view of the fact that she places this on record, one wonders if, even then, her own thoughts were beginning to dwell on the prospect of serving Christ on the African mission field.
At the time when Jean graduated, it was not easy to obtain a teaching post, but Mrs Mary Macdonald (nee Cameron-Mackintosh), a God-fearing woman, helped her to get a post with herself in Harris. That, however, was temporary. On being approached by the Rev Neil MacIntyre, Convener of the Jewish and Foreign Missions Committee, she agreed to go out as a teacher to the Mission. Accordingly, accompanied by her mother, Miss Jean Nicolson joined the Rev John Tallach and his family on their return journey after furlough and thus arrived for the first time at Ingwenya in what was then Southern Rhodesia. That was in June 1933. The school at Ingwenya now became an acknowledged Central Primary School with boarders. By 1938, when she came home on leave, there were 110 boarders along with another 210 day scholars. (Over the period of her furlough, her place was taken by Mr James Fraser, who later, as is well known, became an ordained missionary and zealously served his Master until He, in His sovereign wisdom, removed him to the Church triumphant in March 1959.)
Due to the outbreak of hostilities, it was 1940 before Miss Nicolson was able to return to her post and another six months before her mother, after many trying experiences as a detainee of the Germans, managed to join her. Jean left on record a most interesting account of this interlude in her mother’s life and it will no doubt be included in the more extended account which is to be published later. Before their next furlough, six and a half years later, they learned of the loss, with all hands, and without trace, of the ship on which her brother MacKinlay was returning home to Scotland. To the mother and sister, that was a sore blow. Mrs Nicolson (who had in her own way and sphere contributed much to the work of the Mission over the years) passed away on 5 March 1961. She was laid to rest beside James Fraser and John B Radasi in the little graveyard located within the Ingwenya compound.
In 1946, Jean was joined by another expatriate teacher at Ingwenya, Miss Jane Mackay from Staffin, Skye. This was of great help to her but after the resignation of the Rev John Tallach in 1946 and, later, on that of the Rev Dr Roderick Macdonald in 1948, the burden of the administration of the Mission at Ingwenya also fell on her shoulders. Over the years she sent her reports to the Synod and they make interesting reading. The following extract from the 1950 Report illustrates just how facile a pen she wielded, and it would be worthy of a place in any anthology of descriptive writing. “The nearest out-station to Ingwenya is Maqaqeni, about three miles from here. The name, Maqaqeni, means ‘among the hills’, and it is situated in the Fingo Location, where the language is si-Xhosa, whereas Ingwenya is in the Matabele Reserve and the language is Sindebele. The little thatched school stands on a hill surrounded by mimosa thorn, at times aglow with yellow blossom. Not a person is to be seen on my arrival on a certain morning at 7.45 am. Having entered the classroom to see if the blackboard work has been prepared, I notice that one of the walls has been rebuilt and the thatch repaired. This is gratifying. The children begin to arrive about 8 am and the young teacher, Ethel Nombembe, arrives too. She passed Standard Six at Ingwenya in 1949, and this is her first post.
“About 8.20 am I see the head teacher approaching, Abie Sobantu. He is very short, about four feet only, and slightly deformed, but one of nature’s gentlemen nevertheless. Under his arm he carries his registers, and in his hand a bottle of ink and a basket of chalk. When we have greeted each other and I have enquired after his wife and three children, he apologises for being late; he has no time, he says, his time is broken, meaning his watch. However, my irritation at finding him late is dissipated as I hear him give a very pleasing Bible lesson on ‘The Trial of Abraham’, punctuated by such questions as, ‘Does God still try His people?’ ‘Sometimes He tries them with hunger. There is no food in the fields. There is no rain. The people of the world say, He does not care, but God’s people say, He loves us still. He will take care of us. Abraham praised God for providing a ram. Do you praise Him for sending his Son? The Lord’s people praise Him, for He died for their sins.’
“Then the examination begins. We begin with the little ones and find that the little six-year-olds cannot read. ‘They are refusing to learn,’ says their teacher, looking at them anxiously, meaning that they have been unable to grasp anything. Having tested a little fellow called Umhlabobansi (‘the world is wide’), I find it is even so. He knows nothing. So we proceed to the older children and find them anxious and eager to show off their learning. Having gone through the three R’s to Standard Two, I ask if they can sing, and therewith little Abie Sobantu starts up the fortieth Psalm, and as they sing very softly and sweetly in three parts, Abie conducts the singing, waving his arms with the greatest precision and solemnity.”
The late Rev A McPherson regarded the years 1951 to 1955 as being “without doubt the most troubled in Ingwenya’s history”, but Miss Nicolson remained steadfast and loyal in the face of all the difficulties she and others had to contend with. The Rev James MacLeod, Convener of the Jewish and Foreign Missions Committee, in his 1952 Report to the Synod pays her this tribute: “Our people have every confidence in Miss Nicolson that she is carrying out the traditions of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the fear of God, and prayerfully seeking the spiritual and moral good of the children under her care. We were informed by Mr Stewart (when he was at home last year) that Miss Nicolson is held in the highest esteem by the Government officials of Southern Rhodesia for her own excellent character and conscientious discharge of her exacting duties. It can be said of her that she has given her all to help the poor and needy.” The Synod was well aware of the “anxieties and troubles” through which loyal mission staff were passing, and in 1953 a “motion of appreciation” was adopted. It ended with the words: “The Synod is particularly happy to recall this year that Miss Nicolson completes 20 years service. During these years, the Mission has progressed beyond recognition. The Synod gratefully recognises the large part contributed by Miss Nicolson towards this development.”
At the end of 1966, after 33 years service as Headmistress of the Ingwenya Primary School, she decided to bring her teaching days there to an end. By then the school had a roll of 500 with 15 African teachers on the staff. In addition, she was the manager of four out-station schools. This was not, however, to be the end of her work for the Mission; her “retirement” did not, for her, mean detachment from former colleagues and African friends both young and old, now to lead a life of ease and leisure. Her heart remained in Africa, and at home in Edinburgh she continued to do all within her power to advance the interests of the Mission.
In 1973, in response to a request from the Committee, she returned to Ingwenya, this time not to teach, but to replace Miss Sheila Macleod as Mission Administrator. These onerous duties she performed with her usual efficiency and dedication. At the end of her Report in 1974, she comments, “It is a privilege to have even a small share in the work of the Mission, for there is a promise, ‘It shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it’.” One of her colleagues (who still continues to labour on in Africa and to whom I am indebted for supplying much useful information in regard to Miss Nicolson) speaks of this sentiment as that which had motivated her throughout her long association with the work of the Mission. She continued over the following years, with a break for eye surgery until, in 1980, just after Zimbabwean Independence, she was relieved first by Miss Jocelyn Cox, New Zealand, who had been on the staff of the Mbuma Hospital which was now closed, and later that year by Mr William Campbell, who took over the Administrator’s work.
The 1970s were difficult years, over the course of which the Mission was maintained under what may be called war conditions. Morale, however, remained high and Miss Nicolson, as those who were with her at the time will testify, was a source of strong support to the other members of staff. The security forces and police had installed a communication network linking places which might be vulnerable to attack, and it was she who manned this “Agric-Alert” system at Ingwenya. By means of it, she received daily reports of danger situations. She was to return yet again to duty in 1981. She arrived on what was expected to be a six weeks’ holiday, but she volunteered to take on the role of Administrator again in order to allow Mr Campbell to attend to family business, and later, in 1983, she relieved him while he was on leave. This was to be her last stint; she was now 75 years of age, but still active and alert.
Her final visit to the mission occurred in 1994, when she was 86 years of age. The John Tallach School at Ingwenya invited Miss Nicolson to attend its Prize-giving as guest of honour. Ninety years had elapsed since the Rev J B Radasi had started the Mission in Rhodesia at the end of 1904, and she had first arrived in the country less than ten years after his tragic death. We are told that she spoke of Mr Radasi and of her own early experiences at Ingwenya, holding the audience enthralled as only she could. In 1996 her record of John Boyana Radasi: Missionary to Zimbabwe was published by Free Presbyterian Publications and it gave her much pleasure that she was able to complete this task.
Her retirement years, apart from the further periods of service already mentioned, were spent in Edinburgh. She continued to give strong support and encouragement to Mission staff, corresponding with them individually and providing her home as a centre where past and present members were always welcomed. She also wrote regular Mission Notes in this Magazine, keeping news of the Mission in the forefront of people’s minds in the hope that prayer would be offered up for its continued progress. She greatly appreciated the ministry of successive ministers of the Free Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh – the Rev Donald Campbell, the Rev Donald B Macleod and latterly the Rev Hugh M Cartwright.
In July 1999, she underwent an operation in an Edinburgh hospital. Her condition was diagnosed as serious and in November of that year she left Edinburgh for Ballifeary Residential Home. Her enthusiasm for the African Missions remained unabated and the fact that she continued, often while in great weakness, to write and send helpful booklets to friends and relatives showed that her missionary spirit was as keen as ever. She was lovingly and devotedly cared for and nursed to the close of life by Miss Catherine Tallach, who had known her of old at Ingwenya, and other staff members at the Ballifeary Residential Home. Her end came peacefully about 10.30 pm on Saturday evening, 20 May 2000. The following Friday she was laid to rest in Grange Cemetery, in close proximity to the spot where the dust of the late Rev Donald Campbell lies.
Jean Nicolson faced death in full possession of her faculties and with marvellous calmness and equanimity. She was aware that the time of her departure was at hand and, when the moment arrived, it was for her, we fully believe, a departing to be with Christ, “which is far better”. Her latter end was peace. She has gone from us to be now among the spirits of just men made perfect, to join those whom she loved here in time and in whose company she took delight. The Rev Donald Beaton drew his Memoir of Mr Cameron to a close by quoting the passage from Pilgrim’s Progress which describes the crossing of the river by Mr Valiant-for-Truth, and we shall bring this obituary to an end by re-quoting its final words, leaving the reader to make the application. “When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river side: into which, as he went, he said: ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ And as he went deeper, he said: ‘Grave, where is thy victory?’ So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”
(Rev) John MacLeod
[This obituary was originally printed in the September 2001 issue of the Free Presbyterian Magazine.]