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the life and legacy of john nichol

One hundred and fifty years ago today, November 17, 1862, John Nichol delivered his inaugural lecture as Glasgow University's first Regius Professor of English.

Nichol's portrait, bearded, frock-coated and gazing into the middle distance, shows that typical blend of confidence and concern that we might expect from a Victorian intellectual. Unlike his successor Professor AC Bradley, his 18 publications never earned him a lasting reputation, although he played an important role in developing the new subject of English Literature both in Glasgow and around the world.

Born in Kelso, he spent his boyhood in Glasgow University's new observatory on Horselethill, where his father (professor of Astronomy) tippled laudanum with De Quincey and observed the nebulae in the smokeless skies of a still-rural west end. Entering the university at the age of 15, Nichol was obliged to leave "the starry tower" before dawn and trudge the four miles to Old College on the High Street – the university didn't move to Gilmorehill until 1870. After his mother's death, his father remarried Elizabeth Pease of Darlington, a noted Quaker anti-slavery campaigner and feminist who would profoundly influence her stepson's views on politics and women's education.

The Glasgow curriculum studied by Nichol hadn't changed much from the glory days of the Enlightenment: his "love of letters" was imbibed from the teaching of Robert Buchanan, the professor of Logic and Rhetoric. Edinburgh, unlike Glasgow, had a Chair of "Rhetoric and Belles Lettres", the 250th anniversary of which is also being celebrated this year. Although this was the first of its kind in the world, it's a matter of Glaswegian pride that the first professor, Reverend Hugh Blair, was influenced by Adam Smith's lectures on the subject earlier delivered at Glasgow University between 1751-64.

Nichol was last in line of an apostolic succession at Glasgow: his teacher Buchanan was taught by George Jardine, Jardine by Adam Smith and Smith by the Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, "the father of the Scottish Enlightenment". For all his Oxford veneer he fiercely defended the values of "democratic intellect" and philosophical enquiry characteristic of the Scottish tradition.

In 1856 Nichol won a Snell Exhibition to Balliol College Oxford, but like Adam Smith a century before was ambivalent about the "dreaming spires". He made lifelong friends with some of the leading intellectual lights of Victorian England, including Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, and Algernon Swinburne, the enfant terrible of Victorian poetry, who described Nichol as the "guide of my boyhood in the paths of my free thought and republican faith". In 1857 the two walked the Cuillin ridge in Skye, and later Swinburne surprised Nichol's students by sitting in on his Glasgow lectures.

At Oxford Nichol established an intellectual club called Old Mortality, nothing to do with Sir Walter Scott but so named because all its members suffered from poor health. The prickly Glaswegian had little time for Matthew Arnold, Oxford's professor of Poetry, nor did he share Swinburne's admiration for Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites. Nichol preferred the "sullen old Diogenes" Thomas Carlyle but the relationship had its sticking points: calling at the Carlyles in 1859, he noted in his diary: "To Chelsea. Surly reception by Thomas, and Mrs C. I won't go there again till I am asked."

The Chair to which Nichol was appointed in 1862 was established because of the introduction of competitive examinations for the Indian Civil Service, in which over a quarter of total possible marks were awarded for proficiency in English language and literature. Scots students should continue to have their share of the "glittering prizes". The British Empire was to be run by men who knew how to "write out the plot of Shakespeare's 'Lear'" or "Mention the most important of Pope's literary friends, describe briefly their leading characteristics, and give a short account of one of the most celebrated works of each".

Chairs of English were still a novelty in 19th-century Britain: Oxford's Merton Chair wasn't established until 1884 – safeguarding the dons from "chatter about Shelley" – while Cambridge's Edward VII Chair had to wait even longer until 1911. They lacked the cachet of the more established Chairs, which explains why Nichol applied (unsuccessfully) for both the Logic and Moral Philosophy Chairs at Glasgow shortly after his appointment to the English Chair.

Disappointed, he nevertheless put his back into the work: as the sole professor of English, he had a massive workload, delivering 160 lectures a year to two classes of more than 300 students. The new subject remained an Ordinary Course, offering a survey of literature and teaching composition to students largely occupied with other courses. Although Nichol lectured on the history of the language, his bias was towards literature: English Language would have to wait until 1907 for a dedicated Lectureship at Glasgow, and it wasn't until 1948 that a separate Chair was established, bringing with it departmental status.

Nichol insisted on taking a historical approach to criticism, and didn't believe that an Honours course in English could be created at Glasgow until there was a Chair in History, which didn't come to pass until 1893, four years after his retirement. Ironically, it was established under his successor AC Bradley, who had little interest in a historical approach to literature. Both Bradley and his successor, Walter Raleigh, went on to Chairs at Oxford, and played major roles in the 20th-century development of English.

John Nichol's legacy has helped shape today's School of Critical Studies at Glasgow, especially his emphasis on Scottish and American literature and creative writing. He may even unwittingly have predicted the rise of postcolonial literature when he boasted that "Shakespeare and Burns are at this day read from the banks of the Connecticut and the Columbia rivers to the sands of Sydney and the Yellow Sea". It's a view of global English which puts Burns on a par with Shakespeare: the exemplar of Burns's poetry in Scots (as well as Shakespeare) was indeed an influence on postcolonial writers in India, the Caribbean and Australia.

Although there's undoubtedly an element of cultural cringe in the whole Scottish "rhetoric and belles lettres" tradition, a significant number of Nichol's publications targeted his native literature, with studies of medieval Scottish poetry, Burns, Byron and Carlyle. Scottish literature had a long wait for recognition, but Glasgow was at the forefront. When the university established a Department of Scottish Literature in 1971, however, it was as an offshoot of Scottish History rather than English Literature. I owe a personal debt to Nichol's book on Burns (as well as my colleagues in Scot Lit) for contributions to the making of my own Robert Burns And Pastoral (2010).

Nichol's liberalism and opposition to slavery made him a fervent supporter of the North during the American Civil War. In 1865 he visited the US, touring the Civil War battlefields, and paying visits to Emerson and Longfellow: he dreamed of a post at Harvard, but none was forthcoming. The fruit of his visit was a seminal book, American Literature: An Historical Sketch, one of the first studies of the subject published on either side of the Atlantic. American literature is a popular option for students today, and Nichol's legacy is enshrined in the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies, named after our Emeritus Professor, author of the only modern critical study of John Nichol.

Flying in the face of Victorian elitism and patriarchy, Nichol also actively sought to extend higher education to women and the working classes. He tirelessly toured Britain from Dundee to Penzance lecturing to audiences of all social classes, paving the way for the University Extension movement and Glasgow's Open Programme, offering academic courses to the wider public. In 1868-69, he launched a series of Lectures For Ladies in the Corporation Galleries, Sauchiehall Street, and supported the foundation of Glasgow's Queen Margaret College for women in 1883, assimilated to the university in 1892.

By the time that Honours English started, 59 women were studying arts subjects and the majority were reading English Literature: today two-thirds of students studying English are female, and alumni include such notable writers as Catherine Carswell, Janice Galloway and Jen Hadfield, and playwrights Linda McGann and Marcella Everasti. Nichol would have approved of the centrality of women writers in the modern curriculum, but perhaps his stepmother Elizabeth Pease deserves some of the credit.

His interest in contemporary educational debate was also manifest in his book Scotch University Reform (1888), published the year before he resigned his Chair in frustration at the changes being wrought in the Scottish and English universities, his health shattered by 27 years of hard work. Nichol complained of "the demands of a utilitarianism apt to set exclusive store on production and exchange" driving the Tory government's higher education policy. Plus ça change. He fiercely defended the Scottish universities as "seminaries for the nation: comparatively poor, they are institutions for the comparably poor".

English at Glasgow has attracted thousands of students from Scotland, England, Ireland, North America and the wider world. I'm proud to have inherited Nichol's Regius Chair, surprised that I'm only the seventh in line (following AC Bradley, Walter Raleigh, Macneile Dixon, Peter Alexander, Peter Butter and Stephen Prickett). Nichol started off as a one-man band: today the School employs 44 lecturers in language and literature, with more than 530 students in English Honours only, and the workload remains heavy.

Nichol was himself an indifferent poet, but as the author of a book on composition he passionately believed that good writing could be taught, and that criticism and creativity were vitally interconnected. This view informs the present, and it's apt that Eddie Morgan, one of the leading poets of 20th-century Scotland, taught in the English Literature department from 1947 until his retirement in 1980.

In 1995 Philip Hobsbaum established Glasgow's Creative Writing Programme, which for a time included Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Tom Leonard as professors (the latter an alumnus of English Literature). In recent years it has been directed by Michael Schmidt: the current programme convener is Caribbean poet and novelist Kei Miller. Other writers who have studied English at Glasgow include William Boyd, William McIlvanney, Christopher Brookmyre and Alan Warner.

Much has changed in 150 years of English at Glasgow, but the man who started it all has helped shape its subsequent growth. Professor John Nichol's work and legacy are the focus of a workshop entitled Disciplinary Formation being held today, and the text of his inaugural lecture is posted on the School of Critical Studies website.

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