Stalwart of shinty and freeman of Skye.
Born: February 20, 1923; Died: October 24, 2013.
John "The Caley" Nicolson, who has died aged 90, was one of the great figures in the life of Portree and Skye. He will be sorely missed there, as he will be at shinty pitches across the Highlands and Islands.
He was one of only a handful of distinguished people to be made a Freeman of Skye. The others were the celebrated poet Sorley MacLean, the record-breaking round the world solo yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur, a legendary surgeon who served the island for decades, and the last chief executive of Skye and Lochalsh District Council.
But while the others were given the freedom of Skye and Lochalsh, only John Nicolson was made a Freeman of Skye and Raasay, the latter being the island of his birth. The award underlined just how highly respected he was within his community and how much the island meant to him.
He had earned his 'Caley' nickname from his time working as the barman in Portree's Caledonian Hotel. "I went for a week and stayed 13 and a half years", he once said.
His time there saw him enter the folklore of the village. Indeed, the minister at his funeral this week said that when John Nicolson shouted "time" for last orders in the Caley his booming voice was loud enough for all the other pubs in the village to get the message.
The "Caley" nickname stuck despite occupational changes. He was at different times a binman, the school janitor, a lollipop man, a church officer, and a court officer until the age of 70.
But it was the years of voluntary service in the community that set him apart. The Royal British Legion, Portree Community Council, the Skye Games, the Skye and Lochalsh Sports Council and the King George V Playing Fields committee all enjoyed the fruits of his commitment.
His great love was the game of shinty and he had a long association with Skye Camanachd. He was always there inspecting the playing surface or on the touchline . It would often be in the company of Sorley MacLean (until the poet's death in 1996) with whom he would be as likely to be discussing the genealogy of the people of their shared islands of Skye and Raasay or local history, as the finer points of the game.
He served as Skye Camanachd's chairman, chieftain and committee member as well as repairing the camans (sticks) for all the club's junior and senior teams until his recent illness. He saved the club thousands of pounds by rescuing many sticks disposed of as lost causes.
He also loved to travel to away matches, sitting in the front of the team bus all the way even to the likes of Tighnabruaich to play Kyles Athletic - a round trip of over 440 miles.
Former players recall how their post-match analysis over a beer would be interrupted by John Nicolson banging his cromag (shepherd's crook) on the floor and announcing "The bus is leaving in five minutes" , ensuring their safe return to the island. He himself would claim that on these trips his heels and ankles regularly suffered bruising from the bottles rolling down from the back of the bus.
There was no happier man in Skye when the shinty team won the sport's great trophy the Camanachd Cup at Fort William in 1990.
A native of the north end of Raasay, he had been a friend and neighbour of Calum MacLeod, the man who famously built his own road - Calum's Road.
On leaving school at 15, he joined British Aluminium and Kinlochleven and then served with the Royal Artillery during the Second World War on merchant ships. After being demobbed in 1947 he served with the lighthouse board in Orkney, then moved south to other lighthouses, before returning to Portree in 1954.
He was married to Mavis for 65 years. They had met in Watchet, a harbour town in Somerset. According to the minister, Mavis would often remind him of the placename thereafter.
When he was created a Freeman of Skye and Raasay in 2009, the West Highland Free Press carried an editorial. It said that there was a "patchy record" of issuing honorifics in the Highlands and Islands "but sometimes we get it right, and occasionally we get it very right indeed."
"In honouring John Nicolson, we are also paying tribute to a generation. He is one of these people who did not have a chance to go university, or even to take any Highers. He left school and proceeded to work hard all his life as well as serving his country with distinction in the Second World War. He never sought riches or power but his fierce intelligence, his articulacy in Gaelic and in English, his boundless energy, his love of his native culture and his pressing social conscience drew him to involve himself wholeheartedly in voluntary causes."
Certainly more than a few have recalled Runrig's song of a few years back The Old Boys Are All Leaving, seen by most as a tribute to the men of the war-time generation who were regarded as the fathers of the village of Portree. John the Caley was about the last to leave.
He is survived by Mavis, three daughters, three grandsons, two grand-daughters, three great-grandsons and one great-granddaughter.
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