The islands of Lewis and Skye remained part of the Scandinavian kingdom of Man and the Isles until 1266, and it seems likely that, in common with the Macleods, the Macneacails were of high Norse descent. The name-father of the Clann Neacail or Nicholson, a name popular in Scandinavia, must have flourished in the mid thirteenth century. The Macleods of Lewis appear to have extended their considerable possessions through marriage with the Macneacail heiress in the fourteenth century. The ancestral Neacal, therefore, probably lived in Lewis, where he and his ancestors would have served the kings of Man and the Isles in a mixed Norse and Gaelic environment. It has also been suggested that the Macneacails formed a large part of two Viking bands which ravaged the east coast of England and established colonies from which sprung the houses of Nicholl and Nicholson in Northumberland and Cumberland. They also spread to the area that is the present day Argyll and, it is claimed, sent warriors to participate in the tribal wars in Ireland. (Centuries later, some members of the extended clan settled in the north of Ireland during the Plantation, and today their descendants are to be found in Counties Donegal and Tyrone with the names Nichols, Macnicols, O’Niocals and Nickells.)
The first chief on record early in the fourteenth century is John, son of Neacal. He appears in the company of leading Hebridean chiefs, Macdonald, Macdougald and Macruairi, descendants of Somerled, who had wrested control of the southern Hebrides from Man. John was, perhaps, the leading man in Lewis. In the next generation most of the clan lands passed to the Lewis Macleods, but the main line continued, finding a home in the Trotter-nish Peninsula in Skye. Later, they followed the Macdonald Lords of the Isles and sat on their council. Tradition and ancient songs maintain that James V was entertained at Scorrybreac during his expedition in 1540 to subdue the island chiefs. After the collapse of the Lordship of the Isles, the clan followed the Macdonalds of Sleat, and fought alongside them during the civil war. Later in the seventeenth century, the chief, Donald, was minister of Kilmuir in Skye, and many of his descendents also followed into the Protestant ministry. It was around this time that the surname became generally anglicised as Nicolson, although it remained Macneacail in Gaelic.
The Macdonalds of Sleat were Jacobites, and participated in the rising of 1715. After the Stuart defeat they were forfeited, and were more cautious in the Forty-five, when neither they nor the Macleods of Dunvegan came out for Bonnie Prince Charlie, the ‘Young Pretender’. However, many Skye men did follow their prince, including the Macleods of Raasay and a band of Nicolsons who joined the Stuarts of Appin and fought at Culloden. It is said that most of them returned with their lives but bearing the scars of that bloody conflict.
In the nineteenth century the clan was badly affected by the Highland clearances. The chief was forced to abandon Scorrybreac and his family settled in Tasmania, where the pres-ent chief was born. The loss of the lands, including the traditional burial ground of Snizort, where almost thirty chiefs were buried, was severely felt. Many of the clansmen were evicted from their crofts and sought refuge in emigration, but those that were allowed to remain played their part in the slow revival of the Highlands and islands. Some were prominent in the agitation which resulted in the passing of the Crofters Act of 1886, which signalled the beginning of a new social order in the Highlands. Sheriff Alasdair Nicolson was a member of the Commission that fathered the Act.
Until a decision of the Lyon Court in 1989, there had been much confusion between the West Highland, or Hebridean clan, and those who became established on the mainland and anglicised their name to ‘Nicolson’. A petition was brought forward by Lord Carnock, to be recognised as chief of the whole name and arms of Nicolson. This was granted, but thereafter the Lord Lyon additionally granted a petition to Ian Nicolson of Scorrybreac to be recognised as chief inhis own right of the West Highland Clan Macneacail, thereby changing his name and designation to Iain Macneacail of Macneacail and Scorrybreac, taking his designation from the lands of Scorrybreac near Portree in the Isle of Skye. Nicolson is still a common name in Skye, and the sense of family solidarity there remains strong. The greatest Gaelic poet of modern times, Sorley Maclean, is a Nicol-son on his mother’s side. Oral tradition in the family has preserved some Nicolson songs of considerable antiquity and great beauty. In 1989, the chief unveiled a cairn at Portree, erected by subscription in memory of the Nicolsons of Scorrybreac and their place in seven hundred years of Hebridean history. The portion of ancient Scorrybreac acquired by the clan is presently being developed as a national park, and is being partially re-forested with trees indigenous to Skye.
Another strong link with the homeland was recently forged when Burke Nicholson, a prominent clansman from Altlant, Georgia, acquired the castle and barony of Balvenie. The castle, once home to the Earls of Atholl, also gives its name to a famous whisky.