The Nicolson Institute Vignettes

An illustration of the achievements of some past students

During 2023, to mark the 150th anniversary and to accompany the published history of the school, ‘The Nicolson Institute The History of an Island School’ by Iain Smith with Joan Forrest, we will be publishing a series of vignettes on our blog: brief biographies of former pupils of the school who have achieved remarkable things in their chosen fields. These have been written by a number of authors and provide a wide-ranging illustration of the achievements of some past students.

It would be impossible to include every former pupil of The Nicolson Institute who has gone on to contribute to the wider world or to have an impact on the school itself. The list below is not by any means exhaustive, but it gives a flavour of the undoubted impact that the alumni of this island school have had, and continue to have, far beyond their native shores, and in many diverse fields.

Religion and Theology

Alexander Macdonald of Swordale: missionary in Zambia; married to the grand-daughter of David Livingstone; one of the earliest secondary pupils and graduates; possibly supported by the Carnegie Trust; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1892-93;

Professor Donald MacKenzie of Aird: Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton University and benefactor to the school; student in the Universities of  Aberdeen, Halle and Berlin; ordained in 1910; army chaplain in the First World War; School Dux in 1900;

Professor John MacLeod of Aird: Church of Scotland minister and theologian in Toronto, Nova Scotia and Aberdeen University; graduated from University of Glasgow in 1914; studied for the ministry and was ordained; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1907-1910.


Roderick Smith of Stornoway: pharmacist and local politician; twice Provost of Stornoway; fought to ensure The Nicolson Bequests remained true to their original purposes; granted Freedom of the Burgh in 1961; left The Nicolson Institute in 1886;

Donald J. Stewart MP PC of Stornoway : local and national politician; Stornoway Town Councillor and Provost; elected to Westminster as sole SNP MP in 1970; awarded Freedom of the Western Isles; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1931-1936;

Sandy Matheson CVO OBE, JP of Stornoway: pharmacist and local politician; last Provost of Stornoway and first Vice Convenor of the Western Isles Islands Council; Convenor from 1982-1990; Lord Lieutenant of the Western Isles; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1952-58.


Professor Robert M Maciver of Stornoway: sociologist and author; lecturer in Aberdeen, Toronto and Columbia Universities; President of the American Sociological Association; one of first two pupils to gain direct entry to university from the school; School Dux in 1897;

Professor Norman Grassie FRSE of Aberdeen and Stornoway: internationally renowned polymer scientist and writer; Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry at Glasgow University; Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; completed his secondary education at The Nicolson Institute; School Dux in 1941;

Professor Alasdair Smith of Ness: mathematician and economist; lecturer at Oxford University, the London School of Economics and Sussex University; Vice- Chancellor of the University of Sussex;Chair of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and Vice Chair of the Competition Commission; member of the Scottish Fiscal Commission; School Dux in 1965;

Professor Tom Strachan FRSE of Stornoway: pioneering geneticist and writer; co-author of influential publications in human molecular genetics research; played a key role in establishing the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University; Joint Dux of the school in 1969.


Hector Maciver of Shawbost: teacher, writer, broadcaster and critic; Head of English at the Royal High School, Edinburgh; member of literary circle; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1922-28;

Professor Matthew M. Maciver CBE FEIS of Portnaguran: eminent Gael and educationalist; Rector of Fortrose Academy and the Royal High School of Edinburgh; Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland; Chair of the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee; Chair of the Board of the UHI; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1958-64;

Angus Nicolson of Borve and Stornoway: geography teacher and chronicler of The Nicolson Institute centenary; Royal Navy coder in World War 2; semi-professional footballer; attended The Nicolson Institute in the 1920s.


John Munro of Aignish: poet in English and Gaelic: winner of Mr Gibson’s inaugural school poetry competition; killed in action in France on 16th April 1918; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1908-11; School Dux in 1911;

Professor Derick Thomson of Bayble: scholar, publisher, editor and major Scottish poet; lecturer in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities; Professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow;Founder of Gairm; Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy; School Dux in 1939;

Iain Crichton Smith of Bayble; acclaimed poet in both English and Gaelic, novelist and essayist; English teacher in Oban High School until 1977 when he became a full-time writer; Consider the Lilies was published in 1968; created OBE in 1980 for services to literature; attended The Nicolson Institute in the 1940s, described evocatively in The Last Summer.


Donald Smith of Newvalley and Bragar: artist and teacher; a graduate of Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, following National Service; teacher in Aberdeen Grammar School, Summerhill School, and rural Lewis schools; painter of landscape and portrait, in watercolour, ink and oils; paintings feature in public and private collections; attended The Nicolson Institute during the Second World War.

Performing Arts

Duncan M. Morison MBE of Stornoway and Ness: pianist, composer and Freeman of the Western Isles; composer of Island Moon and arranger of traditional airs; concert pianist who enjoyed the patronage of members of the aristocracy; visiting Music and singing teacher in Lewis schools until his retirement; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1917.

Dolina Maclennann of Marvig: singer, actress and storyteller; Gaelic singer who pioneered its inclusion in the mainstream folk revival; performer of poetry and in television, for which she also wrote; played significant role in 7:84’s ground-breaking production The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1950, staying in lodgings and in the Louise Carnegie Hostel for Girls.


Alasdair Morrison of Lochs: goalkeeper in outstanding school football team which won the senior league title on two occasions, when the school competed against men’s teams; represented the Scottish Amateur League against Wales and Ireland and played against future ‘Lisbon Lions’ on a number of occasions; a professional player for Morton and Ross County; Principal Teacher of PE at Fortrose Academy; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1951-57.

Merchant Navy

Donald Maclean of Stornoway: Commodore of the Cunard Fleet; as a school boy, joined the Stornoway Sea Cadets led by Canon Meaden; began an apprenticeship with Cunard in 1917; Senior Second Officer of the Queen Mary; senior Royal Naval Reserve officer during World War Two; Chief Officer of the Queen Elizabeth; awarded Freedom of the Burgh of Stornoway; attended The Nicolson Institute in the second decade of the 20th century.

Journalism and Broadcasting

William, Joanna and James Shaw Grant of Stornoway:  founders, editors and proprietors of The Stornoway Gazette; William Grant and his wife Johanna were founders and proprietors of the paper; both taught in The Nicolson Institute at different times; their younger son, James, became editor on his father’s death in 1932, shortly after graduating from the University of Glasgow; Chair of the Crofters Commission; Chair of the Harris Tweed Association; Joanna Morrison attended The Nicolson Institute in the mid-1890s and was the first pupil of the school to take the Leaving Certificate in English at the honours grade; James Shaw Grant was the School Dux in 1928;

Angus Macleod of Plasterfield: award-winning journalist; Scottish political correspondent with The Sunday Mail; political editor with The Scottish Daily Express and The Scottish edition of The Times; Scottish editor of The Times; known for his distinctive radio voice as a newspaper reviewer and political commentator; attended The Nicolson Institute from 1963-69;

Cathy Macdonald of Bernera: broadcaster;  presenter of Royal National Mod coverage; radio presenter; fronted BBC Reporting Scotland; established own production company; Chairperson of Proiseact nan Ealan; attended The Nicolson Institute in the 1970s;

Maggie Cunningham of Scalpay: broadcaster and Head of Radio Scotland; first pupil from Scalpay to attend The Nicolson Institute; teacher in Tiree; founding member of Radio nan Gaidheal in 1979; Editor of Radio nan Gaidheal and Manager of BBC Highland; Corporate Secretary of BBC Scotland; Head of Radio Scotland; Joint Head of Programmes and Services, BBC Scotland (with Donalda MacKinnon); founding member of Sistema Scotland; attended The Nicolson Institute from August 1971.

Please see this page for an overview of The Nicolson Institute at 150.

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