Thursday 30 May 2024
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Tributes / Jim Nicolson (1946 – 2023): A pillar of the community but most of all a family man

Captain George Sutherland pays tribute to James Peter (Jim) Nicolson who died earlier this month

IT WAS an honour and a privilege to have been asked to lead this tribute to a very fine man, James Peter Nicolson, known as Jim. We’ve been friends and brothers-in-law since we were quite young – that’s quite a while ago now. Jim made an outstanding contribution to agriculture, education and marine safety in his lifetime and achieved much more besides in his remarkable life.

Jim was born on 28 July 1946 to Bobby and Mary Nicolson, and was brought up in Cumliewick, Sandwick, Shetland. Jim’s younger sister, Beryl was born in 1948. Jim and Rosabel were married in the summer of 1969. Jim and Rosabel were blessed with three children, Ingrid, Julie and Jimmy.  The arrival of the grandchildren; Elise, Nicol, Zander, Jake, Gene and Mattie made Jim very happy. To Jim, family meant everything, he was very proud of them and loved them all dearly.

Jim Nicolson with one of his prized sheep. Photo: private

Jim himself had a very happy childhood, brought up on the family croft in Sandwick and would share memories of going to the Cumliewick beach for a swim in the summer, fishing, playing cricket with friends which he enjoyed, although he still preferred football. Jim played football for Sandwick and also Ness. He was a lifelong Aberdeen and Manchester United supporter.

Of course, there was always lots of croft work to be done and this would take priority over fun and games. Nevertheless, Jim enjoyed helping on the croft in Sandwick, tending to the animals, working in the peat hill and hay, and he would also very much look forward to visits to his aunt and uncle Julia and Bobby Jamieson at Setter Mid-Walls, from where his father hailed.

As a small boy, the trip to Walls was quite an undertaking by bus from Sandwick and although it would often take the cut of a day to get there it was always worth it. Walls was a very special place for Jim, and when his uncle was no longer able to tend to the croft, Jim took it on and relished looking after the sheep, ponies and the land. It gave him so much pleasure, with Stoorbra hill being a favourite meid.

Jim did well at school, achieving the Dux prize and the Orkney and Shetland prize at Sandwick school. In 1958 he went to the Anderson Educational Institute in Lerwick. In 1964 he went on to study history, English literature and geology at Aberdeen University. His parents were incredibly proud of him as he was the first in the family to go to university. Whilst in Aberdeen, Jim stayed with a group of Shetland students in digs at 46a Union Street, a home from home owned by Mary Ina Patterson and colloquially known as ‘the Shetland Embassy’ where many a fun was had. Whilst in Aberdeen Jim studied hard and was awarded a first class certificate in modern European history and a first class certificate and the class prize in geology.

He always showed a keen interest in natural science and consequently also acquired a vast knowledge of the local land which he put to good use in later life when he was a highly respected member of numerous agricultural committees, including latterly National Farming Union Shetland president and chairman.

After graduating in 1968 with an MA honours degree in history, Jim returned to study obtaining his teaching qualification in history in 1969, a very proud time for Bobby and Mary as coincidentally Beryl was also graduating from Aberdeen on the same day.

During Jim’s time at university, he met Rosabel Sinclair. He always said that he was very blessed with so many happy days but marrying Rosabel on the 15 August 1969 was the happiest and it shaped his life to come. I was delighted to be asked to be his best man – a compliment I was able to return when he in turn was my best man the following year.

Rosabel was one of 12 siblings and Jim enjoyed being part of that big family, and all the time spent with his sisters and brothers-in-law and also his nieces and nephews. He was always very proud of, and interested in, hearing of their achievements.

1969 was certainly a pivotal year in Jim’s life, not only had he graduated and married Rosabel, he moved to Aith, where they would make their home.

Back in the late 60s, it was common for council houses to be allocated to teachers to make the post attractive in rural communities. Jim was offered a few options but, with his West connections, he decided West would indeed be best. Jim loved working in Aith and was indeed there for 39 years until his retirement in 2008 as head teacher. Apart from the teaching job, Jim loved living in the Aith community where he could be at the core of his crofting activities and in due course they built their house, Lonabrek.

When Jim commenced teaching in 1969 he taught English, history, geography and French in the secondary department and was also a teacher of upper primary. He also undertook additional study at Jordanhill in Glasgow to obtain further teaching qualifications in English, geography and modern studies.

With the school roll increasing, in part due to the decision in 1970 to close the secondary department of Happyhansel School in Walls, Jim became teacher of mainly English and history. There have been many fond tributes from former pupils from all over the westside and colleagues remarking how welcoming, supportive and encouraging he was, and with a good sense of fun. He was firm but fair, well respected and always a champion for the good of the school and community.

Jim was involved in a range of educational developments nationally, as well as Shetland-wide, and also in developing and broadening provision and qualifications offered in Aith.  In 1978, he was appointed principal teacher in guidance and in 1987 he was appointed depute head and also enjoyed teaching nautical studies.  Jim always had a keen interest in the many significant changes in education over the years and was chairman of the Shetland branch of the EIS from 1976-78 and secretary from 1978-1981. In 1982 he took on the role of education committee teacher member where he ably and constructively debated the course of education in Shetland.

In 2002, Jim became head teacher at Aith Junior High School. He was very committed to ensuring the continued high standard of education and opportunities for children; he introduced changes to the structure of the school day to make the most effective use of time in the classroom, and always encouraged and enhanced learning with the introduction of new technologies. He also saw the implementation of changes and the need to move forward as a team effort, and very much valued the dedication and teamwork of all staff in the school. School inspectors shared their report in August 2008 highlighting the positive ethos, hardworking staff, and strong leadership at Aith.

After Jim retired he was keen to travel. He and Rosabel embarked on the trip of a lifetime around the world before returning to help look after their grandbairns which Jim thought was a very special job.

Aside from his day job, Jim was involved with many, many local activities. He was a long-standing member of the ‘Teachers’ Squad’ and was in the Lerwick Jarl squad four times.

A dedicated and keen volunteer

Jim was a very dedicated and keen volunteer with the RNLI. The RNLI motto is ‘With courage, nothing is impossible’, words entirely apt for Jim. He first joined the RNLI as a volunteer crew member at the Aith Lifeboat Station in January 1970, and continued in this role for 31 years, till he stood down as volunteer crew in July 2001, having helped save 60 lives.

During his time on the crew, one of his most memorable shouts was to the Eleanor Viking which had run aground on the Vee Skerries in 1977. He served on three different classes of lifeboat in Aith – the John and Frances MacFarlane (Barnet class), the Snolda (the Arun class) and finally the Charles Lidbury (Severn class).

Shortly after retiring as crew, Jim took on the lifeboat operations manager role at Aith which he held until June 2018. In total Jim dedicated 48 years of his life to the RNLI in Aith – and that, in my book, is a major contribution to maritime safety around Shetland.

From a young age agriculture was of key importance in Jim’s life. He understood the significant impact it has on society and the local economy and was keen to join with others to promote and develop crofting and sustain local breeds and heritage. He was secretary and archivist of the Shetland Flockbook Trust, secretary of the Shetland Cheviot Society and was the common grazing’s committee clerk and area assessor for the Crofting Commission.

Jim was a tremendous support to the crofting community, generously offering time and advice to many with his wealth of knowledge greatly respected. His keen eye for quality stock meant he was a much sought after judge at events across the UK including at the Royal Highland Show.

The local agricultural shows were certainly a highlight on Jim’s annual calendar, particularly Da Waas Show in which he took his turn as secretary from 1973-1975. He enjoyed many successes with his own flock and wool and was keen to see a healthy number of entries, particularly from the young. The social aspect of the crofting community was also something that Jim very much enjoyed, with strong and enduring friendships formed and lasting a lifetime.

Aside from his mainstream interest in education, agriculture and the lifeboat, Jim was involved in a multitude of other activities – some linked to the mainstream and others which were not.

In 2022, the Aith school held its centenary celebrations, an event he was proud to attend. He wrote a booklet to accompany this historic event, with much information gathered earlier at a time when he thought it important to share how much the school had developed over the years, and how important it was to provide equity for bairns across Shetland. He was keenly aware there is ‘no one way’ to success and was innovative in ways to ensure that all students saw their potential and were proud of their skills which would lead on to success in later life.

Jim strongly believed that having a high standard of educational and social provision was crucially important to ensure young folk wanted to return to Shetland, and in particular to rural areas which was why he was keen to develop and maintain secure funding for leisure facilities.

When Jim first started teaching at the Aith school, leisure facilities were somewhat different. With fine weather, much of the recreation of the time would take place on the ayres below the then school. Football, a great passion of Jim’s, included at that time, a rather unusual position of ‘skipper’.  This person was tasked to row in the school punt and retrieve a somewhat damp ball which inevitably often landed up in the water!

Jim was chairman of the Aithsting and Sandsting Sports Association for a number of decades from 1971. In the 1970s, Jim, Mitchell Johnston, Peter Anderson and Jim Georgeson were leading lights in gaining grants from the Scottish Sports Council to develop the football pitch at Aith.

He greatly enjoyed managing and playing for West United as well as nurturing the enjoyment of football in young players with some very successful teams. He would think nothing of driving them all over Shetland to play in matches or indeed regularly giving up his dinner time to coach lunchtime football clubs. He was also very active with the Shetland Juvenile Football Association and continued to work tirelessly with others to provide hard won facilities to enhance quality of life. This included the West Mainland Leisure Centre which he saw as a necessary to allow school pupils to undertake qualifications, but also as an excellent facility that the wider community could benefit from.

There was also his love of Shetland history and heritage which led to his involvement in the setting up of the Aithsting History Group; he also ran popular night classes in Lerwick on local history to help share this interest with others.

Jim was the chairman of the Sandsting and Aithsting Community council for 25 years from 1977 until 2002. He worked tirelessly in that role showing great commitment and working collegiately to improve facilities for the Westside.

He was also very involved in many other local committees. He was commodore of the boating club, and involved in setting up the social club and rowing club. He was also pivotal in securing funding for significant improvements and extensions such as the Rankin Lounge to the Aith Hall through lottery funding. He was excellent at tapping into resources that would enhance provision and would never shy away from doing all he could to make things happen.

Outside of Aith, Jim was also involved with the local media. For some time he was a regular on Speakeasy with Radio Shetland and also wrote a column in the Landward section of the Shetland Times.

Jim was an extraordinary man who lived a remarkably full and successful life. He lived in Aith for 54 years. He was indeed a pillar of the community; active, respected, influential and a trusted friend. 

Committed to education, a popular headteacher, a long-serving lifeboat man, a well-respected crofter, a union man, and many other things, but most of all a family man, known for his energy, sense of humour, words of wisdom, kindness, generosity and hospitality. Jim will be a huge miss to the whole community and beyond – but what a legacy he has left.

I have many fond memories of times spent together, usually setting the world to rights over a convivial glass or two. He was an immensely sociable man and always very good company.  I just wish there had been more opportunities to enjoy his company and sense of humour in the last few years.

Sadly, Jim unfortunately has had more than his fair share of ill health in recent years, which he bore with strength and positivity.  With wonderful support from carers, the Bixter health centre team and his family, Jim was able to remain at home as he wished. Jim passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by his family on the 7 August 2023, after an extraordinarily busy life, truly well lived.

  • Jim Nicolson, educator, long-serving lifeboat man and well-respected crofter, born 28 July 1946; died 7 August 2023 in Aith
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