With thanks to Hugh Dan MacLennan and The Oban Times which carried this article originally in August 2012.
Thomas Rae Nicolson – incomparable
In the days and weeks which have passed during and after the London Olympics, much has been said and written, quite rightly, about sporting heroes of this era and beyond.
However, not one word has been generated about the only shinty player I know of ever to grace not one but two Games – in London in 1908 and Antwerp in 1920.
Thomas Rae Nicolson (1879-1951), shinty player, farmer, and heavy-weight athlete par excellence was born on 3 Oct 1879 at Auchgoyle Farm, at Tighnabruaich on the Kyles of Bute, one of the eleven children (ten boys and one girl) of Neil and Anne Nicolson.
Tom, commonly referred to as “T.R”, was arguably the most outstanding personality of a family which produced eight superb shinty players and four supreme athletes. Married to Isabella (nee Hutton), they had three sons and one daughter.
T.R. Nicolson became captain of the famous Kyles Athletic shinty team winning many honours with six of the brothers playing together. Nicolson was arguably the finest Scottish athlete of his generation. An outstanding thrower in all the heavy events, he was by all accounts a great shinty player, an accomplished wrestler, a gifted golfer and a skilful footballer who had trials with the Queens Park Football Club in Glasgow. He excelled at the shot and hammer to the extent of being one of few who could challenge the pre-eminence of the Irish-American throwers of his day.
Six feet tall and weighing 175lb, Tom Nicolson began competing in 1901 at the SAAA Championships. A modest beginning led to a series of awesome performances based on natural strength and diligent practise at the family farm in Argyll. As a 23 year old he won his first Scottish hammer throwing title and achieved an unsurpassed 19 consecutive titles up until 1924; won again in 1926 and 1927 and was placed second in 1929, aged 50.
He won 14 SAAA shot titles and the AAA shot and hammer championships at Northampton Cricket ground in 1903. In 1904, at the Rangers Highland Sports at Ibrox, he proved himself to be one of the top three in the world, throwing the American style 16lb hammer 51.72m from a nine foot circle. In the hammer, he was virtually unbeatable in Scottish terms. He eventually set a record of 50.84 at a Scotland versus America contest in Edinburgh. As a native record it stood for 39 years and as a British mark for fifteen. In the 28 years he competed in the Scottish SAAA Championships, he won the shot 14 times; the wire hammer 21 times; Scots hammer 3 times; 56lb weight 4 times, a grand total of 42 Championship wins. His record would surely have been even more formidable but for the intervention of the First World War.
Tom Nicolson made two appearances at the Olympic Games, in 1908 in London when he was placed fourth, and in 1920 in Antwerp where he was sixth, his performance diminished by late arrival due to farm commitments. The lambing came first. Such was his fame, however, that his qualification entry was waived.
Nicolson was a great amateur athlete with an incomparable record. Known for his geniality, modesty, durability and awesome strength, he never followed his brothers into the professional ranks on the Highland Games circuit. Great grandsons still represent the Kyles at camanachd. How happy he would surely have been to see his descendants running out in another final in September.
Tom Nicolson died in the Western Infirmary, Glasgow on 18 April 1951, aged 71. He is buried in the Kilbride Churchyard, Ardlamont. No obituaries appeared in the Scottish national press, surely a grand omission given the truly colossal achievements of one of Scotland’s (if not Britain’s) greatest amateur athletes.
His fame is noted in the National Dictionary of Biography, but where else? This is a man whose reputation was world-wide, his sporting and athletic prowess “world class”. We should do better in terms of acknowledging our heroes in the shinty world and in Argyll. That’s a baton, in this Olympic year, that I will happily pass on to others who have influence in these matters.