A biography of Jean Nicolson (1908-2000), written by Dolina MacCuish, has recently been published by FPP. It’s a fascinating account of a warm, courageous Christian lady who spent the best part of her life in Zimbabwe, teaching and helping to spread the gospel.
Along with a couple of friends, I met Miss Nicolson in her retirement in Edinburgh towards the end of 1999. With her bright, engaging personality she entertained us with some of the stories retold in the book. Although her roots were firmly in the Scottish Highlands, she was born somewhere in the Arizona desert, where her father (a sea captain) had been instructed to go on account of his health. While they were out there, her mother, who seems to have been herself a woman of remarkable character, braved a tornado, and shot some rattlesnakes, among other exploits. (Later, Mrs Nicolson would be captured by the Germans at sea in the Second World War, and talked or prayed her way out of many a tricky situation.) Fascinatingly, the book explains how the tails of the rattlesnakes were preserved in little glass containers – and those of us who were there that autumn evening must have been a few of the last people to be shown these rattles, still a reminder of the hardships and the spiritedness of the Nicolson line!
When her mother moved back to Scotland after the death of her father (Jean just a baby), they ended up in Glasgow, under the preaching of Rev Neil Cameron, then minister of St Jude’s, the Gaelic congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church in Glasgow. Jean began keeping a diary in the 1920s, providing some insights into her spiritual interests and concerns, and became a communicant member in St Jude’s sometime towards the end of that decade.
She graduated from Glasgow University in 1931, and went on to get a postgraduate teaching qualification at Jordanhill the following year. Then at the end of 1932, a post was advertised in the denominational magazine for a teacher of Domestic Science to go and work in Africa, on the Free Presbyterian mission which had now been established for a couple of decades in what was then Rhodesia. Since Jean met the criteria precisely, she responded, and in the summer of 1933 she and her mother reached the mission station. (The first Free Presbyterian missionary in Africa was Rev John Boyana Radasi, a Fingo from Cape Colony in present-day South Africa, who began work in 1904 among the Matabele people around Bulawayo, in present-day Zimbabwe.)
Dolina MacCuish then recounts the self-sacrificial, dedicated work of Jean Nicolson as the early mission work became more established and wide-ranging. She draws partly on the words of Jean Nicolson herself, and partly on the vast funds of knowledge, experience and anecdote garnered by the many people who worked along with Miss Nicolson in the extensive network of communities in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe – the outreach there from its earliest days consisted of the preaching of the gospel supported in an auxiliary way by the provision of medical care and basic education.
Jean worked in the school, as teacher and administrator, alongside the existing teachers, Mabel Radasi and Paul Hlazo. The school in its early days catered for around 150 primary-age children, predominantly girls, who were taught basic literacy (English and Xhosa) and numeracy, hygiene, cookery, housekeeping, etc. Her contribution to what was by the mid-1930s a fairly large team of Scottish and Ndebele Christian workers seems to have been characterised by good humour, innovation, making-do with gusto, and splendidly well grounded common sense.
The book is well-written, fast-paced enough to cover the decades and supplying plenty detail to keep the reader informed of the wider context while leaving room for frequent cheerful anecdotes. The mission, including the school, grew and grew (congregations were established in many different locations, a well-equipped clinic and hospital emerged, and a secondary school was opened in the 1950s, named after Rev John Tallach (1890-1955), Mr Radasi’s successor). The book is also liberally sprinkled with illustrations, including many happy photos – a group of Tallachs, Macdonalds, Nicolsons and MacAskills, Jean with various members of the Mzamo family, Jean arm in arm with Mr Ndebele the elder, Jean with Mr and Mrs Hlazo, Jean with Margaret Mackenzie, Rhoda Mackay, Isobel MacCuish, and Marion Graham. Not but that there were difficulties along the way (the various periods of political turbulence had their repercussions, for instance, in the 1960s and more seriously in the 1970s), but there is a very evident atmosphere of commitment, cooperation and Christian fellowship – people working together not only to tell their fellow-sinners about the Saviour but also to live out remarkably consistent and attractive Christian lives.
Miss Nicolson officially retired in 1966 and returned to Scotland, although her retirement featured several hard-working visits back to Zimbabwe right into the 1990s. Although in many ways the story of her life is inseparable from the story of the Free Presbyterian mission and outreach, Dolina MacCuish has succeeded in producing a biography thankfully free of narrow denominationalism – and indeed, as biography, also commendably exempt from hagiographical excesses. Although its appeal might well be strongest among people who know the key individuals (and/or institutions – a while ago I stumbled across a flourishing Facebook group for pupils of the John Tallach Secondary School), the book is well presented, very readable, and really rather sweet. ‘Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things. And blessed be his glorious name for ever, and let the whole earth be filled with his glory: amen and amen.’
- Dolina MacCuish (2008), A Heart for Africa: The Story of Jean Nicolson. Free Presbyterian Publications