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Down Memory Lane by Bill McAllister: Former Provost of Inverness and heroic doctor John Inglis Nicol who broke the law to increase his knowledge

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Chapel Yard Cemetery.
Chapel Yard Cemetery.

Doctor John Inglis Nicol was Provost of Inverness 180 years ago and died a hero after catching cholera treating patients during a local outbreak.

Yet this distinguished man apparently wasn’t averse to recruiting body snatchers to dig up corpses for his medical studies.

Bodysnatching was a relatively frequent occurrence in 19th century Scotland when doctors and surgeons were legally banned from dissecting bodies for research.

Watch houses were erected in churchyards to guard against bodysnatchers, with relatives taking turns to mount guard. The watch house remains a feature of Dunlichity graveyard where a relative who had imbibed alcohol fired his blunderbuss at a shadow he believed was a snatcher. The marks of the shot are reputed to still be on the gravestone he hit.

From Teawig, near Beauly, Nicol was apprenticed to Dr Kennedy in Inverness and continued his studies in London and at the University of Tubingen, in Germany.

He returned to Inverness in 1812 to establish a medical practice and became prominent locally, being described by the Inverness Courier as “not only an eminent physician but a spirited citizen”.

Nicol was involved in setting up Holm Woollen Mills and farmed land at Campfield, which lay from what is now Ladies Walk along Stratherrick Road and took its name from being a venue for militia training.

His scientific leanings saw him undertake a series of experiments to improve cultivation, including testing the value of different manures and crop species. He also grew herbs for potential medical use.

His young daughter died and was buried in the Chapel Yard Cemetery next to another young girl, a patient of his, who had also recently died. Vexed at not being able to diagnose the cause of his patient’s passing this led him to recruit bodysnatchers so he could perform an autopsy.

The doctor apparently placed a yellow pebble on the correct grave as a marker for the “retrieval”, but someone innocently picked it up to examine it then tossed it away so that it landing on Nicol’s daughter’s grave instead.

Next morning, when the doctor came in and saw his assistant preparing the body for dissection, he was shocked to recognise his own daughter. The corpse was hurriedly hidden away and later reburied, but the girl’s dress was not disposed of and Mrs Nicol came across it, suffering a deep mental trauma which was to trouble her for the rest of her life as a result.

A sad tale, but doctors at the time required corpses to study anatomy and many viewed bodysnatching as a necessary endeavour.

Burke and Hare’s murderous activities helped trigger the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowing unclaimed bodies and those deemed available by their relatives to be used for medical purposes.

Nicol went on to join Inverness Town Council and was elected Provost in 1840. He resigned as civic leader in April 1843 after being outvoted on issues such as a Harbour Bill and a new post office.

Cholera broke out in North Kessock in January 1849, and by March there was an outbreak at Ardersier. The dread disease reached Inverness by April 26 and that September, ceaselessly attending to patients, Dr Nicol also contracted cholera and died aged 61, the Courier describing his passing as “the severest blow”.

He was buried in the Chapel Yard next to his wife and daughter.

A portrait and memorial bust of Nicol are displayed in the Town House – a flawed but remarkable Invernessian.

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