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Neilson, George (1858–1923), historian and antiquary, was born at Horseclose Farm, Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, on 7 December 1858, the only child of Edward Neilson (1830–1861), captain in the mercantile marine, and his wife, Janet Paterson (1831–1903). His father died in Buenos Aires, and Neilson was brought up at Horseclose Farm, which belonged to his mother's family. He was educated at Cummertrees parish school and, from January 1872 to Christmas 1873, at King William's College, Isle of Man. After serving an apprenticeship at a writer's office in Dumfries, he attended the Scottish law class of Professor Robert Berry at Glasgow University in 1879–80, gaining first place in the class. In 1880–81 he again distinguished himself in the conveyancing class. He qualified as a solicitor in 1881 and in 1884 became a principal in Messrs Stodart and Neilson, writers, at 58 West Regent Street, Glasgow. He was appointed procurator fiscal of police in Glasgow on 6 November 1891. He also became fiscal of the Glasgow dean of guild court on 2 November 1899, and on 29 December 1909 he was appointed the first stipendiary police magistrate of Glasgow. He held this office until May 1923, when he resigned on grounds of ill health. He also made an unsuccessful application for the chair of Scottish history at Edinburgh University in 1901.

Neilson married on 24 June 1892 Jane Ann Richardson (1859–1945), daughter of Thomas Richardson, cattle dealer, of Hexham, and his wife, Ann Short. They had one son, who died aged three on 14 March 1894, and one daughter.

Neilson possessed an alert mind and a keen enthusiasm for research. He was eager to direct the attention of others to subjects that interested him and often placed at their disposal the fruits of his own studies. Beginning with studies of his native south-west Scotland, by his thirtieth year he had gained a firsthand knowledge of the sources of early Scottish history and of the antiquities of Scottish law and became a charter scholar and expert paleographer. His combination of charter scholarship with the study of records, chronicles, place names, and topography blazed a trail for Scottish medieval studies. The reading of Bracton's Notebook, edited by Frederic William Maitland in 1887, led him to send to Maitland in 1889 the manuscript of a study that he had made of the origin and early history of the duel. Maitland was enthusiastic, and Neilson's Trial by Combat, dedicated to his teacher Robert Berry, was published at Glasgow in 1890. It was favourably received and remains valuable. Terse, pointed, and illuminating, it was a pioneering examination of an obscure field, in particular making clear the distinction between the judicial duel and the duel of chivalry.

Up to the date of his death in 1906, Maitland was in close correspondence with Neilson, although they met only twice. Maitland constantly applied to him for guidance and information on questions of Scottish law and history. Neilson formed similar, though less intimate, relations with other scholars, especially Mary Bateson, J. H. Round, Andrew Lang, F. J. Haverfield, H. C. Lea, and F. Liebermann. In the field of medieval studies he came to represent Scotland in the eyes of students south of the border. Scholarly and enthusiastic, he devoted much time to solving the problems of others. In 1894 he published Peel: its Meaning and Derivation and in 1899 Annals of the Solway, both admirable examples of the work of a learned antiquary. An active interest in Romano-British archaeology led to Per lineam valli (1891), which opened up new lines of inquiry about Hadrian's Wall, while he also edited The Antonine Wall Report of the Glasgow Archaeological Society (1899).

Neilson devoted many years to the study of middle Scots verse. He sought to claim for John Barbour the authorship of a series of alliterative poems and, in his Huchown of the Awle Ryale, the Alliterative Poet (1902), to identify Huchown with Sir Hugh of Eglinton and to assign certain poems to him. He carried on a controversy about these matters in the pages of The Athenaeum and elsewhere for years, and in the course of it became friendly with Henry Bradley, F. J. Furnivall, W. P. Ker, W. W. Skeat, and others. These relationships were always extremely amicable, as Neilson inspired liking even in his opponents. His arguments for the thesis that he maintained were ingenious but no longer command support. It may be claimed, however, that his writings and the replies that they called forth revived an interest in an area of literature that had fallen into neglect.

In 1902, on the invitation of the University of Glasgow, Neilson delivered a course of lectures on early Scottish literature, and in 1903 the university conferred on him the honorary degree of LLD. Latterly he returned to legal and feudal history. In 1912, at the invitation of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (of which he was then a vice-president), he delivered the Rhind lectures in archaeology on ‘Scottish feudal traits’. In 1918, after delay owing to the First World War, the record commissioners issued the Acta dominorum concilii, 1496–1501, edited by Neilson and Henry Paton. The substantial introduction was Neilson's work. It contains many interesting suggestions and speculations, and was the stimulus for much subsequent work on the origins of the Court of Session.

From 1903 to his death, much of Neilson's time was devoted to the Scottish Historical Review, founded in that year; every issue of the journal included some form of contribution, signed or anonymous, from his pen, and he had a large share in its direction.

After suffering for more than a year from a malignant disease of the stomach and bowel, Neilson died at his home, Wellfield, 76 Partickhill Road, Partick, Glasgow, on 15 November 1923.

D. Baird-Smith, rev. Hector L. MacQueen


Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 29–59 (1891–1924) · U. Glas., Neilson MSS · NL Scot., Neilson MSS and charters · b. cert. · d. cert. · old parish records, Annan, Dumfriesshire · old parish records, Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire · King William's College, Isle of Man, Alumni Register, 133 · matriculation albums, U. Glas., R8/1/6 · calendars, 1880–82, U. Glas. · Mitchell L., Glas., Strathclyde regional archives · pamphlets, NA Scot., 10/13 · The Post Office directory of Glasgow (1880–1923) · F. W. Maitland: letters to George Neilson, ed. E. L. G. Stones (1976) · Scots Law Times (11 June 1898), 29 [portrait] · Scottish Law Review, 39 (1923), 353 · D. B. Smith, ‘George Neilson’, Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, new ser., 7 (1924), 351–5 · G. Macdonald, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 58 (1923–4), 1–2 · Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, 4th ser., 1 (1923–4), 161–2 · J. T. T. Brown, SHR, 21 (1923–4), 144–5 · Glasgow Herald (16 Nov 1923) · A. L. Davidson, ‘George Neilson, LLD, FSA’, The Gallovidian, 15 (1913), 1–7 · E. L. G. Stones, ‘Memoir’, in E. L. G. Stones, A. L. Murray, and D. Stevenson, Miscellany one, Stair Society, 26 (1971), 1–10 · d. cert. [Jane Ann Neilson]


NL Scot., collections and papers · U. Glas. L., papers |  CUL, letters to F. W. Maitland


W. Strang, etching, 1910; formerly in possession of Mrs. Neilson · photograph, U. Glas., MSS Gen 1114 (JJ) · photograph, U. Glas., Department of history · photograph, repro. in Scots Law Times, 6 (1898), 28 · photograph (in old age), repro. in Smith, ‘George Nielson’, facing p. 352 · photograph, repro. in Glasgow Herald (17 Nov 1923), 5

Wealth at death  

£4645 4s. 8d.: confirmation, 24 Jan 1924, CCI · £205 8s. 5d.: additional estate, 12 Sept 1924, CCI · £14 14s. 2d.: additional estate, 12 Dec 1924, CCI