By Eugene Dunphy
Born into humble circumstances on the 13th of January, 1830, at Burnside, Rescobie, Forfar, John Nicoll developed a passion for horticulture, botany and meteorology; he simply wanted to know how plants and herbs grew, what sustained them and why they flourished, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he was hired as principal gardener on a large estate at Ochterlony, Forfarshire.
Apart from concocting an effective herbal potion to soothe inflamations of the eyes, he applied himself to ‘designing’ a disease-resistant potato, one that would not succumb to the dreaded blight which devastated Ireland in the 1840s.
Described as ‘a modest man, affable and friendly’, Nicoll began cultivating a new type of potato in 1862 at Ochterlony Gardens, near Guthrie Junction, Forfar. Crossing two white-tubered varieties with a red potato, he planted a number of these hybrids in fields owned by Mr. Robertson of Newmill, Forfar, and soon discovered that they were producing an abundant, healthy crop, with distinctive lilac-tinted blossoms and lush verdant leaves. Keeping a watchful eye on their growth and yield over the next three years, Nicoll was thrilled with the results.
His ‘Champion’ spuds were found to contain high levels of nourishing, carbohydrate-packed farina, which made them floury in texture and tasty to eat when cooked in their jackets.
Though the green-fingered Nicoll was gifted in the ways of nature, his talents did not extend to the ways of the world – he sold the entire rights for the Champion to a local seed merchant for a pittance.
In the ensuing years, the merchant would make a vast fortune. Meanwhile, in 1866, Nicoll was appointed Superintendent of Cemetery Lodge, Arbroath. At a salary of £75, he was reported to have ‘laid out the cemetery gardens in beautiful shrubs, flowers and ornamental plants’. It’s interesting to note that it was not until 1878 that the public were made aware through the Press that it was Nicoll who invented the Champion, not Mr. Robertson, as had been previously claimed.