Neil Thomas Ramage Dickson was born in Largs, Ayrshire, to Tom and Jessie Dickson on 15 October 1953. His father, after war service in the Royal Army Medical Corps in India, was successively a commercial traveller, a master grocer, a supermarket manager and a wholesale grocery manager. Both of Dickson’s parents were Brethren and had themselves Brethren parents. Through his paternal grandmother he could trace his Brethren lineage through five generations to the 1860s.
He completed his secondary education at Lenzie Academy, East Dunbartonshire, and from 1972 until 1976 studied English literature at Aberdeen University from where he graduated M.A. (Hons). In 1977 he was awarded a Dip. Ed by the University. He taught English at Kilmarnock Academy from 1977 to 2009. In 2000, under the supervision of Professor David Bebbington, he completed a PhD on the history of the Open Brethren at the University of Stirling which became the basis for his book Brethren in Scotland 1838-2000.
He had a childhood conversion and was received into fellowship in 1968, being successively in assemblies in Gospel Hall, Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire; Gospel Hall, Haggs, Stirlingshire; Victoria Hall, Aberdeen; Elim Hall, Kilmarnock; Central Evangelical Church, Kilmarnock; and Seagate Evangelical Church, Troon. At secondary school he became an active member of Scripture Union (SU), and at Aberdeen University he served on the Christian Union executive. When he became a teacher he assisted with a school SU group, and from 1977 until 1982 helped manage an SU camp on Arran, latterly being camp director. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he assisted in and later directed youth fellowships in the Kilmarnock assemblies, and was also during this period the chairman of the Ayrshire Christian Youth Rallies, an inter-assembly youth event. He was a founder member in 1989 of Interface, a series of annual conferences in Scotland which attempted to spread fresh thinking among Scottish assemblies. Until 1992 he served as its secretary. From 1977 he developed a wide lay-preaching ministry among Scottish Brethren and in other churches in Kilmarnock. In 1992 he developed chronic-fatigue syndrome which led to a major retrenchment in church-related activities.
Dickson has written extensively on the history of the Brethren in Scotland, publishing articles on history and literature relating to the Brethren in both The Believer’s Magazine (printed without attribution) and Aware. He was the convenor of Brethren Archivists and Historians Network from its inception in 1997, and edited its journal, the Brethren Historical Review (previously known as the Brethren Archivists and Historians Network Review), from that same year. While working at Kilmarnock Academy he has contributed academic articles, mainly on religious history, to a variety of books, journals and biographical dictionaries, including The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) and Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (1998-2007). He has published An Island Shore: the Life and Work of Robert Rendall (1990), Brethren in Scotland 1838-2000: a social study of an evangelical movement (2002) and The growth of the Brethren movement: national and international experiences: essays in honour of Harold H. Rowdon edited with Tim Grass (2006). He married Beth Jack in 1983 and they have two children, Katie and Mary. He lived in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, from 1982 until 1998 when, with his family, he removed to the nearby town of Troon. Since 2009 he has been retired, while Beth continues as a senior lecturer at Glasgow University. In 2010 he was appointed Chairman of the Ayrshire Federation of Historical Societies, being also a contributor to its publications. In 2010 he became a member of the Church of Scotland and in 2011 taught church history at the International Christian College, Glasgow.