Edinburgh Zoo blacksmith John Ramsay dies

Blacksmith John Ramsay
Blacksmith John Ramsay
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A METAL worker who created sculptures of animals from scrap at Edinburgh Zoo – where he was blacksmith for almost 30 years – has died.

John “JR” Ramsay, who was also responsible for the design of the stainless steel and glass hanging staircase at Edinburgh Airport, passed away on Monday in the Marie Curie Hospice at Fairmilehead, after a short battle with cancer.

Mr Ramsay, 68, who was the zoo’s “sculptor in residence” and created a number of enclosures for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) – including a swivel locking system to stop macaques at the Highland Wildlife Centre from escaping – announced his decision to retire earlier this summer due to ill health and was diagnosed with terminal cancer just weeks later.

Born on the Royal Mile, Mr Ramsay became interested in metal work as a child when he was bought his first Meccano set by his father. He later became a farrier’s apprentice to a one-legged First World War veteran called Old Tam and eventually branched out into sculpture work.

His commercial projects included the Edinburgh Airport staircase and a set of hanging stairs at the Royal Bank of Scotland office on Dundas Street.

As sculptor in residence at the RZSS, he created special one-off pieces for speakers participating in the zoo’s Tribal Elder series, including an 
African rhino for anthropologist Dame Jane Goodall, a Sumatran rhino mother and calf for zoologist Aubrey Manning, and a pair of stags for former RZSS director Roger Wheater.

In his day job as blacksmith, he became known for his ability to create zoo sculptures out of scrap metal, including the “wishing tree” near the gibbon enclosure and ornate gates, ladybirds, monkeys and tortoises.

In an interview in 2013, Mr Ramsay said: “Creating metalwork animals is a hobby of mine. I study pictures of the animal, like a penguin in motion, before working pieces of metal together to create the sculpture. Each of my animal sculptures is unique.”

Kathy Sorley, RZSS’s “thinker in residence”, who appointed Mr Ramsay to the sculptor in residence post in November, said that more than 150 staff had sent zoo postcards featuring their favourite animal to Mr Ramsay after he retired.

“He wasn’t well enough to have a retirement party,” she said. “So I decided to start a postcard campaign so people could tell him how much he meant to them.”

She added: “He is going to be badly missed. He was the kind of man who just made friends with everyone. He would always say good morning and have a joke – he was a very twinkly character. He will leave a big, big hole at the zoo.”

Chris West, chief executive of RZSS, said: “We are saddened to hear of the passing of John Ramsay who worked as a blacksmith at Edinburgh Zoo for nearly 30 years.

“His legacy certainly lives on here at the zoo and his one-off sculptures of birds, animals and insects dotted distinctly around the site bring pleasure to visitors every day.”

Mr Ramsay leaves a wife, Josephine, and sons Robert and Mark.