Scotsman Obituaries: James McKay, renowned Scottish horticulturalist

James Carmichael McKay, horticulturalist. Born: 5 October 1944 in Stirling. Died: 28 July 2021 in Bonnyrigg, aged 76

Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 8:50 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 9:21 am
Jim McKay with the Dalai Lama at Edinburgh Art Centre in 2004

The seeds of Jim McKay’s lifelong passion for all things horticultural were sown when his father, also James, was appointed Head Gardener at Cringletie Estate, just north of Peebles.

Moving to Cringletie with his dad and mum Margaret would spark a relationship with the estate that would last a lifetime. His father instilled values in Jim and his brothers, John and Graham, that are rarely found today. Jim very much believed in doing things properly and his life would prove a testament to that philosophy. He leaves behind a lasting legacy on numerous fronts.

Jim’s qualifications were exceptional, with diplomas from a variety of establishments including West of Scotland Agricultural College, Auchincruive and the Royal Botanic Gardens. He was also the recipient of the prestigious Scottish Horticulture medal, of which there are only 50 holders at any one time.

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Jim joined the City of Edinburgh Council in 1973 and was very quickly promoted to head of the city parks service, where he remained until his retiral in 2008.

He had undoubted talent for securing funding outwith the Council for national and international horticultural and parks-related projects for which he became widely known. He displayed a replica of Edinburgh’s famous floral clock at Chelsea F lower Show, winning a prestigious gold medal for the city, and for many years organised the flower display at the Royal Highland Show. In 2004 he met the Dalai Lama at the City Art Centre, proudly displaying and sharing with him the famous Blue Himalayan Poppy he had cultivated in his fabulous garden, his pride and passion, on the outskirts of Penicuik.

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Jim’s most prominent project was the production of a comprehensive management plan for the parks and forests in and around Edinburgh’s twin city of Kiev. This took several years to complete and as always he managed to attract substantial funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Knowhow” fund to pay for all the extensive work involved. Following the completion of the plan, Jim was invited to attend the annual Kiev flower show as senior judge and to organise the first city of Kiev floral clock, which took pride of place in a prominent city centre location.

Other fully funded projects were the creation of a Japanese garden at Lauriston C astle and silver medals awarded to the City for entries to environmental competitions at Stuttgart and Prague.

Jim had an energy and dedication for Edinburgh parks which was simply inspiring. His mentorship and leadership were hugely appreciated by his dedicated staff.

He enjoyed a full and productive retirement, his expertise being put to good use at the Royal Highland Show’s Countryside Cottage with an annual environmental themed exhibition held during show week. Other projects included active involvement in realising the vision of the improvement of the grounds within St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh, and the restoration of the garden and grounds at Cringletie House, his childhood home.

He will be greatly missed by his beloved wife and lifelong companion Liz, his brother John, his loving nieces and nephews, his great friends and former colleagues.


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