Prolific writer on philatelic subjects and biographer of Burns
Born: 21 November, 1936, in Inverness.
Died: 12 August, 2007, in Glasgow, aged 70.
DR JAMES Alexander Mackay was a writer and journalist who, since the 1960s wrote more than 200 books and around 10,000 articles on subjects including philately and postal history, coins and banknotes, antiques and fine arts, biography, history and topography. He was also active in philatelic and numismatic circles and similarly well-known in Burns circles, attending academic conferences and featuring in radio and television programmes about the poet.
During the Second World War Mackay's father, William, joined the RNVR and his mother, Minnie, returned to nursing. James and his sister were looked after by various relatives. In 1945 the family settled in Glasgow and he attended Hillhead High School, taking prizes in Greek, Latin, English and history, before going on to study history at the University of Glasgow. Many years later the university awarded him a D.Litt degree for his work on Burns.
After graduation, he spent his national service assigned to the Royal Artillery guided weapons range in the Outer Hebrides. At a book stall in Oban, waiting for the steamer to the isles, he bought a small book entitled The Postmark on a Letter, which sparked his interest in postmarks and postal history. Landing in the Hebrides he went straight to a post office, where the postmaster "obliged" him with impressions of all his date stamps. In an abandoned croft he found a sack of old letters which provided him with many island postmarks for his collection. Twenty years later he wrote 11 books on the postmarks of the Scottish islands.
He spent nearly two years on Benbecula including spells as "relief OC" on St Kilda, where he studied the island's history, wildlife and geography - all put to good use later in three books about the island. His love of St Kilda remained with him until the end.
After national service Mackay joined the British Museum as an assistant keeper in charge of the philatelic collections. He found, brought to the museum and had restored one of the machines used to print the penny black stamp in 1840.
For ten years he did good work until a youthful indiscretion cost him his job. He regretted his foolishness for the rest of his life, but quickly set about restoring his name as a writer, mostly on philatelic subjects.
He returned to Scotland, settling first in Dumfriesshire, and then in Glasgow. Gradually he widened his writing interests and over the years became a successful writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster.
He had been a stamp collector by the age of five, sticking stamps into an old copy of the Highway Code. He remained throughout his life a "general collector" - not just of stamps but postmarks, postal stationery, postal labels and postal ephemera. He built up a vast reference collection that was much called upon by editors requiring illustrations for articles. He also developed impressive specialised collections of Scottish postal history, mail from military and construction camps and on the theme of the Vikings. He was working on a collection of French postmarks shortly before his death.
Mackay was a keen collector of British stamps. He advised Royal Mail on the 1996 Burns bicentenary issue and opened the Burns exhibition at the National Postal Museum. In 1998 he took part in a televised debate on new Scottish country stamps.
In recent years Mackay had been involved with several Scottish philatelic societies, serving as president and secretary of the Glasgow Philatelic Society and president of the Old Eastwood Philatelic Society. He was generous with his time and knowledge.
For the successful national stamp exhibition in Glasgow in 2000, he wrote the accompanying book, Scotland's Posts, and put on a fine display of Glasgow's postal history at the city's Mitchell Library. In 1997 he was invited to sign the Book of Scottish Philatelists.
His philatelic books covered stamps of particular countries, such as Under the Gum: Background to British Stamps (1997), which earned him a Rowland Hill Award; postmarks and postal history; and general works including the recent World Encyclopaedia of Stamps and Stamp Collecting.
He wrote for major philatelic magazines and contributed to newspapers, journals and society publications. He was voted favourite author by readers of the Philatelic Bulletin in 2000.
But he was also known for books on other subjects. Having edited the Burns Chronicle, he produced an academic tome on Burns (1996) which earned him the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year award. This led to more popular lives of Andrew Carnegie, Michael Collins, John Paul Jones, Thomas Lipton, Allan Pinkerton, Robert Service and William Wallace. Other titles included books on Scottish towns and cities and on antique collecting and fine arts.
Despite an often punishing work schedule, Mackay found time to enjoy films, photography, playing the piano, country walks and for family and friends. He was a good host and a usually delightful companion on car journeys, although he could be intolerant of the navigational skills of his passengers.
He enjoyed foreign travel and in recent years had given talks on antique collecting on cruise ships.
He married Mary Jackson in 1960, and, after their divorce, Renate Finlay-Freundlich in 1992. Both survive him, along with, by his first marriage, a daughter and son.