Obituary: Margaret Colquhoun, evolutionary biologist, much-respected and sought-after adult educator

Dr Margaret Colquhoun
Dr Margaret Colquhoun
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Dr Margaret Colquhoun, nee Kelsey, was born on 10 May, 1947 in Yorkshire; she and her younger brother Xenophon were raised in Ripon on the banks of the River Ure. Her mother Marika was a Justice of the Peace and Eric, her father, taught maths and music at Ripon Grammar School. Eric was a keen gardener and beekeeper, which no doubt was where his daughter first developed an interest in flora and fauna.

Margaret came to Scotland in the mid-1960s to study zoology and genetics with agricultural science at Edinburgh University and went on to work as a research associate in the 1970s on questions of population genetics. Her professor, Conrad Waddington, pioneered approaches within genetics that were radical in his time – he is known, for example, for coining the term “epigenetics”. Margaret’s extra-curricular activities of mountaineering and rock climbing in the Highlands led her to joining an overland trip to Kabul in Afghanistan. Margaret later trekked up to Everest base camp with now legendary mountaineers, who were engaged at that time in an attempt on the south west face. Later, she was also to become a founder of the business enterprise Helios Fountain in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and involved in the conception of Peter Potter Gallery in Haddington.

Margaret gained her PhD in evolutionary biology at Edinburgh University in 1978, and was later to pursue a four-year training (in Germany and at the Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland) in the scientific methodology developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s scientific approach to colour and to the organic world stood in strong contrast to the reductionist, materialistic theories so prevalent in his day and since. Her special interests were in plant and animal morphology, colour theory and the geological evolution of landscape. These years abroad were to be a turning point in Margaret’s life and work, enabling her to represent and later to teach a non-reductionist and ecologically sustainable approach to contemporary problems in the field of nature conservation and natural rescourcse management.

After returning to Scotland in 1988, Margaret both taught and researched extensively. She was soon to become a much-respected and sought-after adult educator in Goethean Science, travelling extensively throughout the British Isles as a consultative advisor on landscape development to diverse projects, including many of the centres for learning disabled adults within the Camphill Scotland Organisation and, later in her life, to the Findhorn Foundation. She was also to teach in Mamasters’ level programmes in holistic science, collaborating with Professor Brian Goodwin in Schumacher College, Devon, as well as in the former Scottish School of Herbal Medicine.

For over over two decades, Margaret was to arrange public events and exhibitions in conjunction with the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, most recently in 2015 in conjunction with Johannes Kühl, Director of the Section for Natural Science at the Goetheanum, Switzerland. She keynoted at conferences, for example of the Scientific and Medical Network, and in New Lanark, as well as of the Anthroposophical Society, of which she had been a committed and active member since 1979. Margaret felt an especially deep connection to the life and work of Daniel Nicol Dunlop (1868-1935), a Scottish visionary and entrepreneurial theosophist-become-anthroposophist. Dunlop founded the World Power Conference in 1923, to encourage international ethical economic collaboration among energy-producing business corporations, and aimed at promoting responsible management of natural resources. Margaret was later motivated to lead a seminar on the Island of Arran to explore and research his biographical roots there.

In 1992, Margaret established the Life Science Trust, a Scottish educational charity of which Sir Chris Bonington was to become Patron. Its aim was the furtherance of Goethean scientific studies and their application through artistic and sustainable ecological practice..In 1996, the Trust purchased Pishwanton Wood, a 60 acre piece of neglected woodland situated at the foot of the Lammermuir hills near Gifford in East Lothian, which was soon to become a pioneering land-based project and a centre for Goethean Science, including landscape studies and ecology. Its unique buildings had originally been designed in outline drawings several years earlier in collaboration with the architect Professor Christopher Day, as has been well documented and highly acclaimed in his book “Consensus Design”. The Goethean Science Building and Craft Building, which were later to be constructed through intensive fund-raising, are especially striking both in their architectural features and manner of construction.

In collaboration with others, Margaret was initiated and contributed to numerous seminars in Pishwanton Wood over the subsequent 20 years, embracing a diversity of subjects such as horticulture, animal husbandry, medicinal plants, nutrition, landscape design and architecture, as well as promoting numerous traditional crafts. Her only book, “A New Eye for Plants” is now in its fifth edition. Margaret herself described Pishwanton as: “A pioneer experiment in the sustainable and therapeutic integration of a variety of activities that might normally be seen as mutually exclusive…” Hundreds of people, both from the local area and all over the world, have visited Pishwanton to work as volunteers, study and for recreational and restorative breaks.

Margaret never entirely relinquished a dream of someday moving to the north-western coast of Scotland in order to pursue her own professional writing. It is unfortunate that life didn’t offer her an opportunity to do this, since there was clearly much that she would have been able to convey to others in this way. But following a short period of increasing exhaustion, her working life was effectively curtailed in August 2016, following the diagnosis of a serious pre-cancerous condition of the bone marrow. This developed into in an untreatable type of leukemia the following February. Margaret’s final visit to Pishwanton Wood coincided with a dignified and joyful celebration of her 70th birthday in May of this year, attended by around 60 friends from all parts of the UK and some from abroad. In the presence of Michael Williams, MBE, Lord Lieutenant of East Lothian, she was able to formally open the first residential on-site chalet.

Margaret’s personality carried many typical features of a pioneer. She wasn’t an easy taskmaster but was much loved and highly respected by a large number of colleagues, former students and friends from all over the world. Her educational work will continue to be a living inspiration for very many people for a long time to come.

Contributed by members of the Anthroposophical Society in Edinburgh and the Life Science Trust.