APPRECIATION: Sir Peter Hutchison Bt CBE FRSE, amateur botanist, plant hunter, environmentalist, businessman

Sir Peter undertaking a commemorative planting at Benmore after receiving the RBGE medal last year (Picture: RBGE)
Sir Peter undertaking a commemorative planting at Benmore after receiving the RBGE medal last year (Picture: RBGE)
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Sir Peter Hutchison Bt CBE FRSE, amateur botanist, plant hunter, environmentalist, businessman. Born: 5 June 1935. Died: 20 January 2019, aged 83.

For more than three decades Peter Hutchison delivered an outstanding contribution to the life and work of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) – with over a quarter-century dedicated to steering the course of Benmore Botanic Garden, its 120 acre west coast site near Dunoon, on the Cowal Penisula. Bringing a wealth of knowledge, humility and vision he journeyed with the organisation through its transition into one of the leading global conservation institutes of the 21st century.

As the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, following the 1985 Act of Parliament that established the current structure of what is now called “governance”, he met the challenge of establishing and chairing a board with diplomacy, skill and foresightedness, creating a model that continues today.

During his chairmanship (1985 to 1994), there was a notable expansion in RBGE’s international taxonomy research programmes. The Education programme grew considerably; the MSc course was introduced and embraced taxonomic computing. Major improvements to the Garden landscape and Living Collection were achieved. The Herbarium and Library building was extended to accommodate the work of the organisation’s expanding global collaborations and enhanced facilities were created to cater for a rapidly growing number of visitors.

That was only scratching the surface. All the while, from 1962 to 2005, along with Peter Cox, of Glendoick, Peter Hutchison made 16 journeys – often arduous, sometimes dangerous and occasionally funny – in search of plants of the Himalaya and the high peaks of Western China, Tibet and Turkey. Together they explored territory not visited by western plant hunters since the days of such great names as Frank Kingdon Ward. The two travelled trails so remote and rough that they had never before been botanised.

Peter Hutchison and Peter Cox set their sights on establishing a garden in western Scotland that would be suitable for growing plants too tender for the conditions Glendoick, in Perthshire. Their search led them to a stunning woodland on Argyll’s temperate West Loch Tarbert. Baravalla was born. Thirty years on, the garden is an impressive sight, open only by special invitation.

Taking up residency at Kippen, Stirlingshire, in the early 1990s, Peter and wife Virginia, set about transforming the large woodland garden, with its Victorian walk along the burn side, waterfall and bridges.

As Chair of the Younger (Benmore) Trust from 1993 to 2017 Peter successfully minimized bureaucracy and maximised the impact of the Trust on Benmore Botanic Garden. While the primary task of the Trust is to provide financial support, his outstanding leadership also provided inspiration, vision and motivation to achieve some remarkable projects, working closely with the Garden’s Management Team, and ever willing to embrace and champion change.

He oversaw such significant incentives as the stabilisation and eventual full restoration for the Garden’s unique Victorian Fernery. He drove fundraising efforts for global research and conservation initiatives such as the International Conifer Conservation Project (ICCP) and supported major plantings including the Chilean Rainforest at Benmore, now 25 years old and a significant feature on the hillside. Another substantial development was the conversion of the Courtyard Sawmill into the Courtyard Gallery. This transformed the way the Garden interacts with its visitors by providing a multifunctional space which can be used for education, exhibitions, illustrated talks, meetings and other events.

Appropriately, it was in the Courtyard Gallery that Sir Alastair Muir Russell KCB DL FRSE, current Chairman of the Board of Trustees of RBGE presented the prestigious Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Medal to Sir Peter in spring 2018.

Sir Muir told the gathering: “A distinguished businessman, botanist and traveller, Sir Peter Hutchison’s accomplishments range from chairing the first Board of Trustees and the Younger (Benmore) Trust to significant horticultural achievements through plant exploration and active involvement with a wide range of groups. This award is hugely well merited.”

One of Peter’s many glorious legacies will be Seeds of Adventure, the lavishly illustrated book co-written with Peter Cox, telling the story of their extensive travels from 1962 to 2005. With their Chinese and Indian colleagues, the two Peters introduced many plants, especially rhododendrons, new or lost to cultivation, often saving them from extinction, many of which can be grown outside in the temperate regions of Europe and the United States of America.

Winner of the 2008 UK Inspirational Gardening Book of the Year, Garden Media Awards, one judge commented of Seeds of Adventure: “Even someone who couldn’t care two hoots about rhododendrons would be gripped by the sheer bloody-mindedness of these two as they suffered awkward locals, ticks the size of pennies, food poisoning, sodden tents and numerous travel headaches in their good-humoured quest.

“The anecdotes are delightful, the photographs of plants, people and views are breathtaking. What an inspiration to us all.”

His many other commitments and areas of interest ranged from Forestry Commission Scotland to the Burrell in Glasgow, the Loch Lomond Trust, Royal Society of Edinburgh, British Waterway, Scottish Natural Heritage and American Rhododendron Society.

Regius Keeper 
Simon Milne MBE