Mary McMurtrie

Mary McMurtrie, artist

Born: June, 1902, in Skene, Aberdeenshire

Died: 1 November, 2003, in Aberdeen, aged 101

"LONG and fulfilled" - those three words, used by her family in her obituary notice in a local newspaper, perhaps best sum up the remarkable life of Mary McMurtrie, the centenarian and renowned Scottish artist.

Mrs McMurtrie had celebrated her 101st birthday in June and had been officially recognised as the oldest active artist in Britain by the national charity Counsel and Care for the Elderly.

Flowers were her abiding passion, both as a painter and as a horticulturist. She had just completed proof reading her latest book of illustrations shortly before her death.

She was, by any account, a remarkable woman. One of the first female students at the art school in Aberdeen, she turned her passion for flowers into a thriving nursery business after being widowed and left to raise her young family on her own; she completely renovated one of the north-east of Scotland’s most picturesque mansions; she had her first book of floral illustrations published when she was 80, and she was internationally recognised as one of Britain’s leading botanical painters.

Mary McMurtrie was born in the village of Skene, the only child of the local schoolmaster and his wife.

She was educated at the private Albyn School for Girls in Aberdeen and, after leaving school, became one of the first female students at the city’s Gray’s School of Art.

She had shown an aptitude for art from an early age, sketching the cows and horses in the fields near her schoolhouse home in rural Aberdeenshire.

Her youngest daughter, Elspeth, recalled: "She was first in her year when she graduated. The prize was a trip to Italy to study. But these were early days for women going to a college of art and the prize was given instead to the boy who came second.

"The college’s view, according to my mother, was that it would have been a great waste giving the prize to a girl who would just get married and never use it. It was more important to give it to a boy."

After graduating, Mrs McMurtrie, at her mother’s insistence, completed a course at the College of Domestic Science in Aberdeen. Shortly after leaving there, she married the Rev John McMurtrie, who was the minister at her childhood home of Skene.

The couple moved into the manse where they raised their four children, John, Jean, Elspeth, and Bettice, who was to die before her mother.

Tragedy struck the family in 1949 when Mr McMurtrie died after 26 years of marriage, leaving his wife to raise their two youngest children on her own.

Undeterred, Mrs McMurtrie left the manse and used the love of gardening, which she and her husband had shared, to go into business as a nurserywoman. She opened her first nursery in the garden of the house that she bought at Mannofield, in Aberdeen. It became a thriving business.

Ten years later, she bought the 17th-century Balbithan House, in Kintore, which she painstakingly restored to its former glory, and transformed its gardens into a leading North-east nursery, specialising in rock plants, alpines and traditional garden flowers. She was to run the nursery until she was in her 80s, when she finally retired to live at Milltimber, on the outskirts of Aberdeen.

With her business firmly established, Mrs McMurtrie finally found time to indulge once again in her second greatest passion - painting.

Using her remarkable knowledge of wild flowers and rock plants, she began to paint regularly, using watercolours to capture the essence of her subjects. She also painted extensively in Kenya, while visiting her daughter Elspeth, and in the Algarve in Portugal, while on holiday.

Her first book of illustrations, The Wild Flowers of Scotland, was published in 1982. That was to be followed by Scots Roses of Hedgerows and Wild Gardens in 1995 and Scottish Wild Flowers in 2001.

She was also commissioned to illustrate The Flowers of the Algarve by Lisbon University and had completed the illustrations for what will be her final book, Old Fashioned Pinks, before she died.

Elspeth said: "She was painting almost until the last. She was very deaf, but her eyesight was perfect. She painted without glasses.

"She had a cataract operation a few years back and was very critical of some of the paintings she had done beforehand, and repainted some of them."

Mrs McMurtrie regularly exhibited her works at local galleries and abroad. The McEwan Gallery, near Ballater, has been exhibiting her paintings since the early 1980s and staged the last exhibition of her works last Easter.

Dr Peter McEwan, the co-owner of the gallery, told The Scotsman: "She was a delightful person, totally devoted to botany, flowers and her family, and extraordinarily modest. She was remarkably unassuming but a gifted painter."

Dr McEwan, the author of the Dictionary of Scottish Art, added: "She was one of the outstanding - and possibly the outstanding - botanical flower painters in Scotland of her era. She had exhibitions of her work in France, in Portugal, in Kenya, at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, and, of course, here in Scotland.

"She will be sadly missed. She was an extraordinarily popular and lovely person."