Obituary: John Foster, innovative first director of the Countryside Commission for Scotland

John Foster CBE. Born 13 August, 1929 in Glasgow. Died: 6 July, 2020 in Crieff, aged 99

John Foster has died at the age of 99
John Foster has died at the age of 99

With the death of John Foster weeks before his hundredth birthday, Scotland has lost one of its pre-eminent national parks and countryside leaders.

As the first Director of the Countryside Commission for Scotland and in retirement, John was dedicated to protecting the scenery and natural beauty of the countryside and to improving peoples’ access to and enjoyment of it. His innovative leadership provides a legacy which lives on in the work of the statutory and charitable sectors in Britain and further afield.

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He was educated at schools in Lanarkshire and Glasgow and trained as a quantity surveyor at what is now Strathclyde University. During the war, he qualified as a chartered surveyor and town planner and used his skills towards developing air bases on the Moray coast.

His first post following the war was as a planning officer first with Kirkcudbright County Council and then with Holland County Council, Lincolnshire. John’s career took off with his appointment at the newly established Peak District National Park where he worked as its first Director from 1952 until 1968.

He proved himself to be a real pioneer. Building relations with central government and local authorities with a sureness of approach, a willingness to listen and collaborate and a determination to achieve solutions.

Given his Scottish ancestry, and his innovative and highly successful leadership at the Peak District National Park, it was not surprising that he was appointed the first Director of the Countryside Commission for Scotland in 1968. He established the Commission’s base at Battleby, north of Perth. This provided an excellent location for the demonstration of countryside interpretation and visitor management, the training of rangers and the development of environmental education, with a unique innovative education facility and conference centre that is still in use today.

He had a tabula rasa to develop many innovative approaches to the countryside. He instituted the Scottish Ranger Service and developed the training of rangers. He pioneered countryside interpretation in Scotland with Don Aldridge as his lead, and he espoused environmental education as a key to the future wellbeing of the Scottish countryside. But it was for the protection of the countryside from unplanned and unwarranted development that he is perhaps best remembered. Living through the early days of many bids for the development of onshore oil and gas facilities in scenic locations, he ensured that there was a sound basis for characterising Scotland’s landscapes and for identifying the areas of highest scenic value and natural attraction, notably through the report Scotland’s Scenic Heritage, which led ultimately to the statutory establishment of National Scenic Areas.

He was less successful in persuading the many interests arrayed against national parks to change their minds. But he was shrewd enough to prepare the ground through a thoughtful and carefully crafted report A Parks System for Scotland which established the basis for Regional Parks and Country Parks, and set out the arguments for the eventual establishment of national parks in Scotland.

Following his retirement in 1985, he played a formative role through the Scottish Council for National Parks and Ramblers Scotland in the development of legislation for national parks and securing rights and responsibilities for access which was enacted after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the election of a government supportive of these plans.

Roger Crofts, one of his successors, says: “John’s innovative work was an inspiration to me in protecting the beauty of the landscape, developing high quality ranger services, arguing the case for national parks in Scotland, and recognising the great value of international collaboration.”

John believed strongly in the value of international cooperation in the field of landscape protection and nature conservation, playing an active role in the Federation of Nature and National Parks of Europe and in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas. He gave Scotland’s conservation work a high profile internationally, and took the experience he learned from other countries back to Scotland.

John Foster was born in Partick, Glasgow on 13 August, 1920 to David and Isabella Foster. During his time in Boston, Lincolnshire, he met and married Daphne Househam who, later in life ran a successful fabric shop in Crieff.

John was a keen traveller. Each year, during the 1960s, as the children were growing up, John planned family motoring holidays throughout Europe in his usual meticulous fashion. This allowed him to indulge another interest, photography.

John and Daphne moved to a care home in Crieff earlier this year, where John died peacefully on 6 July 2020. They were both wonderfully supported by their daughter, Caroline, allowing them to live in the family home until the last few months.

His work was widely recognised with the award of CBE in 1985 and other honours. International recognition came with the Fred Packard International Parks Merit Award in 1992.

Colleagues recall John as the kindest and most courteous of people. Quiet in style, gentle in manner, but determined and effective in all he did. His combination of innovation and pragmatic delivery will be long remembered.