Obituary: John Ramsay, sculptor and blacksmith

John Ramsay: Blacksmith and sculptor in residence at Edinburgh Zoo, whose work can be seen all over Scotland
John Ramsay: Blacksmith and sculptor in residence at Edinburgh Zoo, whose work can be seen all over Scotland
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Born: 14 September, 1946, in Edinburgh. Died: 24 August, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 69

John Ramsay – known affectionately as JR by everyone – was the outstanding sculptor in residence at Edinburgh’s Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), where he created numerous attractions as well as beautifully crafted sculptures. Ramsay’s work was also seen at locations throughout Scotland – notably Edinburgh Airport and a swivel-locking system to prevent the macaques escaping at the Highland Wildlife Centre at Kingussie, where he was the society’s resident blacksmith.

It was Ramsay’s work at the Edinburgh Zoo for which he, justifiably, gained a special renown. His work there over 30 years was much admired for his ability to capture the very essence of an animal – depicting its power, elegance and agility in movement.

He also created special one-off pieces for speakers participating in the Zoo’s Tribal Elder series, including an African rhino for anthropologist Dame Jane Goodall, a Sumatran rhino mother for the zoologist Aubrey Manning and a pair of stags for former RZSS director Roger Wheater.

Chris West, chief executive of the RZSS, told The Scotsman yesterday: “During his time here JR created everything from intricately decorated wrought iron gates, to fencing surrounding our Physic Garden, enclosure locking systems and metalwork on animal enclosures.

“His legacy certainly lives on here at the zoo and his one-off sculptures of birds, animals and insects dotted distinctly around the site bring pleasure to visitors every day.”

Ramsay was born on the Royal Mile – his mother grew up in the Canongate and his father in Haddington, East Lothian. Ramsay attended St Anthony’s School, Lochend, in the capital and was fascinated by metal work from an early age. He left school at 15 and was apprenticed to a farrier in Edinburgh – Old Tam, a one-legged veteran from the First World War, who taught Ramsay the intricate skills of metal work.

His first professional positions were to design and oversee the installations of the large stainless steel and glass-hanging staircase at Edinburgh Airport then the hanging stairs at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Dundas Street branch.

He took up his post with the RZSS and became an inspired member of the team at Edinburgh’s famous zoo. He brought his love of art work and his ability to fashion metalwork to many aspects of the zoo.

Ramsay delighted in telling the story about when he was making a fence and added, as an afterthought, some metal leaves. “There was a mistake and a hole appeared in a leaf. I said it had been eaten by caterpillars: that is now a feature – along with a spider’s web.”

His work and imaginative solutions to numerous problems are to be found all around the zoo. “You have to be careful,” Ramsay once commented as he worked some metal with his blow-torch blazing. “Monkeys lift everything and the tiger cage took weeks to make and had to be very strong.

“I love the tortoise I made out of scrap metal – everyone, as they pass him, touches it.”

Ramsay had ingenious solutions for everything – an enhanced enclosure so the flamingos could protect their young, and wonderfully decorative gates for the members’ rooms. Everything was done with an artistic understanding of what was required and a genuine love.

Ramsay was once asked what it was like to work in the chimp tunnel with agitated primates banging excitedly at both ends. Calmly he replied: “Scary. I have a whole new respect for the primate keepers.”

Ramsay made an incisive study of all the animals he created – examining them in the zoo and looking extensively at pictures. With an expert eye he captured the animals’ movements and mannerisms, thus ensuring each of his animal sculptures is personal and unique.

One design gave Ramsay a particular pleasure. It took him three weeks to weld 792 individual leaves imported from Italy on to the Wishing Tree in the zoo. Along with six birds and a butterfly it is a popular site for visitors – many of whom leave messages. As Ramsay said: “All of us have dreams and aspirations that we hope will one day come true.”

Ramsay was devoted to his work at the zoo and his family. His widow, Josephine, recalls: “He loved making things. Wee things that became big things – he was so skilled and so patient when working. He loved all animals and we often walked our three dogs along the Water of Leith.”

JR, who only retired a few weeks ago after a diagnosis of cancer, is survived by Josephine and their two sons.