Obituary: Prof Ian Cunningham CBE, inspirational leader of rural research in Scotland

Prof Ian Cunningham
Prof Ian Cunningham
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With the passing of Professor Ian Cunningham CBE on 21 January 2018, Scotland has lost one of its preeminent agricultural and biological scientists. He rose from humble beginnings, born the son of a shepherd on a hill farm at Colzium, just south-west of Edinburgh, in September 1925, to play a key part in developing a research portfolio of international renown which underpinned the revolution in post-war agriculture. He was not only a gifted scientist, but was also a natural leader, and went on to direct and chair some of Scotland’s key research and educational organisations.

He was a man of great intellect, outstanding vision, and possessed of a great capacity to cogently argue his case. But he was also a man of great humanity who had the ability to put all who met him at their ease, irrespective of status. He was universally respected by the students he taught, by the colleagues he worked with, and by the farmers and politicians with whom he interacted.

After leaving Lanark Grammar School in 1943 he entered Edinburgh University and graduated with a degree in Agriculture in 1945. His first job was that of assistant economist at the West of Scotland Agricultural College, before moving on to be a lecturer at Durham School of Agriculture. In 1950 he was appointed lecturer, and later senior lecturer, in the Agriculture Department of Edinburgh University and in addition became Farms Director.

In 1962 he was awarded his PhD by the University of Edinburgh and in 1968 he left the University to take up the post of Director at the Hill Farming Research Organisation (HFRO). He led the organisation for the next 12 years, a period of considerable change and development. He was the driving force behind the construction of the Headquarters’ laboratory and office buildings and he supervised the transfer from temporary accommodation in Edinburgh to the purpose-built premises on the Bush Estate in 1973.

During his time as Director of HFRO he found time to serve the industry in a variety of other ways including Chairmanship of the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council and of the Hill Farming Advisory Committee for Scotland. He served as President of the British Society of Animal Production and as President of the Agriculture Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In recognition of his services to the sheep industry, he received the George Hedley Memorial Award from the National Sheep Association in 1974; in which year he was also elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 1979 for services to Agriculture.

In 1980 Ian moved on to become Principal of the West of Scotland Agricultural College, and Professor of Agriculture at the University of Glasgow. His appointment was greatly welcomed by staff, students and Governors alike. In a real sense he was made for the position. There were few people with his combined skills and experience of higher education, research and specialist advice, integrated with a deep knowledge of the agricultural industry in Scotland – it was a kind of destiny for him. In this role he not only became an exceptional strategist but a supremely able administrator, enabler and facilitator. During his tenure he was elected an Honorary Associate of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Societies.

Ian “retired” in 1987; but he had no intention of withdrawing from public or academic life. He took on a number of new non-executive appointments.

As first Chairman of the Board of the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute his leadership, guidance and support were vital in determining the early success of the Institute. It is no exaggeration to say that the role he played at that time, the direction that the Institute took, and the influence on its staff in terms of vision and opportunity, determined a sure future for the research that the Institute promoted, both then and now. Within what is now the James Hutton Institute, one of the buildings in Aberdeen bears his name today.

As a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh he played a major part in influencing Government policies on land use, agriculture and the environment. He led the RSE Review of Foot and Mouth Disease in Scotland following the devastating outbreak of disease in 2001. As Chairman of the National Trust for Scotland he brought his deep knowledge of rural affairs, integrated with his appreciation and enthusiasm for Scotland’s countryside, and its historic built heritage. During this period he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh.

Despite his rise to high office with significant responsibilities, he never lost his common touch and goodwill towards his fellow man. His impact on the lives and careers of those he taught and worked with has been deep and far-reaching. His abiding characteristics of friendship, caring and encouragement for colleagues and students endeared him to all who met him. He loved an argument, but he respected those who challenged him; it was rare indeed if such confrontations ended in anything other than a greater friendship. Everyone was treated with the respect they deserved, from farm worker, cleaner, secretary, typist and researcher to those in high office. He was indeed a man of the people. He fought his corner on behalf of his colleagues and the institutions he served. He was an inestimable human being, inspirational, full of character, with a sharp sense of humour, and was compassionate and kind.

And no one will forget the dedicated and loving support he provided for his wife 
Nancy, who suffered from Alzheimer’s in her latter years, and who predeceased Ian in 2016.

Ian is survived by his two daughters, Deirdre and Sheila. He will be very sadly missed.

Bill McKelvey 
& Jeff Maxwell