Obituary: James Ross MacKay MBE, teacher and Bailie of Bennachie

Born: 14 June, 1933 in Inverness. Died: 17 June, 2016, in Kemnay, aged 83.

Teacher and Bailie of Bennachie. Picture: Contributed
Teacher and Bailie of Bennachie. Picture: Contributed

James MacKay was a science teacher whose love of the natural world inspired countless youngsters and earned him the admiration of the Prince of Wales for his work on his beloved Bennachie.

His enthusiasm for the distinctive Aberdeenshire hill, with its range of summits, spanned more than 60 years during which time he escorted schoolchildren to its tops, discovered a previously unknown species of heather, established a conservation group to safeguard the area and was instrumental in planning and building a visitor centre for which he was awarded the MBE.

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Little wonder he was known as Mr Bennachie. Yet there was so much more to this aspirational man who had started his working life as a gardener.

He was born in Inverness to Barbara and Kenneth MacKay. He began his education at the city’s Central Primary School and soon afterwards became hooked on fishing, catching his first trout in the burn that ran through the garden of his granny’s croft.

His deep appreciation of the hills and countryside came from his father Kenneth, with whom he walked and fished, but it was his mother who taught him the names of all the wildflowers.

After leaving Inverness Royal Academy, he worked for a short time as a gardener for the local council in Inverness. Then in 1951 he enrolled at Aberdeen University to study physics, chemistry, geology and botany but was so inspired by the lectures of Prof James Matthews, Regius Professor of Botany, that he transferred to biological science.

As a student, his summers in the early 1950s were spent as a deerstalking ghillie in Strathconon, living in a bothy at the end of the glen. He loved the job and the area and had originally planned to follow in the footsteps of an uncle at Ardross and become a country dominie in the Highlands but his enthusiasm for academia changed his path and ultimately took him to Aberdeenshire.

He graduated BSc in 1955 and received the Trail Prize for the best undergraduate research for his thesis on crowberry, a heather-like plant found on mountain slopes.

Inverurie Academy was his final placement as a student science teacher and when the rector there offered him a teaching post he accepted, embarking on a 34-year career at the Aberdeenshire school, most of it spent as head of biology.

His commitment to the school and pupils stretched way beyond the normal teaching routine and he generously gave his own free time to form a successful Outdoor Club which he led for 25 years. He first took a squad of 60 pupils up Bennachie, near Inverurie, in 1957 and numerous other trips followed, including an annual week-long summer expedition to various remote locations.

In the winter he would take pupils skiing to the Lecht and taught the Expedition part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. He later focused on orienteering, becoming a coach and accompanying pupils to events all over the country, and also led school cycling tours of the Highlands.

Many years earlier, before taking up his permanent post at Inverurie, he had spent two weeks camping out on the uninhabited archipelago of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. As expedition botanist he worked with a group including Scots climber, author and broadcaster Tom Weir and English mountaineer Doug Scott who would go on to make the first British ascent of Everest’s south-west face.

Fascinated by the islands, he returned in 1979, this time as leader of a Grampian schools expedition, crewing a sailing ketch along with his deputy and 11 pupils.

After taking early retirement he spent ten years as a consultant for Inverurie Paper Mill, working part-time on the control of substances hazardous to health.

Throughout all this time he maintained a huge affinity for Bennachie and established a tradition of walking the hill each year on his birthday, something he continued up until his 80th year. In 1973 he had become a founding member of the Bailies of Bennachie, a charity and conservation group set up to preserve the amenity of the hill.

He was a council member of the Bailies for 34 years, wrote books and guides on the hill and played a key role in the planning and building of the Bennachie Centre, a starting point for various trails and treks up the hill to its tops including the Mither Tap and the highest summit Oxen Craig.

The Centre was opened by Prince Charles and it was with surprise and delight that, in 2001, Mackay received the MBE for his services to the hills conservation. Only the previous year he had also been honoured with the Whitebread Volunteer Action Award for outstanding service to the community.

However, in addition to the natural beauty of the hill, there was one other aspect of Bennachie that particularly interested the former teacher: the tragic deaths of three airmen on the hill in two crashes, one on the very day in 1939 when Britain declared war against Germany and the second in 1952. The first saw a Westland Wallace biplane, flown by 23-year-old Canadian pilot officer Ellard Cummings with Scots leading aircraftman Ronald Stewart, 24, as gunner, fly too to low in fog to clear the hill,slamming into the south-east side of Bruntwood Tap. Some of the wreckage remains as a memorial to the two men who were officially classified as the first military casualties of the Second World War.

The second incident took place on 12 February, 1952, when Pilot Officer Brian Lightfoot, 22, carrying out a low-flying in his Gloster Meteor, came down on the snow-covered hill, the aircraft exploding on impact just west of Oxen Craig.

Ever since he first heard about the two accidents Mackay had been determined to find out more about the young airmen and, along with fellow Bailies of Bennachie members, he finally managed to track down relatives. The culmination of years of work was the emotional unveiling of a refurbished memorial cairn on the hill, in September 2012, with relatives present of all three brave young men who perished.

Mackay was a man of strong Christian faith, something he shared with his wife of 55 years, Mary. They began married life near Monymusk, but later moved to nearby Blairdaff. Passionate about heathers, he collected more than 400 different cultivars and is credited with discovering, on his favourite hill, the heather named Bennachie Bronze.

His connection with the natural landmark never faded. He particularly enjoyed a climb up Bennachie during the 50th anniversary reunion of Inverurie Academy’s Outdoor Club in 2007 and latterly, as his health deteriorated, he had one last request to see the hill again. That wish was fulfilled by members of Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team, an organisation he also helped to found. They drove him to a point just below the commemorative plaque that he was instrumental in erecting on Oxen Craig. It was just five days before he died but even then he treated his companions to a botany lesson along the way.

He is survived by his wife, daughters Fiona and Barbara and grandchildren Tamarah and Lewis.