Obituary: Jack Dunnett, award-winning potato industry pioneer

John (Jack) Miller Dunnett MBE BSc (Agric) PhD (Edin) DUniv FRAgS. Born: 13 March, 1929 in Canisbay, Caithness. Died: April 14 2024 in Norfolk, aged 95.

Dr Jack Dunnett, internationally renowned potato breeder and Scottish potato industry pioneer, died peacefully in Norfolk on April 14th, aged 95.

Jack was born on Tresdale farm in Canisbay, Caithness, on 13 March 1929. The second of three children of William Dunnet and Jessie Kennedy, his family roots ran deep in Caithness, where his forebears were farmers and lifeboatmen on the shores of the Pentland Firth. Against the background of the Second World War he spent much of his youth helping out on the farm, developing a deep love for the flora and fauna of his native Caithness and sparking a lifelong passion for the natural environment.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

On leaving Wick High School he spent his two years of National Service in the Royal Signals Corps, based in Germany just after the war. His National Service gave him the opportunity to attend Edinburgh University where he studied scientific agriculture and botany, achieving a first class honours. He often remarked that the only thing he got out of the army was his student grant.

Jack Dunnett won the James Hardie memorial prize for potato research, the Haig Trophy and the World Potato Congress award for outstanding achievementJack Dunnett won the James Hardie memorial prize for potato research, the Haig Trophy and the World Potato Congress award for outstanding achievement
Jack Dunnett won the James Hardie memorial prize for potato research, the Haig Trophy and the World Potato Congress award for outstanding achievement

During his undergraduate years he met his future wife, Evelyn Munro Bain, a fellow pupil from Wick High School who was studying English. Their relationship blossomed into a lifelong marriage with children Gavin, Catriona and the late Michael, until Evelyn died in 1998. It was at Edinburgh that Jack also met his oldest friend Peter Douglas Waister on their first day at university, and the two continued to fly fish together on the lochs of Caithness every year for as long as they were able.

A chance summer job rogueing tatties pointed Jack in the direction of his first job at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station at Pentlandfield working with Dr Black, the leading plant breeder of the day. Jack was part of the team who developed the successful ‘Pentland’ potato varieties, including Dell, Crown, Squire and Javelin. Jack took the opportunity to carry out part-time post-graduate studies into potato pathogens, eventually becoming an international expert in potato eelworm infestation and resistance. His PhD studies allowed him to spend many happy days in the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, a place that remained dear to his heart throughout his life.

The turning point came in 1976 when Jack had become increasingly disillusioned with the direction of the publicly-funded breeding programme at Pentlandfield and he decided to return to his native Caithness to establish himself as a private potato breeder, following in the footsteps of famous Scots breeders such as Archibald Findlay, William Paterson and Donald Mackelvie. The dedication in his book “A Scottish Potato Breeder’s Harvest” reads “To my beloved wife Evelyn who never hesitated for an instant when I proposed to change the course of our lives after more than twenty years of marriage and secure employment”.

The move into private breeding was made possible by the introduction of Plant Variety Rights, giving a royalty income to breeders. Even so, this was a huge risk at a time when plant breeding in the UK was dominated by large, state-funded institutions. Jack was well aware that the process of creating new varieties took around ten years, at the end of which there was no guarantee of success, particularly in the face of the dominance of the Dutch hobby breeding system at the time. He started to breed his own varieties, surviving in this lean period by growing high grade seed in partnership with local Caithness farmers and VTSC inspecting. He remarked wryly in his book that during this time he learnt a lot about the potato business that wasn’t taught at university.

Jack realised the need for links with the merchant sector to look after the multiplication, production and marketing of the seed of his new varieties, as he had neither the time nor the expertise. After a chance meeting with London-based entrepreneur, Marcel Guindi, Jack enlisted his help and they went on to develop a successful partnership. Marcel spotted the business potential in marketing exclusive rights to Jack’s new varieties and had the export contacts and the trading knowledge to make it happen. This led eventually to the formation of the Caithness Group in collaboration with Bob Doig, Ron McArthur and Gordon Smillie, all respected potato growers and merchants in the Perth area.

Jack’s first nationally listed variety, Stemster, was targeted at the Algerian market, but eventually found its niche in other parts of the Middle East, also being popular with French growers exporting to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. His second variety, Nadine, cemented his global reputation, becoming the fifth most widely grown variety in the UK whilst also finding strong export potential, particularly in Australia and New Zealand where it is still widely grown. He was particularly proud of the achievements of his varieties in arid soils under central pivot irrigation.

Jack constantly adapted the criteria he used to select new varieties, trying to anticipate what the market would want some ten years later. A string of successes followed with varieties such as Valor, Swift, Winston, Argos, Kestrel, Harmony and Osprey. Winston was an early maturing variety that found favour in hot countries requiring irrigation, whereas Valor was a late-maturing variety popular in northern climates with less sunshine. Jack produced a string of market-winning varieties over the years. The Caithness Group grew into an international, multi-million pound Scottish based seed potato enterprise over the following decades.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In 1990 Jack and Evelyn moved to Clevnagreen, a 13 acre croft overlooking Freswick bay, where he continued his breeding programme. He was proud to show off his beautiful garden to a succession of local gardening groups, when he would explain his approach to creating a semi-natural garden which would survive the coastal location and Caithness weather. Jack’s variety Kestrel remains a firm favourite with gardeners. His potato varieties are still being grown worldwide and seed of his varieties can be found at this time of year in garden centres across the UK.

Jack’s achievements in the potato industry were recognised through a succession of industry awards, including the James Hardie memorial prize for potato research, the Haig Trophy and the World Potato Congress award for outstanding achievement. He began to write his memoirs in 2000, and, with his second wife Anne (Nancy) Houston, became involved in local philanthropic projects including the construction of a new church hall for his beloved Canisbay church. He received his MBE in 2004 from Prince Charles for his services to the potato industry. He was also awarded the Dr Patrick Neill Memorial Medal by the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society in 2005 and, in 2012, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Open University in Glasgow.

After Nancy’s death in 2017, Jack continued to follow his passion for potatoes, wildlife and wildflowers into his twilight years, eventually retiring to Norfolk to be close to his daughter Catriona. His family continues into the fifth generation. Despite his widespread international success, in choosing from thousands and thousands of potential seedlings, the lifelong fly fisherman could never quite shake the feeling that ‘the one that got away’ could have been even bigger.

Jack was cremated at a private ceremony in Norfolk on April 27. His ashes will be interred in Canisbay churchyard, in the Caithness soil from which he sprang.


If you would like to submit an obituary (800-1000 words preferred, with jpeg image), contact [email protected]



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.