The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

James Sinclair (1913-1968)

James Sinclair in uniformBotanist James Sinclair was born at the Bu of Hoy, Orkney in 1913. He grew up on the Bu Farm with his sister Edith and their parents, farmer James Sinclair and his wife Jemima.

The two children were pupils at Hoy School, a small rural school within walking distance of the farm. Out of school hours their childhood would have been spent doing homework and attending to chores around the Bu – helping in the house, milking cows, feeding hens and collecting eggs, feeding animals and helping with the harvest.

As the Bu of Hoy is situated beside a beach they would have spent time catching flounders, skimming stones in the water, collecting shells, playing in the sand and looking for fossils. James taught his nieces and nephew where to find a lobster for tea under the rocks.

Sinclair grew up with nature all around him, not only on the farm and at the beach, but also in the surrounding countryside and round the Geos and the Kame of Hoy. This was to become useful to his future.

He attended the secondary department of Stromness Academy in August 1926 and obtained the leaving certificate of the Scottish Education Department in 1931. He travelled by boat from Hoy and stayed with a family in Stromness during the week.

At school he enjoyed hockey and football but had a special interest in biology, which was furthered by time spent with Colonel HH Johnston. Although there was no opportunity for the study of botany at school, he learnt how to search the countryside and how to organise his knowledge of Orkney flowers.

He went all over Hoy looking at nature and collecting plants. His niece remembers helping him look around Pegal Burn and over Pegal Hill at plants.

A characteristic of his walk was clasping his hand behind his back wherever he went.

When he was a schoolboy, Sinclair discovered a new species of plant in Hoy, which he named Sinclairea.

He went to Edinburgh University in 1932 and took a full course for the BSC degree with honours in Botany. Part of this degree included Zoology.

He graduated in 1936 and, after a period of postgraduate study, obtained a teaching certificate in Primary Education from Moray House College.

Sinclair taught in schools in Orkney from 1939 to 1941. He was a teacher in Stronsay and was very highly thought of by local residents as years later they still talked about him fondly. He also taught in Kirkwall.

Sinclair joined the RAF in 1941 and was stationed in Britain and India, returning home at the end of 1945. During the war, in Burma, James made a collection of specimens of local plants.

The following year he joined the staff of the Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium and in 1948 was appointed Curator of the Singapore Herbarium.

He retired from this post some two years before he died but remained in Singapore to do research work. During this time in Singapore, James Sinclair discovered 29 native species of plant and also 26 aliens not previously reported.

James Sinclair

Sinclair was one of the native experts who wrote The New Orkney Book. His chapter on Orkney flora forms a pleasant and authoritative guide for all who care to study.

Being a meticulous man in his work, James did not suffer fools gladly. Back from Singapore he read with dismay the proofs for his entry in The New Orkney Book, edited and rewritten in his opinion by an amateur botanist.

He went to Kirkwall to see the education authority to correct the grammatical errors, determined that his name was not put to anything unprofessional. The newspapers on his death described him as the acknowledged expert on Orkney flowers and the greatest authority in the previous half century.

As part of his service for the Singapore Herbarium he undertook many collecting expeditions in various parts of the Malay Peninsula, also to Sarawak, Sabah and the Philippines.

He decided to make a monographic study of one Malayan family and chose Annonaceae, the custard apple family. His work on this family in the Malay Peninsula (367 pages) appeared in volume 14 of the Gardens Bulletin, Singapore in 1955.

He went on to give similar treatment to the nutmeg family which comprises many species of trees in south-east Asia, his monograph of this family in the Malay Peninsula appeared in 1958 (in volume 16 of the bulletin).

After this he widened his interest and began a study of the nutmeg family in the whole Malayan Region from Sumatra to the Philippines and the New Guinea for Flora Malesiana, a work which he did not live to complete.

James had a serious illness in Singapore in 1966. He returned to Orkney in 1967 with the intention of going to Kew to resume his work there when he had recuperated. He did not recover as he had hoped.

A colleague said he was intensely devoted to his botanical studies and, through much sustained hard work, acquired a unique knowledge of the groups of plants to which he gave particular attention. Such knowledge could only be acquired by long experience and it was a tragedy that Mr Sinclair did not live to make a complete record for publication of all the specialised information that he had accumulated in his mind.

Although Sinclair’s work took him abroad, and he loved the Far East, his heart was in his native Hoy. He came back every three years for six months and stayed at the Bu. He intended to settle in Hoy after his retirement.

James Sinclair died in 1968 aged 54 years and is buried in the Hoy churchyard.