James Sinclair The Botanist from the Bu

In the first exhibition as part of the Hoy heritage project, Creels & Crofts, the Hoy Kirk celebrated the life of local man James Sinclair: the botanist from the Bu. The exhibition ran for Summer 2011 ay Hoy Kirk and then toured to Stromness Museum for their Winter 2011 exhibition.

James Sinclair was born at the Bu of Hoy in 1913 and attended the Hoy School. His interest in plants developed early, when he was a schoolboy, it is believed that he discovered a new species of plant in Hoy, which he named Sinclairea. His interest in plant life was encouraged by the Orkney botanist Henry Halcro Johnston.

He went on to Edinburgh University in 1932 graduating with a degree with honours in Botany. James then studied to become a teacher, teaching in Stronsay and Kirkwall. He collected plant specimens including algae, mosses and ferns throughout Orkney and by 1937 he had collected over 500 species and scores of varieties.

He joined the RAF in 1941, during the war, in Burma, James made a collection of specimens of local plants. After the war he joined the staff of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, then moving to Singapore to take up post of curator of the Herbarium there. He lived and worked in Singapore for nearly 20 years undertaking collecting expeditions in various parts of the Malay Peninsula also to Sarawak, Sabah and the Philippines. Characterised by his intense attention to his work, James excelled in botany becoming an authority on the custard apple and nutmeg families.

James wrote the chapter on Orkney Flora in the New Orkney Book. Although work took him abroad and he enjoyed his travels, his heart was in his native Hoy, intending to settle there after his retirement. James Sinclair died in 1968 aged 54 years and is buried in the Hoy churchyard.

The exhibition and James Sinclair walk & talks were supported by the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme.

Images from the events here

Specimen images below courtesy of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

More specimens here

Listen to the audio of the walk in July 2011 ‘In the footsteps of James Sinclair’ here

Artist Laura Drever joined the walk ‘In the footsteps of James Sinclair’ and made a new artwork in response to the day.

Find out more here


Marielle Kirsten Thomson, great-grand niece of James Sinclair of the Bu,  graduated from Heriot-Watt University Design for Textile BA hons in 2012. Marielle was inspired by the specimens collected by James Sinclair and as she says ‘the natural beauty and rhythms of my homeland’.  For Hoy Kirk Marielle has designed and produced a set of tablecloths for the kirk, creating energetic but contemplative designs by repeating flora Sinclair’s specimens. It is wonderful to have such a functional object represent Hoy heritage in a beautiful way.

See Marielle’s James Sinclair collection here.

Bea Watson, another of James Sinclair’s great-grand nieces, wrote her history Fereday Project on him. A copy of the project is available to read at Hoy Kirk and at Stromness Museum. Bea’s text, along with memoirs by James Sinclair’s niece Olive,  formed the basis of the exhibition panels for the Botanist from the Bu show at Hoy Kirk.

Marielle met poet G W Colkitto and told him the story of James Sinclair, this was his response.

James Sinclair  Botanist from The Bu of Hoy

at the farm and on the beach
in the Geos and the Kame of Hoy,
nurtured by nature.

at Fluky Pow Flounders Bay
catching fish, gathering welks
skimming stones

at Skerry finding  lobsters
collecting  plants round the Kame,
Rackwick, Pegal and Rysa.

this boy who walked the road to school
picking flowers from the ditches
becoming expert on the Orkney flora

walking with his hands behind his back.
a man who talked so quickly.
private, modest and unassuming.

Not for him three cars in the driveway,
a yacht in the bay of some exotic country
jostling for promotion in academia.

All he wanted was to immerse
in botany and new discoveries.
his heart in Hoy

G W Colkitto  August 2012

Watch a film about James Sinclair’s father Jimmy Sinclair and his musical legacy ‘Jimmy o the Bu’s Polka’

Jimmy O The Bu from Hoy Heritage on Vimeo.

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