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.
Specimen images below courtesy of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Larger versions of the specimens here. Images courtesy of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
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.
BOTANIST JAMES SINCLAIR REMEMBERED
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. If you are interested in these tablecloths please contact us 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 recently 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
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’
The James Sinclair exhibition was supported by the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership. The exhibition was held at Hoy Heritage Centre in 2011 and travelled to Stromness Museum as their Winter Exhibition that year.