Scotland's senior horticulturalist Dr Eddie Kemp dies aged 101

Dr Edward Edmund Kemp MBE LLD(Hon) D.Litt. VMH NDH DIPA DHE, former curator of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and Scotland's senior horticulturist has died aged 101.

Renowned horticulturalist, Eddie Kemp - image: RBGE
Renowned horticulturalist, Eddie Kemp - image: RBGE

A funeral service will be held at Mortonhall Crematorium, Edinburgh, at 12 noon on Friday, July 27.

Tribute by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Eddie Kemp was a visionary horticulturist, dedicated educationist and perpetual student. Indeed, it was because of his utter devotion to his profession – and its social and educational importance – that he gained a deserved reputation as a blunt man, of unswerving commitment, who was dedicated to horticulture in its broadest sense.

In many regards ahead of his time, he challenged attitudes towards the role of botanic gardens. As far back as the 1950’s, Eddie argued there was no room for the collection of plants "for collection sakes". What’s more, he contested, it was the responsibility of botanic gardens to make themselves available as "living" educational facilities for all. At that time, in RBGE, he worked with scientific staff in creating the novel Demonstration Garden, explaining the families of plants, their characters and interrelationships.

Hailing from a farming family in Aberdeenshire, his early horticultural training was in the renowned Aberdeen Parks Department, later joining Lord Cowdray’s equally well-respected Dunecht Estate garden.

From the early days of his career, Eddie had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and self-improvement.

In the absence of locally available classes, he studied Surveying by a correspondence course and one contemporary recalled him also spending long hours wrestling with and mastering the German language, an achievement which would serve him well in later years. Latin was studied with similar tenacity.

Coupled with a phenomenal memory, this thirst for knowledge equipped him for success in the many demanding roles he was to fulfil throughout his working life and beyond retirement. In his 90’s he would still happily quote Virgil or recite, in the vernacular, Tam o’ Shanter.

Eddie’s long association with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) began when he arrived as a student in 1932, on the recommendation of Charles Lamont, Assistant Curator of the Garden from the early 1920’s to 1949. So distinguished was his studentship, coupled with his deep interest in science-based plant propagation – much of it acquired through his access to the valuable German writings on plant physiology – that, in 1935, he was charged with responsibility for RBGE’s new Propagation Department, established to co-ordinate the cultivation of an influx of recently introduced Asian species.

Twice visiting Berlin Botanic Garden in the late 1930’s, Eddie met Joseph Rock the now-celebrated Austrian-born sinologist and plant collector.

World War II brought a break in Eddie’s career development. Commissioned to the Royal Artillery in 1943, his fluency in German resulted in him being seconded to Force 134, which led the immediate post war allied occupation of Norway.

Following his return to civilian life, he was appointed Curator of RBGE, in July 1950, a post he held until 1971. During that 21 year period his pioneering work on plant propagation reinforced Edinburgh’s already considerable reputation as a centre of excellence in that field. As a result, he received numerous requests to deliver lectures and papers, many of which remained the standard works of reference for years to come.

For a short period he was occasionally aided in his propagation research - which entailed the weighing of unrooted cuttings every two hours on a 24 hour basis - by T.T.Yu, the renowned Chinese botanist and plant collector, who visited Edinburgh in 1947 and shared lodgings with Eddie.

During his Curatorship, he made a major contribution to Education and, in particular, to the Diploma Course of Horticulture. Among the many specialist subjects he taught were Plant Propagation, Arboriculture, Landscape Design and The Landscape Use Of Plants and Glasshouse Design and Management.

His lectures were renowned for not being the dry teaching of facts and techniques, lists of plants or – worst of all – modules. Subjects were placed within their historical, cultural and sociological contexts, with the aim of rendering them more useful to students, many of whom later joined parks departments and authorities responsible for the design, use and efficient maintenance of public open spaces.

His teaching of Arboriculture and The Landscape Use Of Plants to the Post-graduate Landscape Design Course, at Edinburgh University, and to the Undergraduate Landscape course, at Heriot-Watt University, were further vehicles for the dissemination of his vast knowledge.

Many of his RBGE students went on to assume the highest positions in public authorities, commercial horticulture and botanic gardens in Britain and overseas. Two such examples were Bill Cairns and Brian Clouston who went on to head the two largest landscape design companies in the world.

In his final decade in the Garden, Eddie persuaded the Department of the Environment to demolish the dilapidated, inadequate, public Glasshouses and embark on the design and construction of the unique, externally-suspended modern range we know today.

His role in the planning and construction of the Glasshouses was crucial and enabled him to introduce his enlightened, naturalistic, layouts for educational plant displays within an airy structure, placing the Garden at the forefront of plant display in botanic gardens worldwide. Gone were the serried ranks of pots on benches; in were ecologically or physiologically associated plant groups with something of their natural habitats, reflecting the best modern museum displays and the research aims of the plant sciences of the era.

When he left RBGE in 1971, at the age of 60, when the Civil Service imposed retirement on Eddie, this was the catalyst for the start of a new and challenging career. His reputation, skills and experience were welcomed by the management of The University of Dundee where, following the establishment of the Biological Sciences Department, there was a need for a botanic garden to service its teaching and research needs.

Eddie was invited to create this new garden and, within nine years, he shaped a facility which was admired, used and appreciated by all visitors. Unique among his developments was the British Plants Sociological Layout where the main native plant habitats of mountaintop, birchwood, pinewood, ash and oak forests and seashore were established.

The whole was linked by a stream originating in a nutrient-poor highland tarn, flowing through the wooded areas and ending in a nutrient-rich pool at its lowest level. Coupled with their natural associates and examples of their habitats, these displays enabled students and others, not only to identify plants but also gave an indication of their ecology.

With his international reputation for innovation and design further enhanced, he was invited to speak on the subjects of plant conservation and botanic garden design for educational purposes at several important conferences, including Kew and the Agricultural University of Brno, Czech Republic.

The wrought iron main gates to the Dundee garden, refurbished after being rescued from a housing development, were inspirationally fitted with a quote from Virgil’s second Georgic:- QUARE AGITE O PROPRIOS GENERATIM DISCITE CULTUS (Come then, and learn what tilth to each belongs. According to their kinds, ye husbandmen), a welcoming invitation to enjoy the plant collections as a learning experience. Not only did he, with his staff, erect a superb arched well-head to give focus to the spring, which was discovered near the northern edge of the Garden, but he attended the Duncan Jordanstone College of Art where he learned how to cut the Roman lettering with which he inscribed the quote from Horace’s ode to the Bandusian Spring.

In 1970, Eddie was invited to serve on the committee, formed by the Crown Estate Commissioners, to report on the future development and management policy for Windsor Great Park and Gardens. He later became a member of the consultative committee for these establishments.

By 1978 he was acting as consultant to the King Abdul Azzis University, Jeddah, concerning the establishment of a botanic garden. And, in 1982, was consultant to the Saudi Arabian Commission on botanic garden design and municipal planting for the new towns of Jubail and Yanbu.

Eddie retired from the University of Dundee, in 1980, but continued to work on several important projects in Britain. He was arboricultural consultant for Liverpool International Garden Festival, the first of its kind in Britain, which occupied a challenging reclaimed site. He was also the Chairman of the Judging Panel for the Glasgow Garden Festival, in 1988.

His contributions to botanic gardens, horticultural education, and the well-being of the cultivated landscape of Britain have been recognised locally and nationally:
For his work in Edinburgh he was awarded an MBE.

He was awarded the Scottish Horticultural Medal by the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, for his outstanding services to Scottish horticulture.

The Royal Horticultural Society awarded him the Victoria Medal of Honour.

In 1980, his work in Dundee was recognised when the University conferred upon him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws. In his laureation address his presenter, Professor I.D.Willock, described him as, among other things, "a man of excellence in science, art and action, recalling the Renaissance ideal of the complete man".

In 1982, for his contribution to landscape, theory and practice, Heriot-Watt University conferred on him the Degree of Doctor of Letters. His presenter described Dr Kemp as "one of the most distinguished of Scottish arboriculturists" and his achievements in Dundee as "a triumph".
Eddie was the first recipient of the Ken Martin Memorial Award, 1999, presented by the Scottish Branch of the Arboricultural Association for his outstanding and sustained contribution to arboriculture in Scotland.

In 2001, he was honoured at a Civic Reception by the City of Edinburgh for his arboricultural advice and contribution to the City’s treescape, which Councillor Steven Cardownie referred to as "Edinburgh’s Green Inheritance".

Two years ago, just days after celebrating his centenary, Eddie returned to RBGE to receive a new medal, in recognition of his contribution to the work of the "Botanics". RBGE Regius Keeper, Professor Stephen Blackmore, presented the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh medal, struck in silver, with a Sibbaldia motif on one face and a portrait of Robert Sibbald on the other.

Professor Blackmore commented:

"Eddie Kemp was Scotland’s Senior Horticulturist – in every sense – his life was full of achievement. As an outstanding and inspiring teacher, his students went on to success around the world. His passion for plants remained throughout his life".

In 1954, Eddie Kemp married Helen, who died in 2008. They had one son, Alan, now Professor at Southampton University. He also leaves three grandsons.

A funeral service will be held at Mortonhall Crematorium, Edinburgh, at 12 noon on Friday, July 27.

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