A Tribute to Jim McKay (1944-2021)

Jim McKay

Tribute given at Choral Evensong,
St Mary s Cathedral Thursday 4 November 2021

Creativity, steely determination and mentor are three of the qualities that embody to me, the man who was Jim McKay. Add to that a highly developed sense of humour, an instinctive understanding of people and processes, and a deep kindness especially to the young, and you have his towering personality.

Jim had connections with the Grotrian family in Peeblesshire long before he became an important influence in my life near ly 40 years ago, and I was honoured when Liz asked me to speak today.

He was the man who invented networking (his mobile was his extra hand); Jim knew everybody, so when in the mid 90s we were organising the first of the great piping events for Marie Curie down Princes Street, Jim as Head of the Edinburgh Parks Service, opened doors and led us through the very tricky and confusing corridors of power in the City of Edinburgh Council. He was an inspiration and mentor to my then very young son Thomas (whose idea it all was) and whom
nobody took very seriously at that juncture. Jim’s know-how encouraged Thomas and that first march developed into several major groundbreaking events round the world raising huge sums of money for Marie Curie. A solid example of Jim’s mentorship.

After retiring from Marie Curie, I began fundraising for the Cathedral Workshop. Jim immediately became interested and arranged for the apprentices to demonstrate every year for all four days at the Royal Highland Show. Everybody else had to pay handsomely for the privilege but, NO, Jim saw to it that we had prime positioning in his beautifully cultivated cottage garden and we also received a generous annual donation. The show became the highlight of our year. Jim was good with young people and I think he took pleasure in seeing our teenage apprentices developing and gaining confidence as they interacted with the public and demonstrated their stone craft.

In Jim’s life it seemed to me anything was possible; this became the regular pattern of working on projects with him. They were always fun and always productive. Jim and Liz were a solid unit and much of this fun was working with Liz on preparations, catering, and planning, (including the many Royal Visits here at the Cathedral).

The Workshop visits inevitably led to Jim’s interest in the Cathedral grounds. Their then rather dilapidated state shocked him and he set out to restore them, this in a period of recession when it was almost impossible to find sponsorship or funds. Rejection after rejection arrived from grant making trusts, still he persevered and of course being Jim, reached the target, I have never known
anyone like him.

His vision for the restored green space was to make it a focal point for the local community: a garden for the children of the Nursery in Old Coates House to play in, green grass for office workers with their sandwiches, a peaceful area for people to rest quietly in the shadow of this much loved Cathedral.

Renowned botanists, plantsmen and arborists would appear to give their opinion and ideas, and landscape architect, Elizabeth Dorrian provided the working designs. There was never anything less than the best for Jim; doing things properly ran through his DNA, and thus his vision was realised.

Presently there is the deceptively simple but beautiful landscaping on the North side, and the South side is well on the way to a similar transformation (partly due to the support of Edinburgh World Heritage).

This Cathedral now has the precincts it, and Edinburgh, deserve, and this is the supremely appropriate legacy of the one and only Jim McKay.

I miss him, his kindness and his beetroot very much.

Sarah Grotrian, formerly Appeals Secretary at St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop