RZSS Thinker in Residence Blog – Profiling John Ramsay, Sculptor in Residence

June 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

By Kathy Sorley, RZSS Thinker in Residence          

For those of you who have visited RZSS Edinburgh Zoo in recent weeks to scope out the impressive Dinosaurs Return! exhibition up at the top of Corstorphine Hill, hear the superb Tribal Elder lecture ‘From Elephants to Penguins’ delivered by our very own Roger Wheater OBE, join in the great fun and festivities of the first two Zoo Nights of the summer season or ventured to RZSS Highland Wildlife Park to meet our beautiful new female polar bear Victoria, it’s fair to say things at the RZSS are hopping!

Jeremy Peat, JR Ramsay, Roger Wheater, Kathy Sorley and Chris West

Jeremy Peat, John Ramsay (JR), Roger Wheater, Kathy Sorley and Chris West

As these very special initiatives have been taking shape, I am pleased to say the revolving RZSS Residency programme has also been proceeding apace, with 12 new appointments under the Thinking, Creating, Doing categories since my last blog, including a paleontologist, storyteller, nature photographer, emerging wildlife artist, environmental scientist and adventurer/explorer, amongst others.

As promised, I look forward to profiling each of our Residents in future blogs for you. It gives me particular pleasure to dedicate this column to John Ramsay, more affectionately known as ‘JR’, and my very first appointment as our exceptionally talented Sculptor in Residence.

Born on the Royal Mile to mum Mary from The Cannongate and dad Robert from Haddington, JR is a self-described ‘war baby’. From a very early age he knew he wanted to work with metal. His father bought him his first Meccano set and by age 15 he had landed a job as a farrier’s apprentice to ‘Old Tam’, a one-legged WWI veteran who spoke little, but taught John everything he knew at the fire.

JR eventually moved on to become the designer and overseer of the installation of the large stainless steel and glass hanging staircase at Edinburgh Airport, then the creator of the hanging stairs at the Royal Bank of Scotland on Dundas Street, before serving as blacksmith here at Edinburgh Zoo for nearly 30 years.


JR has tackled pretty much every RZSS challenge that has ever been thrown at him. Create a Gibbons cage from within? No problem, and one of JR’s favourite projects. Chimp keepers need enhanced security in the Budongo Trail? Send JR into the tunnels.   Flamingos enclosure needs updating to protect their young? Put JR on the case. Need a locking system to outsmart the clever macaques? JR dreamt up an ingenious swivelled lock solution in about 30 seconds for Highland Wildlife Park. Need decorative gates for our Members, the Physic Garden, the Penicuik Hut or the Lion exhibit? JR’s your man. And the list goes on …

JR loves nothing more than a challenge and his immediate instinct, not boastful but sure, is ‘I can do that.’ And then he does. When I asked him what it was like to work in the chimp tunnel with powerful primates banging at both ends he admits, ‘It was scary. I have a whole new respect for the primate keepers!’

So when I approached him about becoming our Sculptor in Residence, to create special one-off pieces for esteemed speakers participating in our prestigious Tribal Elder series, including Jane Goodall, Aubrey Manning, and Roger Wheater, JR was immediately up for the challenge. He puts great stock in researching each speaker’s favourite animal, and takes equal care in creating one-of-a-kind pieces unique to the RZSS, for our Tribal Elders to treasure forever.

For Jane Goodall he sculpted an impressive African rhino, which you can see here in its various stages of creation, as captured beautifully by our photographer Katie Paton.


Rhino sculpture in progress

At the conclusion of Jane’s compelling ‘Reasons for Hope’ lecture, she was so overcome with her extraordinary gift that she and JR shared a most special hug. A Jane fan since he was a boy, I do believe it was a highlight of JR’s artistic career!

For Aubrey Manning he created a Sumatran rhino mother and calf, while for Roger Wheater JR sculpted a beautiful pair of rutting stags entitled ‘The Young Pretender’, depicting a battle for supremacy between a 14-pointed Imperial and a 16-pointed Monarch. There was no doubt about who would become the victor! Roger adds the stunning pair to an equally impressive African elephant sculpted by JR and gifted to Roger upon his retirement from RZSS in 1998.

Rhino-and-stag-sculpturesIn addition to these one-off pieces, JR created over 50 flamingoes to grace the tables at the RZSS Centenary Gala in 2013, auctioned at the end of the evening alongside his Penguins Rock sculpture in the Silent Auction, his creations raising an impressive £5,200 for the Society.


He has also sculpted the unique ‘Wishing Tree’ sited at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, created to encourage children and adults alike to have their dreams engraved on its leaves.

WishingTreeIn researching this blog I have come to find out JR has lifted many a heart over the years with his quietly crafted unique gifts, as testified to by an overflowing manila envelope of thank you’s, which reads like a Who’s Who of animal lovers and conservationists, and goes something like this:

Dear JR, thank you so much for the very special… mole/penguins/candlesticks/lovely mouse/beautiful lantern/majestic golden eagle/magnificent bongo/Floosie/ striking box/lovely candle sconce you created for me on the occasion of my marriage/my retirement/my coming out of the hospital. I am thrilled to have such an exceptional work of art from your hand, and I will treasure it always. It has pride of place in our sitting room/over our mantelpiece/in our garden.

A few other thank you’s stand out – one for fixing the wheels on a child’s pram – another praising a stork commemorating the arrival of a first baby.

Special thanks on the retirement of Rob Ollison from RZSS: ‘To express my gratitude for the magnificent bongo you gave me on my departure from the Zoo. I am privileged to possess such a work of art. I can’t thank you enough for executing such a superb piece of sculpture – you have caught the very essence of the antelope – its tentative way of walking, the twist of its horns, and the arch of its back.’

I think that about sums it up. JR instinctively knows each animal from the inside out and magically captures the spirit within the form using only metal, fire and his very skilled hands. Pure artistic alchemy. He sets out to inspire and delight, and he does so with every piece.

JR-Swords-at-HWP-3Finally, I cannot finish without a brief mention of JR’s swords made for Clan Ranald and featured in the film BRAVEHEART, described by the family as ‘magnificent’ and ‘truly works of art’.

Our society is fortunate to count JR amongst our first new Residents, and his works have gladdened the hearts of many. Therefore it is with deep sadness that I must close this blog by saying that JR is grappling with multiple health concerns that have resulted in his very recent decision to take retirement. At nearly 70 years of age he has certainly earned it, but we will all miss him around the Zoo. We wish him a swift return to robust health, and we thank him for his many talents and gifts.

Tribal_high_res_006Dr Jane Goodall DBE receiving her rhino sculpture created by John Ramsay in celebration of her inaugural Tribal Elders lecture ‘Reasons for Hope’ delivered on April 29 2014, which can be seen in its entirety on the Members portal.

Various other sculptures by JR

A selection of other sculptures by JR

STAY TUNED: Next up, Dr Stephen Brusatte, Paleontologist in Residence …         


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