RZSS Thinker in Residence Blog

October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Autumnal greetings, as colourful leaves dance gently to the ground and we prepare to turn our clocks back for winter, and hibernation mode.

In light of the shorter days and longer nights I thought it might be a good opportunity to update you on two RZSS programmes under my wing, namely the Tribal Elders: Words of Wisdom lecture series, and the Residency Programme.


As a lifelong fan of campfire storytelling I have often felt in this era of technological know-how that we are as in danger of losing our treasured oral tradition for passing accumulated wisdom down from generation to generation as we are of losing many of the cherished endangered species we care so deeply to protect.

Thus was born the RZSS Tribal Elders Lecture series.

As many of you know, Dr Jane Goodall DBE was our inaugural Tribal Elder delivering a most passionate and inspiring talk entitled ‘Reasons for Hope’, followed by esteemed Professors Aubrey Manning OBE and Roger Wheater OBE.

Last week Roger Wheater returned to pass on the Tribal Elder baton to our Royal Patron, Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal.


HRH The Princess Royal delivered a most compelling and often humorous lecture entitled ‘Committed to Conservation: You Can Make a Difference,’ offering us many personal insights from a life-long love of animals, and decades of ambassadorship on behalf of international charities like the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Save the Children and since 2009, |The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. In closing, she praised the RZSS for the myriad conservation initiatives we are conducting at home and abroad, and she challenged each of us to be brave enough to take a stand and make a difference.

At the conclusion questions were taken from the floor, then RZSS Chairman of the Board Jeremy Peat OBE offered the Vote of Thanks. As a special thank you for her continuing and generous support as our Royal Patron, HRH The Princess Royal was presented with a handmade silver hair comb adorned with an intricately crafted rhino. This piece was created by our Silversmith in Residence Bryony Knox, and inspired by our Indian one-horned rhinos Bertus and Samir.

You can see other works by Bryony on her website: www.bryonyknox.com


Additionally, Her Royal Highness was presented with a hand woven tray specially made for her by a women’s cooperative in Uganda, supported by our Budongo Chimpanzee Field Station.   Our Chief Executive Chris West and Head of Conservation Sarah Robinson brought the basket back from recent 25th anniversary celebrations of the field station, which also marked our tenth year of financial support.

If you missed this or any of the earlier talks, all Tribal Elder lectures are filmed for the RZSS Archives and can be viewed in their entirety through RZSS websites via the Members portal.


Last month we formally launched the RZSS Residencies Programme with the first Salon at Mansion House. This programme was implemented to engage experts in a myriad of fields to collaborate with the Society in new and different ways, so as to reach and inspire broader audiences to support our conservation work in Scotland and abroad.


I am pleased to say the revolving programme has been proceeding apace, with 15 appointments under the Thinking, Creating, Doing categories, including a paleontologist, storyteller, nature photographer, organic chef, emerging wildlife artist, environmental scientist and adventurer/explorer, amongst others.

Each residency is tailored to mutually benefit the Society and the professional, and each appointment is made initially for one year, with the option to renew if an ongoing collaboration warrants continuation. I am open to new suggestions, so please feel free to write in if you have a good candidate in mind.

In closing, we must offer a sad but fond farewell to our first appointed RZSS Resident – Sculptor in Residence John ‘JR’ Ramsay – who departed this life on 24 August after a very brief illness. JR is much missed, and leaves a rich legacy of work dotted throughout Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park. We shall remain ever grateful to JR for creating three superb animal sculptures for our first three Tribal Elder speakers. In his final days, JR gifted us his working anvil, which will soon find a suitable home at Edinburgh Zoo.


SAVE THE DATE: Next Tribal Elder lecture featuring Dr Lee Durrell MBE, Thursday 14th April 2016 at Edinburgh Zoo.

Kathy Sorley,
RZSS Thinker in Residence          


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 …         

RZSS Residencies Blog – Kathy Sorley, Thinker in Residence

January 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

It has been some 20 months since I stepped into this challenging new role on behalf of the Society, tasked with thinking ‘outside the box,’ and with developing creative initiatives and fostering connections to stimulate new visitors and supporters to Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park.

Making acquaintances over Christmas!

Making acquaintances over Christmas!

One of the most exciting recent developments has been the ‘soft’ launch of RZSS’ Residencies Programme on 27 November. Within such a multi-faceted organisation there are lots of fascinating opportunities to collaborate with specialists in a wide variety of different fields, to great mutual benefit.

For the Residents this presents a prestigious opportunity to expand their portfolios working within the unique environment of RZSS, whilst in return the Society gains invaluable access to specialist knowledge, expertise and creativity. Broadly speaking, the Residencies will come under the categories of Thinking, Creating, Doing. Chris West, Jeremy Peat and I meet regularly to review possibilities and approve the appointments.

As the initial Resident, responsible for managing this Programme, I thought I would take the opportunity to use this first blog to provide a bit of background. Although my great grandfather hailed from Edinburgh, I started life in Washington DC, then moved to the UK after undergraduate studies at Duke University and a business degree at Yale. I stayed 12 years in London before moving up to Scotland nearly 20 years ago. I love the highlands and the islands especially, and I have never looked back. Prior to joining the RZSS team I spent 20 years in the film industry as a screenwriter and independent producer, having formerly run my own communications firm in Covent Garden.


The Harvest Moon Fold in Dumfriesshire

Animals have been a passion of mine ever since I can remember. Apparently I fell in love with a zebra soft toy in Texas at age three, rescued an injured rabbit in Philadelphia at four, welcomed my first dog Sparkle in New York at six, and have since raised several dogs and cats, hundreds of Indian runner ducks and chickens, and a small fold of Highland coos called the Harvest Moon Fold down in Dumfriesshire, some of whom now reside on the Pentlands just opposite the Zoo. I often look out onto those hills on blustery zoo days like today and wonder where they might be grazing … thankfully they’ve got the perfect coats!

I was also fortunate to enjoy my first photographic safari adventure to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 1970, and have spent considerable time in East and South Africa over the years since, so the passion extends to all wildlife.

As your Thinker in Residence I devote considerable energy getting to know our animals, and our team who take such good care of them at EZ and HWP – looking through the eyes of our visitors – as well as developing an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.

That is my greatest joy. And it is the opportunity for those close connections to our animals and the team that allow me to think creatively, to spark imaginative ideas in keeping with senior management and board objectives, and to attract new friends and supporters for all of us.

So, a big thank you to everyone who has welcomed me into your terrain thus far, and joined me in this journey we share growing our Society into the 21st century. And a most hearty welcome to newcomers who have recently come on board. I look forward to exploring those areas where our visions and our energies might naturally dovetail.

Just to give you a taste of some early TIR initiatives which I will profile in future blogs:

  • RZSS Archives
  • Edinburgh Zoo Centenary Gala Dinner
  • Meerkat Plaza Ambassador
  • Tribal Elders Lecture Series
  • Edinburgh College of Art Initiatives
  • EZ Big 5 and HWP Curators’ Tours
  • Roar and Snore
  • Developing RZSS and the Arts Collaborations
  • New Supporters
Sculptor in Residence - John Ramsay

Sculptor in Residence – John Ramsay

Back to the Residencies Programme, each month I will profile one of our new Residencies in this blog, and you will be kept up to date about Residency events through our various social media outlets.

Examples of Residents recently named include:

  • Sculptor in Residence – John Ramsay
  • Beekeeper in Residence – Brian Pool
  • Art Restorer in Residence – Kenneth Brien
  • Silversmith/Metalworker in Residence – Bryony Knox

Thursday 15 April will be the official RZSS Residencies Launch at Mansion House, featuring more than a dozen Residents and examples of their work with the Society.

I look forward to profiling our very own Sculptor in Residence, John Ramsay, in my next blog!

Until next time.


RZSS Thinker in Residence

My beloved Bella!

My beloved Bella!

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