Obituary: James Bruce

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The Independent Online
James Bruce, gardener, teacher and broadcaster, born Hawick Roxburghshire 1908, married 1933 Amy Robson (one son, one daughter), died Ashington Northumberland 24 June 1992.

ONE OF my earliest clear childhood memories is of a tall, bespectacled gentleman, inevitably in a fisherman's tweed hat, coming to inspect my mother's apple-trees, some of which by repute went back to the 17th century and interested him. 'Beauty of Bath', 'Irish Peach', 'Melrose White' and many more obscure varieties, he could name them all after a glance at leaf, fruit, bark and tree- structure. James Bruce was by that time and for the next half-century one of the most learned horticultural scholars in Europe, covering not only fruit-trees but azaleas, rhododendrons and many other species.

Bruce was born in Hawick, the son of a railway signalman, and attended Hawick High School. When I was a parliamentary candidate in 1958-59 in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, it was apparent that the town was proud of him largely on account of Bruce's being the presenter of the enormously popular BBC Radio series The Scottish Garden, his chairmanship of Gardener's Forum and his contribution to the BBC in Britain, not least through the Third Programme.

Bruce did his apprenticeship at Alnwick Castle in the superb garden of the eighth Duke of Northumberland and then went to Howick Hall, Northumberland, with which he was to have an association spanning nearly 70 years.

For two years, 1928 and 1930, he was journeyman gardener to the former prime minister Lord Rosebery at Dalmeny in West Lothian. The late Eva, Countess of Rosebery, the prime minister's daughter-in-law and one of my most vivid constituents, once told me that she had sent Bruce to the East of Scotland College of Agriculture in Edinburgh as an evening-class student and launched him on his career. Be that as it may, his reputation for stupendous green fingers lasted in West Lothian for four decades.

During the Second World War Bruce concentrated on giving advice on food production at military camps and particularly at Italian prisoner-of-war camps. I recollect being told of his expertise many years later by an Italian prisoner of war who was coming back to Scotland to revisit the places of his incarceration and had the happiest memories of Bruce and the cultivation of vegetables. Bruce also was of enormous help to private estates who had problems caused by the calling-up of their gardeners for military service.

After the war he was President of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society and he was responsible for the inauguration of the Scottish Medal in Horticulture, an honour which he himself was to receive in 1962. He was also appointed MBE a year later in recognition of his services to horticulture both in Britain and in Kenya, where he had been seconded for the production of healthy stocks of potatoes.

Bruce was a great teacher, and started many of his pupils on a career in horticulture. In 1952 he was made Head of the College of Agriculture teaching section. He expanded and improved the College's facilities both at Gilmerton Road in Edinburgh and at the Bush Estate near Penicuik. In their retirement he and his wife Amy lived near her native village of Craster in Northumberland. He had played a part in the design of the Craster gardens with their wonderful collection of rare specimens.

As one who for 30 years has been on the 'circuit' of meetings of Women's Institutes and other do-good organisations in Scotland, I am in a position to know that James Bruce was one of the most interesting guests which such meetings could attract. Indeed, on not one but several occasions, I was politely informed that I had spoken to them well, had given them a nice evening, but was not as good as James Bruce. Knowing James Bruce, one could only understand and take it in good part. He was a wonderful populariser of gardens and gardening - an area in which the Scots have always been inferior to the English. He will be well remembered by a community that is ever more interested in its gardens.

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