Obituary: John McEwen
Saturday 26 September 1992
JOHN McEWEN, who has died at the ripe old age of 104, was one of the 'Fathers of Ecology': he was an ecologist three or more decades before the concept of ecology became fashionable, and, at his home in Blairgowrie, introduced a generation of the Left (of whom I was one among many) to then novel ways of thinking about land-use.
McEwen's radicalism - which did not mellow with age - had its roots in his childhood. His father was a shepherdforester at Garth Castle, Fortingall, owned by the millionaire ship owner Sir Donald Currie, of Currie Lines. Every drop of water had to be carried up a very steep slope to his father's house from the Rannoch-burn. When he was seven, the family moved to Castle Lachlan, the home of John Maclachlan, Clan Chief of Maclachlan. The house the McEwens were allocated was a dilapidated, rat-ridden but-and-ben (hovel) with a run-down garden. All this contrasted with the space and beauty of the countryside. After an unhappy period at secondary school in Glasgow, with 'the blistering tawse' - belt - which he remembered 80 years later, McEwen trained at the Cullen Estates of the Earls of Seafield. 'Real forestry training was absent, but not so perpetual motion: working from seven to six every day of the week (except Sunday, with slightly shorter hours in midwinter), every day of the year except for two 'fast' days and New Year's Day - being kept on tenterhooks on Hogmanay as to whether we would get an extra couple of hours off.'
The turning point for McEwen came in 1908 when he went to work at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and took classes in forestry, maths and English in the East of Scotland Agricultural and Heriot-Watt Colleges.
After occupying managerial positions in the timber industry, McEwen joined the newly formed Forestry Commission in 1920. Throughout his life he lectured to audiences, contending that the start of state forestry was the finest thing that ever happened to land-use in Britain.
He was appointed Forester-in-Charge in the Aberdeen Division, and pioneered the commission's first forest at Monaughty, near Elgin. McEwen also started off Speymouth Forest, and the 20- acre Altanside distributing nursery, where in the spring of 1924 he was in charge of setting out seven million plants, employing 80 men and women and cleaning out the Elgin Labour Exchange.
In 1922, McEwen organised the Forestry Commission's foresters-in-charge in Scotland into the Workers' Trade Union, which soon became part of Ernest Bevin's Transport and General Workers' Union.
After a short period as District Officer for North Wales, McEwen was appointed Senior Inspector to the Forestry Department in Ireland. Owing to his first wife's ill-health, to McEwen's regret, he had to surrender charge of forests from Donegal to Cork and return to Scotland. In view of his reputation as a radical, owners demurred at employing McEwen, and throughout the 1930s he had to scratch a living.
In 1941, he joined the Home Grown Timber Department of the Board of Trade as a works officer. Thrown out to make way for returning servicemen in 1945, McEwen joined with Frank Scott in consultancy and timber valuation work. In retirement, McEwen embarked on the slim volume for which he will be long remembered, Who Owns Scotland?, a succession to Tom Johnston's Our Scots Noble Families (1910), which had a considerable impact before and after the First World War. Johnston became Secretary of State in the Second World War. In 1967, the Perth and Kinross Fabian Society decided to discover who were the landowners of Perthshire. Four years of gruelling work culminated in a celebrated pamphlet The Acreocracy of Perthshire - Who Owns our Land? Thirty one owners were traced; they were headed by the Duke of Atholl (130,000 acres), down to 10,000 acres estates, giving a total of 727,000 out of the total 1.6m acres of Perthshire. Acreocracy started people thinking.
McEwen and his second wife, Margaret Miller, then applied themselves to identifying land-ownership for the rest of Scotland. They discovered that original marked maps had been lodged with the record office, Register House, Edinburgh. In those days copies could be bought. They then embarked on the monumental task of defining county boundaries and estate boundaries, assessing the acreage, using a planimeter. Each acreage was written carefully within the boundary as it was measured, the estate and the acreage then being linked up with the owners, on an index of inventory cards.
By chance, McEwen's work became known to Gordon Brown, now shadow Chancellor, but then at Edinburgh University, editing The Red Paper on Scotland, itself a much discussed document.
What did McEwen achieve? His work helped create a climate in which landlords were more sensitive to access, and to the requests of the ecologically orientated non-governmental bodies, than they otherwise might have been.
At the age of 90, McEwen said: 'In 1966 my wife Bell died, and I expected to live alone for the rest of my life. But at a Fabian weekend school at Aberfoyle, I met Margaret Miller. We were married in 1967, and have had 10 years of absolute joy. Instead of being a lonely old character. I have acquired not only a wife but also a daughter, a son-in-law, and five lively grandchildren.' The daughter was Ina Margaret, married to Robert Hughes MP, Chairman of Anti-Apartheid.
For my part, I shall remember the sharp-witted 90-year-old who would talk to me instructively about roses and dahlias, learnedly about book-keeping and mutual interest, and cantankerously about my too-right-wing Labour politics.
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