Professor Ian Cunningham, CBE

With the recent passing of Ian Cunningham, Scotland lost one of its pre-eminent agricultural and biological scientists.

He rose from humble beginnings, born the son of a shepherd on a hill farm at Colzium, just south-west of Edinburgh, in September, 1925, he went on to play a key part in developing a research portfolio of international renown which underpinned the revolution in post-war agriculture.

Ian was not only a gifted scientist, but also a natural leader, going on to direct and chair some of Scotland’s key research and educational organisations. He was a man of great intellect, outstanding vision and possessed of a great capacity to cogently argue his case. But he was also a man of great humanity who had the ability to put all who met him at their ease, irrespective of status.

He was universally respected by the students he taught, by the colleagues he worked with, and by the farmers and politicians with whom he interacted.

After leaving Lanark Grammar School in 1943, he entered Edinburgh University and graduated with a degree in agriculture in 1945. His first job was as an assistant economist at the West of Scotland Agricultural College, before moving on to be a lecturer at the Durham School of Agriculture. In 1950, he was appointed lecturer and later senior lecturer, in the agriculture department of Edinburgh University and in addition became farms director.

In 1962, he was awarded his PhD by the University of Edinburgh and in 1968 he took up the post of director at the Hill Farming Research Organisation, which he led for the next 12 years during a period of considerable change and development.

He was the driving force behind the construction of the headquarters’ laboratory and office buildings and supervised the transfer from temporary accommodation in Edinburgh to the purpose-built premises on the Bush Estate in 1973.

During his time at HFRO, he found time to serve the industry in a variety of other ways including chairmanship of the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council and of the Hill Farming Advisory Committee for Scotland. He served as president of the British Society of Animal Production and as president of the agriculture section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

In recognition of his services to the sheep industry, he received the George Hedley Memorial Award from the National Sheep Association in 1974 – in which year he was also elected to fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 1979 for services to agriculture.

In 1980, Ian moved on to become principal of the West of Scotland Agricultural College, and Professor of Agriculture at the University of Glasgow. In a real sense he was made for the position. There were few people with his combined skills and experience of higher education, research and specialist advice, integrated with a deep knowledge of the agricultural industry in Scotland – it was his destiny.

In this role he became an exceptional strategist and a supremely able administrator, enabler and facilitator. During his tenure, he was elected as an honorary associate of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and a fellow of the Royal Agricultural Societies.

Ian 'retired' in 1987, but he had no intention of withdrawing from public or academic life. He took on a number of new non-executive appointments. As first chairman of the board of the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute,his leadership, guidance and support were vital in determining the early success of the Institute.

The role he played at that time, the direction that the institute took and the influence on its staff in terms of vision and opportunity, determined a sure future for the research that the institute promoted, both then and now. Within what is now the James Hutton Institute, one of the buildings in Aberdeen still bears his name today.

As a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he played a major part in influencing government policies on land use, agriculture, the environment and led the RSE review of foot-and-mouth disease in Scotland following the devastating outbreak of disease in 2001. As chairman of the National Trust for Scotland, he brought his deep knowledge of rural affairs, integrated with his appreciation and enthusiasm for Scotland’s countryside, and its historic built heritage. During this period, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh.

But he never lost his common touch and his impact on the lives and careers of those he taught and worked with has been deep and far-reaching. His abiding characteristics of friendship, caring and encouragement for colleagues and students endeared him to all who met him.

He loved an argument, but respected those who challenged him – it was rare indeed if such confrontations ended in anything other than a greater friendship. He fought his corner on behalf of his colleagues and the institutions he served.

And no one will forget the dedicated and loving support he provided for his wife, Nancy, so cruelly affected by alzheimer’s in her latter years and who predeceased Ian in 2016.

Ian is survived by his two daughters, Deirdre and Sheila, to whom we extend our deepest sympathies. He will be very sadly missed.

Appreciation by Bill McKelvey and Jeff Maxwell