MacKay, Dr. James
Born: 21 November, 1936,
Died: 12 August, 2007, in Glasgow, aged 70.
DR JAMES Alexander Mackay was a writer and journalist who, since the
1960s wrote more than 200 books and around 10,000 articles on subjects
including philately and postal history, coins and banknotes, antiques
and fine arts, biography, history and topography. He was also active in
philatelic and numismatic circles and similarly well-known in Burns
circles, attending academic conferences and featuring in radio and
television programmes about the poet.
During the Second World War Mackay's father, William, joined the RNVR
and his mother, Minnie, returned to nursing. James and his sister were
looked after by various relatives. In 1945 the family settled in Glasgow
and he attended Hillhead High School, taking prizes in Greek, Latin,
English and history, before going on to study history at the University
of Glasgow. Many years later the university awarded him a D.Litt degree
for his work on Burns.
After graduation, he spent his national service assigned to the Royal
Artillery guided weapons range in the Outer Hebrides. At a book stall in
Oban, waiting for the steamer to the isles, he bought a small book
entitled The Postmark on a Letter, which sparked his interest in
postmarks and postal history. Landing in the Hebrides he went straight
to a post office, where the postmaster "obliged" him with impressions of
all his date stamps. In an abandoned croft he found a sack of old
letters which provided him with many island postmarks for his
collection. Twenty years later he wrote 11 books on the postmarks of the
He spent nearly two years on Benbecula including spells as "relief OC"
on St Kilda, where he studied the island's history, wildlife and
geography - all put to good use later in three books about the island.
His love of St Kilda remained with him until the end.
After national service Mackay joined the British Museum as an assistant
keeper in charge of the philatelic collections. He found, brought to the
museum and had restored one of the machines used to print the penny
black stamp in 1840.
For ten years he did good work until a youthful indiscretion cost him
his job. He regretted his foolishness for the rest of his life, but
quickly set about restoring his name as a writer, mostly on philatelic
He returned to Scotland, settling first in Dumfriesshire, and then in
Glasgow. Gradually he widened his writing interests and over the years
became a successful writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster.
He had been a stamp collector by the age of five, sticking stamps into
an old copy of the Highway Code. He remained throughout his life a
"general collector" - not just of stamps but postmarks, postal
stationery, postal labels and postal ephemera. He built up a vast
reference collection that was much called upon by editors requiring
illustrations for articles. He also developed impressive specialised
collections of Scottish postal history, mail from military and
construction camps and on the theme of the Vikings. He was working on a
collection of French postmarks shortly before his death.
Mackay was a keen collector of British stamps. He advised Royal Mail on
the 1996 Burns bicentenary issue and opened the Burns exhibition at the
National Postal Museum. In 1998 he took part in a televised debate on
new Scottish country stamps.
In recent years Mackay had been involved with several Scottish
philatelic societies, serving as president and secretary of the Glasgow
Philatelic Society and president of the Old Eastwood Philatelic Society.
He was generous with his time and knowledge.
For the successful national stamp exhibition in Glasgow in 2000, he
wrote the accompanying book, Scotland's Posts, and put on a fine display
of Glasgow's postal history at the city's Mitchell Library. In 1997 he
was invited to sign the Book of Scottish Philatelists.
His philatelic books covered stamps of particular countries, such as
Under the Gum: Background to British Stamps (1997), which earned him a
Rowland Hill Award; postmarks and postal history; and general works
including the recent World Encyclopaedia of Stamps and Stamp Collecting.
He wrote for major philatelic magazines and contributed to newspapers,
journals and society publications. He was voted favourite author by
readers of the Philatelic Bulletin in 2000.
But he was also known for books on other subjects. Having edited the
Burns Chronicle, he produced an academic tome on Burns (1996) which
earned him the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year award. This led
to more popular lives of Andrew Carnegie, Michael Collins, John Paul
Jones, Thomas Lipton, Allan Pinkerton, Robert Service and William
Wallace. Other titles included books on Scottish towns and cities and on
antique collecting and fine arts.
Despite an often punishing work schedule, Mackay found time to enjoy
films, photography, playing the piano, country walks and for family and
friends. He was a good host and a usually delightful companion on car
journeys, although he could be intolerant of the navigational skills of
He enjoyed foreign travel and in recent years had given talks on antique
collecting on cruise ships.
He married Mary Jackson in 1960, and, after their divorce, Renate
Finlay-Freundlich in 1992. Both survive him, along with, by his first
marriage, a daughter and son.
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