In The Spotlight

GBCC President Gordon Milne interviews James Mackay, Britain’s most prolific philatelic writer and postal historian

James Mackay

Published in the April, 2001 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Instructions for ordering Mackay’s latest book, “Scotland’s Posts,” are given at the end of the article.

Milne: First of all, Dr. Mackay, thank you for having agreed to be the latest subject of our quarterly “In the Spotlight” interview. I would so much have preferred to have done this in person in our native Scotland, but the GBCC budget, alas, would not stretch that far! Since, therefore, the interview is being conducted by e-mail with the two of us 3,000 or so miles apart, my first question — specifically for all the non-Scots in our membership — is: How do you pronounce your last name? Does it rhyme with “khaki” or “black eye?”

Mackay: I’ve never had the question posed that way before, but it’s “black eye!”

Milne: And your middle initial “A” — which I note you frequently use — stands for?

Mackay: Alexander — to distinguish me from another James Mackay who has written several books on the rearing and handling of ferrets!

Milne: If my research is correct, you were born a couple of years ahead of me in 1936. Correct? Where?

Mackay: You got the first part right. The answer to the second question is Inverness.

Milne: Ah, a Highlander! Did you/do you have siblings — or were you an only child?

Mackay: I had an older brother who died before I was born, and I have a sister who is younger than me.

Milne: How did you get interested in stamp collecting?

Newfoundland 1932 5 cent caribou Mackay: When I was about five or six, Newfoundland soldiers were billetted on my Aunt Maggie and gave me the stamps off their mail — mainly the 5 cent caribou value as that was the letter rate at the time.

Milne: Where did you go to school, and were you, as Americans would say, “a smart kid?” Also, did any of your schoolmates share your stamp collecting interests?

Mackay: I attended many different schools between 1941 and 1945, then Hillhead High School, Glasgow until 1954; and the University of Glasgow from then till 1958. Most of my classmates in primary school collected stamps. I recall that on Friday afternoons the teacher would line us up in order of merit and give out a stamp each. Being one of “the smarter kids,” I was lucky enough to get the more exotic British colonials, while the dullards had to be content with lousy old Jefferson 3 cent stamps! In secondary school, quite a few boys and girls were keen collectors, though there was no such thing as a school stamp club. To my knowledge, only one of them is still philatelically active. I ran into him recently at Glasgow 2000 and he told me that he still had my boyhood fixed-leaf FG (Frank Godden) album which I had sold him half a century ago when I decided to give up general collecting and concentrate on German stamps. When I asked him if he would be prepared to sell it back, he flatly refused, saying that it might have curiosity value some day, just like Freddie Mercury’s album which the National Postal Museum acquired some time back.

German definitive stamp Milne: What prompted your interest in collecting German stamps, and is it still there?

Mackay: I started collecting German stamps seriously in 1948, thanks to a pen pal in Grimma near Leipzig. This has been my main collecting interest. My German collection spans all periods and aspects, including local stamps, colonies and occupations. The first modern language I learned was German and I have a German wife, so I have always had a keen interest in that country.

Milne: When did your interest in postal history develop and what, specifically, prompted it?

Mackay: My interest in postal history began on March 8th, 1959.

Milne: Wow! That IS specific!

Mackay: Yes, I was on board the SS Lochmor bound for the Outer Hebrides at the beginning of a two and a half year stint at the Rocket Range. I had bought R.K. Forster’s little book, The Postmark on a Letter, at Oban railway station earlier that morning and read it on the ship. At Castlebay, Isle of Barra, I got specimens of the different postmarks used at the post office, and that got me hooked!

Milne: Was the first postal history book you wrote your 120,000-word opus, Scottish Postmarks: 1693 to 1978? And, if so, how long did it take you to compile?

Mackay: No. Scottish Postmarks, published in 1978, was not my first book on postal history. That was St. Kilda, its Posts and Communications in 1963. Scottish Postmarks was a distillation of research done over a period of almost 20 years. Writing it was the easy bit, tracing the postmarks to illustrate it was the hard part.

Milne: What were the reference sources you used to write the meaty text of Scottish Postmarks, and from where did you get the close on 2000 illustrations?

Mackay: The only previous work on the subject was Alcock & Holland’s Postmarks of Great Britain and Ireland (1940). Most of my research was based on records and proofbooks in P.O. Archives. 90% of the illustrations came from my own collection.

St. Kilda Milne: What was the trigger for your interest in the Scottish Islands? Was it the fact that you had served in the military on St. Kilda in the late 1950s?

Mackay: Yes. I lived on St. Kilda and Benbecula for two and a half years and in that period I visited all 99 post offices in the Outer Hebrides at some time or another.

Milne: St. Kilda certainly seems to have had a special place in your heart, Jim. For the many GBCCers “this side of the pond,” what can you briefly tell them about it?

Mackay: St. Kilda is the most remote of the British Isles, 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland. I was fascinated by the place. Everything about it was extraordinary. I researched its history and even tracked down all the surviving St. Kildans who had left the island in 1930.

Milne: What were the resources you used to compile your well-known Islands Postal History Series?

Mackay: They were threefold:

  1. an intimate knowledge of the islands themselves
  2. collecting postal history material over a 30-year period, and
  3. Post Office Archives

Milne: Why did you decide, after Handbook 11 in that series (which, I think, was the Scottish Islands Supplement and Catalogue) to go “south of the border” and include the Isle of Wight as #12? And forgive my ignorance, but what was the subject of #13?

Mackay: There was no #13. The success of the Scottish series encouraged me to tackle the English islands, and as I had frequently vacationed in the Isle of Wight, it was a natural one to follow. The fact that I had a good collection of it, too, served as a good basis. I meant to do Anglesey in Wales, but pressure of other interests never allowed me to do so.

Milne: Concurrent with this, you were compiling the series of Postal History Annuals, starting in 1979. I have the series through the 1985 issue. Were there more?

Mackay: The Annuals went up to 1990.

Milne: Ah, five more needed for completion!

Mackay: They were a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed doing them. I ceased publication when I moved from Dumfries to Glasgow.

Milne: In those decades of the ’70s and ’80s, were you employed full-time in philatelic writing?

Mackay: Yes.

Milne: Have you lived all your life in Scotland? And when did you start building your own personal library of catalogues, books and journals?

Mackay: I lived in London for several years. I began collecting philatelic books about 1950.

Milne: How big is that personal library today? And what are its main contents?

Mackay: It’s not that big. I have about 2,000 volumes — very eclectic — as I tend to keep the books sent to me for review. I suppose there is a bias towards postal history of all countries and periods.

Milne: In the area of your personal collecting, you have been reported as wanting to be regarded as a generalist rather than a specialist. I find this curiously contradictory to the very specialist nature of your published works. Can you elaborate and elucidate, please?

Mackay: Nothing contradictory at all. I am a general collector and can produce something from every stamp-issuing entity from Abu Dhabi to Zululand, although I admit that certain sections are more specialised than others. My books may deal with specific subjects but the articles I write cover the widest possible spectrum from beginners’ guides to research papers, from aspects of postal history to topical subjects. I also compile the new issue lists for two magazines (Stamp and Coin Mart in the U.K. and Canadian Stamp News) as well as the Stampcore website. So I keep abreast of all the latest developments.

Milne: Jim, with all the activities you are involved in, you make me feel like an idle slouch! I’m sure nobody in their right mind would contest that today you are Britain’s most prolific philatelic writer. As such, and to help you with that work, do you automatically receive on an on-going basis all the new issues from most of the world’s 200 or so postal administrations?

Mackay: Yes. Currently I get stamps from 210 countries and information from most of the others as well.

Cat on fence Milne: Your personal and extensive all-world collection is, as I understand it, a main reference source for a lot of your philatelic writing. One of the most recent articles of yours that I read was your 4-page topical feature on “Cats on Stamps” in the February 2001 edition of Gibbons Stamp Monthly. Using that as an example, were all the 40-50 cat stamps that lavishly illustrated that fine article yours?

Mackay: Yes. I have a seven-volume collection of cat stamps, covers, labels and postmarks.

Milne: Why am I not surprised?!!! As a follow-up, and again just for perspective, did GSM commission you to write that article? Or did you just submit it in the hope it might be published? And, to complete the triangle of questions (and thereby boost the hopes, maybe, of those who have tried unsuccessfully to get their works published) dare I ask how many rejections you have amassed over the years?

Mackay: I was specifically commissioned by Gibbons. 99% of what I write is commissioned. I sent a topical article to Linn’s about three years ago and it was rejected! So I have never submitted anything else. I should, maybe, have waited to be asked!

Milne: Five years ago I know that the album count in the Mackay stamp den was in excess of 250 with, additionally, four 4-drawer filing cabinets of world issues. (Now you know why I wanted to do this interview in Glasgow!) By how much has it grown in those last five years? And, as a matter of normal course, do you inventory all your collections?

Mackay: I added a five-drawer filing cabinet about three years ago and recently purchased another two. Once they are full, I will have to move to a larger house. The spate of new issues is alarming. What inventory there is is purely in my head.

Milne: Boy, am I personally encouraged by that last remark! Moving on, I know you like collecting, among other things, postal labels; and I’ve heard it said that you have (or had) close on a million registration labels, unsorted and unmounted up there in your attic. What is their appeal for you?

Mackay: I went after an auction lot in 1980 with the hope of getting the Scottish labels, but I had to take them all, estimated at 100,000 plus or minus. The labels covered the whole world and were tightly packed in boxes totalling 105 lbs in weight. To put it mildly, the auctioneer’s estimate of the number was very conservative! I’ve actually sorted and mounted Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden and the smaller British colonies, amounting to about 85,000 labels so far. But that’s just the start! The rest I’ll get round to when I retire. Actually, I collect all kinds of postal label from every part of the world. For example, I have an extensive collection of airmail labels from 1918 to the present day. I even have an Israeli parcel wrapper with a label in four languages warning the recipient to be on the look out for a concealed bomb!

Milne: Perhaps you would be so good as to share with the GBCC membership the interesting way you house your mint and used collections.

Mackay: I use Stanley Gibbons Senator Standard leaves which I buy wholesale in boxes of 5,000 at a time.

Milne: Just like most of us do, Jim!!! (Pardon the interruption)

Mackay: The reference collection is in file covers by countries or periods in the drawers of the filing cabinets. The 250 albums contain the more specialised studies and thematic collections. Covers, cards, stationery and postal ephemera are mainly housed in box files. Up to now, most of my collections are written up by hand, but I have recently begun using A4 160gsm cards and am in the process of redoing my St. Kilda collection on the computer. I have also mounted 150 sheets of a thematic collection on the Vikings in the same way, about 100 pages of stamps and covers and 50 of Norwegian, Danish and Faroese postmarks matched to places in Scotland with the same or similar names, to illustrate the extent of the Viking penetration of the country in the Middle Ages. I shall probably use this system more and more from now on, but will stick to the original system for the reference collection.

Milne: You ARE amazing, sir! Now changing gears a tad, I’ve heard it said that you are (or at least were) a Machin collector. I’m sure the large number of GBCC “Machin Maniacs” reading this would want to know, on Douglas Myall’s scale, in which level you’d place yourself.

Mackay: I am afraid I would be far down the Myall scale of Machin intensity. To do the Machins properly would be a full-time job. I merely have cylinder blocks of every stamp since 1967 as well as all the booklets, panes and coils, following the classification in the Gibbons Specialised Catalogues. But the used stamps occupy many stockbooks and await proper classification and mounting.

Milne: Do you still spend 3-4 hours EVERY evening on your stamps? If so, doing what?

Mackay: I find that working on stamps is very therapeutic. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more of a chore just to keep abreast of the latest new issues. For example, last night I wrestled with the Canadian sheetlets and booklets of recent months, and tonight I will tackle the latest issues of Cape Verde and China. So I have quite a way to go before I reach Yugoslavia and Zambia! If I may use a Scottish expression, it’s like painting the Forth Bridge — you’ve no sooner got to Zambia and Zimbabwe than it’s time to tackle Aland, Andorra and Antigua again. When I catch up, I turn to used stamps of the world. For years I would work away at the early part of the alphabet but usually got bogged down in Germany and then had to begin at “A” again. But ten years ago I went to the other end of the alphabet and worked back from “Z.” I have now got back to “N“ (Netherlands). So there is still a huge gap in the middle. I doubt whether I will ever achieve the completion of this task.

Milne: How does your wife Renate react to your spending all this time on your stamps? Is she a collector, too, and, if so, what interests her? Further, has she, over the years, helped you with your research work?

Mackay: Renate comes from a philatelic family and her brother and son are still active in the hobby. However, she gave up her schoolgirl collection (which her son now has). Eight years ago I even acquired her late uncle’s huge world-wide collection which had been formed between 1900 and his death in 1974. I started the cat collection to try to rekindle Renate’s interest, but though she likes looking at the stamps, I’m afraid the work of mounting and writing up is left entirely to me. She has her own interests.

Milne: I have heard it said that, over the years, you have felt more comfortable in a congenial stamp club environment than as a member of some of the elitist, upper-echelon groups in the land. Is this so, and, if so, why?

Mackay: Because I am a general collector at heart with a low threshold of boredom, I much prefer the company of collectors at the same level. I find specialists tend to be obsessive the more their specialisation advances.

Milne: I read that you were active in helping to stage last November’s Glasgow 2000 show. What were your duties and how did you think the show went? Was it, for example, well attended?

Mackay: I was the publicity officer for Glasgow 2000 and, as such, managed to generate a great deal of coverage in the philatelic press, including a special all-Scottish number of Stamp Magazine in November. Thanks to the unissued “World Cup Winners” stamp for Scotland, I managed to get extraordinary coverage in the lay press, radio and television — all of which helped to get the non-philatelic public interested in the show. I also put on a month-long exhibition of Glasgow Post Offices in the Mitchell Library as a supporting attraction, and wrote the book Scotland’s Posts which was intended as a permanent memorial to an exhibition whose theme was postal history. The attendance figures for Glasgow 2000 exceeded our ambitions, and I gather that the show even made a profit.

Milne: With so much internet buying and selling going on these days, do you see the gradual demise of the smaller stamp shows both in Britain and elsewhere in the next decade?

Mackay: I am not aware of any decline in the attendance at or quality of the stamp shows in Britain as a result of internet trading. As I write copy for three websites, this is a development that keenly interests me, but I think that collectors will still want the face to face contact with dealers and other collectors which stamp fairs provide.

Milne: Do you exhibit? If so, what? If not, why not?

Mackay: I give talks to stamp clubs, mainly “That was the year that was” — a display of a sheet of stamps from each country over the previous twelve months. Currently I am doing a show entitled “That was the millenium that was.” My first attempt at competitive exhibiting was at Glasgow 2000 and earned me a bronze medal and the lowest marks in the show! I showed four frames of “Operation Postcard,” the drift card experiment of the 1950s, in the new Social Philately class. The judge’s comment was “Not suitable for a philatelic exhibition” (which I thought was what Social Philately was all about, and was supposed to break free from the constraints imposed by normal judging criteria). That is one experiment I shall not be repeating.

Milne: Of the thousands and thousands of items that you have accumulated in the last 50+ years, what is your most cherished philatelic possession and why?

St. Kilda registration labels Mackay: My most cherished item is the last sheet of registration labels in use at St. Kilda at the time of the Evacuation in 1930. A single label from St. Kilda is a major rarity — but a part sheet of 30, complete with marginal inscriptions — wow! Image of Mackay’s sheet reprinted from the British Philatelic Bulletin with permission.

Milne: Aside from the world of philately, I know you also spend a significant amount of time writing biographies, including those of fellow Scots Robert Burns, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. How do you choose your subjects and what do you think makes YOUR biographies different from (and better than) those written by others?

Mackay and St. Kilda labels Mackay: I hope that I have always managed to take the story a step further than previous biographers, uncovering hitherto unknown facts, setting the record straight perhaps, or providing a fresh slant or interpretation on the subject. The subjects have usually been chosen for me, but Vagabond of Verse (Robert Service) and The Man Who Invented Himself (Thomas Lipton) were my own choice.

Milne: The penultimate question is mine and mine alone! How, for heaven’s sake, do you manage to do all the things you do? What’s your special time management secret?

Mackay: I work very hard. I work regular hours and I only need four or five hours sleep.

Milne: You may be surprised (and delighted) to learn that the question most GBCCers wanted me to pose to you — and I consequently and purposefully therefore kept it to the last — was: “Where can I find a list of Dr. Mackay’s publications, and how do I get hold of an item like The Official Mail of the British Isles?

Robert the Bruce Mackay: I’m afraid there is no up-to-date listing of my publications. I started to compile a list some years ago, but it is rather low on my priorities, although it would be a useful guide to remind me of what I had written and perhaps save me from repeating myself. All of my philatelic and postal history books are now out of print exceptUnder the Gum and Scotland’s Posts.

Milne: Jim, my wrap-up paragraph to these interviews has normally expressed gracious thanks for the time the interviewee has spent answering my questions. That, in your case, also, of course applies. But in this instance, it also seems totally, totally inadequate. I don’t wish it to appear overly sycophantic when I say that, albeit conducted at a distance, this interview has been a philatelic experience like no other that I have had since I started this series. And I honestly doubt whether it’ll ever be repeated again. Your responses have proven what I suspected going in and that is that you are a legend unto yourself. Many of your responses, I’m sure, will have left other readers of this interview, as they have me, (to use the modern idiom) “gobsmacked!” “Talking” with you, dear sir, has not just been a pleasure but an unforgettable honour. Thank you and good luck in all your doubtless many future endeavors.

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