Aberdeen’s Local Astronomical History
John S. Reid
Astronomy has touched the lives of many people who wouldn’t have called themselves ‘astronomers’ on their CV, if they ever had to write a CV. Astronomy is a subject with a long history of amateurs making valuable contributions. In fact until the 20th century there were very few professional astronomers. In centuries past one became a professional astronomer by patronage, academic appointment or self-finance and there were few opportunities for any of these. Many ‘professionals’ used more than one of these routes and did other things too – think of Tycho Brahe (patronage and self-finance), Galileo Galilei (academic and professional mathematician), Johannes Kepler (patronage and astrologer), William Herschel (musician, instrument maker and patronage) Johannes Hevelius (brewer, administrator, self-finance), and so on. In a way it’s hard to separate the professionals and the amateurs so I haven’t done so in what follows.
Scottish astronomers are not that thick on the ground – perhaps the weather has something to do with it – but Aberdeen and its surroundings can claim a good few who have contributed to astronomy in one way or another. Their association with this area are by birth and upbringing, residence or education and commonly all of these. I have written about quite a few of them so this page is mainly the time-honoured time-line, very brief comments and links to where I have fuller details. I’ve also included some relevant places.
Duncan Liddell 1561 – 1613. Native of Aberdeen who made his name as a teacher of astronomy in Helmstädt; donor to Marischal College of an impressive library of early astronomical texts that have assisted NE astronomical scholarship for 400 years. The Scientific Tourist.
James Gregory 1638 – 1675. Native of Drumoak (about 20 km outside Aberdeen); graduate of Marischal College, Aberdeen; inventor of the reflecting telescope. The University possesses two 18th century Gregorian telescopes. See Stars from the NE and The Scientific Tourist.
James Ferguson 1710 – 1776. Native of Rothiemay in NE Scotland; another educator famous in his day for popularising astronomy and an admired horologist, designer of outstanding astronomical clocks. The University possesses one of these made by Copland and John King. See Stars from the NE and The Scientific Tourist.
Patrick Copland 1748 – 1822. Marischal College Professor, founder of the Castlehill Observatory, notable outreach teacher including astronomy. I have written a lot about Patrick Copland! His residence was at Fountainhall House. See also The Scientific Tourist.
Andrew Mackay 1760 – 1809. First and only keeper of the Castlehill Observatory. His expertise was in navigation, including celestial navigation. Stars from the NE.
John Ramage 1788 – 1835. Pioneer astronomical telescope maker and lecturer on astronomy. The Scientific Tourist.
Robert Davidson 1804-1894. Local manufacturer with many interests whose large telescope was a skyline feature in the 1820s and 30s. See The Scientific Tourist.
John Lamont 1805-1879. Born in Aberdeenshire he spent much of his life as director of the Bogenhausen Observatory in Bavaria and was Professor of Astronomy at the University of Munich for 27 years. The Scientific Tourist.
James Clerk Maxwell 1831 – 1879. Maxwell wouldn’t have written ‘astronomer’ on his CV but his major work on elucidating the rings of Saturn was done mainly while he was Professor at Marischal College. See The Scientific Tourist and also an account of his Aberdeen plaque.
David Gill 1843-1914. One of Scotland’s greatest astronomers. Born and educated mainly in Aberdeen; Director of the Dunecht Observatory of Lord Lindsay; Her Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope; master of precision astrometry; developer of the photographic stellar catalogue; exceptional surveyor. See Stars from the NE, The Scientific Tourist and an account of his astronomical career.
James Ludovic Lindsay 1847- 1913. Born in France and educated at Eton and Cambridge as Lord Lindsay he doesn’t sound like a local astronomer but he set up the world class Dunecht Observatory, carried out first-class astronomy and inherited the huge Dunecht Estate when he became 26th Earl of Crawford.
John Carroll 1899-1974. Professor of Natural Philosopher and solar spectroscopist with a special interest in the solar corona. See The Scientific Tourist.
The Castlehill Observatory 1781 – 1796. Founded by Professor Patrick Copland on the strength of a public subscription. Arguably the first public (or semi-public) observatory in Scotland with ‘modern’ instruments. See The Scientific Tourist.
The Cromwell Tower Observatory 1826 – present. Founded by King’s College, Aberdeen; used as both an astronomical and meteorological observatory. The University possess some of the historical instruments from this observatory.
Please e-mail me with any suggestions for additions.
JSR updated April 2017