Scotland's History: The Ben Nevis Observatory

For twenty-one years from 1883, scientists worked and lived on the summit of Ben Nevis at a purpose-built Observatory recording weather conditions. The story of this remarkable building and the men who worked in it can be explored through records in ScotlandsPeople and National Records of Scotland (NRS). Birth, death, marriage, census and valuation roll entries provide a personal history of the employees. We can appreciate more about life at the summit in the fascinating photographs, log books and other records of the Observatory and the Scottish Meteorological Society, held by NRS on behalf of the Meteorological Office.

Ben Nevis was the ideal location for undertaking this scientific research. The highest mountain in the British Isles, it sits directly in the path of Atlantic storms, rising 1,343 metres (4,409 feet) above sea level, and is topped by a stony plateau. In 1877, when David Milne Home, chairman of the Council of the Scottish Meteorological Society proposed that a meteorological observatory should be established, it was agreed that this was the perfect site.  

In preparation, Clement Wragge, a meteorologist, climbed the mountain every day from June to October 1881, a round journey of 14 miles from Fort William, sometimes assisted by his wife, Leonora. In 1882 he had two assistants, William M Whyte and Angus Rankin, who made the readings without him in 1883. They recorded readings at the summit in a basic stone hut covered with tarpaulin, in addition to those taken at fixed stations on the ascent and descent.

Thomas Stevenson, the acclaimed lighthouse and harbour engineer and father of Robert Louis Stevenson, drew plans for the Observatory building. A founder member of the Scottish Meteorological Society in 1855, among his permanent contributions to meteorology was his design in 1864 of a screen for thermometers; the 'Stevenson screen' is still in use worldwide. The construction of the observatory was mostly funded from private donations. Wragge’s efforts attracted great public interest and subscriptions quickly exceeded £5,000, with donations varying from £200 to 1 penny. Donors included Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.

The Observatory was made from granite blocks. Near the base the walls were from about five to twelve feet thick to protect against bad weather and storms. Inside there were a living-room and office, three small bunks and store rooms. The double wooden walls were covered with felt. The narrow windows were doubled glazed, and the roof was covered with lead, overlaid with snow-boarding.

On 17 October 1883, the Observatory was officially opened by Mrs Cameron Campbell of Monzie, who owned the estate on which Ben Nevis stood. It was reported that during the ceremony members of the party stood shivering in snow two feet deep and were blown around by cold, gusty winds.

The weathermen

Weather observations were led by Robert Traill Omond (1858-1914) from 1883 to 1891, and as honorary superintendent from 1891 until his death. Omond was a Scottish physicist, geologist and meteorologist who had helped to establish the Observatory. Omond House, on Laurie Island in Scotia Bay was named in recognition of his work on the Antarctic expedition of 1902.

Omond was supported by two assistants. Robert Cockburn Mossman (1870 - 1940) was the meteorologist on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-1904, and the Mossman Peninsula was named after him.  Angus Rankin (c1863-1929), a Scottish meteorologist, was another assistant to Omond, and became the superintendent of the Observatory in 1891.

 

Angus Rankin, Robert T Omond and Robert C Mossman, 1889-1891

Angus Rankin, Robert T Omond and Robert C Mossman, 1889-1891
Met Office Scottish Meteorological Society collection, held by National Records of Scotland, MET1/8/1/10

 

In September 1894, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, a physicist and meteorologist, briefly worked at the summit. During his placement, Wilson witnessed a Brocken 'spectre and glory'. This phenomenon can be seen from a misty mountainside or cloud bank when the sun casts the shadow of the observer onto cloud below and gives the impression of the shadow being illuminated by halos of rainbow-coloured light . Wilson reproduced this in laboratory conditions, thereby inventing the cloud chamber used to detect ionising radiation.  In 1927 this earned him the Nobel Prize.

Life at 4,400 feet

Life at the summit was often difficult, especially during the long, cold and dark days of winter, where staff battled freezing winds, torrential rains and solitude. The Observatory provided warmth from a stove in the kitchen and office, fuelled mainly by paraffin coke. Intense wind and snow storms raged for much of the first winter, making it difficult to observe the weather accurately and on some days it was not possible to go outside at all.

Observer on the roof of the Ben Nevis Observatory

Observer on the roof of the Observatory in winter
Met Office Scottish Meteorological Society collection, held by National Records of Scotland, MET1/8/1/82/21
 

To help the men descend the mountain when the lower door way was blocked by snow, a 30 foot tower was built. In 1894, the Observatory was extended with the addition of another large room to serve as a laboratory and telegraph office, and two additional bedrooms.

Angus Rankin outside the tower

Angus Rankin outside the tower
Met Office Scottish Meteorological Society collection, held by National Records of Scotland, MET1/8/1/14

Recording the weather

Readings were taken every hour of the day and night. Temperatures, rain levels, and ‘eye observations’ were noted including the direction and velocity of the wind, character and quantity of clouds, visibility, fog, mist, haze, glories, haloes, snow, hail, sleet, thunder, lightning and any other phenomena. The sunshine recorder and rainband were read once daily. During bad storms, most observations could be made from the tower by hanging the thermometers outside. On occasion, the men were almost blown over the cliff edge by strong winds and had to tie themselves to the Observatory. A log entry from February 1884 notes that Omond and Rankin were roped together for safety and, during one reading, as Omond stepped outside the door of the snow porch, he was lifted off his feet and blown back against Rankin, who was knocked over (NRS, MET1/5/2/5/4). Observers were often injured by wind-blown pieces of ice or frozen snow.

The hourly data was published in full in volumes 34, 42, 43 and 44 parts 1 and 2 of the 'Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh', with monthly tables of each element (pressure, dry and wet bulb temperature, wind speed and direction, rainfall and sunshine), and extracts from the log books. The original log books contain much more unpublished information (NRS, MET1/5).  The hourly summit data was also turned into daily tables, of which copies were sent regularly to the Met Office in London. 

Death on the mountain

In September 1898, a hill walker found the body of Duncan MacGillivray, a telephone clerk from the Observatory, lying on the side of the path near the top of the mountain. MacGillivray had just attended the annual shooting competition of the Cameron Volunteers at Fort William. On his ascent he had collapsed near the summit. The cause of death was recorded as cardiac syncope (a loss of consciousness and muscle strength). His body was interred at Fort William.

Death entry of Duncan MacGillivray
National Records of Scotland, Statutory Register of Deaths, 520/49

 

Recreation

Aside from taking readings, the men also enjoyed sporting activities on the summit in their free time. In summer, they played games of rope-quoits on the roof of the Observatory, and during the winter months, when weather allowed, the men enjoyed tobogganing, excursions on snowshoes and skis and digging holes of up to 12 feet deep in competition to be the first to reach solid ground. Some of the men played the bagpipes, violin, flute, mandolin and accordion. Visitors and staff both enjoyed throwing boulders down the great cliffs and precipices in a bid to clear the 2,000ft drop without hitting the sides, sometimes forcing half-ton stones over the edge. Photography was also a popular activity, and thanks to this more than 100 photographs of the Observatory, the staff and Ben Nevis are preserved in the MET records.

A cook provided meals for the team. Supplies were brought up by two horses: nine months supply of tinned provisions, paraffin coke for the fire, letters, papers and a supply of fresh water for when natural water dried up in the warmer months.

 

Ponies, four males, a child and a dog outside the Observatory. Inscribed ‘Ben Nevis Cavalry’

Ponies, four males, a child and a dog outside the Observatory. Inscribed ‘Ben Nevis Cavalry’
Met Office Scottish Meteorological Society collection, held by National Records of Scotland, MET1/8/1/45

 

From the mid-1890s, between the months of June to September, the Observatory Hotel, a single-storey wooden building built by a local hotelier, provided refreshments or overnight accommodation for visitors. Travellers were usually permitted to see the Observatory, and some competed to leave the wittiest comment in the visitor’s book, for example ‘Found the clim and climate produced a most Ben-Nevis-ent effect.’

Closure

For 20 years, the studies at the Observatory provided invaluable meteorological data. These readings were then transmitted to nearby Fort William by telegraph. The Observatory was managed by the Scottish Meteorological Society and the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London.

The building was manned full-time until 1904, when it was forced to close due to a lack of Government funding. The Leith Chamber of Commerce wrote in November 1904 that ‘the Chamber understands the highest scientific opinion – not just in Great Britain alone - has testified to the value of the work which has been carried out there, and the importance of High Level Observations as a factor in the solution of meteorological problems…the study of meteorology is not merely of scientific but of practical importance to many national interests, the closing of the observatory must be regarded as a retrograde step which is generally to be deplored: That the Observatory buildings were erected and equipped by funds supplied from private sources, and the observatory has for a period of 21 years been maintained by a large extent by private generosity, the time has, in the opinion of this Chamber, come when an arrangement ought to be made for the transfer of the observatory to the Crown.’(MET1/5/3/6)

Additional funding was not granted, however, and the men were forced to close the Observatory. One T W Baker wrote to Omond on 29 December 1904 that ‘the dismounting of the various instruments is a sad business after so many years. I little thought when we were putting them up together that I should have to take them down again. But so it is.’ (MET1/5/3/1/6)

After its abandonment, part of the building was used for several years as an annexe to the hotel, but fell into ruin. The readings taken by the Ben Nevis weathermen during the period 1883-1904 still provide the most comprehensive set of data on mountain weather in Great Britain.

The Observatory records held in NRS include photographs and drawings (MET1/8), and log books, climatological returns and inspection reports (MET1/5). Over 16,000 Meteorological Office (MET Office) records can be searched through the National Records of Scotland online catalogue

For further information about the MET office, please visit their website

The Ben Nevis website provides additional information and reading about the Observatory

 

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