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Ben Nevis Observatory

This was a meteorological (not astronomical!) observatory, run by the Scottish Meteorological Society and officially opened on 17th October 1883. It was staffed throughout the year by a small team of observers who took hourly observations which were telegraphed to a low level station (opened in 1890) in Fort William. The station ran for 21 years until lack of funds, and an unenthusiastic Government, led to closure on 1st October 1904.

The summit observations showed an overall mean (1883 to 1904) temperature of - 0.3 C, and temperatures below freezing were observed in every month of the year. The driest months were May and June (approximately 90mm monthly mean) and the wettest December (approximately 290mm). The greatest snow depth occurred in April or May, with extremes from 129cm (May 1887) to 343cm (April 1885). Winds over 120mph (192 km per hour) were not unknown.

The Observatory was supplied by ponies, using the track up from Achintee during the summer months to bring up tinned food and a supply of coke as fuel for cooking and heating. Tourists were charged one shilling (5p in current money) to walk up the path, and a Fort William hotelier opened a summit ‘hotel’ for the summer seasons.

Several notable personalities were associated with the Observatory. Alexander Buchan, as Secretary of the Scottish Meteorological Society analysed the observations amongst his other contributions to the science of meteorology. W S Bruce, temporary superintendent of the Observatory 1895-6, led the Scottish Antarctic Expedition in the ‘Scotia’ 1902-04 which explored the Weddell Sea and discovered Coats Land. A direct connection with a Nobel Prize came about when physics graduate C T R Wilson spent a short time on the Ben as a summer volunteer assistant, and became fascinated by the phenomenon of the ‘glory’, seen when the sun’s light is scattered back from cloud droplets. He returned to Cambridge, built a ‘cloud chamber’ in his laboratory which subsequently proved a valuable tool in studying the tracks made by radioactive particles. He is commemorated by a blue plaque not far from his birthplace south of Edinburgh (see NT2363 : Blue plaque for a Nobel prize winner).

Perhaps the most colourful character was Clement Wragge, who volunteered to make daily ascents to the summit for two summers before the Observatory was built. He left Fort William, each day at 4.40 am, spent an hour 9 am to 10 am at the summit, returning to sea level at 3.30 pm, taking observations at several points. The remains of a framework which held his instruments were still on the summit in 1982. Despite his energy, Wragge was not selected to become the first Observatory superintendent, probably because he was too much the eccentric, and he departed to Australia to found a Weather Service there. Wragge was the first to give hurricanes names, often of people he had fallen out with.

Sources: ‘The Weathermen of Ben Nevis’ by Marjory Roy, Royal Meteorological Society 2004
‘Twenty Years on Ben Nevis’ by William T Kilgour, Alexander Gardner (no date)
by Jim Barton

Created: Fri, 21 Jan 2011, Updated: Fri, 21 Jan 2011

3 images use this description:

NN1671 : Ruins of Ben Nevis Observatory in 1982 by Jim Barton
NN1671 : Centenary celebration Ben Nevis Observatory, 1983 by Jim Barton
NN1671 : Ruins of Ben Nevis Observatory in 1982 (2) by Jim Barton

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