Sunday, 27 January 2019

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to son of Scotland, giant of the Cairngorms and old polymath, Adam Watson

Adam, who has died at the age of 88, was, when he was a wee lad, already a 'chionophile'– a lover of snow and in his long life was, by turns, a zoologist, mountaineer, ghillie, writer, birder, environmentalist and Arctic explorer. He probably had the added distinction of knowing more about the Cairngorm Mountain Range than anyone who has ever lived, having spent eight decades climbing walking around it, studying snow and the birds and mammals that live in it, which earned him the 'Scottish Award For Excellence In Mountain Culture'.in 2012.

He was born in the Spring of 1930 in the small town of Turriff in Aberdeenshire, named from the Scottish Gaelic 'Torraibh', meaning 'place of round hills' standing on the River Deveron, the son of Elsie and Adam Watson Snr of the town’s 'Stewart and Watson Solicitors' and a Kirk elder.

In 1937 when Adam was seven years old, he recalled his father took him in the family car to Bennachie where on the lower slopes, he spotted, what in later years he recognised as an example of soil erosion. “I was very curious as a child, I was always asking questions and not getting answers, and often nobody could tell me. I was determined as well."

That winter, he recalled : "I remember veils of white coming down against the dark cloud. It was falling so thickly that it obliterated the view of the town. I looked for hours out of the window, watching it building up on the roof. When it went off for a wee while, I went out into the garden. It struck me that the town was deadly quiet. Even the birds had stopped singing. I picked snow up in my fingers and noticed the individual crystals, that none of them was the same. That was just unbelievable.
I remember walking to my grandmother’s house, three miles away, and noticing the sunlight on the drifts, their scalloped edges, the sparkle of the crystals and the deep blue colour in the shade. I’d see Bennachie and the gleaming ridge of Tillymorgan in the distance, and I wondered if anybody had ever been up there in the winter. I thought maybe one day I would try.”

The following year, on summer holiday in Ballater, he saw snow on Beinn a’Bhuird, a sighting that started his lifetime interest in snow and snow patches and on a rainy day in the hotel where he was staying he found, among a pile of books and magazines that his parents were working through, a copy of the 1925 classic 'The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland' by Seton Gordon the great naturalist and folklorist with its stories of hills, people, wildlife, snow and rocks. He later recalled that on reading the book : "It was like Gordon suddenly switched on a light in my head. His words made not just Deeside and the Cairngorms different, in a way the whole world became different. I became aware of beauty and I wanted to be in the Cairngorms as often as I could."

Back in Turriff, that winter, at the age of eight, he started his own field record of snow and would continue to do so each year and would eventually publish over 70 years later in 'A snow book, Northern Scotland' based on his observations from 1938 to 2011.

He read everything available by Seton Gordon on the shelves of the library in Turra and, at the age of nine, he wrote to the great man. It was to be the start of a correspondence that would last for 38 years. Seton replied : 'It is a fine thing for you to have a love of the hills because on the hills you find yourself near grand and beautiful things, and as you grow older you will love them more and more.' 

As a result, he persuaded his father to take him into the mountains. They climbed Sgor Mor but he wanted more and other hills followed.

He was 'top pupil' or 'dux' at his junior school in 1942, the year he joined Turriff Secondary School and that winter he began taking his own notes about the snow patches. The following year he cycled to Crathie to meet his hero, who, although he "wasn’t as impressive as his book” "treated me as an adult” , Adam acknowledged : “Good writing transforms lives.”

In fact, it was the enthusiasm of his mentor, Seton, that started Adam, aged 13, on a study of eagles that continued for life and fostered “the urge to explore”.  He learned how to take to the hills walking among his beloved bens and glens, learned how to read the weather and developed his lifelong fascination with ptarmigan, in his view “the most beautiful bird in the world” and devised a method to count them.

It was at this point he fell ill and developed empyema, an advanced form of pneumonia and was in hospital for several months, experienced great pain and was then kept off school. He used the time to read and philosophise to such a degree that his views on the spirit were a factor which caused his father to depart the church. Most painful was the fact that he "was told by the doctor, ‘You’re not going to walk in the hills again. You can look at them from a distance but that’s it from now on.’ "

Needless to say, the doctor's advice was not heeded and at 17 he was given his first ski lesson by mountaineer Tom Weir, and found he was suddenly able to travel easily across the snow : "I quickly became excited by skiing. Previously I'd been wading through snow, which was very laborious, and suddenly this just transformed it, this revolutionary way of travel. When the conditions are good it's an absolutely superb way of travelling and you can go much faster than you can in the summertime. That's when my interest in snow became heightened because I quickly learned that you need to start paying attention to the types of snow, which can have an enormous affect on speed, your ability to climb and so on."

In 1948, at the age of 18 he was 'Dux' of Turriff  Secondary School, having excelled in Latin, English, French, Science, History and Mathematics. The following year he took himself off to Aberdeen University to undergraduate study in Zoology and by the time he was 20 had managed to fit in fieldwork visits to Iceland and Norway.

A self-confessed “awkward bugger”, someone, who from early age questioned nature, words and especially “well-known facts”. He saw his aunt, Elsie S. Rae, poet and one of the first if not the first female reporter on the 'Press & Journal', as a source of inspiration for forming his early debating and writing, abilities which he considered to be  essential characteristics of the manner in which science should progress.

He was a brilliant young student and in 1952 gained a 1st class degree in Pure Science and won the 'MacGillivray Prize, Department of Natural History'. The following year, he won a 'Carnegie Arctic Scholarship' which took him to McGill University in Montreal. He then worked as a zoologist on the Arctic Institute of North America's Baird Expedition to Baffin Island and  “the most fascinating mountains I’ve ever seen”.

Back in Britain he married Jenny in the winter of 1955 and the day of his marriage, he and his bride left the reception and skied four miles through the dark to spend their honeymoon at a stalker’s cottage in the Cairngorms. By this time he was back at Aberdeen University and followed his masters degree with a PhD with his thesis on the 'Annual Cycle of Rock Ptarmigan' in 1956. It had given him a reason to spend many long days in the mountains in winter studying the snow-loving mountain grouse that has come to symbolise the Highlands.

He noted during his field trips how they could fly straight into a snowdrift, kicking snow behind them so that they filled the entrance of the hole and were sheltered from the wind, and how they stayed near enough to the surface that they didn't become buried, but could see when the morning light appeared and when to leave their burrows. He noted : "It takes an Inuit an hour to make an igloo. It takes mountaineers an hour or so to make a snow hole. It takes two to three seconds for the ptarmigan."

As the young Dr Watson, in 1956, he took up the editorship 'The Scottish Naturalist', a post he retained for eight years and in 1963 published 'Mountain Hares'. Four years later he was awarded his second doctorate for scientific papers on 'Populations and behaviour of northern animals' and in 1969, joined the Editorial Board of the 'Journal of Animal Ecology'. In 1970 he co-authored, with Gordon Miller 'Grouse Management' published by the Game Conservancy, Fordingbridge,

In 1971 Adam and John Duff, the former police constable in Braemar, began working together to collect Gaelic place names in upper Deeside a spare time pursuit which led him to learn the Gaelic language and in the process tracked down Mrs Jean Bain in Ardoch above Crathie, last surviving native speaker of the distinctive Deeside Gaelic. It would be 13 years before he published his magisterial 'The Place Names of Upper Deeside' in 1984.

Recognition of his knowledge of the Cairngorms was made in 1972 when he was called as 'Chief Expert Witness' for the Crown in the 'Cairngorm Plateau Disaster Fatal Accident Inquiry' held at Banff, into the circumstances whereby five school children and an instructor died in the snow at Feith Buidhe on the Plateau the previous year.

In 1981 he joined the Editorial Board of 'Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment', a position he retained for 8 years and in the same year he was the main scientific witness commissioned by the Nature Conservancy Council at the 'Lurcher's Gully Public Inquiry' on behalf of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, into the proposed development of skiing facilities for which Secretary of State for Scotland eventually refused permission.

His reputation was such that as a biologist, he was invited to study red grouse and then promoted to 'Senior Principal Scientific Officer for Special Merit in Research' with the Nature Conservancy and later the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Banchory. He retired in 1990, but was asked to continue on an unpaid advisor.

Acknowledged as the world's leading authority on grouse, in 2008 at the age of 78, with his co-author Robert Moss, he published 'Grouse : The Natural History of British and Irish Species', which sold an astonishing 4,000 copies inside four months. He went on to mark his 83rd year with a flurry of publications : 'Place names in much of North-East Scotland'; 'Points, Sets and Man';  'Hill birds in North-East Highlands' and 'Mammals in North-East Highlands'. At this point in his life he could look back on a body of work which included 23 books, 287 peer-reviewed scientific papers and 178 technical reports, 40 book reviews and many articles in newspapers and magazines.

Last year a new study revealed the number of mountain hares on moorland in the eastern Highlands is at less than 1% of their levels in the 1950s. He said : Conservation groups have called for an end to the "indiscriminate and ruthless" of mountain hare culls."Having reached the age of 88 I am both delighted and relieved to see this paper published. Having counted mountain hares across the moors and high tops of the eastern Highlands since 1943, I find the decline in numbers of these beautiful animals both compelling and of great concern. We need the Scottish government and Scottish Natural Heritage to take action to help these iconic mammals of the hill - I hope they will listen to the voice of scientific research." Interviewed by the BBC he said :

When it came to hill walking he said he didn't care for the idea of an organised group with GPS and texted avalanche alerts and other modern niceties since : “That just takes away the greatest joy the hills can give a person which is the wonder of exploring them for yourself. I think if you’re alone, you really become part of the hill.”

"I have travelled the globe widely, but I still think the Cairngorms are the most wonderful place on earth."

“I just like coming here and seeing the hills. It’s like seeing old friends.”

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