Obituary: Dr Adam Watson, polymath who held a wonder for the natural world

Dr Adam Watson near his home at Crathes, Banchory, Aberdeenshire in 2012
Dr Adam Watson near his home at Crathes, Banchory, Aberdeenshire in 2012
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Dr Adam Watson, scientist, explorer, philosopher, place name expert, climber, author and naturalist. Born: 13 April, 1930, in Turriff, Aberdeenshire. Died: 23 January, 2019, in Banchory, Kincardineshire, aged 88.

Dr Adam Watson, hailed as “the father of Scottish naturalism”, began recording simple natural history in his native Deveronside aged ­seven. By 13, he had filled ­several notebooks recording snow, birds, weather and soils.

Adam Watson FRSE BSc, PhD DSc DUniv FInstB FAINA CBIB AFRMS bore more ­letters after his name than many us of have in our names. His academic record began as dux of Turriff Secondary School and continued by scholarships, international awards and university fellowships.

His enthusiasm for science conveyed his calling to fellow scientists, and to students, gamekeepers, landowners, government groups and the public.

A natural communicator, his first broadcast at 18 in 1948 was the forerunner to a lifetime on radio and TV, backed by a published output running to more than 475 items, including 22 books, hundreds of ­scientific papers and reviews and 175 unpublished technical reports.

Dr Watson, holder of triple doctorates, possessed a knack of describing the sciences without jargon, and without dumbing down. His mellifluous voice gently rose and fell in the cadences of his native speech, his use of Scots and Gaelic references enhancing meaning. For today’s television generation, he was a lost treasure.

Research ecology began with snow patches as a seven-year-old in 1937, then examining them on Bennachie the following year before studying them in the Cairngorms aged nine – from which time he became a lifelong mountaineer and ski-mountaineer, experiencing outdoor scientific work in Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, mainland Canada, Baffin Island, ­Newfoundland, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, Vancouver Island and Alaska.

His principal subject was grouse, and he ranked as the world’s greatest expert on these flighty birds. His meisterwerk written with his colleague Robert Moss, called Grouse, sold an ­astonishing 4000 copies inside four months.

Adam’s polymathic skills – field sciences, meteorology, biology, ornithology, zoology, ecology, etymology, skiing, Gaelic, Scots, place names, philosophy, mountaineering, archaeology – stemmed from an ability to read standard situations from different viewpoints. Years ago when I sought directions to his house, he replied with an Ordnance Survey grid reference.

His life-turning episode occurred through Seton ­Gordon’s 1925 classic The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland. The contents transfixed the nine-year-old, and he wrote to the great man, a correspondence and friendship that lasted for 38 years.

Both loved the Cairngorms, and each preferred to term these Arctic plateaux Am Monadh Ruadh (the red mountains) rather than the moniker they bear.

The youngster learned how to read weather, to take to the hills, and to develop a lifelong fascination for ptarmigan, “the most beautiful bird in the world”, for which he devised a method of counting.

Adam Watson never planned his career. His winning of a Carnegie Arctic Scholarship took him to Baffin Island in 1952, while his reputation as a biologist saw him study red grouse with the Nature ­Conservancy and at the ­Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Banchory.

He retired in 1990, but ­continued on an unpaid ­advisory basis and never stopped until hit by illness last year. In retirement, his output on snow patches alone saw produce 16 scientific books and papers on them.

Adam had the great good fortune to marry Jenny Raitt, nicknamed Snowy Owl by Seton Gordon. A postcard from the great man read “Please tell the Snowy Owl that I think she is the perfect mate for a mountain and bird lover. Many congratulations to you both. S.G.”.

Jenny’s first trip with Adam Watson to the hills was to Luibeg Bothy in late 1954,

After their wedding in March 1955, they honeymooned at Luibeg, the house of deerstalker Bob Scott and his wife Helen, lent to the happy ­couple.

When Adam objected to a particular development by the Forestry Commission, he developed his views not only through ecological argument, but surprised his opponents by demolishing the business case put up.

What he termed “critical discussion” formed his keystone, and proved its worth when in 1971 he was called to represent the Crown as expert witness at the fatal accident enquiry following the Cairngorm ­disaster in which six schoolchildren died. His dispassionate evidence drew not only on law, but on science backed by practical experience of the very worst of mountain weather.

Possessed of arrow-straight ethics, this pioneer in methods from science to skiing bore a ready grin, large teeth flashing – or they would have, had they not been masked by an astonishing crop of silver beard.

Fascinated by the place names of Deeside, he researched them, learning Gaelic, and tracking down Mrs Jean Bain in Ardoch above Crathie, last surviving native speaker of Deeside Gaelic.

From this spare time study emerged his magisterial The Place Names of Upper Deeside (with Elizabeth Allan) in 1984. The project was continued by a move into Speyside after the finding of Donnie Smith in Nethy Bridge, last speaker of Strathspey Gaelic. After his Place Names in Much of North-East Scotland (2013), a trilogy emerged with Upper Deeside and the far Highlands (with Ian Murray) in 2015.

His work placed on record names that would otherwise have been lost. Fieldwork and a long interview with 81-year-old Eck Ross in Mains of Blairydrine, uphill beyond Crathes, gained such forgotten gems as Rincairdoch and The Plumpie.

Adam’s time was filled with “next projects”, the continuance of a life of initiatives in noticing, querying, ­wondering, studying, observing, researching, and establishing hypotheses on the way to outcomes.

He was predeceased by Jenny, a notable figure in her own right – she was a mountaineer, ski expert, local councillor and children’s champion – and is survived by their daughter Jenny, son Adam, and two granddaughters.

GORDON CASELY