THE BEN NEVIS OBSERVATORY & WILLIAM BRUCE

9 Dec

I read a piece recently about conditions on the top of Ben Nevis, horrible– deep snow, fog.

Just over 100 years ago there was a meteorological station on the summit of Ben Nevis. This was a wonderful, progressive concept. Meteorologists wanted to understand weather systems better in order to be able to improve forecasting. The observatory was opened in 1883, funded mostly by private donors (supposedly including Queen Victoria) and it worked in synchrony with a second station at Fort William which provided a continuous record for comparison with records taken from the summit. Temperature comparisons showed that the average fall in temperature between Fort William and the summit was 8.5°C and that the mean annual temperature was -0.3°C at the summit and 8.4°C at the low level observatory. The Fort William station was manned by the 25-year-old Robert Mossman, who was to be a long-term associate and friend of William Speirs Bruce

Before the summit building was constructed, a local man, Clement Wragge climbed the peak daily to make meteorological observations in the summer of 1881, getting up at 4.30 each morning to do so. His wife made the simultaneous observations at Fort William. Wragge was not appointed as Superintendent when the observatory opened which must have riled him considerably, the unanimous choice for Superintendent was Robert Traill Omond an expert meteorologist. Omond was succeeded by Angus Rankin who had been an assistant to Wragg. Both Omond and Rankin were to be long term associates of Bruce also.

Bruce started his apprenticeship for his ‘Scotia’ adventure when he joined the summit observatory as Rankin’s assistant in 1895. He had studied medicine in Edinburgh without much enthusiasm until he was offered a position as surgeon/ naturalist on a whaling expedition to the Antarctic. This experience convinced him of the benefits of a purely scientific expedition to Antarctica and on his return, he gave up medical studies to become a full-time naturalist. Ben Nevis gave him valuable training in meteorological work in all conditions – it could be dangerous to make observations when there was a southerly wind, the observatory was situated close to the cliffs on the north of Ben Nevis. In winter, snow tunnels had to be made to get to the instruments.

His association with Ben Nevis continued. When he led the ‘Scotia’ expedition to Antarctica he built a meteorology base and a base for magnetic observations on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. He called the meteorological base Omond House after the first superintendent of Ben Nevis. His friend Robert Mossman (of Fort William) played an important part in both the ‘Scotia’ journey to the South Orkneys and the Laurie Island stations. Bruce was determined his scientific work should continue long term Neither the British Foreign Office not the Admiralty were interested in small South Atlantic islands of no strategic significance, so Bruce arranged (with the acquiescence of the British Authorities) for Argentina to take over the stations. Three Argentine scientists worked on the South Orkney base under the supervision of Robert Mossman (from Fort William). This was a decision that was to have long-term geopolitical consequences unforeseeable in 1904. One of the Argentine scientists acted as postmaster, a position that is reco0gnised internationally as a tool of effective administration. The claim of effective administration continues today.

Sadly the Ben Nevis station closed in 1919 due to lack of funds, but the men working there were to have a long lasting influence

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