Dr Adam Watson (1930–2019)

Adam Watson at the Linn o’ Dee, September 2016 (Photo by Iain Cameron)

A number of years ago, whilst we were conducting the annual July 1st snow survey at Glenshee ski centre, I asked Adam what his favourite bird call was. With his almost unparalleled experience of fauna in upland Scotland and similar arctic environments, I expected something a bit more exotic than the answer he gave. Perhaps the snowy owl, I thought, or the metallic drum of the snipe? Maybe even the evocative call of the peewit as it swoops over the Aberdeenshire farmland?

‘I like the ptarmigan.’ was his reply.

No-one who knew Adam will be surprised by this answer. I shouldn’t have been. But it so was typical of the man. Understated and considered, his reply was — in many ways — a mirror image of his character.

I first contacted Adam in 2005, after having read a piece he had written about snow patches in Glen Coe. His email address was at the bottom of the text, and I thought he might be interested to learn of my diary entry for 1993, which ran contrary to the information he had presented. I was, of course, wary of doing so. He was a well-known Scottish scientist of immense standing and respect. Here was I, a nobody, who had left school at 16 and became an electrician, without an academic bone in my body. However, as I came to understand, our interest in patches of snow that clung on to the shady recesses of Scotland’s highest hills was something that united us in fascination, bemusement and wonder. It transpired that he, like me, became hooked by this esoteric area of study as a child. Anyway, I needn’t have worried. In his effusive reply he thanked me for my note, and asked if I had any observations for that year, and any others that I might have. I was thrilled! He was apparently completely unconcerned by my lack of academic background. ‘Enthusiasm is the most important characteristic a person can have in the field of study, Iain.’, he told me. It was a word I heard him use many times.

31 May 2009. Adam hands me a road-kill mountain hare for examination. His dog Henry would later enjoy this for supper. (Photo Jamie Johnson)

Over the course of a normal person’s life you might meet a few people who you really rate. People, for whatever reason, whose knowledge seems almost limitless, or whose grasp of a subject, or subjects, is boundless. Years — decades — of study and immersion have generally been spent in pursuit of this knowledge. But that will only be part of it. When they speak to you about their subjects they generally do so with an accompanying passion and elucidation that few others can.

Folk like these are rare. In my life I can count them on one hand, and probably actually on three fingers. Attie McKechnie from Bunessan on the Isle of Mull was such a man. A Gaelic seanachaidh in the truest sense of that wonderful word. Adam was another. And some. In the field of outdoor studies on the high Scottish landscape he was virtually peerless. Especially in his beloved Cairngorms. It is doubtful that any one person has known as much as he did on the flora, fauna, people, place-names, and ecology of this range, and nor is there ever likely to be one in the future. It is little of an exaggeration to say that he spent his formative years in the Cairngorms. The list of people he met, befriended and spent time with there during the course of his life, whether walking, climbing or skiing, reads like a Who’s Who of the great-and-the-good of the Scottish outdoor world. Folk like Tom Weir, Bob Scott, Tom Patey, Mac Smith, Seton Gordon. The list goes on.

As much as spending time in Adam’s company was informative, it was also good fun. He had a child-like quality of mischief in some of his dealings with me, and with others. Well do I remember sitting having lunch with him and his beloved wife, Jenny (who died in 2016), and being regaled with possibly the best story I had ever heard. (The tale involved a dispute between Prince Charles and Gordon of Abergeldie, with the latter telling the former to remove himself from his land, using very anglo-saxon language. But that’s a story for another day.) Another episode I treasure the memory of was during the winter of 2010. He and I went to Arbuthnott kirk near Stonehaven to see the grave, and childhood home, of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, author of the classic Sunset Song novel. The graveyard was like an ice-rink. Literally. Water had poured down an adjacent embankment onto the grass and froze solid. We entered the church grounds and had to hold each other up, laughing as we slid over to where Grassic Gibbon was buried. We both agreed our respective choice of footwear was inappropriate for the conditions. He commented that it would be ironic if we were to slip and meet our ends in a graveyard.

One of Adam’s biggest assets, though, was his generosity of spirit and his patience. He never criticised people when they misspelt something, or got a pronunciation wrong. This generosity was very evident in 2011, when he asked me to become lead author of the annual snow patch that he had written every year since 1995, and which appeared in the Royal Meteorological Society’s Weather journal. Perhaps aware that he wasn’t going to be able to do it forever, he suggested I had a bash. I recall my first attempt. It was returned with so much red pen that I thought maybe I wasn’t cut out for it. Adam wouldn’t hear any of this, and encouraged me with what words to use (and, crucially, what words I had used too often, or incorrectly). Fortunately, as each year went on the red penning became less, to the point nowadays where only minor amendments are needed. It makes me immensely sad now to think that I shall never get another opportunity to send Adam the draft for his comment. As of today (26 January), the paper for 2018 has been submitted, with Adam as co-author. It will be the last thing that is published with his name on it. I am proud that my name will stand alongside his.

Obituarists will write far more eloquently than I could ever do on subjects like Adam’s academic output, and what his vast achievements were. Memories like mine, written by people who knew or who were influenced by him, are deeply personal and — hopefully — give a bit more colour. There is so much more I and others could write about a life so well lived. So much, in fact, that it would be hard to know when to stop.

Adam Watson was an inspiration. He will be mourned by his family, and by the Scottish scientific community. All lovers of the Scottish outdoors are in his debt. I shall miss him.

The last time I saw Adam, in December 2018. Mick Marquis (left), Adam and I, discussing snow patch data, as well as birds and hill tracks.

Postscript. Adam loathed statues. When I asked him what he thought if someone suggested putting up one of him, he said he hoped that it would never happen, and that if it should I have his permission to tear it down!