Dr Adam Watson has never looked less than his age. It’s the beard that does it of course, and the colour of his hair. In what must be a treasured family photograph of some years ago, Adam’s then 99-year-old father looks younger than his son.
Yet the arithmetic of age tells me that this elder statesman of the outdoor world began his craft the year I was born. He was 13 then, busily noting snow, birds, weather and soils. He has the notebooks, and he still refers to them.
I have always wanted to spend time with Adam, this adopted Deesider with the treble doctorate to whom as a gey raw reporter I first spoke nearly 45 years ago. Recognising the tyro I was, Dr Watson gently took me through the story I was looking for, stating the quotes I needed, speaking at a pace simple enough for my even simpler shorthand.
The subject then was grouse, a topic that has been Adam’s life. He ranks as the world’s greatest expert on these flighty birds, and as if to cement his reputation, his meisterwerk on the subject co-written with his former team-mate Robert Moss called Grouse (what else?) has sold a simply astonishing 4,000 copies inside four months, a figure rarely reached even in fiction, where a print run of 1,500 hardbacks is the norm.
The only surprise in all this would be for someone who disnae ken Adam. The man is a natural communicator, mellifluous voice gently rising and falling in the cadences of his native speech, a man whose use of Scots and Gaelic references enhances meaning. His enthusiasm for the sciences is infectious, and his work comes across in terms that are jargon-free without ever being dumbed down. For today’s television generation, he is a lost treasure. The man should have been fronting exploration programmes, knocking David Dimbleby, David Attenborough and Neil Oliver into veritable cocked hats.
Thus he conveys his calling to fellow scientists, of course, but also to students, gamekeepers, landowners, government groups and chaps like me. Few there are of us who have not heard him on radio and tv since the time he first broadcast back in 1948. What he saysis based on an astonishing published output from the age of 14 to the present that runs to more than 475 items including 22 books, hundreds of scientific papers and reviews and 175 unpublished technical reports.
Perhaps Adam’s polymathic tendencies stem from his ability to read standard situations from a different viewpoint. When I email him for directions to his house, for example, he concisely replies with a grid reference.
He loves conversing, arguing, discoursing and debating “about anything”, cheerful to take a contrary point of view without ever being dogmatic, adding: “It’s part of the business of being a research scientist, and getting used to criticism is part of that task”.
He looks back to his aunt, Elsie S. Rae, one of the first if not the first female reporter on the Press & Journal, as a source of his forming early debating and writing, abilities he now views as essential characteristics of the manner in which science should progress.
When he objected to a particular development by the Forestry Commission, he developed his views not merely through the ecological argument one might expect from such a naturalist: he rather surprised his opponents by demolishing the business and financial case they put up. This “critical discussion”, as he terms it, formed a keystone in his work with academic colleagues and students, proving its dispassionate worth when in 1971 he was called to represent the Crown as expert witness into the fatal accident enquiry following the Cairngorm disaster in which six schoolchildren died. His coolly-delivered evidence drew not only on law, but on science backed by practical experience of the very worst of mountain weather.
So I sit in his home snuggled in the protection of a birch wood by Crathes, a study festooned with pictures of his beloved mountains, ptarmigan and working dogs, and maps of his even more beloved Deeside. Given that his travels have extended to Baffin Island, the pair of Eskimo sealskin boots tied to a shelf isn’t so out of place after all.
It is a cliché to state that his workroom is book-lined; of equal interest to me are the endless rows of labelled cardboard filing boxes, each stuffed with notes, cuttings and pictures. The range of his work is phenomenal even to this layman’s eye, and I am constantly breaking the structure of my planned discussion to rush down byways thrown up by him.
So in no particular order, we touch on Gaelic, the Arctic explorers Peter Freuchen and Knud Rassmussen, rock-climbing, soils, Scots, birds, Kincardineshire, the kirk, whalers, Turriff, use of the definite article, and the nomenclature of an Iron Age fort in Renfrewshire.
The character of the man? Anyone in Aberdeenshire will relate the gimlet ee, the arrow straight ethics, the pioneer in methods from science to skiing. He bears a ready grin, large teeth flashing – or they would flash if they were not masked by such an astonishing crop of silver beard. Along with his thatch, it once was flame red, but then you don’t get to reach your 79th year entirely untouched by age.
Turriff-born Adam Watson, BSc, PhD, DSc, DUniv, CBiol, FIBiol, FArcticINorthAmerica, FRSE, FCEH, AFRMetSoc, bears more letters after his name than many us of have in our names. His academic record reads like one long stravaig through the halls of academia. So it is – as the scholarships, international awards, fellowships of this dux of Turriff Senior Secondary School confirm; except that he is also a man of the mountains, a pioneer along with the likes of Tom Weir of ski mountaineering and a follower of Pat Baird on the ascent of Mitre Ridge on Beinn a’Bhuird.
If I have to guess at a single word that is Adam’s driving force, it is ‘curiosity’. He himself confesses to an inquisitiveness that caused him to pry into every aspect of his environment as far back as he remembers. In 1937 when he was seven years old, his father – a Turriff solicitor prosperous enough to own a car – took Adam to Bennachie where on the lower slopes, the nickum spotted what in later years he recognised as an example of soil erosion. The following year on summer holiday in Ballater, he saw snow on Beinn a’Bhuird, a sighting that started a lifetime interest in snow and snow patches.
He is a self-confessed “awkward bugger”, someone who from early age questioned nature, words and especially “well-known facts”. He wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out, to state that he did not necessarily believe what folk said at school, in books, in the kirk. Put off school for nine months in his early teens to recover from empyema, he read, he philosophised, he thought – from which came two upshots: his schoolwork did not suffer a jot; and his views on the spirit were a factor which caused his father, a kirk elder, to depart the church.
Possibly his greatest life-turning episode occurred when he picked up a copy of Seton Gordon’s 1925 classic The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland. What was between the covers transfixed the boy, these stories of hills, people, wildlife, snow and rocks. So he took two actions: he read everything available by Seton Gordon on the shelves of the library in Turra, and at age nine, he wrote to the great man, a correspondence that lasted 38 years.
The book that changed his life saw Adam four years later aged 13 cycling to Crathie to meet his hero, “who wasn’t as impressive as his book”, but as Adam is quick to add, “Good writing transforms lives”. The lifetime friendship between the two was sealed from that meeting when “Seton Gordon treated me as an adult”.
The enthusiasm of his mentor started Adam aged 13 on a study of eagles that continues to this day, and “the urge to explore”. The youngster learned how to take to the hills on his own, how to read the weather, and what it meant to develop a lifelong fascination for ptarmigan, “the most beautiful bird in the world”, for which Adam devised a method of counting.
A surprise for me is to learn that Adam never planned his career. His winning of a Carnegie Arctic Scholarship took him by McGill University in Montreal to Baffin Island (“the most fascinating mountains I’ve ever seen”); while his reputation as a biologist saw him 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 advisory basis. In truth, he never stopped.
The names of Watson and the Cairngorms are inextricably connected. He is the original guru on the UK’s Arctic plateaux of what he might prefer to call Am Monadh Ruadh (the red mountains) rather the moniker they bear. If anyone comes close to knowing every rock and outcrop, it’s this man.
In his tracking of paths and ptarmigan since the last war, he has come to know these mountains with an intimacy that reflects simply astonishing ground knowledge of the largest mountain range in Scotland. Read his SMC District Guide The Cairngorms as I did outside my tent one summer evening in 1985, and discover how closely he reads the terrain. I’m by a tiny lochan, the ground marked curiously by little knolls. Watson’s wisdom relates that this is Loch nan Cnapan, the loch of the knolls, and that the topographical placename means small loch of the knolls.
The fact that the information even comes with a guide to Gaelic pronunciation (lochan na craa-pan) is a reflection of the man. He can’t help but communicate – English, Scots, Pictish and Gaelic. Fascinated by the placenames of Deeside, he decided to research and write them up. This led to learning the Gaelic language, and picking up an O-grade on the way) as well as tracking down Mrs Jean Bain in Ardoch above Crathie, last surviving native speaker of the very distinctive 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 at The Lurg, Nethy Bridge, last speaker of Strathspey Gaelic, to complete a treatise on Donnie’s Speyside placenames, with matters now moving on the etymology of placenames in Angus and Kincardineshire.
Thus I learn that Little Barras, an ancestral connection of mine in the Mearns, comes from a Scots term for enclosure, an outwork forming the edges of a castle or homestead, and that 700-foot Bruxie overlooking the place stems from the Gaelic bruach, a bank, with the addition of the Scots plural s and ie to denote the diminutive familiar.
A major spin-off within Adam’s placename work has been the discovery and recording of placenames that would otherwise have been lost. It was 81-year-old Eck Ross in Mains of Blairydrine up on the hill from Crathes from whom Adam gained such gems of local placenames as Rincairdoch and The Plumpie. The latter is a trio of birch trees filling the gushet at the junction of the Slug Road and the turn-off to Quithelhead two miles up the hill from Durris Bridge, with plumpie meaning a clump.
His next project? Adam’s time is filled with “next projects”, all of which are the continuances of a life of initiatives in noticing, querying, wondering, studying, observing, researching, and establishing hypotheses on the way to outcomes. Would that the rest of us had the same commitment to our callings as does one of Scotland’s greatest living scientists.
Gordon Casely reflects that he has one of the best jobs in existence, being paid to go to meet folk like Dr Adam Watson.Tweet
This is an article from the March 2009 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.