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astromonical observatories in Scotland

Close To Heaven

From a magnificent 19th-century mechanical recreation of the universe
at the Kelvingrove Museum to Britain's first Dark Sky Park in the Galloway
Forest, Scotland's embrace of the cosmos is widespread.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

When John Fulton's Grand Orrery first went on display in the 1830s, it must have seemed, as its creator's near contemporary, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, might have put it, "a miracle of rare device." To 21st-century eyes it rather resembles a steampunk space probe, with its gleaming brass casing and radiating arms giving it a diameter of up to three metres (nearly ten feet), each arm bearing at its tip a miniature planet poised on little gear wheels, many of them encircled by their moons.

Orreries were working models of the Solar System. As their clockwork mechanism was cranked, hundreds of intricate gears and other moving parts would rotate the planets and lesser satellites around a central Sun, giving 18th- and 19th-century audiences a first, awe-inspiring insight into the cosmos.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Fulton's Grand Orrery, however, was that when its maker left his village school in Fenwick, Ayrshire, at the age of 13, he seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his father as a soutar, or shoemaker. John Fulton, however, was a remarkable youth growing up in a remarkable village. Fenwick had come through a turbulent but also innovative history, torn by the vicious Covenanting Wars of the 17th century, but also giving rise to a community of free-thinking weavers, who established the world's first cooperative society, which in 1808 established a subscription library as part of its ethos of "education, training and information" for the community.

Thus, the apprentice cobbler was able to teach himself astronomy, mathematics, metal-turning and the other skills required to build three orreries, of which this was the most sophisticated, winning a silver medal from the Society of the Arts of Scotland. Displayed in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum (and that museum's predecessor) for the past century and a half, the orrery was recently reinstated in its original display case following refurbishment. Its planets have gone about their juddery clockwork courses at the behest of generations of schoolchildren (this writer included), who used to be able to activate the orrery via an electric motor.

Science has, of course, moved on at an unimaginable rate -- even in Fulton's day, planetary orreries had been manufactured since the beginning of the 18th century. I now stand at Edinburgh's Blackford Hill, where history and cutting-edge technology meet. Before me is the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE), its octagonal towers surmounted by drum-like telescope housings cutting a distinctive landmark. The site may give wonderful views across Edinburgh to the Firth of Forth, but urban light pollution ensures that it has long been unfit as far as serious space observation is concerned. Today, however, the Royal Observatory develops state-of-the-art technology that, as one member of staff says, "will make headlines and rewrite textbooks."

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2017 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © J. Beaman Photography