Saving Scotland's oldest astronomical observatory and its deep link to Australia

A campaign is underway to save Scotland’s oldest surviving astronomical observatory which was built by a Scottish military leader who gave his name to a major city in Australia.

An early 19th Century drawing of the Brisbane Observatory near Largs. PIC: Brisbane Observatory Trust.
An early 19th Century drawing of the Brisbane Observatory near Largs. PIC: Brisbane Observatory Trust.

Brisbane Observatory near Largs was built by General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane in the early 1800s to indulge his passion for the stars which was developed after a ship he commandeered in the West Indies lost course and came close to wrecking following a navigational error.

Brisbane served in the Napoleonic Wars and was considered by the Duke of Wellington to be one of the best generals in his Army. Later, he was given the position of Governor General of New South Wales in 1821.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He is still regarded in Australia for his work in improving drainage and water supply to a settlement built on swamp land with it later given his name – Brisbane. Today, he is perhaps better remembered ‘down under’ than in his home country with work to save the remains of the observatory in his home town considered a fitting tribute to the Scot.

The observatory as it stands today. PIC: Brisbane Observatory Trust.

Now, the Brisbane Observatory Trust has been awarded £23,000 from Historic Environment Scotland to make safe the remains of the building and preserve it as a monument to the man who built it.

Martin Maiden, of the Brisbane Observatory Trust, said the group was “elated” to be awarded the money.

Read More

Read More
10 best places to experience 'dark skies' in Scotland

He said: “We get a lot of people from Australia coming to Largs given the connections to Brisbane and we really want to be able to show them the observatory. At the moment we have a bit of a scattered trail of places linked to him.

"Brisbane’s story is so fascinating and people are captivated by it. But locally, it is pretty much unknown. It is amazing how much of it has been lost.”

Brisbane built the observatory on a hill at the back of Brisbane House, his family home. He used new precision instruments to determine star positions and to improve the accuracy of the longitude and latitude measurements necessary for safe navigation.

It was one of the first specialist positional astronomy observatories, establishing a lead that others would follow.

Today, only three walls of the observatory remain, with the house now demolished.

Mr Maiden said the money would help secure the remaining structure, which is now a B-listed building, and fund an archaeological dig on the site.

The trust hope to turn the remains into a fitting monument for Brisbane, who also set up a school for boys – and, unusually for the time, girls – which in time became the Stevenson Institute and then Largs Academy.

He also built three large meridian markers to preserve the alignment of three principal instruments housed in his observatory. These rare markers still stand in the centre of Largs where they are known as the ‘Three Sisters’.

The trust still has to find another £25,000 or so to fund the next stage of the work with a crowdfunding campaign soon to be launched.

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.