Forbes, at home in The Observatory in 1929
picture thought to have been taken by F Henderson

The story of The Observatory

The Observatory was built in about 1906 by Professor George Forbes, an outstanding scientist, inventor and engineer. He was a former Professor of Natural Philosophy at Anderson’s University, Glasgow (the forerunner of the University of Strathclyde), a pioneer of hydro-electric power, an electrical engineer, war correspondent, and astronomer. The author of many books and articles, he supervised the first attempts to generate electricity from the power of Niagara Falls. In 1874 Forbes led a British expedition to Hawaii to observe the transit of Venus. He returned to Scotland via Peking and St Petersburg, crossing the Gobi Desert and Siberia in 1875 when he was just 25, and such journeys were almost unheard of.

As Professor of Natural Philosophy he invented the carbon brush, a vital component of dynamos to this day. It was one of many inventions – another was range-finding binocular and he developed a gunsight that was used by the Royal Navy during World War One.

As a child, Forbes holidayed in Pitlochry with his parents and in 1878 chose the village (at it then was) as the site for an extensive series of experiments to determine the speed at which light travels (these were published by the Royal Society in 1881). He also recognised the astronomical benefits of the Pitlochry’s dark skies, particularly to the west. It is probably around this time that he befriended local land owners the Butters, who quarter of a century later allowed him to use a knoll of their land that stood above the river Tummel for his unusual home.

There he built a simple wooden structure, which he liked to call ‘The Shed’, with a large area that he could use as a study and living quarters downstairs and a platform observatory on the roof. He moved his library of 4,000 books in and lived out most the rest of his days there – watching the stars and writing a dozen more books – some scholarly and others intended to introduce young people to the delights of astronomy. The picture above, which is from the St Andrews’ University Archive, shows Forbes at home in The Shed. The bookshelves are long gone, likewise the late Victorian furniture, but the building is recognisably the same.

Forbes’ reasons for choosing the spot are clear today. His ‘Shed’ is on a steeply banked hillock. Since Forbes’ time, the river has been dammed and now a wide expanse of loch stands before the house – it is used to generate electricity by a means that still utilises the technology Forbes helped to develop. Beyond the loch, looking due west, is an uninterrupted view of Cammoch Hill and Meall a’Charra.

And although Pitlochry has grown considerably since then – it was officially designated a ‘town’ in 1947 – the Observatory is still remarkably secluded. The railway line forms the western boundary for most of the centre of the town. Because the Observatory is on the other side of the tracks, there has been very little development around it.

When Forbes died in 1936 (his obituary in Nature is here) his priceless books became part of the library at St Andrews University, of which his father, James Forbes, had been vice chancellor. But he was by no means the only remarkable resident the Observatory has known.

Forbes willed his house to his niece, Dame Katherine Jane Trefusis-Forbes. During World War One she served as a member of Women’s Volunteer Reserve. As Britain re-armed again towards the end of the 1930s she was picked out to help develop the women’s armed forces. And when the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was established in 1939, she was appointed its first director, with the rank Air Chief Commander. In this role she undertook tours of duty in North America and the Far East.

During this time the Observatory was used to provide holiday respite for senior British army officers. Some locals believe that Field Marshall Montgomery was among the war-time residents but no conclusive proof of this has yet been found.

At the end of the war Dame Katherine happily retired to a more peaceful life in Pitlochry, and initiated a programme of substantial improvements. Two bedrooms were added to the original structure, mains plumbing was installed and a proper kitchen created. She even had built an additional room in which her maid could stay – it stood where the ‘new’ bedroom is now.

Trefusis-Forbes remained unmarried until she was 67 when she accepted the proposal of Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, the Brechin-born inventor of radar. The couple lived out their last years together at The Observatory until they died in the mid-1970s.

The Observatory stood unused for several years but was eventually purchased in 1980 by Ann Stewart.

A native of Pitlochry, she knew of the Observatory’s existence only because her father had installed its plumbing. She and her partner, the architect Michael Willis, undertook a programme of restoration and further modernisation whilst retaining the essential character of the property. This included the installation of a wood-burning stove, central heating and substantial insulation. After enjoying the Observatory for 18 years, she sold it to me in the late 1990s.

Tim Dawson