Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Visit To Coats Observatory (Paisley, Scotland)

"Of all tools, the telescope is the most sublime"--Ralph Waldo Emerson
There I was, on the first full day of 'Leroy Grumman's much-anticipated weekend visit to Scotland.  In over three decades of sea-faring I had never before been to the land of my ancestors, and given that record it was a very good probability that I would never again have the chance to see the land of Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, and Peter Capaldi !  'Grumman' is a working ship, and I a Mariner not a tourist...the upshot of this is that I was to have one full day--Saturday--free to explore.

Naturally I decided to spend this time wisely and visit one of the three historic public observatories in Scotland.  The fact that this evening the astronomical world would be celebrating International Observe The Moon Night and that Coats was scheduled to be open for this event...well, that just sweetened the deal.

The north side of the Observatory
I caught a morning bus from 'Grumman's mooring at Loch Striven to the pretty town of Dunoon; from there a passenger ferry carried me across the Clyde to Gourock. Within minutes I was aboard a train heading into Glasgow--the trains are precisely timed to arrive and depart Gourock Station within ten minutes of  ferry arrivals and departures!--and less than an hour after leaving the pier in Dunoon I stood before my destination.

The weather was mostly clear, cool and crisp; I had noted that leaves were turning during my bus and train journeys and I was glad I had dressed for chilly weather in my green coat and watch-cap.  Ever hopeful of star-gazing opportunities I had also packed gloves, scarf  and a pair of chemical hand-warmers (the amateur astronomers' version of the "condom-in-the-wallet", if you will!). The clearing skies made me optimistic of at least the chance of being able to observe through the Observatory's instruments!

The main building of Coats Observatory stands behind the Paisley Museum and Library, rising above houses and apartment buildings in solid Victorian style, its copper dome a clear landmark for the astronomical tourist (though it IS sometimes confused with a similarly-shaped structure a few hundred yards away known as the "punchbowl"...a fellow passenger on the train had pointed that building out as Coats only a few minutes before I arrived!).

On the roof!
First entering the museum, I learned that tours of the observatory were being conducted throughout the day and that should the weather hold the dome would be opened for the public between 1900 and 2100 that night.  Of course I joined the very next tour, which was rather lightly-attended; only I and a young business student from the local university met the lady who was to be our guide.  (I privately hoped that there would be more attendees for the Lunar festivities in the evening...I needn't have worried on that score!)

The 10" and 5" Refractors on a (former) Equatorial Mount
My first impression upon entering the Observatory building was--light!  The entire interior of the structure was aglow with warm, directed sunlight--cleverly accomplished through the use of conical "portholes" in the structure's upper reaches and great stained-glass windows in the eastern rooms on the lower floors.  The effect was both practical and charming--somehow the architects who'd designed this building--from the ground-floor entranceway, up the spiral staircase and ramps (intended to facilitate the movement of equipment within the observatory), and even the interior of the dome itself, not a single electric light was burning while all was perfectly illuminated!

No-where was this effect more dramatic than in the dome itself. Here, the massive mounting supports not one but two massive telescopes--plus two small finder 'scopes--in an arrangement out of the age of iron and steam.

I stood beneath them in a state of awe--unlike most vintage instruments you find in observatories these days, the two large refractors seemed unchanged, unaltered or from their original configuration. Original brass and iron soldier on in an age dominated by electronics and digital technology; except for a few wires and connections visible on the mounting these telescopes stand as monuments to their time of glory, when the giant refractor ruled and the giant mirror-based telescopes of today were inconceivable ghosts of a distant future.

5", 10" and Finder Scopes (Note the use of the mounting in Alt/Az mode)
The huge equatorial mount is being used in "Alt/Az" mode today; the polar axis has been locked and observers must move the huge instruments by hand using the bracket extending below the tube.  Their balance is excellent so it takes little effort to do this, but it means that the 'scopes must be continually adjusted to counter Earth's rotation; a real bother during public sessions as I know from long experience!

According to our guide the clock drive was replaced by a motor many years ago, but that too has fallen into disrepair; she seemed resigned to the fact that the great telescopes were fated to be "hand-driven" for a long time.  I'm hoping that she is wrong; there is nothing like a steady, "hands-off" image of the Moon or a planet..

Our guide demonstrates the adjustable observing seat and ladder
Again, the dome was entirely illuminated by sunlight coming in via the "portholes" visible in the exterior photos--I didn't even use a flash for any of these photos!  You can see the multiple shadows and reflections on the instruments and varnished wall in the observatory.

After the tour I went out to dinner and a walk down the high street, but I stayed close as I wanted to be early in-line for the night's lunar session. I also visited the Paisley Abbey, home of the famous "Alien" gargoyle, and wondered (as I'm sure many have...) whether the Abbey's directors were aware of the Giger-esque nature of this Guardian Monster when they contracted it from a Belgian artist...
Call the Colonial Marines...Quick!
Returning to the Observatory at the appointed time I was surprised and pleased to find a considerable line forming; apparently International Observe the Moon night is a big draw in these parts! It's hard to estimate numbers but I suspect that at least one hundred-and-fifty or even two hundred people of every age came to Coats to view the first-quarter Moon which hung low in the south.
Snapshot of the Moon--hand-held!
After a half-hour in line I was finally back in the dome, and had my all-too-brief glimpse at Luna through the 10" refractor.  As our guides had no time to adjust the viewing seat I had to twist uncomfortably to place my eye at the occular.  My appreciation of the view?  Fantastic! Fine detail of the lunar highlands was sliding rapidly past--the effect of Earth's uncorrected rotation--and I was staring into the inky shadows cast by crater walls and central peaks as if looking down from a speeding spacecraft in low orbit.  Just a beautiful, near-perfect image...I could have crouched there for hours, studying the passing lunar scenery!

But there were quite a few people crowded into the dome, awaiting their turns...I said goodbye to the splendid image and climbed down, disappointed to have so little time but also enthused to have been able to see our natural satellite in extreme close-up through this magnificent instrument.

Climbing back down the spiral staircase and leaving the building through the back door I found the Astronomy Curator of the Museum, John, running a somewhat more modern telescope.  He was keeping busy with "overflow" guests, giving them a look at Luna (by now falling rapidly toward the treeline) through an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. I took a brief look through this instrument but soon fell into my old habits of answering questions posed by guests; I guess you can take the Volunteer out of his home country but you can't stop him talking about his favorite topic!

Astronomer John looks on as a guest enjoys the view of Luna
Finally, as the public evening at Coats Observatory drew to a close, I made my farewells to John and his enthusiastic staff and then set off on foot for the railway station.  It had been a great day, full of interesting conversation with people well-met, explorations of the Victorian-era universe, and an enjoyable (if brief) visit to the delightful city of Paisley.  Boarding the train back to Gourock where the punctual ferry waited, I glanced at the setting Moon and reflected on my single free day in Scotland; a day very well spent!

The beautiful 'Hershel' stained-glass window!
Follow the signs...


  1. Very enjoyable read, and glad you managed to visit our humble land. There are so many other observatories in Scotland, Mills Observatory in Dundee, Royal Obsrevatory in Edinburgh, and St Andrews University opens its doors to the public a few times a year.
    Great Read
    David Millar
    amateur stargazer

    1. David, I thank you and all of the great people whom I have met and enjoyed spending time with during the two (short) visits to Scotland. Today we are underway again, but I think I WILL be coming back; as you've pointed out, I've barely scratched the surface!

  2. Thomas, I wished we could have met up after all the "attempted" planning of the previous afternoon. So glad you did manage to see something though. Ive never been to Coats but will try to get there now after reading this..... Here's to your next visit Sir... Shand

    1. Shand, so happy to have finally gotten together last night; even without stars it was a great star party! Thanks for all your help, and my best to Allistair and of course best wishes for your wife's recovery. I'm hoping someday to have the chance to meet HER as well!