Obituary: Dr Adam Watson

Renowned biologist, ecologist and mountaineer Dr Adam Watson passed away earlier this week at the age of 88. Appropriately and fondly known as ‘Mr Cairngorms’, he produced an incredible body of work including 23 books, 287 peer-reviewed scientific papers and 178 technical reports.

Not surprisingly, many tributes have appeared in the national media and on the internet in the last few days. Here’s one of them, penned by some of his collaborators at RSPB Scotland:

Born in Turriff, Aberdeenshire, Dr Adam Watson was unique, and in many ways defined a special era of field natural history. A polymath, he was a master of many things – first class scientist, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, accomplished ski mountaineer, expert on Gaelic place names and the north-east’s history, geography and weather. He was arguably the most knowledgeable Scottish naturalist and ornithologist of the last century. The international authority on the Cairngorms, and on golden eagles (his is the longest study in Europe), ptarmigan, red grouse, dotterels, snow buntings, waders, corn buntings and mountain hares, Adam was closely involved in long-term and detailed studies of all these species and more.

His scientific output was prolific through a long lifetime of work associated with the former Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (now Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), and in his later years he published many books which captured his lifetime’s experience in subjects as diverse as Scotland’s mammals, Scottish mountain snow patches, hill walking and climbing, expeditions to the Arctic and using trained dogs for biological research. A winner of numerous accolades, including the RSPB President’s Award, Adam was a staunch conservationist, fiercely criticising what he saw as bad land management in Scotland. He worked tirelessly against raptor persecution and led the establishment of Scotland’s first Raptor Study Group, in the north-east. He gave freely of his expertise to those supporting the conservation of birds of prey and other species and vulnerable habitats, and was always someone that RSPB staff could ask for context and background when help was needed.

In recent years, we have been proud to work with Adam to assist him in publishing his long-term studies of corn buntings, and over 70 years of surveys of mountain hares, and these papers have contributed immensely to improving the conservation prospects of both these species. His wide-ranging expertise and penetrating thinking is impossible to replace, and we feel his loss deeply as a friend, collaborator and wise critic.

Ian Francis, Hywel Maggs, Allan Perkins & Jeremy Wilson

Adam’s research made the headlines last year when analysis of his long-term scientific data revealed mountain hare numbers on moorlands in the eastern Highlands had declined to less than one per cent of their initial levels (here), a decline linked to the continued mass slaughter of mountain hares on intensively driven grouse moors across the region.

Adam was also a founding member of the North-East Scotland Raptor Study Group and spent a lifetime studying golden eagles (in his own time) since he saw his first pair on Deeside in 1943 when he was just thirteen. His early studies were pioneering and led to a series of scientific papers, somehow produced in and around his hundreds of other commitments. These papers included:

Watson, A. (1957). The breeding success of golden eagles in the north east Highlands. Scottish Naturalist 69: 153-169.

Brown, L.H. and Watson, A. (1964). The golden eagle in relation to its food supply. Ibis 106: 78-100.

Watson, A. (1982). Work on golden eagle and peregrine in north east Scotland in 1981. Scottish Birds 12: 54-56.

Payne, S. and Watson, A. (1983). Work on golden eagle and peregrine in north east Scotland in 1982. Scottish Birds 12: 159-162.

Payne, S. and Watson, A. (1984). Work on golden eagle and peregrine in north east Scotland in 1983. Scottish Birds 13: 24-26.

Watson, A. and Rothery, P. (1986). Regularity and spacing of golden eagle nests used within years in northeast Scotland. Ibis 128: 406-408.

Watson, A., Payne, S. and Rae, R. (1989). Golden eagles: land use and food in northeast Scotland. Ibis 131: 336-348.

Watson, A., Rae, S. and Payne, S. (2012). Mirrored sequences of colonisation and abandonment by pairs of golden eagles. Ornis Fennica 89.

Watson, A. (2013). Golden eagle colonisation of grouse moors in north east Scotland during the Second World War. Scottish Birds 33: 31-33.

Adam was reported to be particularly chuffed last summer when Golden Eagle Species Champion Andy Wightman MSP named a young satellite-tagged eagle in honour of Adam’s influence during Andy’s early years on the hill.

Watch out for a new book on Scottish golden eagles, co-authored by Adam Watson, due out at the end of 2019:

6 thoughts on “Obituary: Dr Adam Watson”

  1. Even at the age of 88 years he was still a thorn in the side of the bodies who traditionally support organised criminal behaviour.
    Few people can hope in their lifetime to be both active supporters of the scientific method, as well as publisher of books and papers. The fact that he did this over such a long period of time means that his works have set a baseline or the whole of the North East and the highlands of Scotland.

  2. Such a fantastic man during his lifetime and we will miss him. It was a pleasure to be in the same venue as him many years ago. An inspiration to those of us who are still actively studying nature in all its forms.

  3. I never knew or met him, but every time I read or saw something about the Cairngorms, there he was. What I most liked was that he seemed to be a genuine highly skilled field natural historian, with a genuine passion. The world will be a poorer place without him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: