Every morning at nine o’clock, Susan MacColl puts on her wellies and heads into her garden to measure the rain. “Sometimes I do forget, and it will be almost lunchtime and suddenly I’ll jump up and shout, ‘oh no, I’ve forgotten to do the rain’,” smiles the 73-year-old from Dunlop in Ayrshire.

“But it is not the end of the world. You just have to make a note of it, and it’s also good to include information about things like thunderstorms, or whether the showers were heavy, or just drizzle. It all helps.”

Susan is one of 134 rainfall observers who volunteer their time to help SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) and the Met Office gather important data in the fight against climate change.


The data provided by this hardy network of citizen scientists helps to accurately record the rainfall patterns across Scotland, allowing informed decisions on water management, flood risk management and long term climate research as well as informing industry, agriculture and infrastructure development.

It is by no means a new project – some of the observers have received awards for providing data for 30 years or more (the longest serving started in 1963) and one volunteer in Doonholm in Ayrshire is continuing a family hobby which started in 1898.

There are observer gauges all over the country – the furthest north is in Shetland; the highest (279 metres) is at Gladhouse Reservoir in Mid Lothian. Susan’s late brother Alasdair was fascinated by the weather. “When he was nine, he was given a gift of a toy rainfall gauge and he loved it,” she recalls. “Every day, he would run out into the garden and measure the rain.

Eventually, my father wrote to the Met Office to see if he could record things a little more officially, and they sent out some equipment. “I can still see Alasdair, rushing out each morning and writing down the measurements in his big ledger. After he left home, my father, Archie, kept it going, and after he died and I moved back here, to my childhood home, I decided to keep it going too.”


Susan adds: “Alasdair went on to become a meteorologist, and he taught me a lot about cloud structures. I want to keep reading the gauge because it provides important information which can help people.”

SEPA has a further 300 automated rainfall gauges collecting data around the country.

Head of hydrometry Mark Franklin explains: “The data we receive has a number of uses. It allows river flow modelling, so SEPA can assess flood risk and inform development. River flow modelling helps to inform the licensing of water abstraction for industry such as whisky distilling, crop irrigation, public supply and hydroelectric generation. It also feeds into weather forecasting by calibrating weather prediction models and ground proofing rainfall radar.”

Rainfall data is also helping to detect evolving trends from climate change, an area which is becoming increasingly important in the face of the enormous scale of environmental challenge facing humanity.

Weather patterns in Scotland are changing, says Mark. “Rainfall is just part of the picture, but in general, we are looking at wetter and warmer winters, and hotter and drier summers,” he says. “The main change is that rainfall events are becoming more extreme – shorter, snapper periods like the thunderstorms and heavy rain we have experienced over the past couple of weeks, for example. These will become the norm.

HeraldScotland: The Met Office issued a second day of weather warnings earlier this monthThe Met Office issued a second day of weather warnings earlier this month

“The west coast of Scotland is where we would expect to see the impact of climate change sooner – our weather pushes in from the west, so the strongest signals will be evident there over the next few years and ironically, these are some of the areas – including the Western Isles, Highlands, Caithness and Dumfries and Galloway, which are sparse in terms of rainfall observer numbers. Anyone wanting to start collecting data in those areas would be worth their weight in gold.”

A new website and app are part of a bid to recruit younger observers. SEPA hydrologist Grant Kennedy explains: “We are also hoping to increase the number of schools we work with across Scotland. The potential for maths and science is huge and any teacher with imagination could use the programme as part of the curriculum. It’s vital to get the next generation involved.”

HeraldScotland: To read Business HQ online click aboveTo read Business HQ online click above

Part of Grant’s remit is to co-ordinate the network of rainfall observers. “They are incredibly valuable,” he says. "They play an important role for us. Observers also undertook extra sampling to monitor volcanic ash fallout after Icelandic eruptions in 2011 and 2014, when there was concern about contamination to the land.”

SEPA and the Met Office visit the observers regularly. “It’s great to be able to get out and meet them – we visit each of them once a year,” adds Grant. “My mum, Margaret, has a gauge now too at her home in Kelso. Many retirees enjoy the routine of getting up early to do something because it breaks up the day. “There are many potential positive mental health benefits to being a rainfall observer as it encourages people to get outdoors with a positive focus every day.”

Susan MacColl agrees. “I find it a reassuring thing to do,” she says. “Our family has been recording the rain since the early 1950s, so I want to keep it going  it is just part of my life.”

For more information, go to envscot-csportal.org.uk/rainfallobs




The Herald’s Climate for Change initiative supports efforts being made by the Scottish Government with key organisations and campaign partners. Throughout the year we will provide a forum in The Herald newspaper, online at herald.scotland.com and in Business HQ magazine, covering news and significant developments in this increasingly crucial area.

If you are interested in contributing editorially or interested in becoming a Climate for Change partner, please contact Stephen McTaggart on 0141 302 6137 or email stephen.mctaggart@heraldandtimes.co.uk