Ecologist, mountaineer and scientist

Born: April 13, 1930;

Died: January 23, 2019

DR ADAM Watson, who has died aged 88, was one of Scotland’s greatest ecologists who became determined on a life of science based on the outdoors when, at age nine, he read Seton Gordon’s 1925 book The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland. Born in Turriff, Aberdeenshire, where his father was a solicitor, from that point on he wanted to be only in upper Deeside and the Cairngorms.

He once wrote of his feelings for the area: “This was an intense persistence, love being the only word to describe it”. And so he started mountaineering at 12, making observations of the birds of the hill such as eagles and ptarmigan.

Such was the young Watson’s growing renown that the great Scots mountaineer Lt-Col Patrick Baird took Adam as his zoologist on the 1953 expedition to Baffin Island in Canada by the Arctic Institute of North America (of which he became a fellow). The pair had met during the time Adam studied ptarmigan on Derry Cairngorm for a PhD, later winning a Carnegie Arctic Scholarship from McGill University in Montreal. “Baffin Island,” Dr Watson told me, “had the most fascinating mountains I’ve ever seen”.

His time on Baffin included dog sledding with Inuit hunters. Able on the moothie, he noticed that when he played traditional Scots music, the Inuit danced reels introduced by early Scots whalers.

Adam Watson lived a life based utterly on research, with a particular bent for demolishing “well-known facts”. “Facts are not all that great in themselves unless they back a hypothesis,” he would say.

When he embarked on what became several magisterial volumes of place names, he eschewed a path of dissecting a name through its root language, embarking instead on learning Gaelic, then undertaking fieldwork by conversing with local people and asking them the names of features, fields, hills, houses and landscape. He gained the confidence of his informants by speaking in his native Scots.

Researching the place names of Deeside led to his tracking down Mrs Jean Bain in Crathie, the last surviving native speaker of Deeside Gaelic. Thus emerged The Place Names of Upper Deeside (with Elizabeth Allan) in 1984. The project continued into Speyside after discovering Donnie Smith in Nethy Bridge, the last speaker of Strathspey Gaelic.

With Ian Murray, Dr Watson moved in the farther reaches of Deeside with Place Name Discoveries – Upper Deeside and the Far Highland (2015). Two years previously, he completed his solo work on place names in Angus and Kincardineshire.

His scorn for the anglicisation of place names (led, he said, by the Ordnance Survey from 1840) equalled his feelings for the replacement by inabootcomers of local names, citing “the once South Cromlet, now pretentiously styled Green Acres”.

He logged all of his journeys, skiing the Lairig Ghru in deep snow from Coylumbridge to Luibeg in January 1949 (“one of the hardest journeys…..down to one mile per hour most of the way to the summit"). Two years later, he skied the same 16 miles inside four hours.

Three years ago at 85, he skied from his house down to the Dee, emailing me that day: “Excellent snow, a fine 4-5 mph without any effort, easier than walking”.

Dr Watson’s life scientific centred on grouse, his magnum opus on the subject, co-written with Robert Moss called Grouse, proving a runaway bestseller.

A natural communicator in speech or the written word – his first broadcast was back in 1948 – Dr Watson’s enthusiasm for the sciences was never less than infectious, and he described his work in simple terms without resorting either to jargon or dumbing down. What made him loved by editors was his ability to read standard situations from a different viewpoint.

His polymathic abilities cut across meteorology, biology, ornithology, zoology, ecology, etymology, skiing, languages, place names, philosophy, mountaineering and archaeology. Thus his published output from the age of 14 runs to an astonishing 475 items including 22 books, hundreds of scientific papers and reviews and 175 unpublished technical reports.

He pointed to his love of conversation, argument, debate and discourse as stemming from "the business of being a research scientist. Getting used to criticism is part of that task”. He would debate “about anything”, cheerfully taking a contrary point of view without being dogmatic.

What he termed critical discussion proved its dispassionate worth when in 1971 he was called to represent the Crown as expert witness at the fatal accident enquiry following the Cairngorm disaster in which six schoolchildren died. His quiet evidence drew not only on law, but on science backed by practical experience of the very worst of mountain weather.

He surprised the Forestry Commission when he successfully opposed a particular development not merely on the expected ecological argument, but by astute demolition of the business case.

Dux of Turriff Senior Secondary School and educated at Aberdeen University, Adam Watson gained three doctorates and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as well as the bearer of a host of post-nominals.

The study snuggled in his Crathes home was festooned with pictures of his beloved mountains, ptarmigan, working dogs, and maps of his even more beloved Deeside, plus his Eskimo sealskin boots from Baffin 1953. Rows of labelled cardboard filing boxes stuffed with notes, cuttings and pictures covered the phenomenal range of his life’s work.

Dr Watson died after a short illness. He was predeceased by his wife Jenny in 2015, and is survived by their children Jenny and Adam, and two granddaughters.