British Observatories


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Mills Observatory, Balgay Hill, Dundee

Dundee from Newport

Balgay hill is one of the two long-extinct volcanic hills (actually, volcanic plugs, as at Castle Rock, Edinburgh, and Berwick Law, North Berwick) in Dundee - pictured on the left in this view from across the river Tay. It is the site of the only fully public observatory in Britain, run by a curator working for the town council (Harry Ford, when I first started going there in the early 1970s) and home to Dundee Astronomical Society. See here for more details.

Mills Observatory

The main dome houses a 10-inch Cooke refractor, dating back to approximately 1875 - a fine instrument for planetary and lunar observations. The telescope was obtained from St. Andrews in exchange for an 18-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, the precursor to the Gregory. There is also a patio where smaller telescopes can be arrayed for observing sessions, and a small planetarium, built by Harry Ford.

The observatory building

The River Tay and the road bridge from the Observatory patio


St. Andrews University Observatory

The University Observatory

The scene of many long, cold observing sessions: the V-shaped building used to hold the astronomy department (and libraries with and without tables); the building with 2 domes housed the Nishimura 16-inch reflector and a 6-inch (5-inch?) refractor; the largest dome houses the 39-inch James Gregory telescope; and the small, single dome is a recent interloper, the Twin. Unfortunately, the Stibbsian Universe no longer exists, and the department has been subsumed into the Physics department. No more Saturday morning lectures, with doughnuts and HP 33E calculators. See this link for the modern department.

The James Gregory

The 39-inch Gregory, until the Isaac Newton telescope was built, the largest working telescope inh the UK - in fact, since the INT has now moved to La Palma, it probably has regained that title. Mainly used for photography in my days - now converted to CCDs

The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

The domes of ROE, with Salisbury Crags in the background

Edinburgh's University department is situated on Blackford Hill, at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. Founded in the 1820s, during the period of the Scots enlightenment, ROE was originally sited on Calton Hill, just above Princes street (and the new Scots parliament). See here for a short description of the City Observatory. In the 1880s, the Royal Observatory inherited several telescopes from the Earl of Crawford's observatory at Dun Echt - after David Gill had moved from Dun Echt to the Cape of Good Hope. One of the conditions of the transfer was that the Observatory would move to a better site, so ROE moved from the (increasingly smoggy) City Centre to Blackford Hill, about 2 miles south.

Aurora over the City Observatory, by Jamie Shephard

ROE by night

As this picture shows, Blackford Hill doesn't really qualify as a dark site nowadays. However, the Observatory has housed the headquarters of several overseas operations: the UK Schmidt, at Siding Spring Observatory; the UK Infrared telescope (UKIRT) and the James Clerk Maxwell sub-millimetre telescope, both on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Even with the transfer of UKST to AAO, the plate library is still housed at ROE. In recent years, ROE won the battle of the Royals, and now houses the Astronomy Technology Centre. See here for a guide to the modern observatory.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory

Herstmonceux castle

Founded in 1675, RGO spent some 270 years at Greenwich before being moved to a site in Sussex, at Herstmonceux Castle in 1948. Rumour has it that the site (which is pretty close to being below sea level, a novel idea for an observatory) was chosen based partly on the sunshine records being kept by the town clerk in nearby Bexhill (Florida for the english). It appears that that clerk was intent on enhancing tourism by fixing those records. Herstmonceux castle is an old site - but contrary to what you may read on the web, the actual building dates almost entire from the end of last century.

Part of the equatorial group

During the 1970s and 1980s, RGO was responsible for the construction and instrumentation of what was originally known as the Northern Hemisphere Observatory, on La Palma. Once LPO (as it now is) became self-sufficient and self-governing, RGO's purpose became somewhat diffuse..... RGO moved from Herstmonceux to an anonymous office building next to IOA in Cambridge in 1987-90, as part of the SERC `rationalisation' of resources. RGO lost the battle of the Observatories, and was closed in October 1998 and the title transferred back to the original Greenwich establishment. See here for a description of the current scientific activities at Herstmonceux
see here for pictures of the grounds, and some dubious history
see here for some information on the current Greenwich (real Greenwich) Observatory
see here for its demise. At present, this is all that's left of RGO.

La Palma Observatory

The telescopes on La Palma

La Palma Observatory, Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, on the island of La Palma in the Canaries. From left to right, the domes enclose the 4.2-metre William Herschel Telescope, the 2.5-metre Isaac Newton telescope (which used to be at herstmonceux - although with a different, slightly smaller mirror), the Jacobus Kapteyn 1-metre, and the solar telescope.