Adam Watson


Most nations believe it is in the national interest to conserve a small portion of land that is outstanding for landscape and wildlife, including natural woods. They do so for the man in the street who likes going there or might in the future.

– Adam Watson

In my introduction to gathering I compared Adam Watson’s name collections with the great contribution to Scottish folk-culture in the 20th century – I was thinking, in particular, of Hamish Henderson, whose collecting work focused on the agricultural working classes and travellers, or tinkler-gypsies as he sometimes referred to them. In his recollections of his collecting tours in the North-east he sketches the depth of knowledge he encountered in folk like Willie Mathieson, an old farm servant who spent his life collecting folk songs from local ploughmen, and who could discuss the history of the ballads and ‘their different weys’, quoting ‘what Gavin thocht aboot it’ – the great collector, Gavin Greig – and shedding tears when he sang of Barabara Allen’s ‘callous cruelty to her lover on his death-bed.’

Adam and Hamish both surveyed the ancient past as it lived on in the mouths of living people. Tongues that rolled around old dialects were preserved and analysed using the modern technology of the tape-recorder, for speech is the key to understanding names in Deeside Gaelic, and unlocking the mysteries of oral song creation. In a later post I will discuss some of the hybrid names which bear the mark of this cross-fertilization, as place-names (or songs) pass between languages, between literatures – embracing the map into that category – and between speech and print. Print and maps are ‘improving’ instruments; every improvement, every standardisation, flattens the patina of local accents, delineates views, and, yes, ‘corrects’ local misunderstandings – for mistakes contain as much knowledge as facts. The informants that they ‘discovered’ were pathways to knowledge that formal establishments of information frequently overlook, most important of all, for Adam, Jean Bain, the last speaker of Deeside Gaelic – her importance has echoes of Jeannie Robertson’s for Hamish, who described her home in Aberdeen’s Gallowgate as ‘a veritable ceilidh house for the neighbours’, some of whom were still living the semi-nomadic lives of the old travellers.

The recordings that Hamish, Alan Lomax, and others shared altered the course of music and poetry, redefining the kinds of voices that could be considered suitable for broadcast media.

The names Adam collected are a radical ‘eco-poetic’ alternative to existing maps: as ever, the differences are defined by class. A renowned scientist, hefted to facts and proofs, nevertheless Adam’s fieldwork is collaborative and he works with a host of amateur informants on his surveys of The Cairngorms, and wider afield, as with the annual ‘Report on Snow Patches’, which he publishes in the journal Weather, and which relies on reports from hill-walkers.

snow that lasts until lasting winter snow returns : snow patch

Adam shared this love of snow patches with one of his mentors, Seton Gordon, my great-grandfather, and he has published two books on snow and snowfields in the last few years. The most recent, with the unhappy title Cool Britannia, was co-authored with Iain Cameron, and it collates historical data on snowfall, drawing on folk sources, literature, and folk memory. Like much of his self-published work in recent years it takes an anthological approach, and the most generous source of material is his own lived experience.  His methods share something with Darwin’s, who kept up a vast correspondence, some of it with scientists, but much of it with amateurs, from all classes, gathering information about horticulture or the breeding of birds. 

Adam's studies of birds and habitat include notes that stretch back to his early teens. These are secured to the living memories of the stalkers and hill-walkers he knew as a young man, stretching back to the late Victorian era. I always smile when I see a photograph illustrating one of his essays accompanied by a couthy caption note, like the small snow patch measured against the size of a Cairn Terrier, name of ‘Hamish’. When I finally tracked down the location of the howff Nan Shepherd used at Tomintoul, with help from Sue Harper, Adam was able to add his usual scattering of detail and send me a photograph of himself as a lad posing before the garden gate, with the croft collie.

The list of acknowledgements at the end of Adam’s scholarly essays thanks correspondents and volunteers. Some of the data gathering requires hill-craft and people have to be willing to endure hazardous conditions. He also gathers information from opposed ‘sides’ in terms of a number of contentious issues, from hare culls to the damage caused by new estate roads.

In terms of The Cairngorm region, Adam has most praise for studies published by amateurs and scientists working in their spare time, and he is critical of desk-bound academics, some of whom lack field experience. His particular ire is reserved for large sums spent by SNH and Forestry Commission, compared to the unpaid fieldwork of his collaborative team.

For some readers there is a wee pinch of drama in the headline: ‘No Scottish snow survives until winter 2006/07’. For all of us the conclusions of the article, that there is a marked decline of surviving snow over recent years, is a concern. The fact that ‘the snow lies longest in deep north-easterly hollows’ is also the beginning of a poem. 

Are Adam’s helpers the new ‘watchers’ on the hill, independent from lairdly estates and semi-privatised universities? Hill-walkers and climbers have always shared gen, but their activities are a mossy branch of athletics. The information Adam’s watchers – and of course many are thinkers and doers in their own right, with opinions distinct from his – share is part of the struggle to reform and reframe policy on a host of sensitive issues. 


The folk knowledge that Hamish and Adam praise is echoed by William MacGillivray in his classic study The Natural History of Dee Side and Braemar (1855), in which the naturalist meets a Mr. Brown, resident of a croft near Easter Micras, who he has been told has expertise about the local fauna. When they arrive Brown is busy at the harvest, but he ‘laid aside his scythe’ and received the visitors 

‘with great politeness and conducted us to his Museum, a little hut built of stones and roofed with divots, and having a small window, fireplace, and some rude shelving and unplastered walls, to afford suitable accommodation for his stuffed mammals and birds.’ 

As they part Brown tells MacGillivray that he was an admirer of his British Birds, a volume whose cost would have been prohibitive for someone of his class. The information MacGillivray gleaned was included in the final book, and the turf-roofed hut is a wonderful example of the historical value bestowed on knowledge among the labouring classes.


Adam’s outlook downplays the imaginative as a strategy for conservation. His knowledge of the natural world is so rich and vital but, in terms of his campaigning aims, there is still work that we can do to shape how people feel about land and ecology. He writes as a hill-walking and climbing scientist, aware of the paradox that the ecological mosaic that he loves is shaped by competing forms of management.

The extent of upland moorland depends on grouse shooting. There is, he admits, as yet no successful model of a conservation body managing muirburn. The regeneration of pinewoods is held back by deer stalking and the artificially high number of deer herds, which ‘damages the forests’ natural qualities and threatens them with extinction’. It is the role of the imagination to propose alternatives; to begin to meld the roles of shooter and spotter, stalker and nature warden. 

There was a brief time when forestry in Scotland was allied with landscape aesthetics, in the ‘wild gardens’ of the Planter Dukes of Perthshire, before fir and larch became solely units of wealth. Community gardens are renewing these possibilities. There was a time when the Ossian place-names that his books record were allied to a mytho-poetic imagination of the landscape, a shieling culture of summertowns up on the hills, before The Highlands became synonymous with the shotgun and ‘sport’.

Being based on hard facts, some of the solutions Adam hints at are radical, liable to disturb his natural allies. He notes: ‘capercaillie shooting on some private estates exceeded trees in value, until after 1980 when Forestry Commission grants and associated forestry practice led to capercaillie becoming endangered.’ Informants report that these beautiful birds were shot by Forestry Commission workers from their vehicles, because they do a minimal amount of damage, eating seedlings. Is Adam suggesting that, in order to nourish them back to health and rebalance the ecology of the pinewood, the economic driver of sporting taste should take the lead? Are capercaillie going to go back on the menu, once numbers allow? 


As a hiker Adam’s studies document the impact made by footfall on sensitive lichens, trampling on vole nests and bird eggs, disturbing birds and mammals, and eroding paths. He is a strong protector of the commonty and traditional access, citing the ‘unshakeable’ Scottish attitude that ‘the countryside is ours’, irrespective of title deeds. However, our rights bring an impact and, while this may be minimal compared to Forestry, or Estate tracks, there is an ethical aspect to any incursion into the wild which must be reckoned.

One of Adam’s edicts: where scree-running was once an exciting way to descend now it is considered to cause unacceptable damage. Perhaps place-aware walking has a role to play here, intensifying our experience in the landscape and reducing the distances we feel we need to travel? Biodiversity, like fieldwork, and place-name poetics, proposes a particular patch of earth is enough.


Hamish left an enormous archive of recordings but relatively few books; now Timothy Neat is continuing his project in a series of oral histories sketching the lives of crofters and pearl-fishers. Adam’s natural inheritors include Andy Wightman, now a Green MSP, whose books and blog-posts delve into the legal issues around land ownership, with case studies that are, rightly, inflected with some of the stories that haunt abandoned and cleared farms. Now he seeks to re-write Scotland’s laws.

Another writer continues the work that Adam started is the guide and folklorist Ian Murray, of Ballater, whose five books draw on some of the same informants, and offer oral histories for some of the place-names that Adam collected.

Hamish Henderson: ‘The Ballads’, Alias MacAlias
William MacGillivray: The Natural History of Dee Side and Braemar, 1855
Adam Watson: ‘Environmental features of The Cairngorms and Research’, Botanical Journal Scotland
Adam Watson: ‘The Cairngorms Stitch-up, The Countryman, Vol. 98, No. 5, 1995
Adam Watson: ‘It’s time to chop the Forestry Commission’, The Leopard No. 239, 1998

Adam Watson with Iwan Wirth: photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2015
Hamish Henderson recording Ali Dall, (Blind Alec Stewart): photograph courtesy of Tocher an Dualchais
Seton Gordon, The Cairngorms: photograph courtesy of the estate of Seton Gordon
Adam Watson as a boy, Tomintoul, Braemar, 1943: photograph Stewart Watson, courtesy of Adam Watson
The Laird o’ Invercauld’s Tablecloth: photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2015
Caterpillar: photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2015
Craig Leek (Rockslab Crag): Alec Finlay, 2015
‘English Soldier’ lichen: Alec Finlay, 2015
Creag Phiobaidh (Piper’s Crag): Alec Finlay, 2015
Adam’s Credo, AF, after Adam Watson: Alec Finlay, 2015

Gathering was commissioned by Hauser & Wirth, for the Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar; the project was launched in 2015 and will conclude in 2018.

The artist residency at University of Aberdeen is funded by The Leverhulme Trust; the project was launched in July 2016 and will conclude May 2017.