I doubt if there has ever been such an expert on and advocate for the Cairngorms. Certainly there have been plenty who have known more about a specific area of study, but Adam Watson, who died on 23rd January at the age of 89, was a true polymath, with a breadth and depth of knowledge equalled only by his obvious love of the mountains he studied.
An ecologist, he wrote numerous papers on the flora and fauna of the range, and was an ardent campaigner on conservation issues. That was the ‘day job’ as it were. But his fascination was boundless. As a young man he made many rock climbs with Tom Patey as they researched for Mac Smith’s groundbreaking first climbing guide to the Cairngorms. He was also called as an expert witness, making eminently sensible contributions to the findings of the inquiry into the 1971 Cairngorm Disaster. He was captivated from an early age by the magic of snow, leading to a lifetime’s scientific study of snow and long-lying snow patches in Scotland (which is being carried on by his ‘disciple’ and friend Iain Cameron). The Gaelic language was another interest and detailed researches led to him writing The Placenames of Upper Deeside, a source book widely regarded as the most authoritative. Have I missed anything? Undoubtedly. I always disliked the epithet ‘Mr Cairngorms’ landed on him by the media, but it was a shorthand hard to argue with: if you had any question related to the Cairngorms then the best hope of a reliable answer probably lay with Adam.
This range and depth of knowledge was one thing, but he had the ability to communicate too, sharing his knowledge through numerous books and articles. He has written more than 20 books, with a late flurry from 2010 onwards accounting for the majority.
The first I and so many others came across was his 1975 completely rewritten edition of the SMC’s district guide to the Cairngorms. The SMC had – and still has – a whole range of district guides, outlining the mountains and glens of an area and touching on rock climbing, natural and human history etc, but where with most I would pick the book up to read about a specific route up a specific hill, Adam’s Cairngorms guide seemed different. You could certainly find how to get from A to B, but he treated the hills more holistically, telling you about the mountain rather than the route, communicating that breadth of interest that inspired rather than just described.
It had been preceded the year before by The Cairngorms: their Natural History and Scenery, written with Desmond Nethersole-Thompson, which for decades remained – and possibly still does -the best general guide to the area’s natural history.
Both books remain deeply loved and often referred to, but a special thrill came when he published a partial autobiography, It’s a Fine Day for the Hill, in 2011.
The title was perhaps a little understated, for this is an absolute gem of a book and deserves to be far better known. It’s subtitled Hills, Folk and Wildlife, 1935-62, almost as if it was one of his scientific papers, but is a magical tale which starts with his childhood forays into the Cairngorms with his father, his friendship with the legendary Seton Gordon, an early mentor, and his climbs, walks and skiing trips with close friends Tom Patey and Tom Weir. Piling legend upon legend, he also writes much about Bob Scott, into whose family he was virtually adopted. Yet there’s no name dropping about this book: he writes engagingly with love and affection for his friends and mentors and of the love they shared for the hills and the ploys they got up to.
It’s A Fine Day for the Hill also introduces Adam’s lifelong love for travelling by ski, his trips to Scandinavia and Iceland (hitching a lift there on a trawler from Aberdeen!) and his early studies into the ecology of the Cairngorms, a field of science which involved far more work in the field than in the lab!
Through it all, though there’s no doubting his love for the hills and the folk, and his fascination with the natural history, the overwhelming and abiding impression the reader comes away with is the sheer unbridled enthusiasm he brought to his life. His diary seems to have been full of entries claiming “The best day ever!”
It’s an enthusiasm and passion that never seems to have left him. An outspoken advocate for conservation and the integrity of the hills, he backed up his passion with scientific rigour – or perhaps it was his scientific knowledge and outlook which fuelled his passion. Whichever, he was a formidable opponent and a tremendous ally in the many battles between development and conservation interests, respected even by some of those whose claims and arguments he challenged, for whichever side of the fence you sat there was never any doubting his absolute honesty and integrity.
His contribution and influence have been immense, and his passing will be felt deeply by all those who love the Cairngorms. His published knowledge remains with us but Adam Watson really was one of a kind and I don’t know if there is or ever will be any one person to fill those so well travelled boots.
His flurry of publications in his later life was perhaps driven by awareness of his own mortality, sharing some of the vast treasury of knowledge he had accumulated, but it was a long way from being the swansong of a tired old man. Well into his eighties by this time, Adam was still out on the hill, still interested, still gathering data, still seeking. I corresponded briefly but never met Adam Watson, but looking at the most recent of photos and listening to friends and colleague, he still seemed to be a man having “the best day ever”. I’m glad his final illness was a short one.