Macfarlane Observatory 1760


The Macfarlane Observatory was the first purpose-built university observatory in Britain and named after Alexander Macfarlane, a merchant in Jamaica and plantation owner who had studied at the University of Glasgow. Macfarlane had bequeathed astronomical instruments to the University in 1755. The instruments were shipped from Jamaica, where Macfarlane had died, and suffered damage from exposure to salt water during the journey. James Watt, later the famous inventor, was commissioned to repair the instruments in 1756 and was paid £5 for his services. Some of Macfarlane’s instruments are now in the Hunterian Museum.

Astronomy had been taught at Glasgow since 1451 and was largely based on Tractatus de Sphaera or The Sphere, a teaching text by the 13th-century scholar Johannes de Sacrobosco, or ‘John of Holywood’. By the middle of the 18th century The Old College owned a number of telescopes, including an 8-foot instrument dating to 1693.

In June 1754 the committee for astronomical instruments obtained permission from the Faculty to raise subscriptions towards a new observatory and on the 8 of April 1757 the Faculty approved the plan and expenditure of £400 for the construction of the new observatory. The designer is likely to have been Allan Dreghorn who was contracted to build the structure on a site behind the College at Dowanhill.

The foundation stone was laid on 17 August 1757. There are no known detailed images of the structure but it was described by Tobias Smollett in his novel, Humphrey Clinker as ‘well equipped with astronomical instruments’; and by the Revd W.M. Wade in his History of Glasgow of 1822: ‘This simple little structure…consists of a quadrangular centre with a projection also quadrangular and surmounted by a balustrade on the east and west.’ Allan Dreghorn ornamented the building with a globe and vases.

In 1760, King George II founded the Chair of Practical Astronomy which was first occupied by Alexander Wilson, a type founder and scientific instrument maker who was awarded the Gold medal of the Royal Society of Sciences in Copenhagen in 1772 for his pioneering work on sunspots.

In 1813, John Brash added a small extension to the west wing of the observatory. By the 1830s the atmospheric pollution and construction of tall buildings around the College grounds made astronomical observations impossible. At the instigation of John Pringle Nichol, fourth holder of the Chair, the College eventually purchased the observatory at Horselethill in the west end from the ‘Friends of Astronomical Science in Glasgow’ in 1841.


Macfarlane Observatory 1760
The Old College
Record last updated: 6th Nov 2015