Ben Nevis Observatory - recording the weather at the highest point in Britain

From 1883 to 1904 scientists lived and worked year round at the summit of Ben Nevis - observing the weather at 1,343 metres (4,409 feet) above sea level was an extreme task.

Ben Nevis Observatory in winter (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

The observatory was funded largely by private donations. Donors included Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.

The Observatory had granite walls 5 to 12 ft thick to protect the observers from the winter weather and keep the building upright in the teeth of Atlantic storms.

Inside it had a living room and office, three small bunks and store rooms. The walls were double lined with wood covered in felt, the windows were double glazed and the roof was covered in lead, overlaid with snow-boarding.

Ben Nevis Observatory observers (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

Observers Angus Rankin, Robert Omond and Robert Mossman

The first superintendent of the observatory was Robert Omond (centre), he was succeeded by Angus Rankin (right) in 1897 and Robert Mossman volunteered at the observatory from 1889 to 1891. The observers were supported by various support staff but life was generally very isolated.

Ben Nevis Observatory late spring/early summer (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

In spring and summer observing the weather every hour of the day and night was challenging enough.

Ben Nevis Observatory tower in summer (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

The observatory roof provided a good position for the sunshine recorded (the glass sphere mounted on a pyramid of stones to the right of the image) and the 9m (30ft) tower supported the anemometer and wind vane and acted as a high level exit from the main observatory building.

Ben Nevis Observatory iced up (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

This was critical in winter when the snow was often so deep that it buried the lower doorway. 

The tower exit ensured that the observers could continue making observations. In very high winds the men had to tie themselves to the building to avoid being blown off the cliff!

Ben Nevis Observatory iced-up thermometer stands (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

Like the rest of the building the thermometer screens were completely covered in ice rime.

Observers were often injured by wind-blown pieces of ice or frozen snow. 

Imagine making observations 24hrs a day in these conditions!

Ben Nevis Fort William Observatory (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

Fort William Observatory

Comparative weather data was gathered at Fort William. First by the schoolmaster and then from July 1890 at the purpose-built low level observatory. 

Observations were also made at intermediate stations - huts built on the mountain path and equipped with observing equipment.

Ben Nevis - sun recorder Fort William Observatory (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

The observations made at Fort William and the intermediate stations helped put the mountain top data in context and improve the quality and significance of the Ben Nevis research. 

Ben Nevis Observatory - climbing (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

Recreation

In summer there were opportunities for the observers to engage in a range of activities such as climbing, rope-quoits on the observatory, tobogganing and skiing. Photography was very popular and many of the observers played musical instruments.

Ben Nevis Observatory snow depth (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

One winter activity consisted of digging snow holes in a competition to be the first to reach solid ground. The holes could reach 3.6m (12ft) in depth.

Ben Nevis Observatory ponies 'Ben Nevis Cavalry' (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

The Ben Nevis Cavalry

Supplies were brought up by two horses: nine months of tinned provisions, paraffin coke for the fire, letters, papers, and fresh water for when the natural water supply dried up in the warmer months.

Ben Nevis Observatory Inversion (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

The observers had the opportunity to see many interesting meteorological phenomena such as valley fog - where fog gathers in the deep valleys leaving hill tops and mountain ridges and summits sunny and clear.

Ben Nevis Observatory Shower clouds (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

They could also see the weather approaching. Here the photographer captured a shower cloud sweeping towards the mountain top observatory.

Ben Nevis - the Observatory Hotel (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

The Observatory Hotel

From the mid-1890's a local hotelier operated the Observatory Hotel between June and September each year. It provided refreshments and overnight accommodation and travellers were usually permitted to see the Observatory and write in the visitors book.

Ben Nevis - R.C. Mossman in his study (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

The end of the Ben Nevis Observatory

The observatory closed in 1904 due to a lack of government funding. It was used as an annexe to the hotel before falling into ruin.


The readings taken by the Ben Nevis weathermen between 1883 and 1904 remain the most comprehensive set of mountain weather data in Great Britain.

Ben Nevis Observatory Observer in Winter (1884/1904) by Met OfficeMet Office

The Ben Nevis weather records can be viewed at National Records Scotland.

The ruins of the Observatory building can still be found near the summit. They are a testament to the fortitude of the men who lived and worked for 20 years in this isolated and extreme environment.

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