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John Robertson - Railway Porter and Astronomer

John Robertson - Railway Porter and Astronomer

Photo courtesy of Angharad Shepherdson

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1830- John Robertson - Railway Porter and Astronomer


Sons and Daughters

John Robertson - Railway Porter and Astronomer

The Sky's the Limit!

'Change here for Blairgowrie'

News of the launch on 25 December 2021 of the James Webb Space Telescope from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana is exciting for all astronomers and for anyone interested in what's out there!  This is the world's most powerful telescope and an extremely costly and ambitious project.  Who knows what kind of mind-blowing information about distant galaxies and the history of the universe will be relayed back to Earth.

We are reminded of our local amateur astronomer John Robertson, who, in 1875 managed to buy his very own telescope for £5.  Two years later he bought a more powerful telescope for around £40, enabling him to pursue his hobby, despite working long hours as a railway porter for the Caledonian Railway Company at Coupar Angus.  John was known not only for his knowledge of astronomy, but also for his loud announcement to the travelling public: "Coupar Angus - Change here for Blairgowrie".

John Robertson was born in 1830 at Corston, Aberlemno, Angus.  His father was a contractor involved in road building, and John started his working life working for his father.  They helped in the construction of the Caledonian Railway at Farnell Station, near Brechin, Angus.  In 1854 the Caledonian Railway Company started work on the Coupar Angus to Blairgowrie branch line and this first brought John to Coupar Angus.  After marrying Catherine Cruden in 1855, he was employed for a couple of years as a railway porter at Forfar, before settling back in Coupar Angus in 1858.

John's interest in astronomy began when he attended a series of lectures by Dr Thomas Dick, the Broughty Ferry astronomer.  The appearance of Donati's comet in 1858 strengthened his interest in the subject, and he became an avid reader of any literature on astronomy he was able to access.  His work as a railway porter involved long hours, starting at 6am and finishing at 6pm with two hours off for meals, but John would devote time before work and late at night to pursuing his hobby, at his cottage and back garden at Causewayend, Coupar Angus.

He would keep meticulous notes of his observations of the planets, constellations, eclipses etc. He also wrote articles about his observations in local newspapers.  His work was acknowledged by some well-known astronomers of that time.

Dr Samuel Smiles visited him at Causewayend in 1883 and recalled his visit in "Men of Invention and Industry" along with the poem:

"From early morn till late at e'en,

John's honest face is to be seen,

Bustling about the trains between,

Be't sunshine or be't showery;

And as each one stops at his door,

He greets it with the well known roar

Of  'Change here for Blairgowrie'.

Even when the still and drowsy night

Has drawn the curtains of our sight,

John's watchful eyes become more bright,

And takes another glow'r aye, 

Thro' yon blue dome of sparkling stars,

Where Venus bright and rudy Mars

Shine down upon Blairgowrie.

He kens each jinkin' comet's track,

And when it's likely to come back,

When they have tails, and when they lack

In heaven the waggish power aye;

when Jupiter's belt buckle hings,

And the Pyx mark on Saturn's rings

He sees from near Blairgowrie".

In 1899 John retired from his work as railway porter, allowing him more time to devote to astronomy.  John continued to live in Coupar Angus until his death in 1920 at the age of 89.

Read more in "Blairgowrie, Stormont and Strathmore Worthies" by Henry Dryerre.

Watch the Youtube video

James Webb Space Telescope Launch - Official NASA Broadcast click on 'scientist'

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