Yer ither national language wi Rab Wilson

AH’M nae shair hou mony readin this column wull e’er hae heard o Alexander Wilson. He’s a chiel wha shuid be mair weel kent in his ain kintra, but then, we hae a lang an shamefu history o no kennin wir history – gin ye see whit ah mean!?

When ah think back tae ma ain schuil days (an thon wisnae yesterday!) the history teacher ah hud drummed intae us things lik “the Diet of Worms” (thon’s no biology), “The Court of the Star Chamber”, “The Schlieffen Plan” an “The Siegfried Line”; we kent aa the Tudors an the Plantagenets; we kent Campbell-Bannerman, Lloyd George, Asquith, Churchill an the like – but thair wis nary a wird anent oor ain Scottish history. Ane o ma primary teachers, Mrs MacSween, duin her best tae gie us stirrin tales o The Wallace an The Black Douglas, but as suin as we hit the secondary schuil at Cumnock Academy ony trace o Scottish history or leeterature wis forleitit; ceptin fir Tam O’Shanter’s cuddy gettin a rin oot aince a year, an a bite o haggis when the 25th Janwar cam roun.

Sae Alexander Wilson!? He wis new tae me tae, but lest week a gaitherin o astro-physicists met at the Glesga Observatory, in Maryhill, tae pit up a blue plaque tae this byordnar figure. Wilson wis made Scotland’s first Astronomer Royal; appyntit Regius Professor o Astronomy bi the Duke o Argyll in 1760. He’d bin born, son o the toun clerk, in Sanct Andras in 1714 an hud early oan exheebitit a naitrel propensity fir creatin scientific instruments, an a keen theoretical curiosity anent science that at aince chimed wi the Enlichtenment times that he leeved in. He counted mangst his friens the likes o Adam Smith o The Wealth of Nations fame.

A polymath, Wilson wis a true Renaissance man wha warked in a wheen o different disciplines: medical surgeon; type-founder/setter (early exaumpils o his braw fonts can be seen in the Foulis Press’s graund productions o Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – copies o whilk wir oan display at the uni event); he wis a glassblower an taen a great interest in meteorology afore settlin intae the specialty o astronomy in whilk he made muckle lowps in human unnerstaunin. It wis Wilson wha taen oan Newton’s optics conundrum “What hinders the fixed stars from falling on one another?” an wis aiblins ane o the first tae jalouse that gravity preventit the universe frae collapsing in oan itsel – a muckle thocht indeed that wis later pruived tae be richt when explainin the mechanics an muivements o the galaxy.

Dr David Clarke, ane o Glesga Uni’s maist kenspeckle astrophysicists gien a virr account o Alexander Wilson’s life, packed wi canty an couthie anecdotes anent the man as weel as hard scientific facts. Dr Clarke telt us aboot Wilson’s grund-brekkin wark an experiments wi early telescopes that he uised tae luik at the stars an the then ammaist unkent behaviour o sunspots oan the sun. Sic wis Wilson’s practical skill that he biggit his ain telescopes tae dae this! His mappin o sunspots advanced human knowledge in this new field o study. David Clarke spake o Wilson’s early meteorological studies; hou he wid tak sensitive gless thermometers (that he’d made hissel!) then tie thaim wi lit “match-fuses” tae muckle paper kites an send thaim soarin up intil the atmosphere.

Bi this he ettled tae pruive that temperatures (as we aa ken nou!) varied greatly atween here oan the yird an the further up ye gang in wir atmosphere. As the string o kites an thermometers flew intil the lift the fuses wid burn throu in sequence an the thermometers wid faw tae the grund, so as Wilson an his assistant cuid swipper read the temperatures aff thaim; thus practically pruivin his theories! Clevir stuff! Exheebitin thon mairriage o practicality an theoretical sense that these enlichtenment Scots aa seemt tae hae.

Wilson alsae seems tae hae bin a happy an contentit family man, haein five weans in his faimily. There wir reports o his dancin jigs an reels an haein a sense o fun tae rival his mair serious ploys an experiments. There wir alsae anecdotes aboot him that kythed a humble an modest man wha ne’er hud a bad wird tae say anent his scientific rivals an wha treated colleagues wi the utmaist respeck. Eftir a lang, productive an industrious life Wilson dee’d peacefully at hame surroundit bi his luvin faimily aged 72 in the year 1786. The same year Burns published his Kilmarnock Edition.

A packed room at the observatory listent intently tae these stories o Alexander Wilson’s life. There wis alsae a braw display frae the uni’s Hunterian Museum an frae the National Museum o important artefacts an objects frae Wilson’s life; thae Foulis Press copies o the Iliad an Odyssey; gless beads that Wilson hud hissel made tae record specific gravity; notebuiks that kythed haund-written notes bi Wilson o his astronomical experiments – his timins an observations o the Transit o Venus.

At the hinnerend o these ongauns we aa stuid outside the observatory an watched as a descendant o Alexander Wilson, James Babington Smith, proudly unveiled the blue plaque heizin the nem o his illustrious forebear!

Hou mony ither Scottish heroes must there be oot there wha we nevir get tae ken aboot – an wha hae contributed sae muckle tae human endeavour, science an the arts? Neist time ye see a blue plaque oan a wa in Scotland, an ye read aboot a fawmous chiel ye hae ne’er heard o afore, tak tent! An ask yersel why that shuid be!

Rab Wilson is a Scots poet and a health campaigner