HAVING taken the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to task earlier this week over their omission of the Clearances from their current exhibition about Scotland from 1760 to 1860, it is only fair that I admit to a mistake on my own part.

Three weeks ago I wrote that only three Scottish men had craters named after them both on the Moon and Mars. I named them as John Playfair, James Hutton and Charles Lyell, but like just about every historian and astronomy buff, I forgot about another Scotsman because he moved to Germany and lived the majority of his life there, even taking a German-style name.

I am so glad I found out about my error, because I have now become familiar with the life and career of another wonderful Scot, born John Lamont, who died this week in 1879.

Lamont’s name does indeed have the honour of being attached to the official list of craters on Mars and the Moon – Apollo XI landed near his eponymous crater – because he was one of the pre-eminent astronomers and physicists of the 19th century. Yet in life he was known as Johann von Lamont, and I am going to tell you how that happened.

The main reason why Lamont is remembered is because he discovered a huge fact about our planet – the earth has a 10-year period of variations in the strength of the planet’s magnetic field, though nowadays it is more commonly quoted as an 11-year period and is associated with sunspot activity.

He also proved the presence of telluric or Earth electric currents in the surface layers of our planet – tracking such currents is a technique still used for mineral and other explorations.

Lamont was born at Corriemulzie on the Linn of Dee road just west of Braemar on December 13, 1805. He was the son of a forester, Robert Lamont, and Elizabeth (nee Ewan), and attended a local school until his father died when John was just 12.

The family was presumably Roman Catholic, because Lamont was taken to the seminary of the Benedictine Scots Monastery in Regensburg – also known as Ratisbon – in Bavaria, Germany. The abbot there was Charles Arbuthnot, originally from Aberdeenshire – a famous mathematician who he may well have spotted young Lamont’s talents.

After Arbuthnot’s death in 1820, Lamont decided not to pursue Holy Orders and instead turned his attention to science, particularly astronomy.

He was made the assistant director of the leading observatory at Bogenhausen, the largest borough of Munich, at the age of just 22, and after taking his doctorate at the city’s university – he would later return as professor of astronomy for 27 years – he became the observatory’s director in 1835, inheriting the brand-new refracting telescope, then rated as the best in the world.

Lamont, who was now addressing himself as Johann, quickly made exciting new discoveries, and among other achievements he calculated the mass of Uranus, worked out the orbits of the moons of Saturn and Uranus, and proved conclusively that our own Moon had no atmosphere.

He missed what would have been an incredible discovery, describing one object as a distant moon of Uranus but which in fact was later proven to be the planet Neptune.

During his career he devised accurate stellar catalogues, noting 80,000 stars in all. His discoveries about the earth’s magnetic field and telluric currents made him famous and his many achievements included authoring more than 100 academic papers. He also made his own scientific instruments and sold many to other academic institutions, netting himself a small fortune, while also making Bogenhausen the world centre for the study of the earth’s magnetic fields.

In 1867, the King of Bavaria effectively made Lamont a German noble by awarding him the Order of the Bavarian Crown which allowed Lamont to insert “von” before his name.

He was made a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in London and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, among other honours.

Lord Lindsay, who established the Dun Echt Observatory, wrote that during his travels in 1872 he met Lamont in the Bogenhausen observatory “and was talking away in French when to my intense surprise he addressed me some question in broad Aberdeen Scotch. He has been 52 years away and almost forgotten English, but has not lost his accent”.

Von Lamont died in Munich on August 6, 1879, 140 years ago on Tuesday. He had never married and had built up a considerable fortune that he left in legacies and endowments to fund science students. He was buried in the churchyard of St Georg in Bogenhausen where his monument includes the inscription “et coelum et terram exploravit”, which translates from Latin to “and the sky and the earth he explored”.

A 10-foot-high memorial carved from granite is located at Inverey close to his birthplace. Funded by the Deeside Field Club, it was unveiled in September 1934 and among the tributes to Lamont at the event, Sir James Jeans said: “Lamont took to a foreign country many of the intellectual and moral qualities of the country of his birth, energy and industry, intelligence and originality, and, not least, sturdy human kindness and generosity to those less fortunate than himself.”

Written in German, English and Gaelic on the stone is the biblical quotation from Psalm 19: “Day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night showeth knowledge.”

They may claim him in Germany and rightly so, but Scotland should always remember Johann von Lamont as one of our own.