Glasgow Eurowalk 3 – West End Wander (3 or 5km)

Point D - Former Dowanhill Observatory

Walking Route Instructions: When you reach the top of Observatory Road we can observe the site of the former Observatory which is now occupied by Notre Dame Secondary School.

Observatory Road sign – Photo J. Wilson

At the top of Observatory Road we can see the site where the former Dowanhill Observatory of the University of Glasgow was located.

The original observatory for the University was in the centre of town near College Lands.

The history of teaching astronomy at University of Glasgow goes way back as far as 1693 when the University had a telescope. In 1751 the merchant Alexander MacFarlane left the university his astronomical equipment. James Watt, who had just finished an apprenticeship, was involved in the restoration of this equipment and the setting up of the MacFarlane observatory at Dowhill (in the town centre). Towards the end of 18th Century it had a reflecting telescope (invented by Isaac Newton) made by Frederick William Herschel, the German British astronomer.

The observatories had to keep moving out from the centre as the city encroached as tall buildings and pollution did not help when trying to view the stars.

It moved to top of hill at Observatory Road in 1841 when the Astronomical Society of Glasgow obtained this site at Dowanhill. with the stipulation that there would be no high buildings around it. There were financial problems and Glasgow University had to acquire it in 1843. The equipment was transferred from the McFarlane observatory (see p50 Along Gt Western road book)

The charismatic Prof John Pringle Nichol oversaw the beginnings of the Dowanhill Observatory.

Robert Grant

Professor Robert Grant took over from John Pringle Nichol in 1859. During his time the observatory was used to monitor the stars to send the exact timing for shipping via a 1 o’clock signal that was erected at Yorkhill Quay. This allowed ships to set their chronometers before setting off downriver. The signal was transmitted via an underground electric cable from Dowanhill. Accurate timekeeping was so essential for them to work out their longitude.

The Glasgow Star Catalogue of over 6000 stars was published during Robert Grant’s time and he checked each proof page. The last page was checked on the day he died.


Ludwig Becker (1860-1947) succeeded Robert Grant as Professor of Astronomy, in 1893. Becker was born in Germany and educated in Bonn. He first came to Scotland in 1885 to work at Lord Crawford’s Observatory at Dunecht and worked at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. He had been invited by the Astronomer Royal, Professor Copeland.

Becker was an inspiring teacher who attracted large numbers of students. His classes were larger than any other professor of astronomy in Britain at the time. Despite also being a British citizen, for most of WW1 he retreated to Aviemore because of the hostility towards him in Glasgow. But “whatever the outside world thought,” wrote his successor Prof Smart in an obituary, Becker was “respected and esteemed by his students both for his learning and kindly qualities.” Becker returned to his duties after the war, although by then visibility had so deteriorated at the Observatory that he was restricted to teaching and theoretical research.

Eventually the Observatory had to move to Gilmorehill then out to Garscube then to the Kilpatrick Hills!

The site was sold in the 1930s and now houses the Notre Dame High School, an A listed building which opened in 1953.

Walking Route Instructions: We now turn right into Dundonald Road and walk down there until we reach the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Luke’s on our left.