Walking the line back in time

Professor Eric Priest (left) and Graham Wynd beside the plaque at Parliament Hall. (Photo: Peter Adamson)
Professor Eric Priest (left) and Graham Wynd beside the plaque at Parliament Hall. (Photo: Peter Adamson)

Take a walk along South Street in St Andrews and you could find yourself unknowingly stepping on a piece of scientific history, not to mention crossing from one hemisphere to another.

A brass line running across the pavement outside Parliament Hall marks the continuation of what was one of the world’s first astronomical meridian lines, laid down 350 years ago by 17th century Scottish astronomer and scientific pioneer James Gregory.

A plaque commemorating his achievements was officially unveiled on Tuesday by university principal Professor Louise Richardson and St Andrews Preservation Trust chairman Graham Wynd.

Gregory, one of the founders of calculus and inventor of the Gregorian telescope, is arguably the greatest scientist associated with St Andrews.

He devised his type of reflecting telescope in 1661 and, when he was appointed to the newly-established chair of mathematics at St Andrews in 1668, he used what is now the King James Library as his laboratory and planned to build what would have been the first observatory in the UK.

The path of the St Andrews Meridian is determined by a wooden line Gregory had set into the floor of the King James Library to delineate the meridian. He used this line in conjunction with a metal sight fixed outside one of the windows, which he lined up with a post on the horizon exactly due south, to make astronomical observations.

It is thought he may have visited Isaac Newton at Cambridge, as the more famous mathematician frequently relied upon Gregory’s work in subsequent years.

However, after the initial enthusiasm for his work, the university ‘masters’ found Gregory’s ‘New Philosophy’ distasteful, although violence erupted when students were forcibly kept from his lectures.

In 1674 he joined Edinburgh University but died the following year, aged just 37.

The meridian line and the plaque were funded by the university, the Preservation Trust and several other donors, with the trust’s contribution coming from a plaque fund created from a legacy from the estate of well-known local historian Gordon Christie.

The project is the result of the hard work of a number of people, primarily Professor Eric Priest from the university and Colin McAllister, chair of the trust’s plaques sub-committee. The line was designed and its installation overseen by Katharine Cundill.