Published in 2018 by The Observatory Press. All rights reserved. The right of John Gafon and Tim Dawson be identified as the authors has been asserted in accordance with The Copyright Designs And Patents Act (1988). Front and rear cover illustrations: are from The Life And Adventures Of Station B, Album 1, by Lieutenant Evelyn James Wheelock Noble. The front cover illustration is of George Forbes swimming with Hawaiin nattives. Cover design and origination: Charles Gris www.observatorypitlochry.com
tepping off the train, I put down my bag for a moment and looked up and down the platform. I was the only passenger disembarking at Pitlochry so I stood and watched the train pull away. The London I had departed mid-afternoon was under grey skies. Now the night air felt cool and the familiar sensation of my clothes being a bit thin for the Highlands sent a shiver down my spine. After the locomotive and its brightly lit carriages had snaked northwards I was alone. The black cloak of winter was limitless, save for the twinkling garland of house lights from the little town beyond the stone station building. I breathed in to the bottom of my lungs and the refreshing charge of Scottish air made me feel more alive than I had for weeks. The Observatory is a remarkable place, not least for being scarcely a minuteâ€™s walk from the station. I marched down the platform, past the signal box and seconds later was crunching along the path through the trees that leads to the house. I have stayed there several times before, although never previously alone. My attachment to the place results, in some small way, from it having been the home of a distant relative, George Forbes. He actually built it in the 1900s with his own hands after a long and rather extraordinary career as an engineer, astronomer and inventor. Anyway, more of him in a minute. Despite the short trudge, I was grateful that the house was already warm once I had found the key and stepped inside. This was a moment that I had been anticipating for weeks and I intended to savour every second. A fire was already set in the huge cast-iron stove at the roomâ€™s centre and a single match brought the kindling to flame. As these 3
grew to a crackling roar, I heated up the beef broth that I had brought with me. On the central coffee table sat a bottle of Edradour, whisky from Scotland’s only remaining farmhouse distillery – it nestles on the hillside above Pitlochry. What is it about liquor and water from the same burn? They have always seemed uniquely compatible. After drawing the neat stuff’s powerful aroma into my nose, I poured in a little water and enjoyed the sensation of the whisky in my mouth as my soup cooled. The flavours conjured up in Edradour’s stills seem infinitely variable – this one was full of spicy, mince-pie tones with a deep sherry inflection. How long since I first came to The Observatory – thirty years, perhaps? There have been little changes, but nothing that has altered its fundamental character. Its heart is a huge room, almost the size of a tennis court. Golden, century-old pine panelling forms the walls and ceiling, there is the vast iron stove, and a central seating area bounded by sofas. It has a remarkable history too. Indeed, as my train had raced up the East Coast Main Line I had battled to resist my new facsimile edition of Lieutenant Evelyn Noble’s sketch account of the 1874 mission to Hawaii to observe the Transit of Venus(1). In this, I knew, he tells the tale of The Observatory’s builder, my distant uncle, Professor George Forbes, who was lead astronomer on that expedition. Draining my soup and pouring a second glass of the Edrodour, I pulled the book from my bag and stuck my nose between its pages. There are a few accounts of this mission – the official one presented to Parliament(2), Forbes’ lengthy handwritten notes and the reports of one of the other members of the mission(3). Noble’s drawings – cartoons, really – 4
have an extraordinary expressive quality, that convey a real sense of the characters and the situations in which they found themselves. There they are, loading up the SS Illuminarti in Liverpool with all their astronomical equipment, then whiling away the weeks on board and finally building their observation huts around the Pacific islands. Then there are encounters with the Hawaiian natives, checking and double checking their precise latitudes and the modest social whirl they brought in their wake. It had been a long day. With the warmth of the fire and a couple of peaty treats, I must have nodded off with the book in my lap. I came too with a start to see a pair of corduroy-clad buttocks, the owner of which was kneeling before the fire. He was pushing fresh logs among into the glowing ashes. It took a few moments for my mind to clear, which perhaps explains my failure to shout out in alarm. As the scene came into clear focus, however, I took in my visitor’s wool stockinged feet, thick white cotton shirt, khaki braces and straw-blond hair, cut short at the sides and rather generously on top. Mid-thirties, I guessed, as he swung round and saw that I had waked. “George”, he exclaimed, and before I could say anything he had grabbed my hands and brought his nose an inch from my own. I pushed him away, more startled than anything else. “Who the hell are you”, I demanded? “George, you must remember me. It’s Lambert, Charles Lambert – I had to come, after our time together and everything that you did for me. I simply couldn’t leave things there, so far from home.” There was something imploring in his voice that seemed to discount the possibility that he meant me harm. 5
My pulse slowed a little as my intruder stared up at me. “Sit down beside the fire for a moment and let me gather my wits”, I said. Looking him up and down again, I realised that he must have arrived while I was sleeping, taken off his overcoat and shoes and then started to tend the fire as I snoozed. Not the actions of a burglar, I told myself. “I am not George”, I said firmly. “I wonder, though – is it George Forbes, who built this house that you are talking about?” Lambert gave me a quizzical look and replied that, yes, of course, it was George Forbes that he needed to speak with. “It’s the middle of the night and I am afraid that George isn’t here. Why not say whatever it is to me and I will do my best to pass it on”. He didn’t seem very satisfied with this idea. I fetched a glass and poured him a generous measure of Edradour and then refilled my own glass. Lambert added a splash of water, settled himself back into his chair and I realised he was composing his thoughts. He took a sip and then started to speak. “Forbes – George – and I were in Hawaii together. I joined the party when they docked in Valparaiso. I had been surveying in Chile, but the mission was disorganised and I desperately wanted to be back among men who went at their work with some vigour. I met the Transit party by chance when they visited the British consul where I also had business that day. I begged them to take me aboard as they transferred their equipment to HMS Scout. “When we finally got to Hawaii, I was assigned to be Forbes’ assistant at the Honolulu station. We had a little native help, but fundamentally the two of us erected our huts, installed the telescopes and then spent days ensuring that they were precisely calibrated. It was very rough living and the work hard, but I was in my element. 6
“If George had been building the pyramids singlehanded, I would have killed to be at his side. His capacity for work was almost numbing. He started before I awoke and would stop only when I pleaded that we had to rest. His insistence on accuracy was fearsome, he measured, and measured and measured again. Then he tested to ensure that his measurements were accurate and then he measured again. Clearly, when you are hoping to make an accurate reading of a minute occurrence elsewhere in the solar system, calibration is everything, but at times he seemed possessed.” Now Lambert was into the meat of his tale, there was no stopping him. His hazel eyes were illuminated, his hands animated details of the account, and he spoke in crisp, almost rehearsed sentences. I am not even sure he was really aware of me, as he appeared to relive these scenes from 1874 – but don’t let me interrupt his flow too much. “George was such a joy to be with. He talked about Scotland, about his father’s work with glaciers, about his philosophy and about how electricity had the power to change the world. “Our one distraction was riding on the huge rolling ocean waves on long wooden boards that we bought from the natives. We had both been amazed when we first saw the Hawaiians doing this. The boards are about ten feet long and have sufficient buoyancy to support a man. The natives lay down on these, face first, in the shallows just beyond the beach. Then they paddle out to the point where the waves were breaking. When a really big, white-topped roller comes upon them they first paddle in the swell before it and then as the wave draws them up, they would actually stand up on the board and ride the face of the wave. They looked to me like finely-chiselled Gods, traversing the seas by some kind of magic. 7
“After we had watched them once or twice, George and I determined to have a go ourselves. We spoke with some of the most accomplished natives who agreed to sell us boards and provide some initial lessons. “As summer turned into Autumn, we would visit the beach two or three times a week, usually in the morning. There was not always enough surf, but when there was, riding the waves was a feeling like no other. Those huge Pacific breakers are primordial, there is no taming them or getting their better, but flying over their surface in a watery roar is to feel their power through every pore of your skin and every sinew of your frame. “They were the most fulfilled days of my life – the physical work of building, the intensity of the mental computations that were necessary and the release riding the waves made me feel complete as never before. And of course there was the comradeship and closeness with George.” “Late that November, George and I sat up talking one night. His mind was clearly buzzing and he was talking about his philosophical ideas. I didn’t always entirely follow these, and I asked him to backtrack a little and explain his point differently. “’Love is the force that transcends nature, that has the capacity to release humanity from isolation, that makes all our scrabbling efforts part of a bigger more glorious whole’, he said. I can picture him intoning just those words as though he were saying it before me now. “Those sentiments turned over and over in my head as I drifted off to sleep that night. The following morning, George woke me early because he had been down to the beach and the surf was up. We both went to shave and as we stood in the wash tent my shoulder accidentally brushed his. He turned towards me and for a moment he 8
held me in the most intense gaze. I put my hand around his back and pulled him towards me and for a second our chests touched and our mouths were close enough that I could feel his breath. Then he sort of grunted, and pushed me away. I tried to catch his arm again, but he hurried off, complaining that we would miss the best waves if we didn’t get a move on. “I was clear when we got to the beach that he was right to have woken me. The swell was tremendous with breakers nearly 30 feet high crashing down on the beach. We took to our boards and for half an hour or so enjoyed their most exhilarating rides yet. Vast mountains of water erupted from the sea and we somehow managed to ride their boiling energy. “Only now do I realise that the wind was changing and that a monstrous and deadly sea was emerging beneath us. George gestured towards me with an unusual worry about his face, but I decided on one last ride before we turned in. The wave I chose was the biggest I had ever seen, a swirling wall of water that had risen before me as though conjured from above by God himself. “What went wrong, I’m not sure? I was moving so quickly, I think that some eddy in the water caught my board and caused me to fall. Perhaps my board hit my head? All I knew is that I was being irresistibly pulled beneath the waves by forces to which I had no answer. I could no longer tell which was up or down and my mouth was filled with salty water as I span in the brine. “I had accepted my fate, when I felt George’s arms catch me around the chest. Suddenly, I could see the sun. I spluttered and felt sick and then felt the motion of George’s legs desperately trying to propel us from the sea. How long did he tow me for – I have no idea? He shouted to the shore and there was a faint noise of replies. More 9
than anything, I remember his athletic frame against mine and the rhythmic stroke of his legs swimming against the tide. But the sun dimmed and my resistance failed. I suppose that I had taken on a lot of water and the shore was too distant. George, I know, was eventually pulled from the waves by onlookers while he was still dragging my body behind him; but my spirit had departed. “That is why I am here. Can’t you see? I have to thank George. I know that he thinks that he failed me, but he did not. There is no more perfect way to die, than contentedly, fulfilled and in the arms of someone that you love. My only regret is the pain that my drowning must have caused George. I need to tell him that he has no cause for guilt.” The fire was burning down again and I had already refilled Lambert’s glass once. As his story had come to a natural break, I wondered what to do next. I told him that I would need to give some thought to how I would let Forbes know all of this and that for the moment, the best thing for us both was probably a good night’s sleep. It was a relief when he agreed, so I showed him to the bedroom off the main room at the far end and watched as he started preparing for bed. My own sleep was sound and untroubled and before the morning light had really penetrated the bare trees, I woke up with a start. My head was mercifully clear, but the events of the previous evening crowded my mind. Had someone really appeared in the house in the middle of the night with some cock-and-bull story about George Forbes? Can I have sat listening to them before showing them to bed? I got up and started making myself some coffee, all the while trying to summon the courage to check the end bedroom. As the kettle boiled, I heard a door open and close at the other end of the house. I jumped, before 10
dashing through the double doors to the kitchen to see what he was up to. He was nowhere to be seen. He bed was empty, but had obviously been slept in. There was an unfamiliar copy of Blackwoods Magazine dated 1874 on the bedside table. The end door of the house, I noticed, had been unlocked. I looked out to the hillside beyond and then scrambled down the bank to the side of the loch. Lambert was nowhere to be seen. My mind still full of questions, I returned to the house. Drinking my coffee and eating a piece of toast, I turned over the events of the previous evening again and again. Certainly there were two empty glasses on the table in front of the fire and the contents of my bottle of Edradour was more dented than I could have achieved alone. But by the same token, the surfing storyteller was nowhere to be seen and anyway, the reappearance of a man who was 150 years dead is clearly inconsistent with any rational understanding of life on earth. A little later in the morning, I sought out the little collection of Forbes’ published works that fills one of the house’s many bookshelves. I took down a few volumes and sat at the oak desk leafing through them – astronomical texts, accounts of hydro-electric projects in remote spots around the world, bound copies of scientific lectures and the story of my distant uncle’s dramatic overland return from Hawaii. I left until last Forbes’ one novel Puppets – A Work-ADay Philosophy(4). I have read this very copy several times, not because fiction was really Forbes’ forte, but because there is so much of himself in the book. It is hard not to think that some of the interior monologues, particularly from the avuncular, retired engineer character, are not straight from his heart. 11
I knew the passage that I was looking for – it had come back to me as Lambert spoke. The retired engineer character is explaining his philosophy to the young protagonist. Asked to clarify his point, he makes a speech about the importance of love that I recognised from Lambert’s story. I found the passage quite easily, not least because, rather to my surprise, a sheet of paper had been inserted at the very point, as though intending to mark the spot. More bafflingly still, the piece of paper was a compliments slip, bearing the crest of my employer, that can only have been removed from my case earlier that morning. On it, in a swirling, fountain-penned hand, were the following words. “George – the waves might have swallowed me, but as you explained, and have written here, love is the force that overcomes all. My time in your arms was short, but for me that was enough. Know that I treasure our time together and I hope that you feel similarly. Eternally yours, C.L”.
Publisher's note I found the manuscript to Goodbye Waves, tucked in one of Forbes’ books at The Observatory. Handwritten, in an attractive italic script, the author had appended neither their name nor any indication of when it was written. A little detective work led me to its originator who, I knew had stayed at the house the previous summer. He agreed to publication on condition that his identity be protected; John Grafon is the nom de plume of his choosing. What is it: dream, a ghost story, a whisky-tinged apparition? You must decide. What I can share is this. Grafon is a distinguished professional of the utmost probity. More importantly, the contemporary evidence for his story is impeccable(1,2,3). Forbes did journey to Hawaii, and met Lambert, who took up the role as his assistant. They became very close and learned to surf together – indeed, they are quite probably the first British people ever to use surfboards. Lamber’s tragic death as they surfed is also exactly as described here – and Forbes fretted for many weeks over how best to mark his friend’s grave. For the past 20 years, The Observatory has been central to my life and there have certainly been a few nights when I have enjoyed a little more of the local whisky than is wise. But I have never seen a ghost and all the spirits that I have encountered arrived in corked bottles. Nonetheless, I have no reason to doubt that Grafon’s words accurately describe what he experienced – even if the cause of that experience lies beyond our current understanding. In a previous line of work – writing about architecture and property for a Sunday newspaper – I visited hundreds of Scotland’s most extraordinary 13
houses. Doing so left me in no doubt that interplay between physical space and the accumulation of human experience within a set of walls is more complex than conventional physics allows for. Why else do so many people believe in ghosts, or consider houses friendly or unfriendly. Surely there is more to ‘cold corners’ and spooky rooms than lighting and insulation can explain? Why do some houses appear on the market every five years or so, while others remain in the same hands for generations? All suggest to me that there is much that we don’t yet fully understand. After a long and unusually varied life of global adventuring, Forbes returned to The Observatory to think, write and brood. His was an unusually powerful mind – he had distinguished himself in three professions, inventor, hydro-electrical engineer and astronomer, as well as making fair fist of working as a war correspondent, novelist and technical author. It is easy to believe that Lambert was the cause of much reflection. Perhaps Forbes’ intense cerebral activity alone has left traces of his accumulated experience about the place? If that is the case, who knows what other stories the house might yet turn up? Tim Dawson, Pitlochry, January 2018
References 1. The Life & Adventures of Station B, Album 1 (Transit 1) Lieutenant Evelyn James Wheelock Noble https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-TRANSIT-00001/1 2. Account Of Observations Of The Transit Of Venus, 1874, December 8 : made under the authority of the British government : and of the reduction of the observations, Sir George Airy 1881 HMSO 3. Honolulu Station Journal (Kailua sub station) (RGO 59/69) https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-RGO-00059-00069/1 4. Puppets A Work-A-Day Philosophy, George Forbes 1911, Macmillan, New York
For more information about The Observatory, Pitochry, George Forbes and the house's many other famous residents see: www.observatorypitlochry.com
An extraordinary story of love, astronomy and surfing, featuring the eminent Scottish scientist Professor George Forbes, and his home, The O...
Published on Jan 19, 2018
An extraordinary story of love, astronomy and surfing, featuring the eminent Scottish scientist Professor George Forbes, and his home, The O...