Space Notes:  Scottish Space Writers

by Duncan Lunan

(First published in shorter form, Space & Scotland Issue 3, Summer 2017.)

Fig. 1. Frank’s Book of the Telescope

A full list of nonfiction on astronomy and spaceflight by Scottish writers would be a major undertaking.  It would have to include Norton’s Star Atlas, the amateur astronomer’s ‘Bible’, which went through 14 editions, starting in 1910, produced by Gall and Inglis in Edinburgh before being taken over by Sky Publishing Company in Massachusetts;  and Frank’s Book of the Telescope  (1958, Fig. 1), by the Astronomer-Royal Sir Harold Spencer-Jones, a once-indispensable handbook whose seventh edition in 1969 was edited and extensively updated for Charles Frank Limited  (Fig. 2)  by the late John Braithwaite, the last telescope maker in Scotland after the closure of Barr & Stroud in Glasgow.

But Scottish writing on astronomy and space goes back a lot further.  I learned the constellations in 1959 from that year’s Nelson Juniors edition of Guide to the Stars by Hector MacPherson of Edinburgh  (Fig. 3), one of 12 books which he first published between 1905 and 1955.  Still earlier, James Nasmyth from Edinburgh had collaborated with James Carpenter in 1871 to produce The Moon:  Considered as a Planet, A World and a Satellite, whose frontispiece might have been the first example of what we now call space art  (Fig. 4).  But earlier ones have come to light:  lunar landscapes in The Phenomena and Order of the Solar System  (1842)  and Contemplations of the Solar System  (1844, Fig. 5)  by John Pringle Nichol from Brechin, two of 9 astronomy books which he wrote between 1837 and 1848.      

Another Scottish writer of the 1950s and after was V.A. Firsoff of Arran, whose 25 books included 14 on astronomy, among them Strange World of the Moon, An Enquiry into Lunar Physics (1959, Fig. 6)  and Life Among the Stars  (1974).   Firsoff advocated the volcanic theory of lunar features, and his belief that they overlay an ancient grid of volcanic fissures was verified by the GRAIL Lunar Orbiter only in 2015.  He was also right about water ice at the poles of Mercury. 

Fig. 6. Strange World of the Moon, by V.A. Firsoff

In the 1960s the primary text for first-year astronomy students at Glasgow University was Foundations of Astronomy by the former Professor, W.M. Smart, one of his 16 books;  contrary to rumour, the second-year text was not called Foundations and Empires of Astronomy.  His history and others have been  summarised in Reflections on the Astronomy of Glasgow (2013, Fig. 7)  by Dr. David Clarke of Glasgow University Observatory, whose Astronomy: Principles and Practise and Astronomy:  Structure of the Universe, co-authored with Prof. Archie Roy, were the set texts of the 1980s and after.  Archie Roy’s own textbook The Foundations of Astrodynamics  (1965)  remains a classic in its field.

When Archie Roy was Senior Lecturer in astronomy, his principal colleague was the late Dr. Michael Ovenden, who wrote Artificial Satellites  (1960, Fig. 8)  and Life in the Universe  (1964) before emigrating to his own professorship in Canada.   Dr. Roy also worked on ancient astronomy with the late Prof. Alexander Thom, famous for Megalithic Sites in Britain  (1967, Fig. 9), Megalithic Lunar  Observatories  (1970), and Megalithic Remains in Britain and Brittany  (Fig.10, 1978), the last co-authored by his son Dr. Archie Thom, then Acting Professor of Aerodynamics and Fluid Mechanics at Glasgow.  They were backed by Dr. Euan MacKie of the Hunterian Museum, author of The Megalith Builders and Science and Society in Prehistoric Britain  (both 1977). 

All five of these books are buried in the first of two time capsules under the Sighthill stone circle, which I designed for the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project in 1978-79, has now been re-erected in 2019 at a new site further east, and will be reopened to the public shortly.  My account of it up to 2012 is The Stones and the Stars, Building Scotland’s Newest Megalith  (Fig. 11), which is included in the second capsule.  Euan MacKie’s compendium of his own work, Professor Challenger and His Lost Neolithic World, The Compelling Story of Alexander Thom and British Archeoastronomy, was published posthumously in 2020  (Fig. 12). 

My first book, Man and the Stars  (1974, Fig. 13), was on interstellar travel and communication, with a guest chapter by the late Chris Boyce of the Glasgow Herald.  We’d been preceded by the late John W. Macvey of Saltcoats, whose Journey to Alpha Centauri  (1968)  and Alone in the Universe?  (1963, Fig. 14)  were the first of 8 books on similar themes  (Fig. 15). 

Fig. 15. Where Will We Go When the Sun Dies, by John W. Macvey

I then wrote New Worlds for Old (1979, Fig. 16), with guest chapters by Archie Roy and John Macvey, and Man and the Planets (1983, Fig. 17) on Solar System exploration and development, followed more recently by Children from the sky (2012 – see ON June 19th and 26th, 2022) and Incoming Asteroid! What Could We Do About It? (2013, Fig. 18).

My first three were illustrated by the Scottish space artists Ed Buckley  (Obituary, ON May 15th 2022)  and Gavin Roberts;  Children from the Sky by Sydney Jordan;  and Incoming Asteroid by all of them, plus Andy Paterson and Tom Campbell.  Chris Boyce published Extraterrestrial Encounter in 1979  (Fig. 19), illustrated by Gavin Roberts, and was working on a sequel, ET Presence, at the time of his death. 

Fig. 19. Extraterrestrial Encounter, by Chris Boyce

W. David Woods has published How Apollo Flew to the Moon  (2007, Fig. 20,), and more recently the Haynes Manuals for the Gemini capsule  (2016, Fig. 21), , Saturn V  (2016, Fig. 22)  and the Lunar Rover  (2012, Fig. 23,).  And that’s only a beginning:  Scottish fiction writers, artists, poets and musicians have all been inspired by space themes, and that will be a topic for another article.

Details of Duncan Lunan’s books are on his website,

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