Papers of the Balfour Stewart Auroral Laboratory

Scope and Content

The bulk of the collection comprises boxes of auroral observations made in the period 1947 - 1985, and includes data collected during the International Geophysical Year (1957 - 1958), the International Year of Geophysical Co-operation (1959) and the International Quiet Sun Year (1964 - 1965). Material from this period was collected by James Paton and his successor, Douglas H. MacIntosh, and is arranged by geomagnetic longitude within monthly files. Continuation of their work by the British Astronomical Association Aurora Section is represented by aurora, magnetic and radio observations for the period 1986 - 2001 (N.B. magnetic and radio observations for the period before 1986 have not been deposited). There are additionally, register sheets for auroral observations, northern and southern hemispheres, 1976 - 1999; noctilucent cloud observations, 1964 - 1980 ; material from the International Polar Year, 1932 - 1933; auroral observations and photographs from Fort Rae, Canada, 1932 - 1933; and auroral observations and noctilucent cloud observations made at Kirkwall, Orkney, 1931 - 1939.

Administrative / Biographical History

The British Astronomical Association Aurora Section encourages observation of the aurora and of the noctilucent clouds that are visible in the period May - August in the northern hemisphere. It is involved in the recruitment and training of observers, and collection, analysis and reporting on the occurrences of auroral events. The present observer network comprises members of the British Astronomical Association and other astronomical societies, individual observers, professional meteorologists and ships' officers at sea, with observations collected from Canada, the United States, Iceland, The British Isles and other European countries. Details of observations are exchanged regularly with the Royal New Zealand Astronomical Society Aurora Section, which co-ordinates observation of phenomena in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Association became involved with noctilucent cloud studies (NCS) in 1964 when James Paton, late director, initiated an annual report in Meteorological Magazine. This work was undertaken under the auspices of the Balfour Stewart Auroral Laboratory, which was based in Edinburgh University Department of Meteorology, with a geophysical unit of the British Antarctic Survey, from 1965 - 1974. It was continued by staff in the Department of Meteorology after Paton's death in 1973, and in 1983 was taken over by the officers of the Aurora Section of the British Astronomical Association.

James Paton had joined Edinburgh University Department of Natural History in 1928, and in 1944 became their first lecturer in meteorology. When a separate Department of Meteorology was created there in 1964 he was appointed head of department, a role in which he remained until his death in 1973. An active member, and for several years, director, of the British Astronomical Association Aurora Section, he published many works on auroral and noctilucent cloud phenomena. Dr Douglas H. McIntosh was appointed his successor in the Department of Meteorology, and after his retirement in 1982, the position of head of department was held by the senior academic staff in three-yearly rotation. The last Head of Department was Professor Bob Harwood who relinquished the position on 1st August 2001, when the Department became the Institute for Meteorology.

A short biographical sketch of James Paton is given in Royal Meteorological Society, Weather, 54 (Sept 1999), 275.

Brief details about the British Astronomical Association's interest in and development of noctilucent cloud studies research are given in David Gavine, Noctilucent Clouds over Britain and Western Europe, 1992 - 1994, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 106 (1996), 285 - 287.


Arranged by series and chronologically therein

Access Information

Open, subject to signature accepting conditions of use at reader registration sheet

Acquisition Information

Deposited in the University in Aug 1983, by the Royal Society, through the offices of Dr M. Gadsen, Department of Natural Philosophy, University of Aberdeen. Several additional deposits received to March 2002.

Other Finding Aids

Descriptive list available in the Reading Room, Special Libraries and Archives (e-mail:

Very brief collection level description available on Aberdeen University Library Catalogue, accessible online

Alternative Form Available

Copies of register sheets for auroral observations made between 1976 and 1999 are at the British Astronomical Association, Burlington House, London. Copies have also been retained by R.J. Livesey, Director, Aurora Section of the British Astronomical Association, Edinburgh.

Conditions Governing Use

Subject to the condition of the original, copies may be supplied for private research use only on receipt of a signed undertaking to comply with current copyright legislation.

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the Head of Special Libraries and Archives (e-mail: and, where appropriate, from the copyright owner. Where possible, assistance will be given in identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with normal procedures


Accruing deposit: recent observations transferred to the archive at regular intervals

Related Material

Papers of James Paton, Head of Department of Meteorology, University of Edinburgh (fl 1928 - 1973) (GB 0231 MS 3188). The collection is not fully listed, but is available for consultation to bona fide researchers. It comprises Paton's research papers and correspondence, together with related printed papers on meteorology, some items relating to his teaching responsibilities, miscellaneous unsorted photographs, and field notebooks of C.T.R. Wilson (1869 - 1959), physicist, dating from the 1920s.

Papers of C.T.R. Wilson (1869 - 1959), physicist, relating to his work on atmospheric physics, 1890 - 1959 (GB 231 MS 3525)


Details of the reports deposited here are the subject of annual reports and technical papers published in the BAA Journal and in the Marine Observer, as published by the British Meteorological Office

Additional Information

This material is original