Take a glimpse at the moon and stars: Events will mark 80th year of Dundee’s Mills Observatory

A family peers through one of the smaller telescopes at the observatory in 1934.
A family peers through one of the smaller telescopes at the observatory in 1934.

It was the first facility of its kind in the UK, allowing ordinary people to get an “extraordinary” glimpse of the universe.

The Mills Observatory, one of Dundee’s biggest landmarks, will celebrate its 80th anniversary next week.

A variety of events and workshops will be held to celebrate decades of stargazing, made possible by the legacy of founder John Mills.

Rod Gordon, one of the staff in charge of learning and engagement at the observatory, said: “This building is all about being accessible to the public.

“My job with Leisure and Culture Dundee is to engage communities with the observatory.

“Nowadays people have so much information at their fingertips, so those interested in astronomy can find what they need online.

A newspaper cutting of the opening
A newspaper cutting of the opening

“But the observatory is a physical place where people can go and have a look at the moon and the stars. It’s about making the ordinary extraordinary.

“You don’t have to have a lot of astronomical knowledge, it’s for everybody.

“The original proposals for the building at the start of the 20th century were rejected because there wasn’t enough public access — so even back then people were thinking about this.”

The Mills Observatory, located on Balgay Hill, was the first purpose-built public astronomical observatory in the UK and opened its doors in 1935.

The funds for the facility were gifted by linen and twine manufacturer John Mills, who was also a keen amateur astronomer.

He left the money for the project in his will, which was handed to the Town Council by the Mills Trustees after his death in 1889. Professor Sampson, Astronomer Royal for

Scotland, collaborated with City Architect James MacLellan Brown in designing the building.

It has a distinctive seven-metre dome housing a Victorian refracting telescope, a small planetarium, and display areas.

Adjusting the main telescope in 1934.
Adjusting the main telescope in 1934.

In the 1940s, a photographic telescope which promised to revolutionise astronomical research in Scotland was tested in the observatory.

Over the years the building has been popular among Dundonians, with schoolchildren observing a solar eclipse in 1943 and a double eclipse of the sun and Jupiter in 1953.

In 1952, a Cooke telescope — one of the longest available to the public — was installed. And in 1984 the building underwent a major renovation, with installation of central heating, re-surfacing of the balcony and the upgrading of the lecture-room to an audio-visual theatre.

In 2013 the main telescope — a 16-inch Dobsonian reflector was brought in.

Ken Kennedy, pictured, director of the Aurora Section at the British Astronomical Association, has been involved with the observatory since he was a young child.

He said: “Back then it was more informal and when I was a member of the Dundee Astronimical Society we’d stay and use the telescopes after the public had left.

“There’s more modern technology nowadays but the purpose has stayed the same — to allow the public to see the stars.

“I think John Mills would be pleased if he could see it now.”

A free family event to mark the 80th anniversary will take place on Wednesday from 6pm until 8pm.