The Law


The obviously landscaped mound of ‘The Law’ on opposite bank of the River Tweed to Makerstoun House has been the subject of much conjecture down the years. It is flat topped, and traces of terracing remain on its flanks. Roman tumulus? Norman motte? Landscaping by the owners of Makerstoun to block their view of the cottages across the river? What human activities took place on this mound down the centuries?

The Tweed Valley at Makerstoun, from the South West. The Law is the pale, flat top hillock to the far right topped with large trees. Makerstoun House is on the far left. The remaining astronomical observatory is the small white building, just to the right of the house, obscured by trees.

Chris Bowles, the SBC archaeologist took an interest in the site, and asked me to do some research for him. I explored the site and took some photographs, especially of a strangely sculpted stone atop the Law, that did not appear to fall into any of the usual categories. The stone sits in the SE quadrant of the summit 'platform'. There are substantial signs of weathering, lichen etc and it shows up on the earliest OS Maps. It certainly appears to have been there for a long time. The markings are odd too, with a sort of grid pattern on one face, and a curiously ridged top. The photos were sent to National Committee of Carved Stones for identification.

The Law from the south east, with Makerstoun House to the north, across the River Tweed

The carved stone atop The Law
Here’s what we got back: “Just a thought - I wonder if this is a meridian marker. There was an observatory at Makerstoun, for which this may have served as a reference point. There are similar objects associated with observatories in Scotland at Fyvie, St Andrews, Brisbane and .... elsewhere. These range in date from the late 17th to early 19th centuries.” (Iain Fraser of RCAHMS)

So I followed the trail of meridian stones to Brisbane (Ayrshire) to Brisbane (Australia), and then back to Makerstoun…

Major General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane (1773–1860).
“Brisbane built an observatory at his home at Brisbane House in Noddsdale, near Largs. Parts of it survive today and efforts are underway, led by the recently-established Brisbane Observatory Trust, to secure its preservation. Related survivals from the time are huge pillars called the Three Sisters, which once held lamps and acted as the fore sights for Brisbane’s transit telescope to ensure that it was pointing in exactly the right direction to make accurate measurements. Brisbane also established two other observatories, including magnetometers, one at Makerstoun in the Borders, and the other at Parramatta in New South Wales. The Parramatta Observatory was successful in the observational recovery of Comet Encke.” 1

1- The Royal Society of Edinburgh Makdougall Brisbane Lecture. Early Watchers of the Skies – Makdougall Brisbane and Other Great Scottish Astronomers. [1]

Makerstoun Magnetic Observatory (1842-1855)
(from British Geological Survey website)

“The magnetic and meteorological observatory at Makerstoun was founded in 1842. Its expense was "defrayed by the private munificence of General Sir Thomas MakDougall Brisbane"2, the former soldier in the Napoleonic Wars who had just returned to Scotland after a spell as Governor of New South Wales. It was there he had ordered the construction of the astronomical observatory at Paramatta, known as 'the Greenwich of the South', and had the city and river of Brisbane named in his honour. 

Sited on Brisbane's wife's hereditary estate, Makerstoun was the only magnetic observatory in Scotland of its time. It was very well equipped, with declinometer, vertical and horizontal force magnetometers, and various meteorological instruments. Indeed, the clocks alone cost over 1200 guineas. The construction was also carefully planned. Internal dimensions were forty feet long by twenty feet wide, and it was "all framed and boarded with the best foreign fir wood, and fastened with copper nails, every particle of iron being excluded, so that the magnets may not be affected"3.

Brisbane also ensured that it was staffed by some of the most promising magnetic scientists in the country. First among them was John Allan Broun, who went on begin magnetic observations at the observatory at Trevandrum in India, and to use data from both observatories to propose a 26 day solar rotation and write on the magnetic effects of the lunar cycle. Another assistant was John Welsh, who was to become superintendent at Kew, where he developed some of the first self-recording magnetographs.

Magnetic observations were taken once every two hours from 1841 to 1843, and every hour in 1844 and 1845. From 1847, the number of observations dropped to five per day before being reduced to just two per day from 1850.

Makerstoun’s magnetic and astronomic observatories

Makerstoun Magnetic Observatory was not intended to be a permanent fixture, and outlived its planned lifespan in continuing operations until 1855. After Brisbane died, the building that had contained the magnetic instruments was demolished. The neighbouring astronomical observatory, however, still stands.” 

2. In ‘Observations made at the magnetical and meteorological observatory at Toronto in Canada Vol. I - 1840, 1841, 1842.’ London, 1845, pp 11 

3. In ‘Reminiscences of General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane of Brisbane and Makerstoun, Bart’ Edinburgh, 1860. pp 69

So what are Meridian Stones?
Nantucket Island in the USA had meridian stones, and in 2002 research was done to find out their origin and explain their use:

“Theories of the stones’ original purpose included rating chronometers (accurately timed clocks taken aboard ships to help determine longitude while out at sea) for whaling ships, and even a theory that the stones had no practical use at all. If you took a guided-tour of Nantucket and walked past those stones before the 2002 investigation, you would hear tour guides tell a number of stories and theories about the meaning of the meridian stones. So what are they actually? A meridian line is a line that indicates, “true north” (where the North Pole is geographically), as opposed to “magnetic north,” which is aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field. If you were to use a compass –or pull out your smartphone and open your compass app –that compass (digital or physical) would show you magnetic north. The stones were measured and placed accordingly to create a line that demarcates true north.

The two stones were erected by William Mitchell, a prominent astronomer, teacher, and surveyor on Nantucket in the early 1800’s. He was also the father of the first American woman astronomer, Maria Mitchell. These stones were important for surveying work and were among the first established in the U.S. – quite some time before an act of Congress required states to establish them. Knowing the angle between the stones was important for surveyors and mapmakers who needed to translate between their compass readings and directions on a map. Or, perhaps in the case of William Mitchell, creating exact property lines and translating between both cardinal and magnetic directions to keep the housing and land measurements consistent.”4

4. Yesterday’s Island (online magazine article). What Is This? Meridian Stones. July 7, 2016 | Filed under: Island Science, Nantucket History & People and tagged with: history, Meridian Stones 

~ by Katherine Brooks, Maria Mitchell Association ~

Meridian Pillars at Makerstoun.
“Makerstoun has a single meridian pillar some 200m from the house and south of the site of the long vanished observatory. According to the early Ordnance Survey maps there were once three: another existed to the north, and there is another across the River Tweed on a small hill, The Law. There were two small transit telescopes, but the building’s position was fixed around 1829 by Sir Thomas and Captain Colby from Ordnance Survey points visible from the site.”5

5. British Astronomical Association. Meridian Pillars- A Few Examples, by David Gavine, 1984,94,4, p168.

Conclusions and conjecture:
Sir Thomas Brisbane was a keen astronomer who founded observatories at the ancestral pile near Largs, Ayrshire, at Paramatta in Australia and at Makerstoun, his wife's home. He instigated a programme of magnetic observations from a purpose built building overlooking the Tweed. These measurements were deemed necessary for accurate navigation, as the British Empire expanded across the globe. The establishment of a meridian line across the Tweed was important for Brisbane when obtaining magnetic observations, to chart the variation between the Magnetic Pole and the True Pole.

Now I wonder whether this also accounts for the truncated appearance of 'The Law'. Was the top of the mound cropped for line of sight purposes? Or could it be that the old stories about 'The Law' being made to shield the view of Newtown Roxburgh from Makerstoun has a grain of truth? Could the Law have been built UP from the original glacial depositional/basalt lava plug feature for line of sight purposes, before planting the stone on the top? Whether built up or cut down, any landscaping on the top would require workmen and pack animals, and did they make the terracing as they went up and down the hill? Perhaps investigation of Estate records may reveal the answer. Makerstoun Estate will have instigated the work, but The Law on the other side of the Tweed is, I believe, on the Roxburghe Estate.

So in the Law Stone, we have an almost forgotten monument to 19th Century science. Makerstoun was once at the forefront of scientific advancement in Scotland. The above excerpts from articles from The British Geological Survey, The Royal Society of Scotland and the British Astronomical Society substantiate this. But this only takes the story of The Law back to the mid 19th Century. 

If you could remove the tree cover from area around The Law, you would see that it stands as a very prominent feature on a major routeway into the heart of the Borders, and down to the coast. It seems unlikely that this landmark was not used for some purposes down the millennia.

(For instance, according to the records there was a holy well here, dedicated to St John, of which now there is no trace, and RCAHMS describes the terracing as Cultivation Terraces. [Canmore ID 5721, Site Number NT63SE 7].) Did the landscaping of Sir Thomas Brisbane remove the evidence of earlier usage by Man, or are there further clues still to be found? 

Geoff Parkhouse,
November 2016.

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4 Nov 2016, 11:32