2021 Looking Forward : Looking Back

From a time of pandemic, members look back over their time in PSNS and think about the future.  Please contribute as well. Here’s how.

Looking Back:  

Ornithology and Botany


History and Archaeology


2017: The 150th Anniversary of PSNS

Dame Evelyn Glennie was Guest of Honour at the 150th Anniversary event – with the Perth Youth Percussion Ensemble and PSNS members

150th Anniversary events

The Botanical Section invited the Radio Scotland Out of Doors programme to the Birks of Aberfeldy to interview the Section’s dandelion expert.

Dame Evelyn Glennie concert and talk

First Season of Curious Minds winter season talks

PSNS exhibition and reception in Perth Museum and Art Gallery

PPS Photography Exhibition in 2 High Street. The Photographic Section curated an exhibition of members’ photographs from the Society’s earliest days up to the present.

Colin Prior lecture in St Matthews

2016 – Curious Minds Lecture Series

Curious Minds – An Idea is Hatched

From its beginnings in the 19th Century, PSNS ran a series of Friday evening lectures for members and their guests. The talks were originally held in the Society’s own museum on Tay Street but, when the PSNS collections were gifted to the new Perth Museum in 1935, the meetings moved to the museum lecture theatre. Talks featured speakers from the Society’s active sections, the Perth Mountaineering Club (an early PSNS spin-off) and guests from other learned societies. Many speakers presented research on the natural history and archaeology of Perthshire that would go on to be published in academic journals.

Fast forward to 2015. As PSNS approached the 150th anniversary of its founding the era of the amateur scientist was long gone. The society had stopped publishing its own Journal. Friday night lectures still featured on the agenda but attendance numbers had declined. PSNS had to decide what its role was in modern Perth? Round about the same time, Perth Museum was undergoing a similar period of change with the formation of Culture Perth and Kinross.

PSNS met with the new CPK management and the idea for a collaboration was hatched. CPK and PSNS would work together to bring contemporary, cutting-edge science, from Scottish Universities and Laboratories, to the people of Perth. PSNS would provide the speakers and organize the events. CPK would help with marketing and technical support. Curious Minds was born. The talks would be open to the general public, to schools, to college students. They would reflect local interests, when appropriate, but they would also tackle some of the most advanced and ground breaking research being conducted in Scotland.

Our first Curious Minds Programme

The first season of 12 talks kicked off in October 2016 and was an immediate success. Our first speaker was a safe choice. Mike Robinson is a well-known local figure as CEO of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. His subject was also a safe choice. Climate change. We quickly developed a structure for the evenings. Our speaker would talk for up to 1 hour. We break for tea and coffee then re-convene for a Q&A session that developed into a genuine audience discussion. Often, this was the highlight of the evening. Our audience quickly stabilized at around 100 people – with regular capacity crowds. It would take too long to describe all of the lectures so let’s just pull out a number of highlights. In November 2016 we were lucky to entice the World-famous palaeontologist, Dr Steve Brussatte, to come to Perth and show us his most recent discoveries – dinosaur footprints on Skye.  Steve was welcomed by the Provost of Perth and, of course, his talk had something for everyone from the serious fossil buffs to families with kids clutching their favourite dinosaur toys.


Steve Brussatte, the Lady Provost of Perth and an excited dinosaur fan

In February we turned the science knob up to 11 with Professor Wendy Bickmore, Director of the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh who gave us a guided tour of the human genome. But the final talk of the year will never be forgotten. Professor Jim Hough, from Glasgow, is a long-term collaborator on the LIGO project to detect Gravitational Waves. Jim was literally on his way home from the USA when he gave a talk in Perth. He brought with him his laptop which had, on it, the first recording of the “sound” of a gravitational wave. 120 people, in a lecture theatre in Perth, were among the first to hear the “chirp” of two black holes colliding! 

Professor Wendy Bickmore is introduced by Past President John Lewington

Season 2: The PSNS 150th Anniversary

Dame Evelyn Glennie with the Perth Youthl Percussion Ensemble and PSNS members

In the Autumn of 2017 the Society organized several events to mark its150th anniversary. (Link to another article). We invited Dame Evelyn Glennie to open our second Curious Minds season. Dame Evelyn overcame profound deafness to become a World famous percussionist. She brough along her musical instruments and explained, and demonstrated, how she feels music through her body. Remarkable and inspirational. She was joined on stage by members of the Perth Youth Percussion ensemble.

The second season built on the first with a similar mix of local and global topics ranging from archaeology (the search for the tomb of James I under Perth), through the physiology of seals in the Tay, to Vulcanology in Iceland to the discovery of the Higgs Boson in CERN. The Higgs Boson talk filled the auditorium to overflowing. Victoria Martin, from Edinburgh, works at CERN and was both a student and colleague of Professor Peter Higgs. Before the talk we told her “Don’t dumb it down” – and she didn’t. But the reaction was amazing. At the interval she was immediately surrounded by school students eager to ask her questions. She was like a – rock star. 

Dr Victoria Martin, CERN, and a group of budding Physicists

But don’t get the impression that Curious Minds is all about sub-atomic particles or impenetrable formulae. Far from it. Our next talk was by a local Perth artist and musician, Jon Hoad. Remarkably, from his studio in central Perth, Jon produces illustrations of Dinosaurs in their Jurassic environments. Jon creates images for Museums, publishers and for Steve Brussatte. We were treated to an update on the Skye footprints project with musical accompaniment from Jon on his guitar.  

Jon Hoad, artist, musician and expert on Jurassic environments

Season 3: 2018/19 – In Our Stride

Season 3 confirmed that we were really hitting our stride. Word of the lecture series had spread through the Scottish Academic community. Speakers didn’t have to be persuaded to travel to Perth on dark Winter evenings. We began the season with a “close to home” talk by Dr Alison Sheridan of the National Museum of Scotland. The PSNS Archaeology and History Section was set up in 1948 and Alison’s lecture marked its 70thanniversary. She described how, 5000 years ago, beautiful jadeite axe heads were quarried from a rock high in the Italian Alps and, eventually, turned up in a farmer’s field in Perthshire. A remarkable detective story.   

The season continued the eclectic mix that we established over the previous years. We heard about searching for exoplanets, the causes (and cures?) for dementia, Gorilla communication, the physics of musical instruments and more. 

Professor Luke Bisby. International expert on fire engineering

One highlight was a talk by Professor Luke Bisby on Fire Engineering. Luke had been involved in studying the World Trade Centre after the 9/11 attacks. Why did the buildings collapse? He and his team modelled how the build up of heat melted and buckled key structural components – with catastrophic consequences.  Luke also contributed to the expert report on the Grenfell fire. A fascinating evening – made more memorable by the arrival of the active-duty fire crew from Perth Fire Station – in full uniform – complete with fire engine in the car park! 

Season 4: 2019/20 – Consciousness and Covid

A typical Curious Mind audience

By the time season 4 came around in 2019 we were confident in our format and we began to broaden the range of topics that we felt would be of interest to our audience. In addition to some great mainstream science talk covering subjects like antimicrobial resistance, to engineering in space and radiocarbon dating, we enjoyed a talk from Professor Bruce Whitelaw of the Roslin Institute on the gene-editing technology, CRISPR. We also included talks to explore subjects such as sensory perception, Artificial Intelligence, optical illusions and, the big unanswered question “What is consciousness?”. Professor Michael Wheeler is a Philosopher from Stirling who had stepped in at the last moment in Season 3 when one of our speakers cancelled. Mike introduced us to his own work “The Extended Mind”.

He talked about the relationship between our mental processes and the tools that we increasingly use to interact with the external world. We asked Mike to come back and talk about Consciousness. At first, he was reluctant. It is a difficult and contentious subject. But he agreed to come along and give us a neutral view of current ideas on the subject. The auditorium was completely sold out. This is clearly an interesting subject. Mike gave a great and clear explanation and, eventually, hinted at his own belief.

Professor Mike Wheeler tackled the most challenging subject – What is Consciousness?

Our final Curious Minds lecture explored another new direction for PSNS. Professor Aude le Guenec, a fashion anthropologist, talk about how a parent’s choice of children’s clothing influences their social and emotional development.  That was on March 6th 2020. A few days later our World changed as Covid-related restrictions made such events impossible. 2020/21 was a wash out. We look forward to Season 5 when it becomes possible with, we promise, no talks on viruses, vaccines or pandemics!

Our Season 4 Curious Minds Programme

PSNS People 1980’s – 2020

Open to all, the Society’s sections continued to explore, record and influence the world around them, supporting initiatives such as the Tay and Fife Archaeological Committee and networking with like minded organisation. Extensive photographic, botanical, and ornithological records were published during this period. 

The PSNS  kept active in local affairs and education due largely to the work of Roda Fothergill.

Dr Margaret Stewart MBE (1907 – 1986), Valerie McLaren Thom (1929 – 1998), James Aitken (1913 – 2003), Dr WH Findlay (1911 – 2006), Kenneth M MacAlpine (1908 – 1994), Rhoda Fothergill BEM



1990’s A Social Record – Rhoda Fothergill publishes historical guides to Perth

Perhaps the longest serving PSNS member – ever – Rhoda Fothergill became Secretary of the Society in 1968 and remained so for 47 years. Rhoda studied in Edinburgh, St Andrews and Dundee, but lived most of her life in Perth. She taught in Caledonian Road School, and before that in Kinnoull School. Her interests covered all the activities of the Society but she was a tireless researcher into the archaeology and history of Perth and its people. In her school teaching days she often recruited her pupils into her studies. A project on The Vennels of Perth led to an art project to decorate one of the vennels with information on the crafts and trades of the burgh. Many of her booklets, for example on the Charterhouse, began as class projects. She was a prolific writer of papers and booklets. Some found their way into the Society’s Journal, and some are now being re-published on the PSNS web site. She was a tireless supporter of the Society’s School Essay competitions.

She was a popular lecturer on Old Perth, on the Greyfriars Burial Ground, and on some of the notable characters of the 19th-century burgh. Her lectures were often given under the auspices of Perth College. She also led guided walks, around Greyfriars and various parts of Perth, often connected with the Civic Trust.

Her contribution was recognised not only locally but also nationally. For several years she served on the Ancient Monuments Board, and in 2014 she received the British Empire Medal for her contribution to the history and preservation of Perth and Perthshire.


1984 Social Record: Dr W H Finlay publishes Photographs ‘Heritage of Perth’

Dr W H Findlay was a Consultant at PRI from 1948 to 1970 and President of both the PSNS and the Photographic Section. From the 1950s to the 1980s he amassed a huge collection of photographs of Perth’s townscape. More than 6000 of his prints are now stored in the A.K. Bell Library and many of those appear in his 1984 book, Heritage of Perth. Dr Findlay’s family have recently made his entire collection of over 25,000 photographs available to the PSNS.The photographs show Perth as a city in transition – from the old to the new.



1967 100th Anniversary of PSNS

‘The idea of planting a commemorative grove of trees on that part of Moncreiffe Island north of the railway bridge has also been put into effect. These trees, Scots Pines interplanted with a few Grey Alders and Golden Osiers, will hardly demonstrate the effectiveness of the conception until many years have passed, but when they reach maturity they will add a striking feature to Perth’s unique river scene at a point which at present looks bare and unattractive. Looking westwards towards the building in Tay Street which was the original museum and home of the Society, the grove will, moreover, become a permanent reminder to the people of Perth of the Society in their midst.’  PSNS journal (vol. 12).

The spot was considered most appropriate as it lies opposite the Society’s original museum in Tay Street. At one time this was an open grassed area, formerly the site of filter beds for Perth Corporation Waterworks. The PSNS planted the trees in 1967 to mark its centenary and “to enhance the visual aspect of the town centre”.  In 1981 a further three oak trees were planted in a ceremony to commemorate the late Allan W. Robson DA, who was chairman of the Botanical Section from its inception in 1957 until his death in January 1981. The southern part of the island is more developed, with the Perth Working Men’s Garden Association allotments and King James VI golf course.

Two Botanical Section Bulletins provide information on follow up:



View from the former farmhouse, Moncreiffe  Island, Perth looking towards site of old gasworks and former farmhouse.

1963 Ornithology Section hatches

The study of birds has always been a major interest of the Society and many members and supporters donated bird skins for the museum’s collections during the Society’s first fifty years. The Ornithological Section was formed in 1963 by Valerie Thom, a well-known Scottish ornithologist and author of Birds in Scotland.

Section members recorded their local bird sightings and published the information in a regular bulletin until 2012. The bird records were submitted to local and national bird surveys such as wildfowl counts and the British Trust for Ornithology Bird Atlas. Members are now encouraged to make use of national recording forums such as the online BirdTrack.

The Section runs field trips and a winter lecture programme with contributions from outside experts and its own well-travelled members.

PSNS People 1940-1980

Post war, the scope of science accelerated rapidly into highly specialised areas. Leading scientists gave talks at well attended meetings. Local people continued to explore and record, encouraged by the academics and practitioners who retired to Perthshire.  

James Menzies (1854 – 1945), Thomas McLaren (1873 – 1947), Peter K McLaren (1903 – 1963), Professor James Robert Matthews CBE, Allan Watt Robson (1916 – 1981)


1957 Botanical Section inaugurated

The Botanical Section, established in 1957, continues the work begun by the Society in the nineteenth century of studying and recording the distribution of plants in the area. The tradition of regular field excursions continues to increase scientific knowledge and is an opportunity for members to learn identification skills and recording methods.

The plant data is added to national plant distribution projects and databases. The section works closely with the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland which has collected plant records since 1836. Their national plant database holds over 35 million records. For example the data recorded by Alan Robson, a former section President, and that of other section members was included in the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, published in 2000. The distribution and abundance data gathered allows comparison with the past and the information is vital in developing new conservation plans for the future.

PSNS People 1900-1940

The Society continued to embrace an enlightened and accessible approach to membership. Influencial members included

Sir Patrick Geddes FRSE (1854 – 1932), a Scottish biologist, sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and pioneering town planner

Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson  CB FRS FRSE (1860 – 1948). Thompson is remembered as the author of the 1917 book On Growth and Form, the process by which patterns and body structures are formed in plants and animals. 

Sir Robert Pullar (1828 – 1912) Robert Pullar gave the Society many donations, including £5,000 towards the building of the Natural History Museum in Tay Street.