The Blackford Trust - Investing in Talent in Scotland and China

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Please note The Blackford Trust is now closed - this page is retained for purely historic interest

Background to the Trust

This page provides some background to the Trust, and about why we were called The Blackford Trust.

Dr Gordon Thompson

The Trust operated between 2008 and 2016 in memory of the late Dr Gordon Thompson. It was established by our Chairman, his son Graham Thompson.

Dr Thompson (1928-2006, see photo) was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and educated at Queen's University Belfast and Imperial College, London, from where he graduated with a PhD in 1952. He subsequently worked as an astronomer at Dunsink Observatory, Dublin (1954-1956), Cambridge Observatory (1956-1959), and for the bulk of his professional life, at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, retiring in 1988 as a Principal Scientific Officer.

We are pleased to have been able to make two awards supporting astronomy in Scotland - a bursary for an astrophysics student (see here, and support for Dark Sky Scotland (see here).

Throughout his life, Dr Thompson had many pursuits beyond his work, and was keenly interested in science in general, archaeology, geology, and photography. He had an enormous love of the outdoors and the rural environment, and walked widely in Ireland, Scotland and the rest of the UK. We aim to reflect many of these interests in our work, especially that in Scotland. For example, please see here for news about a collection of his photographs donated to the John Muir Trust, and here for some of his photographs of Edinburgh on the Capital Collections image website.

Dr Thompson never visited China, but, intriguingly, he co-authored (alongside five others) a 1961 academic article on ancient Chinese astronomy with Joseph Needham, the famous scholar of Chinese science and technology. This is entitled 'An 8th-century median line : I-Hsing's chain of gnomons and the pre-history of the metric system', and appears in Vistas in Astronomy, Volume 4 (Pergamon Press, 1961).

The article tells the story of "one of the most remarkable pieces of organised field research in the early middle ages", which fixed the li, an official unit of distance similar to the metric system of a thousand years later. The Chinese research is described as occupying "a unique position among the scientific achievements" of the period, albeit "one of the least known". Dr Thompson's exact role in the article's preparation is unknown, although, as probably then the most junior author, he may have assisted with some of the calculations. Nevertheless, it is perhaps fitting, given subsequent developments, that he did make a contribution to the history of Chinese astronomy.

Graham Thompson

Graham Thompson, the former Chairman, is from Edinburgh, Scotland. He was educated at George Watson’s College, Durham University, King’s College London and the University of Edinburgh. His professional experience includes freelance journalism in Scotland, and work as a civil service press officer in London and Scotland and as a civil service policy official in Scotland. Graham lived and worked as an editor of business magazines and books in Shanghai, China, between 2002 and 2008. He has written over 200 articles and written or edited three books, and has particular interests in modern history and international relations.

Blackford Hill, Edinburgh

We were called The Blackford Trust because Blackford Hill is the site of the Royal Observatory, where Dr Thompson worked for around 30 years. It also overlooks the area of the city where his son Graham Thompson grew up. Some of our other past Trustees have connections to the area, too.

The hill, Blackford Pond and the surrounding woodlands are an area of natural beauty, managed by the City of Edinburgh Ranger Service and the Friends of Hermitage and Braid (see photo at left, courtesy of Evidence of human habitation on the hill has been found dating back to around 2000BC.

We are pleased to have made one award to a partner organisation, Autism Initiatives Scotland, for a new project right next to Blackford Hill.

The name Blackford first appeared in local records around 1600, and is believed to originate as the name of a dark or muddy crossing of the Pow Burn (sometimes known as Jordan Burn), which runs through the area. The only remaining relic of the old Blackford Estate is a farmhouse.

Sir Walter Scott, who knew the area in his youth, mentions Blackford in his famous epic poem 'Marmion', about the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513 between Scotland and England, in which the cream of Scots nobility were killed in a disastrous defeat. Scott imagined the Scots Army camped near Blackford in the run-up to the battle, writing :

Blackford ! on whose uncultured breast,
Among the broom, and thorn, and whin,
A truant-boy, I sought the rest,
or listed, as I lay at rest,
Whole rose on breezes thing,
The murmur of the city Crowd,
Saint Giles mingling din.
Now, from the summit to the plain,
Waves all the hill with yellow grain
And o'er the landscape as I look,
Nought do I see unchanged remain,
Save the rude cliffs and chiming brook.
To me they make a heavy moan,
Or early friendships past and gone.

From this, it seems Scott enjoyed the same peace and tranquility as modern visitors to Blackford Hill.

The Chinese "flavour" to our activities, meanwhile, comes from Graham Thompson's time in the country from 2002 to 2008. The Chinese character 渡, "du", used in our logo means "ford", where you cross a river. It can also mean, apparently, "to tide over a difficulty", which seems appropriate to our purpose !

There is, in fact, a remarkable connection between Blackford Hill and China. Chiang Yee, the famous Chinese writer of the 1930s and 1940s, describes a 1943 visit to the area in his delightful book Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, on pages 11-16 of the Methuen 1948 edition (see below).

The seagulls...or rather their descendants...are still there, as seen in this March 2008 shot taken by our Chairman (who was often taken there, as a small child, to feed the birds).

Silent Traveller in Edinburgh has been reprinted by Mercat Press in Edinburgh, and is available from Amazon, here. It is a charming and well-observed view of the Scottish capital, and highly recommended.

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This page was last updated on 18 July 2016.

A charity formerly registered in Scotland, no. SC039658

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