Alan Joyce – citizen scientist and inspiration

Citizen Science can appear like an ‘in-phrase’ at the moment, but it isn’t new and Alan Joyce was encouraging it many years ago in the north of Scotland.

As a young man in the 1950s Alan read an article in Country Life magazine about a rural bus service which ran from Lairg to Durness and resolved to visit Sutherland, his first experience of the Highlands. Ending up at Rhiconich he then walked and hitched all the way home to Aberdeen. He had fallen in love with the north of Scotland, and a few years later Alan took up a post in Golspie High School teaching biology determined to transmit his enthusiasm to others.

He would become a legendary figure in his local community and particularly amongst pupils at Golspie High School. His previous work at the Aberdeen Fisheries Laboratory had given him some expertise in freshwater biology so he quickly devised some exciting projects for his pupils. With 32,000 lochs in Scotland – and a great many of them in Sutherland – he had plenty of scope.

Young Scientists of the Year

When the British Association for the Advancement of Science held their annual meeting in Dundee in 1968 the Headmaster suggested Alan and his pupils exhibit their work on ‘Food for Fish and Man’. For three days, three pupils and their teacher manned their display and their efforts were rewarded by being told that they had been selected to enter the Scottish round of the Young Scientist of the Year competition. In November they discovered they had won, and they went on to take the National Award the following January.

The three Young Scientists were given a great welcome home at Golspie railway station, and as a reward later that summer were despatched to spend three weeks in Iceland, with the school minibus and driver. One of the three prize winners went on to become a council roadman in Tongue, another a solicitor and the third an Exploration Manager for British Oil.

Although not strictly on the school syllabus, Alan was able to pursue further projects on salmon, trout and Arctic charr, and on freshwater crustaceans. It was an inspirational approach although one that took some time to take hold. He noted in the 1960s that “Strangely enough freshwater biology does not seem to feature much in Scottish education. However, recently, I was pleased to read of 40 primary schools near Glasgow undertaking an interesting project on trout in the River Clyde.”

Alan’s pupils went on to investigate the diet and distribution of Arctic charr in Sutherland, examining stomachs from fish caught on the local estates. They also looked at the survival and growth of Pacific oysters in the Kyle of Tongue, which encouraged a local couple to set up a successful oyster farm. This addition to the approved curriculum was all Alan’s work and a hugely enjoyable departure from the norm.

Desmids and crustaceans

He was an inspirational teacher and influenced so many of his pupils to look on our natural heritage from a fresh perspective. Some time after he retired he reflected on his achievements which extended well beyond the school gates.

“‘When I retired 20 years ago,” he recalled, “I was approached by the Head Teacher of Achfary Primary School (who was a former pupil), and then by Bettyhill School, to lead the pupils in a freshwater project. It stopped me completely mentally rotting in retirement! I prepared work sheets for the children with background information about what desmids and crustaceans are and what they do. We’d then go out to a loch and take a sample of sludge back to the laboratory. When the children found desmids under the microscope they could identify them from the sheets and colour them in. They really were incredibly quick at picking them out and they even surprised their teachers. We wrote to Zeiss to order a microscope for the school, but when they realised what it was for, they kindly sent us another one free of charge.’

Alan Joyce’s class worksheets were copiously illustrated, and adorned with his own entertaining verse, which seemed to sum up his tireless lifestyle:-

Wandering amongst Scotland’s mountains beside its many lochs

You’ll find there tiny beasties, lots and lots and lots. . .

 . . . Refuge comes at last, with the very sagacious Charr

Whose taxonomic skills are superior to ours by far.

Without the help of microscopes, teachers or books on beasts

He knows which Cladocerans to gather for his feasts.


What’s more there are baby salmon, trout and stickleback,

The occasional Cladoceran their diet will not lack.

He who made these mountains with their many lochs

Gave all who live there food, even though some be just tiny dots!

Alan kindled people’s interest in subjects that on the surface many might have thought boring, and simultaneously he opened up interesting subjects to non-academically minded pupils. He did much of this as an enthusiastic teacher and a deal more in his retirement. Indeed it is arguable that he never really retired in the truest sense of the phrase. He was hugely respected locally, yet always keen to share the praise he received with others, nobody more so than his wife of whom he said ‘has been very tolerant of my crazy pastime.”

So when you next hear the word ‘citizen science’ mentioned say a silent thank you to Alan Joyce, a man who inspired hundreds of schoolchildren and put a fair amount of fun into science in and around Sutherland.


Alan Joyce explaining, in his own unique and engaging way, some interesting facts about freshwater invertebrates –

This biography of Alan E Joyce, who passed away in 2007, was originally produced for SNH’s Highland Naturalists project – part of our contribution to 2007 The Year of Highland Culture.


Images form part of the Alan Joyce collection and are courtesy of his family. The initial image (colour) was provided by Pete Moore.


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