Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
Journal 40

James Melvill sees a great Comet in 1577

"This yeir, in the winter, appeired a terrible Comet, the stern [star, i.e. nucleus] wharof was verie grait, and proceiding from it toward the est a lang teall, in appeirance, of an ell and a halff, like unto a bissom or scurge maid of wands all fyrie. It rease nightlie in the south weast, nocht above a degree and an halff ascending above the horizon, and continowed about a sax oukes [weeks], or twa moneth, and piece and piece weir away. The graittest effects wharof that out of our countrey we hard was a grait and mightie battell in Barbaria in Afric, wharin thrie kings war slean, with a hudge multitud of peiple. And within the countrey, the chasing away of the Hamiltones.

James Melvill (1556-1614) was educated at the University of St Andrews during the turmoil of the Reformation and when John Knox lived there. He became a Regent then Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages, in 1586 he was Minister of Anstruther then in 1590 Minister of Kilrenny, Fife. This, and his accounts of a total eclipse of the sun (ASE Journal 25) and of a fireball (ibid. 39) are from his Autobiography and Diary, Wodrow Society, Edinburgh 1842. p.45.

The celebrated Comet of 1577 was observed by Chinese and Japanese astronomers. Tycho Brahe first saw it while out fishing on November 13. European observers watched it until late January. It moved from Scorpius into Aquila and Pegasus, its blue-white nucleus was said to have been brighter than Venus, or as bright as the Moon, and its tail, estimated from 22 to 60 degrees in length, was quoted as white or reddish. Tycho found no perceptible parallax so concluded that it must be further away than the Moon, moving retrograde at an angle of 29° to the ecliptic and within the "sphere" of Venus. (Tycho did not agree with either the Ptolemaic or Copernican models of the cosmos - in his own system Venus and Mercury went round the Sun but the Sun went round the Earth.). In his later work De mundi aetherei recentioribus phaenomenis (1588) he used the evidence of the comet and of the supernova he saw in Cassiopeia in 1572 to confound Aristotle's notions that the heavens are unchanging so transient phenomena are in the upper air, and that the planets move in crystal spheres.

Dave Gavine