Working for healthy oceans since 1884

Who we are

Founded: 1884 by Sir John Murray

Type of organisation: independent non-profit organisation (registered Scottish Charity No. SC009206) and Company Limited by Guarantee (No. SC009292)

What do we do? We research how the marine environment works, how and why it is changing and how we could use it sustainably. Then we educate, communicate and promote what we find for the public good.

Why do we do it? To have healthy and productive seas and oceans that support life on Earth and continue to provide us with resources. Also to understand our planet and our place on it better. 

How do we do it? We undertake research into all aspects of the marine system and exchange our new understanding with society, policy makers, business and the next generation, so that it can become useful and improve practices.

Science areas: Ocean systems (fundamental science in physical oceanography; biogeochemistry; ecosystem function; polar seas); dynamic coasts (research relevant to society to plan and manage the marine environment eg regarding climate change; marine conservation; society and the sea; industrial impacts) and blue economy (applied science eg related to aquaculture, marine biotechnology, ocean energy, fisheries)

Education programmes: Marine Science BSc (with Arctic Studies; Oceanography with Robotics; and Marine Biology streams); Aquaculture, Environment and Society MSc; Algal Biotechnology & Bioeconomics MScAlgal Biotechnology, Biology and Ecology MRes; PhD. We also maintain a public visitor and outreach facility (Ocean Explorer Centre), deliver ocean literacy and STEM education for mostly young learners, and support the blue economy through our Seaweed Academy and Robotics Academy.

People: Ca 160 staff, 20 honorary research fellows, 11 trustees, 200 undergraduate and Master students, 40 research students More...

Location: Oban, a small but growing university town on the west coast of Scotland, UK. SAMS is located 3 miles east of Oban on the Dunstaffnage peninsula with easy access to diverse and distinctive coastal and offshore environments including the NE Atlantic and sheltered, deep-water fjords.

Funding: Annual budget c £10-11M: 60% of income comes from UK and EU research grants, 20% from higher education, and 20% from commercial contracts, mostly through our subsidiary company SAMS Enterprise. We also receive charitable donations.

Ships and robotics: Coastal vessel RV Seol Mara and RIB Uisge; Robotics: North Atlantic Glider Base; Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (2); Remotely Operated Vehicle; Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems; Coastal and Acoustic Drifters; UK Lander Centre; Moorings and Ocean Observatories; Polar Technology

National facilities: Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa; Scottish Marine Robotics Facility

Partners: University of the Highlands and Islands; United Nations University; Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland; Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society; Highlands and Islands Enterprise (esp European Marine Science Park)

The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) is Scotland’s largest and oldest independent marine science organisation, delivering marine science for a productive and sustainably managed marine environment through innovative research, education and engagement with society.

Based near Oban on the Scottish west coast, our marine research and teaching portfolio is diverse in topic and discipline, global in outlook, project locations and relevance, and delivered by a SAMS team with can-do attitude working in partnership with academic, business, government, regulatory, voluntary and civic society colleagues.

SAMS is a charitable organisation (009206) with a membership that elects the Board members following a recruitment process. It is also a Company Limited by Guarantee registered in Scotland (SC 009292) and operates two wholly owned subsidiary companies: SAMS Enterprise - a specialist marine consultancy - and SAMS Ltd. It is an academic partner of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Our mission

... is to increase, communicate and use our understanding of the oceans for the public good by

  • >creating new knowledge through transformational scientific enquiry
  • >disseminating that knowledge through inspirational education and public outreach
  • >deploying that knowledge to solve real-world problems

Our vision

We strive to be a world-class marine science enterprise that underpins regional, national and international policy, and societal action to secure healthy and sustainable oceans.

SAMS Board

SAMS is governed by an independent non-executive Board that meets five times a year. Ultimate legal responsibility for SAMS' operations rests with the Board. The Board appoints the Director and delegates the running of SAMS to the Director and the executive team.

The Board is supported by a range of sub-committees:

Research, Enterprise & Innovation Commission (chair: Prof Colin Brownlees)

Education Committee (chair: Dr Deborah McNeill)

Communications & Engagement Committee (chair: Susan Watts)

Development Committee (chair: Lisa Chilton)

Finance Committe (chair: Eric Hollanders)

Audit Committee (chair: Dr Ian Jardine) - which monitors the integrity of financial reporting, internal controls and risk management systems, whistleblowing and internal audit and liaises with the external auditors


Governing documents

SAMS Articles of Association (last updated 2023)

Memorandum of Association


Latest Annual Report

2021-22 annual report


Non-executive trustees


Chair / Trustee

Diana Murray CBE (2019-2022;, 2021-2024)


Trustees / board members 

Professor John Baxter (2018-2021, 2021-2024)

Professor Colin Brownlee (2018-2021, 2021-2024)

Lisa Chilton (2018-2021, 2021-2024)

Dr Deborah McNeill (2018-2021, 2021-2024)

Colin Moffat (2021-2024)

Dr Magnus Nicolson (2019-2022)

Professor Richard Waites (2021-2024)

Susan Watts (2018-2021, 2021-2024)

Douglas Wallace (2003-)

Adam Christie (2003-)

Alun Williams (2003-)

Ian Jardine (2003-)


Susan Waldron (UKRI-NERC), Morag Goodfellow (HIE), Professor Neil Simco (UHI), Danny Morrisson (HISA), Dr Clive Fox & Richard Dale (staff representatives)


The SAMS executive team 

Director & Managing Director of SRSL

Professor Nicholas JP Owens

Deputy Director

Professor Axel EJ Miller 

Associate Director, Science and Research

Professor Ben Wilson

Associate Director, Science and Education

Professor Keith Davidson

Associate Director, Science, Enterprise and Innovation

Professor Michele Stanley

Head of Human Resources

Hazel Farnell

Head of Enterprise

Mike Spain

Head of Financial Services

John Barrie


Company Secretary

Ann MacKenzie


Directors of SAMS Enterprise

Dr Pushkar Wadke

Professor Axel EJ Miller

Professor Nicholas JP Owens (chair)

How to get to SAMS

SAMS is located three miles from Oban on the A85 outside the village of Dunbeg and is adjacent to the 13th century Dunstaffnage Castle.  The nearest airports are Glasgow (ca 2 hours by car) and Prestwick and Edinburgh (both ca 3 hours by car).  A train service operates between Glasgow and Oban (visit Oban railway station). Please contact SCOTRAIL or National Rail for more details. All travel options by public transport from the South require travelling through central Glasgow.

Click HERE for directions if you are driving from your departure location.

All visitors should report to reception on arrival. Parking is available for visitors in our visitors' car park at the front of the building.

How to arrange a visit to SAMS

We warmly welcome visitors, and act as a field station for visiting groups. It is, however, important to organise your visit before arrival and to identify a staff host. This can be any member of staff you know.


Organisers for group study visits please contact Dr Clive Fox.

Potential undergraduate students should in the first instance contact Polly Crooks, while postgraduate research students should contact Professor Bhavani Narayanaswamy.

Journalists should contact Euan Paterson.

Fellow scientists wanting to arrange a sabbatical or to collaborate with a specific member of staff, please contact the scientist you would like to work with or the SAMS director.

SAMS members, visiting scientists or members of the public with an interest in visiting the institute, please contact the Head of Communications, Dr Anuschka Miller.

Commercial visitors should contact SAMS Enterprise

Organisations or individuals wanting to hire conference or meeting rooms are looked after by Claire Purdie.



  • >Coastal Zones: Solutions for the 21st Century (2015). Baztan, J, O Chouinard, B Jorgensen, P Tett, J-P Vanderlinden & L Vasseur, (Eds). Elsevier.
  • >Shared, Plural and Cultural Values: A Handbook for Decision-Makers (2014). Kenter, JO, et al. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge. doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.4683.5281
  • >Fjord Systems and Archives (2011). JA Howe, WEN Austin, M Forwick and M Paetzel (Eds.), GSL Special Publications. 392 pp
  • >Sustaining Coastal Zone Systems (2011) Tett, P, A Sandberg & A Mette (Eds.). Dunedin Academic Press. Edinburgh.
  • >Black, K.D.(2008) Environmental aspects of aquaculture, in Aquaculture, Innovation and Social Transformation, (eds. K. Culver, D. Castle) Springer Science and Business Media B.V. 2008, pp 99-115
  • >The World Guide to Whale and Dolphin Watching (2006). Angus Wilson and Ben Wilson. Colin Baxter Photography Ltd. 288 p

An account of our history

In 1882 a fisheries exhibition was held in Edinburgh to discuss the state of knowledge of the region’s fisheries. This was followed by the Great Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883 that brought these matters to the world stage. There were already concerns about the state of stocks and the lack of knowledge of the sea’s biology. The Great Exhibition, together with the pioneering Challenger Expedition, helped fuel interest in the sea amongst the growing body of Victorian natural scientists. The Scottish Meteorological Society decided to spend some of the £ 1,400 (equivalent to c £167,000 in 2018) left over from the Edinburgh expedition to establish a zoological station for marine research. They went cap in hand to the government for funding but their proposal was rejected. Fortunately, John Murray, the entrepreneurial curator of the Challenger Expedition and editor of its reports, decided to fund the venture himself – on the condition that £250 was released every year from the fisheries fund to match his own generosity.

The Scottish Marine Station was founded by Murray and officially opened on 14 April 1884. It grew quickly with a 'branch' opening on the west coast in Millport in 1885 and by 1897 a new station was created in Millport, Great Cumbrae, largely inspired by the naturalist David Robertson.  It wasn’t easy to keep the dream alive but in 1900, the Marine Biological Association of the West of Scotland was founded and this was reconstituted as the Scottish Marine Biological Association in 1914 and as the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) on 1 July 1992. During its long history, it has had to adapt many times, including the major move from Millport to Oban in 1970.  It has spawned several other major institutions, including the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science. SAMS has been home for many illustrious scientists and pioneering research expeditions. It has remained independent, innovative and international.

In the recent past, under the guidance of Professor Graham Shimmield (SAMS Director 1996-2008), SAMS became increasingly entrepreneurial, engaging with a wide range of issues of the day, benefitting from an upsurge in public funding for science and from a reawakening of the importance of the sea to the Scottish economy. The 'Sir John Murray' building, which houses the Association's major research laboratories, was built in 2004 and a very successful wing was dedicated to incubating new companies working mostly in the marine biotechnology sector. This European Centre for Marine Biotechnology has been a resounding success and Highlands and Islands Enterprise has therefore been developing the European Marine Science Park adjacent to SAMS. In 2009, under the directorship of Professor Laurence Mee, a new £7M teaching building named after Sheina Marshall FRS was added to the estate.

The partnership with UHI by Professor Jack Matthews (SAMS Director 1987-95) 


Former SAMS Director Jack Matthews and SAMS Director Prof Laurence Mee celebrate the award of university title to UHIEarly in my career, when I was at the SMBA's Oceanographic Laboratory in Edinburgh, I was granted leave to do some experimental work on Calanus at Millport, working alongside Sheina Marshall, which was a great privilege that Jane and I fondly remember. Years later, after I returned to SMBA and when NERC was having to consider seriously the position of the grant-aided institutions, the Highlands and Islands Development Board published Sir Graham Hills' report on a potential University for, of and in the Highlands and Islands including Argyll, although it was noted that the county did not have a college ready to be a potential partner. Council of the SMBA (soon to become SAMS) agreed that affiliation of the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory with the new body should be considered on three grounds: first, because it was unthinkable that a university could be created in the H & I without a strong element of marine science in the curriculum; secondly that none of the other partners had a strong research ethos, while SMBA/SAMS had an established record of postgraduate activity and an international reputation in marine scientific research; and thirdly we would fill the space in Argyll most appropriately.

SAMS became a full partner in the UHI Project in 1992, and immediately started to develop a full four-year honours course in marine science; this received preliminary approval from the UHI Board in 1995, which gave me much pleasure just before I retired as Director. The opening now of the Sheina Marshall Building to accommodate what has become a truly comprehensive education in all branches of marine science is a thrilling outcome for me.

Notes on Oban as a location for marine research

August 1868: Charles Wyville Thomson's expedition aboard HMS Lightning to explore ocean depths NW of the British Isles leaves from Oban. Despite poor weather sufficient evidence emerges to throw very serious doubt on Edward Forbes’ azoic theory. (This theory is finally conclusively disproved a year later during the HMS Porcupine expedition again under Charles Wyville Thomson's leadership.) The findings suggest that animals are likely to live at all depths in the oceans – which has since been confirmed.

1881: James Cossart Ewart FRS operates a zoological laboratory in Oban working on invertebrate nervous systems. John Murray leads a Challenger-follow-on expedition aboard the HMS Triton to the newly named Wyville Thomson Ridge. The expedition returns to Oban. 

List of major office bearers of the organisation since 1894

Chairman of Committee
1894 – 1900        George M’Crie

1901 – 1906  James Fairlie Gemmill MA MD DSc FZS
1907 – 1911  Henry Barr BL
1912 – 1932  Sir Archibald McInnes Shaw LLD
1932 – 1944  Professor Frederick Orpen Bower FRS FRSE
1944 – 1950  Professor Sir John Graham Kerr LLD FRS MP FLS FZS
1950 – 1968  Professor Sir Charles Maurice Yonge CBE DSc FRSE FRS
1968 – 1974  Professor Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards CBE FRSC FRS
1974 – 1979  Professor David Richmond Newth FRSE LLD
1980 – 1985  Professor Frederick G T Holliday CBE FRSE
1986 – 1988  Professor Sir William DP Stewart FRSE FRS
1988 – 1993  Professor Alasdair Duncan McIntyre CBE DSc FRSE FIBiol FRSA
1993 – 2000  Professor Sir David Cecil Smith FRSE FRS FLS
2000 – 2004  Dr Ian James Graham-Bryce CBE FRSE
2004 – 2008  Professor Sir John Peebles Arbuthnott FRSE FRCPSG FMedSci FRCPath
2008 – 2012  Professor Andrew Hamnett DL DPhil Hon DSc CChem FRSC FRSE
2012 – 2018  Professor Geoffrey Stewart Boulton OBE FRSE FRS
2019 -           Diana Murray CBE, MA (Cantab), FRSE, FRSGS, FSA, Hons FSA Scot, MCIfA, MIoD


1884 -           Sir John Murray
1905 - 1907   Stephen Pace
1908 - 1949   Richard Elmhirst (until 1933 as ‘Superintendent’)
1949 - 1956   Ebenezer Ford OBE FRSE (obituary in JMBA 55: 255-260)
1957 - 1968   Professor Clifford H Mortimer DSc FRSE FRS
1968 - 1987   Professor Ronald I Currie CBE FRSE FIBiol
1987 - 1995   Professor Jack B L Matthews DPhil FRSA FRSE
1995 - 2008   Professor Graham B Shimmield FRSE FIBiol (1 Dec 1958 - 24 Dec 2016)
2008 - 2014   Professor Laurence Mee FRSC CChem (14 Feb 1951 - 13 Aug 2014)
2015 -           Professor Nicholas JP Owens

The beginnings of marine science

Throughout Western Europe, the 19th century saw the establishment of science as an integral part of the cultural activity and creative effort of nations. Physical and biological sciences flourished and specialised, as the application of their results in the practical endeavours of engineering, agriculture, seafaring, and military activity became appreciated by industry and governments. The marine environment has always been of great importance to mankind both because of its resources and because it presents dangers. Recorded observations of marine fauna and the physical characteristics of the sea can be traced back at least to the 4th century BC, and scientific investigations were an integral part of the activities of the great maritime expeditions of the 15th and 16th centuries. Systematic, progressive sampling and description of the marine environment, though, only developed as distinct objectives in the middle of the 19th century.

Edward Forbes 1815-1854The influence of the British naturalist Edward Forbes stands out among the pioneers of the science of the sea at this time. The results of his programme of sampling of the marine fauna, The Natural History of European Seas, published posthumously in 1859, provided an important baseline for future studies. He identified the needs for new knowledge and, inadvertently, stimulated considerable interest and scientific controversy (Forbes had earlier mistakenly claimed that life could not exist in the sea below about 550 m). The publication in the same year of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species stimulated tremendous interest in the investigation of the widest variety of life forms. Darwin's ideas turned particular attention to forms of life in unusual and isolated environments for whatever scientific clues these could contribute to the great evolutionary debate.

Against this background, two developments, with direct relevance to the history of SAMS, set the scene for the origins of marine sciences: the opening of the first dedicated marine station in Naples in 1875, and the Challenger Expedition between 1872 and 1876.


Marine stations

In 19th century Europe, life in the sea fascinated the general public, and since the late 1840s guided tours to the shore for amateur collectors and visits to seaside aquaria were well established in Britain. This popularity led to the establishment of several large public aquaria, including one at London Zoo in 1853, for the public exhibition of marine specimens.

Anton Dohrn 1840-1909Although there were several facilities for marine biology in Europe, it is Anton Dohrn, the son of an educated and cosmopolitan industrialist, who is generally credited with conceiving the idea of marine stations to provide permanent locations and resources for the scientific study of marine life. Making use of his single-minded dedication and family wealth, allied with support from scientists throughout Europe, Dohrn persuaded the somewhat bemused city authorities to allow the establishment of the world's first marine station, the Stazione Zoologica, on the shoreline of the Bay of Naples in 1875.

With direct access to the rich marine fauna and pristine waters of the Bay of Naples, the Stazione provided well-equipped laboratories, flowing seawater, holding tanks, and dedicated local staff to support the work of what soon became a great marine observatory. The Stazione, an immediate success, was funded from payments due from visiting scientists, the sale of specimens, and entrance fees to the public aquarium. It further attracted the interest and investment of industry and governments. A scientific journal and series of review monographs published the results of the work of the Stazione. Exhibitions, lectures and demonstrations were provided for the public at large and for the training of students and special interest groups such as naval officers.

The scientific principles on which the Stazione Zoologica was established, and the funding mechanisms put in place to maintain it, set the framework for the rapid expansion of marine stations throughout the world in the closing decades of the 19th century. Within a couple of decades major marine laboratories were established by most of the countries of Europe as well as North America. In Britain, current marine laboratories that originate from this time include the Scottish Marine Station (today SAMS, 1884), the Gatty Marine Laboratory (University of St Andrews, 1884), the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (Plymouth, 1884), the Port Erin Marine Biological Station (University of Liverpool, 1892 but closed in 2006), the Dove Marine Laboratory (University of Newcastle, 1897), the Fisheries Research Laboratory (Aberdeen, 1899), and the Bangor Marine Station (University of Belfast, 1903).


The Challenger Expedition

Just prior to the founding of the Stazione Zoologica in December 1872, with all the bravado and confidence of the late Victorians, HMS Challenger, a British naval corvette of 2306 tons, stripped of her guns and loaded with scientific equipment, set out to cruise around the world to observe:

  • >the physical conditions of the sea in the great ocean basins
  • >the chemical composition of seawater at all depths in the ocean
  • >the physical and chemical characteristics of the sea floor deposits and the nature of their origin, and
  • >the distribution of organic life at all depths in the sea and on the sea floor

By current standards, the Challenger remit seems impossibly over-ambitious, but it continues to set the scale and direction for marine science generally.

Charles Wyville Thomson 1830-1882Over the next four years, Challenger travelled 127,500 km through the world's oceans, executing the greatest programme of soundings and sampling yet undertaken. The expedition discovered 4717 new marine species, and sounded the Marianas Trench to a depth of 8185 m. The scientific party was led by Dr (later Sir) Charles Wyville Thomson, and included a Canadian-born Scotsman, Dr (later Sir) John Murray, who was to become the founding father for SAMS. In 1877, after the return of the Challenger, an office was founded in Edinburgh to process the samples from the expedition and to publish its results. John Murray became director and edited the seminal 50-volume Expedition Reports. Of the five scientists participating in the expedition, three were Scottish (Thomson, Murray and John Young Buchanan), one English (Henry Nottidge Moseley), and one German (Rudolf von Willemoes-Suhm).

The founding and early history of the Association

John Murray 1841-1914In 1867 and 1868 Anton Dohrn, the founder of the Stazione Zoologica, had visited David Robertson, the 'Cumbrae Naturalist', a largely self-educated and highly regarded amateur naturalist, knowledgeable and interested in marine biology, to conduct marine biological studies on the west coast of Scotland. It is likely that during this time the two men discussed the rationale and ethos for prospective marine stations. David Robertson later became the man most credited with the move of the Ark from Granton and its re-estabishment as a laboratory on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde in 1885. We also know that Dohrn carried back with him to Naples a design for a portable marine aquarium, arising from his contacts with Robertson, that he made up and took to Messina in 1868. In 1884 Sir John Murray, entrusted with funds raised at the Fisheries Exhibition in Edinburgh of 1882 and with the financial and practical support of many academic and business associates, declared open the Scottish Marine Station at Granton onboard an old lighter, the Ark, and endowed it with the library of Wyville Thomson. Thus, the exploratory vision, scientific impetus and resources arising from the Challenger expedition led directly to the establishment of a dedicated centre for research into the marine environment and its living inhabitants. It was to be the founding event of an Association that has persisted, adapting and growing over a period of 120 years, and that entered a new phase of development in the year 2004. In 1885 the Ark was moved to Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde at the west coast of Scotland, and the Granton station eventually closed in 1903. In 1894, the Cumbrae Naturalist David Robertson founded a committee to build a marine station in Millport, and took over the Ark. The Millport Marine Biological Station was opened in 1897 by Sir John Murray. In 1904, the Association received the oceanographer and explorer, William Speirs Bruce on board the Scotia, returning from his successful, but largely ignored, expedition to the Antarctic.

Records of the activities of staff and visitors of the Association have been meticulously maintained in the form of annual reports and scientific publications in a continuous series extending back to the first days of the Granton Station in 1884. They can be accessed in the Association's library at Dunstaffnage. Over such a period of time in any field of science, some lines of investigation reach their natural conclusion or cease to be useful, while others arise and take their place as new methods become available and new needs are recognised. Many themes of investigation and activity fundamental to the Association, however, can be traced from the earliest beginnings to the present time. The history of the Association reveals the antecedents of much of the research currently important in the work of the station.

Author: Professor Peter Boyle

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