The Scotsman, a Scottish society, and the ‘heroic age’ of exploration

by Jo Woolf 

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society was founded in 1884, a time when there were still many blank spaces on the map of the world, and explorers were returning to British shores with breathtaking stories of adventure.  Many of these explorers were invited to speak at the RSGS, and The Scotsman carried detailed accounts of their lectures.  To celebrate the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, RSGS Writer-in-Residence Jo Woolf takes a look at some events in the early history of the Society which were reported in the pages of the newspaper.

1.“Exploration is the poetry of geography.”  

On 11th October 1884, The Scotsman newspaper discussed the plans for a new Scottish Geographical Society (it acquired ‘Royal‘ status in 1887).  The idea was the brainchild of Edinburgh map-maker John George Bartholomew, and one of the co-founders was Agnes Livingstone Bruce, the daughter of David Livingstone.  The Scotsman wholeheartedly supported the venture, claiming that “no extreme exercise of ingenuity is needed in order to correlate geographical science and the national genius of Scotland.”

Agnes Livingstone Bruce called on the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley to deliver the Society’s inaugural address on 3rd December 1884.  The Music Hall in Edinburgh was decked in flags for the occasion, and from the platform Stanley extolled the virtues of Scotland’s greatest explorers: “To me, Scotland, apart from her glories in poetry and literature and her triumphs in art, is specially honoured as being the cradle of Mungo Park, the birthplace of Bruce, and the country of Livingstone.”  (Scotsman, 4th December 1884).

 2. The importance of telegrams

One of the most celebrated explorers of the late 1800s was a young Norwegian named Fridtjof Nansen.  In the summer of 1888 Nansen and five companions made the first crossing of the Greenland ice-cap, travelling over the difficult terrain on skis.  They reached the west coast in early October, but found that they had missed the last ship returning home before the winter.   The news of their arrival in Godthaab (Nuuk) was reported in this telegram, published in The Scotsman:

 “Copenhagen, November 9:  A telegram has reached this city from the captain of the steamer Fox, which has arrived at Tarsund, in Norway, from Greenland.  He reports that Lieutenant Nansen’s expedition, which started to cross Greenland upon show shoes, has successfully accomplished this object, passing safely over the inland ice, and arriving in Godthaab on the 4th of October.”   (Scotsman, 10th November 1888)

After spending the winter with the Inuit people, Nansen and his men were picked up the following spring and brought back to Norway for a tumultuous reception.  In May 1889 the news of their homecoming was announced in The Scotsman by Mr A Silva White, Secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society:

 “I received to-day (May 22) the following telegram from Dr Fridtjof Nansen, whose remarkable feat of crossing Greenland from east to west has already been referred to in your columns:  ‘Copenhagen, 6.50 am – Safely arrived.  Hearty thanks.  Greeting friends, Edinburgh.  Fridtjof Nansen.’”  (Scotsman, 23rd May 1889)

Within a few weeks, Nansen was an honoured guest of the RSGS.  He delivered a lecture in the Merchant Company’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 1st July.

The Scotsman article on Isabella Bird’s lecture for RSGS (married name Bishop).

3. The Society’s first woman lecturer: Isabella Bird

The RSGS welcomed women members from the outset, and it was not long before its lecture session was opened by a female speaker.  On 13th November 1891 The Scotsman reported on a presentation in Edinburgh by Isabella Bird, entitled ‘The Upper Karun Region and the Bakhtiari Lurs’.  Exploring the mountainous regions of present-day Iran, Isabella had trekked along steep-sided gorges as she traced the course of the Karun river.  She told her audience that “mountains and valleys were explored in circumstances so difficult that the mules had often to be unloaded.  On several occasions they went tumbling down a distance of 40 or 50 feet, and one was killed over a precipice.”  Isabella was a talented photographer, and her presentation concluded with “a most admirable series of limelight views.”  It was one of the Society’s earliest lectures to be illustrated in this way.

4. Shackleton and the Endurance expedition

A large audience was present in the Music Hall, Aberdeen, last night, when, under the auspices of the local centre of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, Sir E. Shackleton, CVO, delivered his lecture entitled ‘Antarctic Adventures’.”   (Scotsman, 14th January 1920)

For the great explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, a visit to the RSGS was a nostalgic homecoming.  He had, after all, been appointed Secretary of the Society in 1904.  In 1920 he was speaking about the Endurance expedition, which so nearly ended in disaster for himself and his crew.  He described how, after his ship had been crushed by the Antarctic ice, he and his men had spent five and a half months drifting on ice floes.  He told how they took to the sea in the ship’s lifeboats and reached Elephant Island, and then he and five companions made a perilous 800-mile voyage to South Georgia.  The coast where they landed was uninhabited, so Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley marched across the island’s ice-bound interior to find help at Stromness whaling station on the other side.   They had, said Shackleton, “seen the heart of man under the worst circumstances.”

5. Bertram Thomas and the challenge of Arabia

In the searing deserts of Arabia, an explorer named Bertram Thomas responded to a different kind of challenge.  On 16th December 1932 The Scotsman reported on a lecture which he delivered to the RSGS in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, entitled “A Camel Journey across the Rub’ al Khali”.   Thomas explained how his journey, the first crossing of Arabia’s southern desert, had to be planned with great secrecy because of the risks involved.  “Twenty-five Bedouins of the desert, none of whom he had seen before, were his companions.  They struck northwards over the Qara Mountains, some 3,000 feet high, through frankincense groves and thence into the great unknown Steppe…”   Thomas’ crossing took him a little less than two months, and is still regarded as one of the finest examples of Arabian exploration.

6. “Britain – a Nation of Airmen!”

On 12th October 1926 it was announced in The Scotsman that the RSGS Livingstone Medal would be awarded to the pioneering aviator Sir Alan Cobham.   In the days when all long-distance journeys were made by sea, Cobham saw the potential for commercial airlines to develop regular services from Britain, thereby reducing the expense and time involved in international travel.  His mission, therefore, was to prove to the British public that air travel was not only fast and efficient but supremely safe.   At a lecture to the RSGS in Edinburgh in 1928, Cobham described some of his more thrilling experiences, which included flying through a sandstorm over Egypt, and an emergency landing in deep snow in the Carpathian mountains.  Despite these apparently minor setbacks, the dauntless Cobham called for the British aviation industry to receive “every assistance possible, so that it might try to capture the markets, not only of the Empire but of the world.”  He expressed his wish that “every village and town throughout the country should possess a landing ground of some sort”, and revealed his support of private aircraft ownership in Britain.  The country’s slogan, he said, should be “Britain, a Nation of Airmen!”  (Scotsman, 23rd November 1928)

An advertisement for the position of RSGS Junior Clerk in the Scotsman.

7. The quiet recording of history

“Junior Clerk required in the office of a scientific society in Edinburgh;  good opening for a well-educated youth;  wages, 5s a week.  Address, stating age and enclosing testimonials as to personal character...”  (Scotsman, 8th January 1891)

This advertisement for an office assistant at the RSGS is one of many that were placed in The Scotsman at regular intervals.  Help would have been required with the collection of subscriptions, the preparation of Council minutes and the distribution of lecture tickets.  One of the Junior Clerk’s other duties would have been to scan the daily newspapers for items of a geographical flavour, and paste them into the leather-bound volumes that now offer such a precious glimpse into the early history of the Society.

…it will be a sad day for any nation when there shall not be found in it a strong element which will welcome exploration and adventurous daring for its own sake…”  Polar explorer Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, address in Synod Hall, Edinburgh (Scotsman, 20th November 1885).

Albums of newspaper cuttings in RSGS archives, with a photograph of Bertram Thomas (second from left) receiving the RSGS Livingstone Medal from Lord Elphinstone, flanked by Professor Ogilvie (far left) and Mr John Bartholomew (far right). From The Scotsman, 17th December 1932.

The RSGS is still flourishing today, as an educational charity promoting the understanding of the world’s natural environments and human societies.  Members receive a quarterly newsletter and enjoy free admission to an exciting and varied programme of lectures throughout Scotland.  For more information, explore our website!