We are delighted to report that Professor Charles W J Withers, Ogilvie Chair of Geography at the University of Edinburgh, has been appointed as Geographer Royal for Scotland – the first in 118 years. The title was conferred on him by HRH The Princess Royal, an RSGS Vice-President, at a ceremony at RSGS’s headquarters in Perth on 15 September 2015. Her Royal Highness said “There is no doubt that raising the profile of Geography generally is a very important aspect of what we want to do and what you want to do here… we are grateful that Professor Withers has accepted this title and we hope that it will increase the enthusiasm for and understanding of Geography. We can celebrate today the title of Geographer Royal for Scotland being reinstated.”
Professor Withers is a world-leading historical and cultural geographer, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. As Geographer Royal for Scotland, he will be an international and national ambassador for geography, helping to promote the subject in research, in education and in society more widely. In accepting the position, which he will hold for an initial six-year period, Professor Withers said “I am honoured for myself, of course and for my University. But, and principally, this honour is for geography. Now after a period in which the title of Geographer Royal for Scotland has lain in abeyance, the subject again has this further recognition of its standing.”
The first Geographer Royal for Scotland was Sir Robert Sibbald, appointed in September 1682 by King Charles II to provide cartographic advice. One of the leading intellectuals of his day, Sibbald was the first Professor of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and was co-founder of both the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Three other individuals have held the title, the last being George Harvey Johnston, an Edinburgh cartographer and publisher who was Geographer Royal for Scotland to Queen Victoria from 1897. After Johnston, the related title of Cartographer to The King was bestowed as a corporate warrant on the Bartholomew map-making firm, in the period when RSGS co-founder John George Bartholomew was at the helm. Professor Withers is therefore only the fifth individual to hold the personal honorific.
Regarding the announcement, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said “I am extremely pleased that Professor Withers from Edinburgh University will undertake this new role as Geographer Royal for Scotland. He brings several years of relevant experience and has the necessary skills and commitment to act as an excellent ambassador for geographical knowledge. I have no doubt that he will prove to be dedicated to the development and promotion of geographical knowledge, championing the subject of geography in education, particularly to children in our schools, as well as to wider society. After all, the Earth’s landscapes, peoples, places and environments affect us all each day.”
Speaking about the revival and modernisation of the historical role, RSGS Chief Executive Mike Robinson said “Most modern problems are complex and global; they need greater geographical understanding. 2015 is the perfect year for the reintroduction of the Geographer Royal for Scotland, with the heightened importance of various geographical issues including local and international geopolitical change, sustainable development goals, climate negotiations in Paris, migration issues, transport, digital mapping, health and land reform. The need for an informed geographical representation has never been greater.”