Written By Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence, Author of The Great Horizon

With the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle only weeks away, I thought it was the perfect time to take a look back at Prince Harry’s great-grandfather, George VI, and his visit to RSGS. For a future king who dreaded public speaking, this was an event at which history was made…

The Duke of York presenting the Scottish Geographical Medal to Lord Meston

On 24th October 1934, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society celebrated its Golden Jubilee. The newspapers were full of the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of York, who were visiting the Society as representatives of its Patron, King George V.

In the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, RSGS members joined delegates from other scientific and geographical societies at an afternoon reception for 2,000 guests. This was the opening session of the Society’s Edinburgh branch, and the Duke of York had agreed to present some awards. Among the recipients were Isobel Wylie Hutchison, who was awarded the Mungo Park Medal for her explorations in the Arctic, and Lord Meston of Agra and Dunnottar, who received the Scottish Geographical Medal “for distinguished services to geography over a period of many years.” After the ceremony, Lord Meston, a statesman whose family hailed from Aberdeen, addressed the company on the subject of India.

Photographs from the occasion include a lovely image of the Duke and Duchess of York smiling and chatting to Principal Smail of Heriot-Watt College, who was the Chairman of the Council. The Duchess, clad in a fur-trimmed coat and carrying an enormous bouquet of roses, is beaming delightedly at her husband, who, not to be outdone, holds in his hand a top hat that has been polished to a dazzling shine.

The Duke and Duchess of York with Principal Smail of Heriot-Watt College outside the Usher Hall.

That same evening, the RSGS held a banquet at the North British Station Hotel (now the Balmoral). The Scotsman newspaper meticulously lists all the most distinguished guests, including representatives from local and national government; delegates from the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce; the principals of Edinburgh universities; the Lord Provosts of Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen; and the Director-General of Ordnance Survey. The paper also gives the names of 12 ‘croupiers’, which at first glance gives a rather misleading impression of the evening’s entertainment, but in fact the word was also used to describe a person seated at the bottom of a dining table, whose job it was to assist the Chairman in ensuring that the proceedings flowed smoothly.

After the toasts, the Duke of York got up to speak.

It was likely that most of the audience knew about the Duke’s unfortunate speech impediment, but they would not have heard him speak in person. As a young naval officer, the King’s second son had seen action in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and had been mentioned in despatches, but he still had an innate nervousness which resulted in a severe stammer, and he dreaded the prospect of public speaking. After his marriage to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and with her enthusiastic encouragement, he had sought the assistance of a speech therapist by the name of Lionel Logue, and the exercises were beginning to have some effect. Confidence did not come overnight, however, and meanwhile the audience waited eagerly for his opening words.

“My Lord Provost, my Lords, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for the very kind manner in which you have responded to the toast of my family, and for the warm welcome which you have extended to me here this evening…”

After his grateful acknowledgements, the Duke paid tribute to the RSGS. Scotland, he said, had a right to boast of a geographical society, for her sons from the earliest times had gone forth over strange waters and sought their livelihoods in new and distant lands. He praised Scottish explorers James Bruce, Mungo Park, Alexander Mackenzie and David Livingstone, and observed that their spirit was upheld by more recent figures such as Sir John Murray and William Speirs Bruce. He was impressed by the way in which the Society had encouraged enterprising travel and discovery, and by its sincere endeavour to promote the scientific study of geography. He remarked on the flight to Australia which had just been undertaken by Charles Scott and Tom Campbell Black in a record-breaking 52 hours, and he also mentioned the recent launch of the Queen Mary at Clydebank. In these days of the insistence of travel, he said, communication played an important part in promoting better feelings between peoples.

“It is this truer understanding between races and a knowledge of mutual difficulties and limitations that can help us in our search for peace.”

He then proposed a toast to the RSGS and its President, Lord Elphinstone, who also happened to be the Duchess of York’s brother-in-law, and the dinner concluded with elegantly expressed thanks and good wishes.

Lord Meston, Lord Elphinstone, the Duke of York, Lord Provost Sir William Thomson

The ordeal was over… and the Duke of York no doubt retired gratefully to Carberry Tower in East Lothian, where he and his wife were staying. He knew that countless speeches would be expected of him during his lifetime, but he could have had no idea that, two years later, the abdication of his older brother, Edward VIII, would propel him reluctantly onto the British throne as King George VI.

The movie The King’s Speech tells the story of the King’s struggle and the intense pressure that he felt before addressing the nation on the eve of World War II. His speech, which was hugely successful, is portrayed as being his first live broadcast, but in fact his first broadcast happened sooner than that – at the RSGS banquet, in fact. Writing in 1952, the Society’s Secretary, John ‘Ian’ Bartholomew, who was present on the night, recalled that it was “the first occasion on which His late Majesty broadcast to the public.” A glance at the scheduling of programmes on Scottish radio confirms that the speech was indeed broadcast live at 9.10 pm on 24th October 1934, and that it lasted for 20 minutes.

Bartholomew praised the future King’s speech, which he said was “characteristic in the quality of its understanding,” and added that it would always be cherished in the Society’s annals. “Those who were present,” he wrote, “could form some idea of the tremendous effort called for, facing the microphone, to overcome his tragic difficulty in speech. They liked to think that the confidence he gained of later years in his happy Christmas broadcasts had in no small way its beginning in that first successful triumph in their midst.”

Meghan and Harry, counting down to their big day on Saturday 19th May. Harry’s great-grandfather was King George VI.

B&W Archive Photographs from The Scotsman, 25th October 1934.

References: SGM 50:6 (1934) Proceedings of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society; SGM 68:1 (1952) His late Majesty King George VI; Scotsman newspaper, 4th Sept 1934; Scotsman newspaper, 25th Oct 1934; Scotsman newspaper 15th Feb 1952.