Running a charity during this pandemic has not been easy, with many unusual and shifting pressures.  It has been a challenge to retain income, keep on top of all the various changes in guidance and how they impact staff, volunteers and our operations.  It also been vital to oversee office security, manage workload and staff welfare, and plan ahead in the face of significant uncertainty.  I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that it has all felt pretty relentless. 

Despite all of this 2021 was really fruitful and productive for the RSGS. We have probably had more media coverage (and for a small charity) than at any time in our history, and have adapted as best we can, and found new ways to work around the challenges of the pandemic. As we approach the new year, I wanted to reflect on some of the activities we have been involved in during 2021 at RSGS, and what we have achieved. 

During 2020 it was evident that many friends and members were not finding the situation easy.  That is why we have tried so hard to ensure we help – by producing more content for the magazines, running our on-line talks, bringing in some high-profile extra talks, hosting coffee mornings and quizzes, and developing online resources, lesson plans and books for schools. We are grateful to all of you who have sent letters, cards and emails over the last 18 months thanking all the staff for their commitment and energy, and we can assure you we will continue to make every effort to maintain and support our wonderful community and network.

Throughout the 24 regular online Inspiring People talks throughout 2020-2021 we were delighted to see such large turnouts, with on average more than 400 households tuning in.  Additionally, we saw a handful of sold-out events with Michael Palin, Tim Flannery, Jonathan Porritt and the remarkable Colonel John Blashford-Snell, (sharing stories of his hilarious adventures involving crocodile infested rivers, amorous gorillas, and Vaseline covered pigs).   

We awarded a host of awards and medals this year, some of the highlights being the prestigious Livingstone Medal to former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon read more, the Mungo Park Medal to Jeremy Bowen, The Presidents Medal to Niamh Short, and the Geddes Environmental Medal to Professor Tim Flannery. We also welcomed an impressive list of new fellows throughout the year.   

We continued to produce quarterly editions of our magazine, creating some of our biggest editions to date including Animal geographies featuring an article from supervet Noel Fitzpatrick, Farming for 1.5C detailing the future of Scottish agriculture; The Great Outdoors, celebrating the best of field work and the importance of first-hand experience in the outdoors; COP26 with some of the great names in global climate change; and the winter edition on the joy of maps and mapping. These were the biggest volumes yet – with over 150 articles and lots of varied content. A big thank you to all of our contributors throughout 2021.

All editions of The Geographer for 2021.

We continued to work hard on education both at a policy and practical level with a number of big projects being completed.  One of our most exciting releases for 2021 was our new children’s book James Croll and his Adventures in Climate and Time, which tells the compelling story of James Croll (1821-90), a brilliant-minded Scotsman from Perthshire who is considered to be one of the world’s first climate scientists, written by RSGS Writer-in-Residence Jo Woolf and illustrated by Dylan Gibson. The book has been distributed in schools across Scotland as an educational resource with an accompanying lesson plan and a Jackanory-style reading by our President Professor Iain Stewart. 

Another eagerly anticipated release was the Horrible Geography of Stunning Scotland which is part of the popular Horrible Geography children’s books, produced by Scholastic, and explores the best (and most gruesome) of Scotland’s geography from leaking lochs, to roving rivers, groovy glaciers and vile volcanoes.  

James Croll and his Adventures in Climate and Time and Horrible Geography of Stunning Scotland.

We also covered the entire National 5 and Higher Geography curriculums in our Chalk Talk online lessons, a particularly important contribution as schools continue to see disruptions. Thanks to the support of our members and Education colleagues, we were able to produce 25 talks covering topics from glaciers to coasts, cities to deserts, and everything in between. Our most popular lessons are now seeing upwards of 3,000 views on our YouTube, where all the lessons can be accessed for free – and with continued uncertainty in our schools for pupils and teachers we hope these will continue to prove an invaluable resource. 

Throughout the year we have continued our policy work, with advisory roles in topics as diverse as agriculture, transport, arctic policy, university education, city and regional development and even national economic indicators.  And of course, we remain heavily involved in all things climate change.  

Most recently we released the 10 Big Climate Solutions report, which was the final outcome of the dozen previous Climate Emergency Summits that we have been running since 2019. Over 800 people from 400 organisations from across Scottish society generated 1600 practical solutions to the Climate Emergency. The report highlights the 10 big solutions from the summits with the scale, pace and impact to drive the change we need and has been submitted to both UK and Scottish Government.  

One year since launch, I am also delighted with the progress of our Climate Solutions courses, with 60,000 people now enrolled. Created with the Universities of Stirling and Edinburgh, and the Institute of Directors, our courses are designed to teach organisations and managers about solutions to the climate emergency, and explain how each can play a role to reduce emissions.  

In October 2021 the global geographical community released a joint declaration pledging to redouble efforts to help deliver a better tomorrow. The joint declaration was signed by over 79 global geographical societies and organisations from 58 countries including USA, Scotland, Russia, China, Canada, South Africa, and India. The development of the declaration was one of the outcomes of an international online conference in June 2021, convened by RSGS with partners from the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG) and the International Geographical Union (IGU).  

John Geiger, CEO Royal Canadian Geographical Society (Left) with Michael L. Ulica President and Chief Operating Officer, National Geographic (right) with the Joint Declaration.

We had a very successful COP26 in Glasgow, and much of our work during 2021 led up to this point.  Working with a wide range of partners including the Inuit circumpolar Council and the Stop Ecocide teams, as well as Scottish Government, Jacobs, Balfour Beatty, Wm Grants and other NGOs. 

A collection of images taken at COP26 in Glasgow.

We found great success in our activities around COP26, including the special edition of our magazine which explored a range of key topics ahead of COP26 and featured some of the foremost voices on climate change. We helped establish and promote a geopolymer cement research project.  We arranged the production of a wee ‘drop of inspiration’ – a 26-year-old, single-cask malt whisky, produced in partnership with Glenfiddich and SCIAF to be presented to leading figures in climate change such as David Attenborough, Mary Robinson, Ban Ki Moon…And our new documentary film Scotland: Our Climate Journey narrates Scotland’s climate journey through the past, present and future and features a wide range of individuals and perspectives from across the country from different sectors, all contributing in the battle against climate change. 

Scotland: Our Climate Journey and the COP26 whisky.

So 2021, despite all its many challenges, has been a successful year for RSGS.  I am very grateful for the continued support of our members and volunteers, our partners and collaborators, and our corporate supporters, in particular the Open University, Ordnance Survey, Baillie Gifford, Jacobs and Zero Waste Scotland. We are also greatly indebted to the legacy gifts we have received from one or two long standing supporters that have helped us keep afloat through this difficult period – legacies remain one of the most important income streams to charity and are likely to become more important over this next decade.  So thank you to all of you, we couldn’t have done it without you.

This coming year, 2022, we have much to look forward to.  We will continue to help promote geography in the school curriculum, we will see the appointments of a new RSGS President and a new Geographer Royal for Scotland, we will be working on the campaign to help Perth become a sustainable small city; we will be running more detailed climate action summits on key topics; we will be internationalising and updating our climate solutions course and I hope, with your help, we will be returning to face to face talks, and building the next chapter of RSGS’s work.