Jo Woolf chats to the former Chair of RSGS’ Board of Trustees and recent recipient of the Scottish Geographical Medal

Looking back, Roger Crofts recalls that it was a sixth-form field trip to the Isle of Arran that first got him interested in physical geography.  He tells me:  “We learned about the volcano and the tertiary dyke systems from when the North Atlantic was first opening up, and all the glaciated valleys and corries… I was hooked, by then!  Totally hooked!”

Admittedly, Roger’s interest in the natural environment had germinated even earlier, when he was just a young lad.  He was born in Hinckley, Leicestershire, and his father had an allotment at the bottom of the garden.  Roger was often sent down to pick vegetables, and he got to know what would grow well in the sandy, loamy soil, and how it could be improved by adding manure.  Further afield, his explorations by push-bike fed a growing curiosity about the countryside;  he explains - almost apologetically - that although he noticed the hills around his home, he didn’t discover until much later that they were glaciofluvial deposits from the last glaciation. 

Roger laughingly admits that he only got into the local grammar school because he was wearing a badge with ‘Cheddar Gorge’ on it, and in his interview could explain the difference between stalagmites and stalactites.  But by the age of 18, he’d discovered that he had both a passion and an aptitude for geography, and he took himself off to study it at Liverpool University where Terry Driscoll inspired him to focus on geomorphology.  He remembers that he had “…no idea of a career at that point in time;  I’m not sure I ever had a plan!” 

In his first job, as a research assistant at Aberdeen University, Roger began to look at the management of sandy beaches and started to develop skills that have stayed with him throughout his career:  thinking outside the boundaries of a given task, asking questions, and offering solutions.  Although he enjoyed the academic research, he wanted it to have a practical purpose.  “I was sent off… into upper Deeside to create geomorphological maps, but it struck me that this was a waste of time unless you were going to use them.  So I got very interested in how you could use this natural resource assessment in making decisions about land use and tourism infrastructure.”

The use of data took on a new level of significance when Roger was appointed to the North Sea Oil Support Group of the Scottish Government in 1976.  Only a year before, the first oil from the North Sea had been brought ashore in Britain, and suddenly experts were facing questions about the onshore impacts:  where could pipelines be routed, which harbours had the capacity for supply vessels, where could rigs be serviced?  “I can only say that we made some heroic calculations that tried to link the rate of exploration in the North Sea to the onshore impacts.  Our findings went straight to Willie Ross, Secretary of State for Scotland, who used them in UK government cabinet discussions.”

After 10 years of government advisory work, Roger was made head of the Highlands and Islands Tourism Division;  and five years later he led the team advising ministers on the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill which was passed as an Act of Parliament in 1991 – including the country’s first statutory provision on sustainable development.  The act established a new organisation, Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot), amalgamating the former Countryside Commission for Scotland and the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland under a new banner, with a new and definitive mission:  to conserve and promote the natural environment of Scotland.  Magnus Magnusson was its Chairman, and Roger was appointed Chief Executive. 

He says:  “There was strong political agreement across the spectrum for this new body… but at the same time, some Scottish ministers didn’t like what we were doing, as we commented on transport and agriculture which they said wasn’t any business of ours, despite our sustainability remit and the effect of these activities on the natural heritage.  And ringing in my ears were the words of the Secretary of State, Malcolm Rifkind, who told me:  ‘There are times when [SNH] will annoy us, but we’ll have put up with that because I set you up!’”  Meanwhile, Roger’s new post had also brought him together with his future wife:  “I met this wonderful person - although we didn’t much like each other at first! - called Lindsay Manson.  She worked for me as head of the implementation team.”

The challenges facing the newly-fledged SNH were formidable but exciting.  This was the era of the Earth Summit and the Rio Conventions on biodiversity, combating desertification and climate change.  In Magnusson, Roger found an astute ally.  “Magnus said to me, we should be looking internationally, and I said yes… in particular, I wanted to connect with equivalent agencies within government in the boreal regions.”  In May 1993, Roger, Magnusson and Michael Usher, the Chief Scientist, travelled to Iceland to forge new connections there.  For Roger, the Iceland visit was the first of many over the next three decades:  “I think I’ve been there 30 times now!  I made so many close friends.  I met people who run nature and soil agencies, eco-tourism, and professors in natural sciences in the universities.  I learned a lot, and they tell me they learned a lot from me as well.”  

The 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution resulted in the creation of a Scottish parliament, which brought major changes, and SNH was tasked with preparing government advice on new national parks and rights of access.  The whole philosophy of protected areas was evolving.  With his background in geomorphology, and his emphasis on viewing policies in a fresh light, Roger was keen to introduce new ways of considering the natural environment: “I felt we had been saddled with a nature protection system which was based on the old counties, as if nature knew where the boundaries were!  If you take a mountain area, for example, it’s easy to forget that it’s the watershed for a lot of different drainage basins.” 

With his counterparts in Canada and the USA, Roger discussed the new concept of eco-regions;  he wanted to see what a map of Scotland would look like from a nature and landscape point of view.  “Out of that came what we called Natural Heritage Zones.  We wrote strategies for each of these 21 Zones, as well as overview strategies for Scotland, on different land uses and activities - for example, agriculture, forestry, recreational access.  We finally published all of that, after a lot of consultation, just before I retired in 2002.  And that remained the basis of SNH strategy for the next 20 years or so.”

Roger’s international focus strengthened throughout his time with SNH and his work thereafter.  In 1996 he attended the World Conservation Congress in Montreal and was recruited into the World Commission on Protected Areas, in which he still has an active involvement.  He chaired the National Committee of the International Union for Conservation from 1999 to 2002;  and in 2003, at the Durban World Parks Congress, he led the development of a new plan for the world’s protected areas.  He is emphatic about the importance of exchanging ideas:  “You weren’t just giving, you were also learning a lot from those interactions.”  He had - and still has - a particular interest in promoting the significance of the conservation of geoheritage, alongside biodiversity conservation.

As a newly-retired Chairman of RSGS’s Board of Trustees, Roger is proud of the strides that RSGS has taken during the last decade.  He points to the evolution of the Inspiring People talks programme, and the development of ‘The Geographer’ as a must-read publication for thousands of people beyond the Society itself.   He is equally positive about the virtues of geography as an academic subject.  “I believe that geography provides the doorway to understanding the world.  It gives us insights into the causes of this new triple crisis - a global pandemic, threats to biodiversity, and climate change.  At schools and universities, geography suffers because you can’t put it in a box.  But that’s the beauty of geography!  We’ve got to get that message across.  It’s the subject that connects the pieces which no others do. We should be getting university students to shout from the rooftops about what geography can do!”

Roger with his RSGS Scottish Geographical Medal

I ask how Roger feels about being awarded the Scottish Geographical Medal;  previously the Gold Medal, this is the oldest and highest accolade of RSGS.  He is deeply moved.  “I was gobsmacked.  I’ve received quite a few medals and Fellowships.  But this… I’m a geographer.  I knew who’d got it before.  I’ve been on a journey, with geography, through geography, for decades.  And Lindsay knew about it before she died.  I get very emotional!”

Glancing at the list of Roger’s ongoing interests, it is evident that his ‘retirement’ is in name only.  He is brimming with energy.  He instigated the Watson Bird Centre and Celebrations Project, based at St John’s Town of Dalry, inspired by the bird paintings of Donald Watson;  and he is encouraging a nature-based approach to flood management on the Rivers Esk in East Lothian.  He is a writer and public speaker, is the author of many books on landforms and conservation, and acts as an advisor to a whole clutch of organisations.  He sings in a local choir, enjoys photographing wild flowers, and is an enthusiastic cook.  After our chat, he cheerfully tells me he’s just picked some raspberries and is going home to make jam.  “I just love the creativity!”

Roger was presented with the Scottish Geographical Medal at RSGS HQ on Wednesday 22nd September.  Our many congratulations to him, and best wishes for his future endeavours!

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