In 2024, were celebrating the 140th anniversary of RSGS.  To begin this special year, Ive chosen 14 quotes by some of the fascinating people who were - and in many cases still are - connected with RSGS, either as founder members, award recipients or guest speakers. 

From 1884 to the present day, the words of these people tell us something unique:  they might encapsulate a moment in time, or convey a vision for the future, or describe an epic journey.  They might also touch on key events in the wider context of world history.  Just as importantly, they reveal something precious about the individuality of the person who spoke them. 

Most of these quotes come from lectures and interviews hosted by RSGS, or papers published in the Scottish Geographical Magazine (which were presented by the lecturers in person at RSGS meetings).

1.   John George Bartholomew


John George Bartholomew by Edward Arthur Walton, c.1911

It was at North Berwick on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1884 that the project of forming a Scottish Geographical Society was proposed to Mrs Bruce. 

The moment is enshrined in the annals of RSGS.  In July 1884, while strolling on the beach at North Berwick with his good friend, Agnes Livingstone Bruce, cartographer John George Bartholomew suggested that Scotland should have its own geographical society.  Agnes replied that it was a brilliant idea, one that would surely have pleased her late father, the explorer David Livingstone. 

This is how the Scottish Geographical Society came into being, and a few months later the explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley was signing the new VisitorsBook in our first offices at 80A Princes Street, Edinburgh.  Branches were soon opened in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen;  Queen Victoria conferred Royal status three years later, in 1887. 

2.   Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird from ‘The Life of Isabella Bird’ by Anna M Stoddart (1906)

This magnificent animal, the pride of the Tibetan Highlands, with his huge apparent size, his thick curved horns, his fierce eyes glaring from under a mass of shaggy curls, his long hair hanging to his fetlocks, and his huge bushy tail, an emblem of dignity in temples and oriental courts, deigns to be led by a rope through his nostrils, and I rode him on my own saddle…  We attained the summit, 17,930 feet, in a snowstorm.’ 

Isabella Bird (also known by her married name, Mrs Bishop) was the first woman to receive Honorary Fellowship of RSGS, and she could not have been more deserving.  Her extraordinary feat of riding a yak over the Digar La Pass in Kashmir is typical of her many journeys through Central Asia, where she faced conditions that would daunt the hardiest of travellers even today. 

Born in 1831, Isabella tore up the rule book of the censorious Victorian era by travelling solo into regions that had seen few European visitors, from North Americas Rocky Mountains to western China and Korea.  In the 1890s she learned how to use a plate camera and became an early travel photographer, developing her images under dark skies in the Far East. 

3.   Sir Ernest Shackleton


We brought with us the log book, carpenters adze, and cooker.  That was all we brought out of the Antarctic in tangible things, but we had seen the heart of man under the worst circumstances.

After the sinking of the Endurance in the Weddell Sea in 1915, Sir Ernest Shackleton embarked on what must be the most iconic of all polar journeys in order to save the lives of his men.  Having sailed 800 miles in a lifeboat to South Georgia, he and two companions - Tom Crean and Frank Worsley - struggled across the islands mountainous interior to reach the whaling station at Stromness.  A rescue mission was then mounted to get the remaining crew off Elephant Island.

In Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, audiences packed into RSGS lecture theatres to hear Shackleton speak about his expedition.  He was returning to familiar faces and old haunts from his former employment as RSGS Secretary, and few people would have been unmoved by the epic story he had to tell. 

4.    Frederick Marshman Bailey 


About October I managed to get engaged in a branch of the Bolshevik secret service.

Frederick Marshman Bailey was the kind of person youd like to see a movie about.  Between 1918 and 1920, as a British agent operating under a succession of obscure disguises in Bolshevik-occupied Tashkent, he evaded arrest and inevitable execution, and then coolly got himself hired by the very people who wanted him dead:  the Cheka or secret police.  Immediately, he was sent to track down a particularly notorious spy named Frederick Marshman Bailey.  After fabricating a convincing story about his own whereabouts, he escaped into Persia, taking a party of fugitives with him.  His Bolshevik employers were so annoyed that they declared him dead and staged a mock funeral.     

As a guest speaker at RSGS, Bailey was constrained by two things:  the Official Secrets Act, and a natural tendency to downplay his own exploits.  Even the quote above reads like a throwaway line.  Nevertheless, his story is extraordinary:  it isnt hard to see why his army colleagues called him HatterBailey.  He was awarded the Livingstone Medal in 1921.   


Freya Stark by Herbert Olivier, National Portrait Gallery

5.   Freya Stark

I had been told so often before leaving Baghdad that women who travel alone in Iran are an unmitigated nuisance to the authorities…’ 

I know in my heart of hearts that it is a most excellent reason to do things merely because one likes the doing of them.

Im allowing Freya Stark two quotes, because they reveal so much about the spirit of this remarkable woman who travelled solo in the Middle East.  On her first visit to Damascus in 1927, she fell in love with the desert and took herself on long, meandering journeys across modern-day Iran, Iraq and Syria, defying the warnings of friends and figures in authority and defusing potentially hostile situations with her comprehensive grasp of language and culture.  Like many women travellers of her time, she fully understood the risks involved and went anyway because it brought her joy.  Her books are still revered as classics of travel writing.

Freya delivered her first lecture to RSGS, entitled The Elbruz Mountains and the Valley of the Assassins, in 1936.  At the same time, she received the Mungo Park Medal. 

6.   Eric Shipton

If this game of mountaineering means anything at all, it is in the doing of the thing.’ 

In a few simple words, Eric Shipton answered the eternal question that is posed to mountaineers.  Maybe subconsciously, he was echoing George Mallorys near-fabled line, Because its there, on being asked why he wished to climb Everest.  On this occasion, Shipton, who had led Britains Everest Reconnaissance expedition of 1951, was referring to the forthcoming bid on Everest by a team of Swiss climbers.  Among European nations, there was perceived to be an attitude of urgent competition to be first on the summit, but Shipton took a more philosophical view:  to him, the climb was more important than the conquest.  

A year later, RSGS was welcoming Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir John Hunt from the successful British Everest expedition.  Shiptons own achievements, which include the first ascent (with Frank Smythe) of Kamet in 1931, are less well-known, but he is remembered as an intuitive climber who travelled light and was happiest when he was exploring uncharted landscapes.  He was awarded the Livingstone Medal in 1952. 


7.  Myrtle Simpson


We were 90 miles then from the Pole, wed got a good bite out of our distance, and we got out of the tent and it was daylight.  The sun had come back…  We werent alive really, until after the first two weeks of our journey, struggling in the pitch darkness.  You feel it first, and then as you watch the sun [return]… you feel the life coming back into you.


In the company of her husband, Hugh, Myrtle Simpson has enjoyed a lifetime of adventures that have taken her to the Arctic and to the summits of some of the worlds highest mountains.  In 1965, she became the first woman to ski across Greenland unsupported, following the tracks of Fridtjof Nansen who completed the same crossing in 1888.  An attempt to ski to the North Pole in 1969 was thwarted by the failure of a generator. 

By taking her children to the Arctic and allowing them to experience life with Inuit people, Myrtle challenged contemporary perceptions about the roles of a wife and mother.  She and Hugh received the Mungo Park Medal in 1969, and more recently Myrtle was interviewed for the RSGS Inspiring People talks in 2021.  


8.   Sir Michael Palin


I think youve got to get there, walk around, smell it, feel it, touch it, see the expressions on peoples faces, then youll learn something - you may learn that they all hate you, but its highly unlikely!  …My experience of the world is that people are interested in each other - they want to know more about you, and if you want to know more about them, thats the way it opens up.’ 

In his first TV travel series Around the World in 80 Days, which aired in 1989, Michael Palin spoke frankly about the discomforts as well as the pleasures of travelling, and immediately gained a tremendous public following.  With good humour and a curious mind, he embarked on gruelling journeys and helped to open up the worlds remotest regions to an audience for whom travel off the beaten track had suddenly become a real possibility.  More than 30 years and many series later, he is still crossing borders into potentially difficult regions to see for himself what life is like there.  North Korea and Iraq are among his most recent destinations. 

Michael was awarded the Livingstone Medal in 2008;  he gave an online talk for RSGS in 2021.

9.   Helen Sharman


The whole time in space, I dont think I once thought about any material object I owned…. When push comes to shove, what is the most important thing in life?  Your material stuff really doesnt matter but we do need to take care of those people who we know and love on Earth.’  

Orbiting the Earth in the Mir Space Station in 1991, Helen Sharman was offered a rare perspective on the planet that is our home.  As a scientist and Britains first astronaut, her work was focused on investigating the formation of protein crystals in space and the effects of weightlessness on the human body.  But when she gazed out at the Earth, she realised that everything in its environment was interconnected:  political boundaries made no difference to weather patterns and smoke from fires.  It was her relationships with the people down there on that beautiful blue planet that occupied her thoughts the most. 

Helen gave a talk for RSGS in 1996, and was interviewed for The Geographer in 2019.

10.   Colonel John Blashford-Snell


Theres a tribe in the far end of Guyana called the Wai-wai.  A friend of mine, General Joe Singh, who was the head of the Guyana Defence Force, was very keen to help this tribe because they act as sort of honorary guardians of his southern border.  He was a blood brother of the tribe, and he said to me, They desperately need medical aid and dentists.”  So we took an expedition of doctors and dentists back to help the tribe.  And when we were about to leave, the chief priest of the church there - they had an Evangelical church - said to me, When you come back, as I hope you will, would you do us a favour?”  And I said, What is it?”  And he said, Would you bring me a grand piano?”’

A Colonel in the Royal Engineers, John Blashford-Snell is the explorers explorer, whose exploits are held in awe by modern-day adventurers.  Over the last 50 years he has mounted over 100 expeditions worldwide, focusing on scientific research and community aid.  The stories arising from these expeditions have taken on an immortality of their own:  for example, in 1968, while making the first descent of the Blue Nile from its source in Ethiopia, he had an idea to use inflatable boats, and thereby accidentallyinvented the sport of white-water rafting.  

John was making his second visit to the Wai-wai tribe in Guyana in 2000, and he promised to see what he could do about getting them a grand piano.  A few months later, using teamwork and ingenuity, he was hauling a baby grand through the rainforest to the Wai-wais hilltop settlement.  Two years after that, he received a message to say that it needed tuning…     

Colonel John Blashford-Snell received the Livingstone Medal in 1974 and has given many talks to RSGS.   Most recently, he was interviewed for the Inspiring People talks in 2021. 

11.   Wangari Maathai


Wangari Maathai, Oregan State University via Flickr

I found myself not just a woman wanting to plant trees to provide food and firewood. I found myself a woman fighting for justice, a woman fighting for equality. I started planting trees and found myself in the forefront of fighting for the restoration of democracy in my country. 

Returning to Kenya in 1966 after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Wangari Maathai was shocked at the deforestation that was happening in her beloved homeland, destroying the natural environment and impacting the welfare of local people.  In response, she set up the Green Belt Movement, encouraging women to collect seeds and plant trees.  The project gained impetus, and Wangari found herself drawn onto the political stage.  She served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, and in partnership with the University of Nairobi she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies.  She was awarded the Livingstone Medal in 2007.

12.   Sir David Attenborough


‘“Some people,” I shouted, are said to dislike bats because they fear they might get entangled in their hair.  Of course, there is no danger of that - because bats have an amazing navigational system, far beyond the range of the human ear.  It is one of natures marvels.  As you can see, none of these tens of thousands of bats are even colliding with one another, let alone me.”

That was about as much as I could manage before I choked.

Maurice cut the camera. 

Hugh turned off the battery light. 

And a huge bat crashed straight into my face.

Making a wildlife programme in Borneo might sound glamorous, but for David Attenborough and his film crew (cameraman Maurice Fisher and assistant Hugh Maynard) the reality was very different.  Venturing into the depths of a bat cave, their torches lit up great dunes of droppings, topped with a seething crust of cockroaches.  David, professional as ever, did his best to address the camera before the stench of the droppings (and an unfortunate bat) almost overpowered him.   

Today, Sir David Attenborough is loved and respected not just for the brilliance of his wildlife documentaries, but for his wisdom about the future of the Earths natural environments and the diverse forms of life that they support.  In his recent book, A Life on Our Planet, he shares his belief that, as humans, we can still manage our impact on the Earth and once again become a species in harmony with nature. 

Sir David Attenborough received the Livingstone Medal in 1989 and the Scottish Geographical Medal in 2011.


13.   Lyse Doucet


People who are fighting for their lives… they have to wake up with a bit of hope and a bit of humanity and a bit of humour.  And humour, for me, is the universal language.  I use it constantly, I learn enough of the language just to be able to tell a few jokes because that is what keeps people going.

As the BBCs Chief International Correspondent, Lyse Doucet is regularly sent to report from places of human conflict and natural disaster.  When she was a guest of RSGS in March 2023, she had just returned from the Middle East, where she had been reporting on the earthquakes that struck Syria and Turkey;  before that, she had been in the Ukraine, witnessing the impact of the Russian invasion at first hand.  She gave us an insight into the exceptional challenges of her profession and revealed that she greatly admired the uncommon, everyday kind of couragein the people she met.

Lyse was awarded the Mungo Park Medal in 2023. 


14.   Bertrand Piccard


Piccard Portrait by Revillard-Rezo

There was a time in exploration when it was new continents, then it was new planets.  Now, its really how to live better on this planet, how to protect our planet, how to improve the quality of life, how to find new solutions.  So you dont really require a lot of physical strength.  You need to find a mental endurance to go through the obstacles, through the people who tell you its impossible, and keep faith that life is something that is worth living well.’ 

After piloting a Rozière balloon, the Breitling Orbiter 3, non-stop around the world, Bertrand Piccard dreamed of circumnavigating the globe in a plane that used no fossil fuel.  This is how the Solar Impulse was born, a revolutionary aircraft that uses photovoltaic cells to capture energy from the sun.  In 2016, Piccard and fellow pilot André Borschberg took turns to fly this noiseless dragonflywith a 72-metre wingspan for a total distance of 43,000 km, starting and finishing in Abu Dhabi.  It was the worlds first round-the-world flight powered entirely by solar energy.

Now, Piccard is using his pioneering spirit to show world leaders that there are viable and desirable alternatives to the carbon-intensive technologies of the past.  He is also encouraging us all to question our preconceptions about what we can and cannot do:  he says that shedding our fears is like dropping ballast from a balloon in order to find a new direction.  

Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg were awarded the Mungo Park Medal in 2017.

Our understanding of the Earth, the methods that we use to experience it, and the ways in which we communicate that experience, have been utterly transformed in the space of 140 years.  But I do think that if, in 1884, someone had suggested to John George Bartholomew that a guest speaker at RSGS would be talking about flying around the world in a solar-powered plane, he would have been surprised and delighted (and would quite possibly have been thinking about how to incorporate the new data into Bartholomews world atlases).  

As we celebrate this landmark anniversary, we can enjoy looking back on the figures who generously shared their stories;  and we can look forward to hearing from the extraordinary people who will be speaking to us in the years to come. 




1.   J G Bartholomew (1912) Mrs Livingstone Bruce and the Scottish Geographical Society, Scottish Geographical Magazine
2.   Mrs I L Bishop FRSGS, (1892) A Journey Through Lesser Tibet, Scottish Geographical Magazine
3.    Sir Ernest Shackleton, lecture to the Aberdeen branch of RSGS, 13th January 1920, reported in The Scotsman
4.    Major F M Bailey (1921) In Russian Turkestan under the Bolsheviks, Scottish Geographical Magazine

5.     Freya Stark, (1937) The Valley of the Assassins to the Caspian Sea, Scottish Geographical Magazine;  and Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins (1934)
6.     Eric Shipton, lecture to RSGS in Edinburgh, 13th March 1952, reported in The Scotsman
7.     Myrtle Simpson, interview for RSGS Inspiring Talks programme, 2021
8.     Sir Michael Palin, interview with Jo Woolf for The Geographer, 2021
9.     Helen Sharman, interview with Jo Woolf for The Geographer, 2019
10.   Col John Blashford-Snell, interview with Dr Vanessa Collingridge for RSGS Inspiring People Talks, 2021
11.   Wangari Maathai, Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai (documentary, 2008)
12.   Sir David Attenborough, Life on Air (2002), describing the filming of Eastward with Attenborough in 1973
13.   Lyse Doucet, interview with Dr Vanessa Collingridge for RSGS, 2023 
14.   Bertrand Piccard, interview with Sue Stockbridge, Access to Inspiration podcast for RSGS, 2023