With the sad news of Her Majesty’s death, we pay tribute to our Patron.

HM The Queen visiting RSGS offices in Edinburgh in July 1984 (RSGS Collections)

With the sad announcement of Her Majesty The Queen’s death on Thursday 8th September, a long era in world history has come to an end. The Queen’s reign was extraordinary for so many reasons: she was the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch, and she must surely have been one of the best-loved, having only recently celebrated her Platinum Jubilee amid outpourings of public celebration. For the generations who grew up knowing no other monarch, and listening to her words of calmness and strength during times of crisis, it is hard to believe that her smile, always radiant, is now a memory.

Traditionally, RSGS has a long-standing connection with Britain’s monarchs. In 1887, just three years after the founding of the Society, Queen Victoria acceded to a formal request that it should acquire ‘Royal’ status. We have in our archives a letter from the Marquess of Lothian, Secretary of State for Scotland, to the Earl of Rosebery, President of the Society, conveying the Queen’s command ‘that the Society shall in future be styled ‘The Royal Scottish Geographical Society’.”

Queen Victoria, portrait by Heinrich von Angeli

Letter from the Marquess of Lothian to the Earl of Rosebery dated 23rd June 1887 (RSGS Collections)

When Queen Victoria died in 1901 and her son, King Edward VII, came to the throne, he became Patron of the Society, as confirmed by a letter from the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace. Although Edward’s reign spanned only nine years, it was a time of momentous geographical achievement, with both Robert Falcon Scott and William Speirs Bruce exploring uncharted regions of the Antarctic; and when Ernest Shackleton returned home from his Nimrod expedition of 1907-1909, it was King Edward VII who bestowed on him a knighthood.

King Edward VII, portrait by Sir Luke Fildes

Letter confirming Edward VII’s willingness to act as Patron (RSGS Collections)

On 19th July 1910, a letter to the RSGS confirmed that King George V was pleased to become Patron of the Society. When we celebrated our Golden Jubilee in October 1934, the Duke of York represented his father as the guest of honour at a special banquet in Edinburgh. After the dinner, history was made in unique fashion when the Duke rose to make an address. Although his first publicly broadcast speech has been famously portrayed as taking place on the eve of World War II, the Duke’s words at the RSGS banquet were simultaneously broadcast on Scottish radio, making this effectively the first ‘King’s speech’ - because, of course, he was crowned King George VI two years later, on the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII.

King George V

Letter confirming that George V would become Patron of RSGS (RSGS Collections)

The Duke of York (3rd from left) attending RSGS’s Jubilee banquet, 1934 (RSGS Collections)

With the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1953, the world entered a new and enterprising era, symbolised by the news - which arrived on that very morning - that Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had attained the summit of Everest. In the spirit of that achievement, some of the most extraordinary advances in science and exploration have taken place during the Queen’s 70-year reign. In 1969, for example, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed single-handedly and non-stop around the globe; forty-seven years later, in 2016, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg circled the Earth non-stop in a solar-powered aircraft. Just 12 years after the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957, humans landed and walked on the Moon; and now it seems perfectly normal that, at any time of the day or night, astronauts are orbiting above us in a space station.

Now that our thoughts are turning more towards the environment of our own planet, the implications of climate change and our possible courses of action, it is interesting to consider the Queen’s message during her Christmas broadcast of 2019. She said that, as a child, she never imagined that one day a man would walk on the Moon - yet that year, we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. This was, she believed, a timely reminder of the positive things that can be achieved when people set aside past differences and come together in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation. Looking to the future, she reflected: “It’s worth remembering that it is often the small steps, not the giant leaps, that bring about the most lasting change.”

While offering our deep and sincere sympathies to King Charles III, our Vice-President The Princess Royal, and other members of the Royal family, we would like to echo a tribute to King George VI which appeared in the Scottish Geographical Magazine of 1952: “We record our homage to the memory of a beloved Sovereign.”

References and quotes:

Letter from Marquess of Lothian to the Earl of Rosebery, 23rd June 1887

Scottish Geographical Magazine

The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast, 2019