As the nation prepares to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of HM The Queen, RSGS will also be honouring the remarkable fact that Her Majesty has been Patron of the Society for 70 years, having accepted the role (previously held by her father, King George VI) on her accession to the throne.

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

When RSGS celebrated its centenary in July 1984, the Queen paid an official visit to our offices which were then in Randolph Crescent, Edinburgh.  She was greeted by RSGS’s President, the Viscount of Arbuthnott, and introduced to other office-bearers and staff before being guided around an exhibition by the Honorary Secretary, John C Bartholomew.

The theme of the exhibition was the history of world exploration, and John Bartholomew’s son, Ivon, had plotted the routes of early explorers and circumnavigators on maps of the world.  He was also a guest at the event, and remembers it as a happy occasion that was greatly enjoyed.  The Queen signed the RSGS Visitors’ Book, one of the treasures of our archives which contains signatures of eminent explorers dating back to 1884.

The Queen’s signature in RSGS Visitors’ Book

Many of these explorers had their own memorable encounters with royalty, and in this blog post I am taking a brief look at a few of them…

Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

Sir Edmund Hillary is the iconic New Zealand-born climber who famously stepped with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay onto the summit of Everest on 29th May 1953;  the pair were the first humans ever to do so, and the feat was acclaimed worldwide as a triumph for the British expedition led by Sir John Hunt.  When Hillary and Tenzing returned to Advanced Base Camp with their news, The Times correspondent James Morris hastened back to Namche Bazaar to transmit a coded message by radio to the British Embassy in Kathmandu, where it was translated and relayed to London amid great excitement.  The message arrived just in time to make the newspaper headlines on 2nd June, the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation.

Hillary had no expectations of being honoured, so it was with great surprise when, halfway back to Kathmandu, he opened a letter delivered by despatch runner and learned that he was being offered a knighthood.  Initially, his reaction was one of alarm:  in his book, ‘View from the Summit’, he explains that he did not believe he was “knightly material”, and felt he was far too impoverished to play the role:  “My mind flashed to a picture of myself walking around the little town of Papakura, south of Auckland, in a pair of well-stained overalls.  My God, I told myself, I’ll have to buy a new pair of overalls.”  It didn’t help that his good friend and fellow climber, George Lowe, found his remarks irresistibly funny and couldn’t stop laughing for half an hour.

Hillary had come to terms with the honour a couple of weeks later, when both he and John Hunt were knighted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.  Tenzing received the George Medal and the other climbers were awarded a special Coronation Medal.  At guest lectures in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Hillary and Hunt received the RSGS Livingstone Medal, and signed a copy of The Times Everest Colour Supplement which is now in RSGS Collections.  Hillary was magnanimous in his acceptance, giving credit to the entire team:  “After all, it has not been two men who have climbed Everest, and if any of the others had done anything less than they did, we would never have got there.”  (Scottish Geographical Magazine, 1953)

The Times Everest Colour Supplement 1953 (RSGS Collections)

Isobel Wylie Hutchison

Isobel Wylie Hutchison in Alaska (RSGS Collections)

On 24th October 1934, Isobel Wylie Hutchison was the first woman ever to receive the RSGS Mungo Park Medal.  This was the year when RSGS was celebrating its Golden Jubilee, and the Duke and Duchess of York attended a special award ceremony in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, followed by a banquet at the Royal British Station Hotel. 

Isobel had been dog-sledding across the tundra of Arctic Canada just a few months before, and she instinctively shrank from the spotlight;  having received her medal from the hands of the Duke of York, she was probably thankful that she was not required to deliver a lecture.  But one person who did give a public address was the Duke of York himself, and it was simultaneously broadcast to listeners on Scottish radio, effectively making it the very first ‘King’s Speech’ - because, although he did not suspect it at the time, he would be crowned King George VI in 1937 after the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII.   (This event is described more fully in a blog post from May 2018

Before the RSGS Golden Jubilee Banquet, L to R:   Lord Provost Sir William Thomson, Lord Elphinstone (President of RSGS), the Duke of York, Lord Meston (RSGS Collections)

Meanwhile Isobel, perhaps drawing confidence from public recognition, began planning a daring plant-collecting expedition to the Aleutian Islands.  These volcanic islands extend for 1,200 miles across the northern Pacific, and Isobel was excited at the prospect of finding some botanical rarities.  She wrote:  “I had read that upon Attu [the westernmost island] grew certain plants which were to be found on no other of the islands, species which… had migrated from Asia and employed Attu as the first stepping-stone on the long eventful voyage eastwards.” 

In the summer of 1936 Isobel was overjoyed to reach Attu, her “land of heart’s desire.”  During her expedition she found two species that were new to the flora of the Aleutians and Alaska respectively, and on the Alaskan mainland, near the Snake River, she discovered a white-flowered variant of dwarf fireweed which was given her name by curators of Kew’s herbarium (Epilobium latifolium L. var. album Hutchison).

Sir Hubert Wilkins

Sir Hubert Wilkins

It made newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic when a tiny Lockheed Vega aeroplane touched down at Green Harbour in Spitsbergen on 21st April 1928.  In it were two airmen - an Australian named George Hubert Wilkins, and Ben Eielson, an American.  They had just become the first people to fly non-stop over the Arctic Ocean. 

Their 2,200-mile record-breaking flight took 20 hours, but before they could reach civilisation they had spent five days storm-bound on a small uninhabited island in the Svalbard archipelago.  They dug themselves a runway but the plane wouldn’t move unless Wilkins got out and shoved the tail.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t quick enough to scramble back into the cockpit, and Eielsen took off without him;  landing again for a second attempt, Eielsen tied a rope to the outside of the door for Wilkins to hang onto.  Wilkins’ hands were so cold that he couldn’t grip, so he grabbed the rope between his teeth as he pushed the plane.  But as the aircraft lurched forward the rope jerked out of Wilkins’ mouth, leaving him with some painfully loosened teeth. 

On the third try, after putting a block of ice under the tail, they took off safely and landed six miles away at the small settlement of Green Harbour.  The world went crazy with congratulations, and King George V invited Wilkins to London to receive a knighthood.  Wilkins, whom the Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson had once described as ‘aggressively modest’, was overcome by the honour and in the King’s presence he made a curious request.  He wanted to use his middle name and be called Sir Hubert, instead of Sir George.  “Well, George, why Hubert?” asked the King.  Wilkins muttered something about not presuming to use the King’s name;  but he might just have wanted to add the title to a name he rarely used, so that his friends would keep calling him George.

King George V

Wilkins’ remarkable flight was just one of many astonishing adventures;  in his apparently charmed lifetime he walked away from countless near-death experiences.  He was awarded the Livingstone Medal in 1931 but didn’t travel to Scotland to receive it, despite polite reminders which are recorded in RSGS Council minutes.  Instead, he was busy trying to sail a submarine under the North Pole, one of his few exploits that ended in failure;  the submarine malfunctioned spectacularly, and Wilkins and his crew were lucky to survive.

Isabella Bird Bishop

Isabella Bird Bishop

On 9th May 1893, the renowned traveller and writer Isabella Bird Bishop was received in a Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace by Queen Victoria, who greeted her warmly by saying, “I am very much pleased to see you here, Mrs Bishop.”   It’s likely that the two women found they had much in common:  both were long since widowed, but still grieving, and both had a steely determination combined with a strong sense of duty.  They also shared a love of Scotland:  Isabella had a townhouse in Edinburgh and a cottage in Tobermory.

Queen Victoria, by Heinrich von Angeli, 1875

Through Isabella’s many travel books, Queen Victoria would certainly have heard about her adventures in Hawaii, North America and Asia.  But she would also have been aware that she was in Isabella’s debt, because some 40 years earlier, in 1852, Isabella had foiled an assassination attempt on one of her ministers. 

Isabella had taken a hackney carriage from a London station when a packet of advertising papers was thrown in through the window.  This was a common occurrence, but when Isabella put it on the seat beside her she noticed another packet of papers, presumably left by a previous occupant.  On opening it, she was horrified to read about a plan to assassinate a member of the Cabinet at the forthcoming funeral of the Duke of Wellington.  She quickly hid it in her pocket, and almost immediately a man appeared at the window, asking if she had happened to find a parcel.   She fobbed him off with the packet of advertisements, and then made all speed to the Home Office, where she handed over the evidence.  Steps were taken to prevent the murder, but so serious was the threat of revenge that a bodyguard was posted outside the house where Isabella was staying. 

Isabella was more than deserving of the Honorary Fellowship of RSGS, awarded to her in 1890;  she was the first woman to receive the honour.   

Three years after its inception, the Scottish Geographical Society was granted Royal status by Queen Victoria in 1887, the year of her Golden Jubilee.  Since then, four successive monarchs have acted as Patron of the Society:  Edward VII, George V, George VI and our present Queen.  Last month, RSGS welcomed the appointment of Professor Jo Sharp as the new Geographer Royal for Scotland;  Jo takes over the role from Professor Charles Withers, who held the post from 2015.     

Quotes and reference:

Sir Edmund Hillary, ‘View from the Summit’ (1998)

Isobel Wylie Hutchison, ‘Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia’ (1937)

Simon Nasht, ‘No More Beyond:  The Life of Sir Hubert Wilkins’ (2006)

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

Scottish Geographical Magazine


With many thanks to John C and Ivon Bartholomew