Tuesday, 22 July 2014


Monday 21st Geographical Society - the unofficial birthday of one of Scotland’s longest standing charities.

July marked the 130th Anniversary of the founding of The Royal Scottish Despite its longevity it remains relatively little known, and yet its Staff and Council Members have gone on to make quite an impact on Scotland and the wider world. One became UK Prime Minister, another a Maharaja. Others were responsible for epic rescue dramas such as the Emin Pasha Relief expedition and the Endurance expedition of 1914-1917. Another designed Tel Aviv and saved the Edinburgh Old Town from demolition.

These men and women have promoted, funded and run
over 300 research expeditions, most notably the Scotia expedition and their numbers include two of the greatest British polar explorers of all time. Glaciers, ice shelves, seas, large stretches of land, animals, boats and even body parts have been named by (or named after) people connected to the Society. And closer to home, the Society’s members and council have helped establish countless charities and organisations such as the Scottish Ski Club, Edinburgh Zoo, the National Trust for Scotland, the National Parks Campaigns, or forums on flooding, geodiversity and most recently the campaign to retain Earth Sciences in the Scottish curriculum.

This Society of members, academics, explorers, business leaders, scientists, thinkers and educators has inspired generations of people in all walks of life. And they have awarded around 250 medals to, and run over 4,500 public talks by, many inspiring people with the most incredible stories to tell. The RSGS’s fellows and medallists have traversed every continent, climbed every major mountain and range, navigated every ocean and crossed every desert. They have followed rivers from source to sea, and walked, run, cycled, rowed and sailed around the world. They have re-enacted epic boat journeys, protected wild animals and wild landscapes around the world, and discovered medical cures and archaeological remains.

On July 21st 1884, aged just 24, John George Bartholomew, a map maker from Edinburgh was walking on the beach in North Berwick with David Livingstone’s daughter Agnes Bruce, and persuaded her of the need for a Scottish Geographical Society. They together with James Geikie, Professor of Geology at Edinburgh University, founded the Society. The rest as they say is history. 

Today the society, headquartered in Perth, still runs nearly 100 talks a year all over Scotland with the latest generation of inspiring scientists, explorers, adventurers and educationalists. It works with Scottish schools, runs a visitor and education centre and houses one of the most fascinating collections of maps, books and other artefacts. Its core remit remains to inspire people to want to know more about their world. If the next 130 can be as productive as the last, this really should be achievable.

All images copyright of RSGS

Monday, 21 July 2014

Currency and exchange rates

By Professor Gavin McCrone FRSGS. This article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the RSGS's magazine, The Geographer.

There are reasons for thinking that a small independent country may sometimes do better economically than if it were a region of a larger country. This applies particularly if it has a very different economic structure or is at a different stage of development. The ability to tailor economic policies closely to its needs can give it a better chance of success than relying on the one-size-fits-all policies of a larger state. This applies particularly to the exchange rate. A country has to pay its way with its trading partners, and movements in the exchange rate are one of the principle ways in which it ensures it is competitive.

A region does not have to do this: its surplus or deficit will be evened out by the larger country of which it is a part. A competitive exchange rate can ensure that there is investment in the economy and low unemployment, but a region has to work with whatever the exchange rate happens to be for the larger economy, whether or not that suits it.

Scotland’s economy, without North Sea oil, is similar to and closely integrated with that of the UK as a whole. Independence would affect that integration and would involve costs. Moreover, because of the substantial but declining income from the North Sea, Scotland could be subject to very different pressures from the rest of the UK. Both its balance of payments and the government’s budget would be subject to volatility.

The Scottish Government’s declared policy is to retain monetary union with the rest of the UK after independence. This is a central issue in the independence debate, but the intervention by the Chancellor in a speech in Edinburgh in February, and the rejection of a currency union by spokesmen for the other two main UK parties, make it most unlikely that a formal union, whereby the Bank of England would act as central bank and lender of last resort for both countries, would be negotiable. There could be advantages in an independent Scotland having its own currency, even if it were pegged to the pound to give it greater stability, because it would mean that the exchange rate could be altered in a major crisis.

But it would also mean that Scotland’s currency would be exposed to many of the pressures of a petro-currency. Moreover, those doing business across the border with the rest of the UK would face transactions costs and at least some degree of exchange risk. This would also apply to those who had mortgages or pensions in sterling. A mortgage with a UK lender would be in sterling, while the asset against which it was provided was in pounds Scots. To avoid the exchange risk, borrowers would need to remortgage with a Scottish lender or a branch of a UK lender able to lend in Scots currency.

This is just one of a number of major uncertainties as Scotland goes into the referendum. Another is whether or how quickly Scotland could become a member of the European Union in its own right, thereby safeguarding its position in the EU single market. Would it have to take its place in a queue of candidate countries seeking membership, with much uncertainty over its position in the meantime? Or would it be possible to retain membership by the quicker and easier process of treaty amendment? Whatever the outcome, it would have to have the agreement of the 28 existing member states, any one of which could exercise a veto.

Scottish Ministers have rightly pointed to Scotland’s wealth of resources, not only in offshore oil and gas but also in renewable energy. But, with the exception of hydro electricity, renewable energy has had to be subsidised by consumers across the whole UK. Onshore wind power is becoming more economic and, if present trends continue, may be competitive later in this decade. But this does not apply to offshore wind or to wave and tidal power, which are still at a very early stage of development. Would consumers in the rest of the UK be prepared to continue subsidising renewable power in Scotland after it became an independent state? This would probably depend on whether they could get the electricity they require from other cheaper sources.

These are just some of the uncertainties as the date of the referendum approaches. It is only realistic to accept that much is likely still to remain unknown as people go to cast their votes.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A conspiracy of silence?

By Professor Jim Gallagher.This article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the RSGS's magazine, The Geographer.

The thing most ignored in the present Scottish independence debate is the thing which is most likely to happen after it. There is something of a conspiracy of silence about the new tax powers which will come to the Scottish Parliament as a result of the Scotland Act 2012. In fact, they represent a substantial addition to the powers of the Scottish Parliament, all the more remarkable in a state with such a tradition of fiscal centralisation as the United Kingdom.

When the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999, it built upon the foundation of administrative devolution which had grown up over the previous century or more. Most of the domestic functions of government in Scotland were decentralised, to a territorial Secretary of State. This in its turn was built on the preservation of the separate Scottish legal system, educational system, and church since the Act of Union in 1707.

The Scottish Office that administered the services had an immensely wide range of responsibilities: health, education, justice, transport, economic development, agriculture, and many others. Indeed, virtually the same range of responsibilities as the Scottish Parliament has today. But it was, in the jargon, a spending department of government: it disbursed monies or spent them directly, and was funded by UK taxation collected by the Treasury. The only exceptions were local taxes such as council tax and nondomestic rates.

In consequence, the Parliament created in 1999 was lopsided. It had immensely wide spending responsibilities – as wide as those in any federal state – but only vestigial taxing responsibilities. The UK is internationally unusual in that virtually all taxes are collected and gathered centrally by the Treasury. Most other countries, and certainly federal countries, have some decentralised taxation.

Against this background and in response to the election of an SNP minority government in 2007, the UK Labour Government, supported by a majority of members of the Scottish Parliament, decided to set up the Calman Commission, to review the powers of the Parliament and in particular its fiscal accountability. The analysis was thorough, setting out how the Scottish Parliament fitted into the wider UK union, and how it could be made more fiscally accountable by tax decentralisation.

The essential recommendation was that a proportion (about one third) of the Scottish Parliament’s
budget should be funded by taxes it levied itself, rather than by transfers from the UK Exchequer. A number of smaller taxes, such as stamp duty land tax, were recommended for wholesale devolution. But the main recommendation was that income tax – one of the three biggest taxes, and the most perceptible – should become a shared tax, levied on the same tax base by both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments.

As a result, the rate of UK income tax applying in Scotland would be reduced by 10p in the pound, and the grant to the Scottish Parliament from Westminster reduced by a commensurate amount. The Scottish Parliament could then choose an income tax rate of its own, and would receive the resultant revenue. So the Parliament would be required to make a tax decision, and would control the total of its budget by setting a higher or lower rate.

These recommendations were accepted by all the main UK parties, and despite opposing it until the last moment, the SNP majority administration elected in 2011 eventually consented, and the scheme was enacted as the Scotland Act 2012. The legislation will be put into effect in 2016, so that the Scottish Parliament elected then (assuming Scotland has decided against independence) will have substantial income tax powers.

Three things are remarkable about this. First, the UK is probably the most fiscally centralised state in the Western world, and agreement to decentralise roughly half of the income tax in Scotland might not have been predicted. Second, the process of securing agreement to substantial constitutional change across two general elections (Scottish and UK) and two changes of administration (in Edinburgh and London) was without precedent. It shows a remarkable degree of careful policy-making against a background of virulent political disagreement.

The third remarkable thing is how little this is remarked upon. During the referendum debate, it obviously suits the SNP to argue that the present constitutional arrangements are inflexible and fail to give Scotland powers it might reasonably expect. So they never talk about the Scotland Act 2012. It’s perhaps less obvious that each of the pro-union parties – who should be able to take credit for a creative policy change that moves substantially in the direction of median Scottish opinion, which is in favour of more devolution – do not appear to be giving it the attention it merits, even as they consider whether there is scope for yet more change.

But if the polls are correct, and the Scottish people decide against independence, we have a very clear picture of what Scotland’s territorial constitution will be like in 2016, and this will surely set the pattern for any further development of the devolution settlement. Devolution will move on to its next phase.

Professor Jim Gallagher, Research Fellow in Politics, Nuffield College, University of Oxford

Scotland: some known unknowns

By Professor Iain McLean. This article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the RSGS's magazine, The Geographer.

If we vote ‘Yes’ on 18th September 2014, we do not know what we will get, apart from the departure of Scottish MPs from Westminster. To borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s useful phrase: the remaining terms of independence are ‘known unknowns’. The Scottish negotiators must enter discussions with several counterparties, such as the European Union, NATO, and the rest of the United Kingdom (rUK). I discuss seven of the ‘known unknowns’.

The European Union

The Scottish Government acknowledges that “it will be for the EU member states… to take forward the most appropriate procedure under which an independent Scotland will become a signatory to the EU Treaties”. Scotland wants to enter under Article 48 of The Lisbon Treaty. Many doubt whether that is feasible, but if it is, the parties would be the UK and the European Council. Scotland would not be a party at all. Under the more plausible Article 49, it would be in control of its own application. But it would not automatically inherit the various opt-outs and rebates that the current UK has secured from the EU, such as the contributions rebate and an optout from the Schengen common travel area. The outcome of those would emerge from negotiations with a counterparty (the European Council) whose composition is currently unknown.


The Scottish Government wants both to join NATO and to get rid of the Trident submarine fleet from Faslane and the armaments store from Coulport by 2020. I cannot say how NATO’s Council would respond to these two commitments. But, as the Council acts by unanimity, I can say that its position would be determined by whichever member state was both most hostile to Scotland’s proposals and prepared to threaten a veto.

Rest of the United Kingdom (rUK) 

After a ‘Yes’ vote, there would have to be negotiations with representatives of rUK over a huge range of issues, including:
  • splitting UK assets and liabilities; 
  • sharing some existing UK services, including overseas embassies and consulates, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA), and the BBC;
  • the Common Travel Area currently comprising the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man (this negotiation would also involve the other counterparty governments);
  • sterling and the Bank of England; 
  • Faslane and Coulport. 

For some of these, international law offers a default position. Were the parties, after failing to agree, to submit their dispute to arbitration, there are principles of international law that would determine which party got what. Unlike in a divorce, I do not think it is remotely likely that Scotland and rUK would have to go to arbitration on any of these issues. But the common knowledge of what would probably happen if they did go to arbitration will set limits. On other matters – most obviously Faslane and Coulport – principles of international law will not help the negotiators. On those, a purely political bargain must be struck.

Splitting immovable assets – land and buildings – is easy. Those located in Scotland go to Scotland. Those located in rUK go to rUK. Immovable assets located outside the present UK would fall to the rUK as the ‘continuator’ state, although the Scottish Government wishes to negotiate for the shared use of UK diplomatic premises. Movable, tangible assets such as tanks and computers would be assigned according to their purpose rather than their location. In most cases, this would have the same consequence as a split by location, but in some cases (for example, military equipment, or equipment relating to UK government functions currently carried out in Scotland) it would not. 

Splitting liabilities could be more controversial. In relation to the UK’s existing stock of government bonds on issue, HM Treasury has stated that “the continuing UK Government would in all circumstances honour the contractual terms of the debt issued by the UK Government. An independent Scottish state would become responsible for a fair and proportionate share of the UK’s current liabilities. An entirely separate contract between the continuing UK Government and an independent Scottish state’s Government would need to be established. The respective shares of debt and the terms of repayment would be subject to negotiation.” 

Various principles for apportioning liabilities between Scotland and rUK have been suggested. The Scottish Government says, “The national debt could be apportioned by reference to the historic contribution made to the UK’s public finances by Scotland, or on the basis of our population share. We may choose to offset Scotland’s share of the value of UK assets against our inherited debt.” 

The problem with the ‘historic contribution’ proposal is that there cannot be an uncontroversial starting date except 1707. Data are scanty for the first 200 years or so of the Union. But any later starting date may be seen as arbitrary and chosen to maximise bargaining advantage. As there is no default position in international law for the ‘historic contribution’ apportionment, for most liabilities the choice would be between ‘population share’ and ‘relative GDP’. Population share is simple and an obvious default. Considerations of ability to repay may, however, push the parties towards an apportionment based on relative GDP.

The Scottish Government insists that, once North Sea activity and tax receipts are assigned to Scotland, Scottish GDP per head will be higher than that of rUK on Independence Day. A relative GDP assignment of liabilities would therefore be less favourable to Scotland than a population share assignment. For the liabilities and contingent liabilities arising from the UK bailout of failing banks in 2008-9 (including RBS and the then Bank of Scotland group), I am not aware of any agreed principles of international law that may be applicable.

Shared services 

This should not be difficult, so long as the distinction between assets and institutions is borne in mind. As recently explained by Adam Tomkins, John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow, “international law shows you that, in the context of a state succession of this nature, there is every difference between institutions and assets. Institutions of the UK become institutions of the rest of the UK, but assets of those institutions fall to be apportioned equitably.” The assets of the DVLA and the BBC (studios, computer systems, vans, etc) may be apportioned equally. But as institutions, they would be institutions of rUK after independence. It is only common sense that Scotland should then seek to buy some services from them, but that would be a matter of contractual agreement.

Common Travel Area (CTA) 

The CTA should be easy, on two conditions: (i) that the EU does not insist on Scotland joining the Schengen Area, which would normally be part of the acquis communautaire; and (ii) that Scotland is willing to co-ordinate its policy on migration with rUK, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. Condition (i) is a matter of common sense, which I hope will prevail. Condition (ii) may be more problematic if the Scottish Government after independence maintains the current Scottish Government’s wish to “take forward a points-based approach targeted at particular Scottish requirements… [and] a new model of asylum services separate from immigration.” An immigrant to one member of a common travel area is an immigrant to all of them. Therefore, in negotiations to remain in the CTA, all of the other parties would have to approve Scotland’s migration policy.

Monetary policy, and Nuclear policy


This leaves the two most difficult areas. The Scottish Government insists that Scotland would remain in the sterling area, and would seek membership of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. It argues that that is in the interests of rUK as well as of Scotland, because the present UK is what economists label an ‘optimum currency area’. The UK Government insists that the rUK government would not agree to that; a stance backed by both the Liberal Democrat and Labour finance spokesmen. Sterling is an institution, not an asset. Therefore, after independence, it would become an institution of rUK. Its negotiators may then reconsider whether admitting Scotland to a currency union is indeed in the interests of rUK. The ‘optimal currency area’ argument should have some traction; but so too will arguments which conclude that the near-collapse of the eurozone from 2009 onwards occurred, among other reasons, because some eurozone members were fiscally undisciplined. rUK would insist that if it admitted Scotland to a common currency area, Scotland would have to agree to harsh rules capping its maximum public debt and deficit.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, said in Edinburgh in January that “Any arrangement to retain sterling in an independent Scotland would need to be negotiated between the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments.” He went on to point out that a monetary union requires close co-operation between its member states on budgeting and bank regulation. On bank regulation, for instance, “The European process illustrates the difficulty of building the institutional arrangements for a common insurance scheme across sovereign states. This is unsurprising since mutualised deposit guarantee schemes imply a pooling of risk and loss of sovereignty. All member states must be persuaded that they won’t simply be left with the bill for the mistakes of others.”

Whereas on currency and banking Scotland’s position appears weak, on Faslane and Coulport it appears strong. An independent Scotland could not be a nuclear weapon state, because of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970. Therefore it is proper for Scotland to give notice to rUK that the nuclear-armed submarines and warheads would need to be removed from Scottish soil. What is unclear is how the rUK would respond. In any case, the UK political parties and the armed services are in the middle of arguments about how, or whether, to replace the present Trident deterrent force. These arguments cut across parties (and services). I cannot predict the stance to be taken by the UK government which will be elected in 2015. Even if negotiations are started by the current coalition government, its position on Trident and Faslane may be altered by the new government. Apart from the terms of the NPT, international law is no help here. The outcome, whatever it is, will be intrinsically political.

I also predict that deals on these difficult issues will be linked, even though they are conceptually separate. There is no logical connection between Scotland’s currency and rUK’s nuclear-armed submarines, but there will certainly be a political connection. I do not know how this most important pair of known unknowns will end up.

Professor Iain McLean, Official Fellow in Politics, Nuffield College, University of Oxford

Friday, 13 June 2014

Job Opportunity - Finance Officer (Full Time)

Royal Scottish Geographical Society
Salary range £16-18k per annum

Applications are invited from hard-working and enthusiastic individuals seeking a position with one of Scotland’s busiest and most dynamic small charities.  We have a vacancy for a Finance Officer to do day-to-day financial record keeping and to support the Society’s membership database.  You will be responsible for all SAGE inputting and administration, working as the finance component of a small team where flexibility and initiative are required.  Duties will include processing of membership fees, invoices and payments.

You should be able to demonstrate a high level of numerical ability and good attention to detail.  You will be competent with Microsoft packages (preferably Excel and/or Access), be familiar with SAGE, and be accustomed to reporting monthly income and expenditure, and working with general ledgers.  Knowledge of databases would also be advantageous.

For further information, email enquiries@rsgs.org, or contact Richard Bowman at RSGS, 15-19 North Port, PERTH, PH1 5LU, or telephone 01738 455050.

Applications by CV should include the name of two referees, current salary and availability to take up the post.  The deadline for applications is Friday 27th June.  Interviews will be held on Friday 4th July at our Headquarters at 15-19 North Port, Perth, PH1 5LU.

Royal Scottish Geographical Society Logo

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Climate Change Storymat

Building on the format of the successful interactive Storymats developed by RSPB, the new RSGS Climate Change Storymat has been developed to create awareness of the Earth including habitats, biodiversity, climate and weather. It has also been designed to help young children think about personal actions we can take to reduce the effects of climate change on the environment. We introduced the Storymat at a recent twilight session attended by 10 primary teachers from Perth & Kinross schools, and piloting is now underway with two P3 classes at St Johns primary school in Perth. After piloting, the resource will be available for loan to Perth & Kinross schools.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Celebrating Croll: Who was James Croll?

James Croll is one of those remarkable Victorian characters who made a fundamental contribution to our current understanding of science, but who is now all but forgotten except in specialist circles.

James Croll

Coming from a modest rural background near Perth, Croll was largely self-taught through reading, his enthusiasm for learning sparked by The Penny Magazine of The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

For much of his life he struggled with illness, and he held a succession of different jobs, from millwright to shopkeeper to insurance salesman. It was in 1859, when he became a janitor at the Anderson College in Glasgow and gained access to its extensive library, that he became actively involved in pushing the boundaries of glaciology.

His first paper on glacial epochs was published in 1864, and in 1875 he published the landmark Climate and Time, the distillation of his theory of ice ages and Earth’s orbit. In all, he wrote dozens of scientific papers, amongst other things explaining global oceanic circulation, calculating the age of the sun, developing a theory of evolution, and remarkably presciently predicting the thickness of the unexplored Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“I remember well that, before I could make headway in physical astronomy,… I had to go back and study the laws of motion and fundamental principles of mechanics. In like manner I studied pneumatics, hydrostatics, light, heat, electricity and magnetism. I obtained assistance from no-one. In fact there were none of my acquaintances who knew anything whatever about these subjects.” - James Croll

The Celebrating Croll appeal launched last week. The RSGS is aiming to rejuvenate the outdoor space and the interpretation panels in our visitor and education centre in the Fair Maid's House., to give visitors more to see, maximise the space available to visiting groups, and to celebrate the legacy of James Croll.