Thursday, 28 August 2014

Inspiring People 2014-15

Doug Allan The Changing Poles

What do a world's leading wildlife film maker, Britain's most legendary young climber, Norway's leading polar explorer, an astronaut, TV presenters, several Everest summiteers, a man who circumnavigated the world through his own steam, and a round the world yachtswoman all have in common? 

They are all giving public talks for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society this winter. With stories from the top of the world, to the ends of the world and around and above the world; from Glasgow to Rockall, from Harris to Iceland and from North Korea to New Zealand to China and the mountains of the Antarctic there are stories from everywhere to everyone.

View the full programme here

Talks are free for members of RSGS, but anyone can come along (non-members are asked to pay £8).   Talks take place throughout Scotland from Dumfries to Inverness and many points in between, and run from September through to March 2015.    For further information see or check for details on Facebook

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The relationship with the EU

By David Crawley. This article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the RSGS's magazine, The Geographer. 

The current debate about how and when an independent Scotland might join the European Union as a full member – vital though that is – risks obscuring the extent and nature of Scotland’s current links with the rest of Europe, and the long-term importance of our European relationships whatever the outcome of the referendum. 

Scotland has long had a strong relationship with Europe as part of the UK. We have played an active part in many sectors – notably farming and fisheries, but in many others which touch closely on Scottish interests, including environment, justice and home affairs, regional development, and the single market. Before devolution, Scottish Ministers and officials were routinely involved in EU Council meetings as part of the UK team negotiating on key issues like the Common Fisheries Policy, the regular Common Agricultural Policy discussions, the environment, food and animal health. After devolution, a set of formal agreements known as concordats between the UK and Scottish Governments have provided for continuing Scottish involvement, and Scotland has pursued its interests through its representation in Brussels, which has operated alongside the UK representation and which, unusually among EU regional representations, was allowed the huge advantage of full diplomatic status. 

We have developed links with many European regions and member states, and now have a strong reputation in Brussels built around Scottish culture and our core priorities of farming, fisheries, food and the environment. We have also been able to access substantial EU resources for regional and rural development. Also important, our links with non- members of the EU have depended on common interests – notably in the case of Norway, with whom we share common concerns in oil and fisheries, and a long cultural history. 

If Scotland votes for independence, the economic, social and cultural case for Scotland remaining within the EU as a full member looks unarguable. Access to the single European market, which is a major destination for Scotland’s exports and a major source of goods and services, would be central to future Scottish economic policy. Our place within Europe is a key factor in inward investment; we would remain a substantial beneficiary of European funding; and the flow of people and skills in both directions would create huge opportunities. I believe Scotland also understands the wider political case for the EU, and its record in cementing peace across the whole of Europe and in developing a European culture alongside existing national and regional cultures. For Scotland, there are no credible alternatives – the option of joining countries like Norway in the European Economic Area has few attractions, given that it involves most of the costs and responsibilities of EU membership without involvement in the decisions. 

Arguably Scotland has understood the value of its links with Europe better than other parts of the UK. The recorded view of the Scottish people is relatively positive, and it seems clear from polling that a substantial majority think Scotland should stay in the EU if it becomes independent. Yet European membership is no free ride. Scotland would have to move to a much more grown-up version of its European role. It would be one of the more prosperous member states of the expanded EU and would have to bear its share of responsibilities and costs. It would have to work hard at alliances and would need to recognise that small states tend to do best if they support European ideals and objectives. 

The road by which an independent Scotland would become a member of the EU faces awkward obstacles. It would require complex negotiation with all member states within the framework of the European Treaties: the EU is based on agreements between states, not peoples. It still seems likely that most other member states would welcome Scotland, but there are no guarantees and it is already clear that there would be opposition. This would require hard thinking about how far to press for similar opt-outs to those of the UK, or for special measures on the euro or fisheries. We are likely to be disappointed in the hope of quick and seamless entry, however strong we feel our case to be. If Scotland votes to stay in the UK, our European future will be tied to that of the wider UK, with the possibility of an in/out referendum during the next parliament. I would expect that, after much debate, the UK will vote to stay in the EU and that Scottish involvement will help to ensure that. If, on the other hand, Scotland were to vote for independence and the remainder of the UK were to vote to leave the EU, Scotland would be forced to make some very difficult choices. However much we wish to remain part of the EU, therefore, we can only look forward to a period of intense uncertainty.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Writer in Residence

In an innovative new scheme we have appointed our first ever writer-in-residence – Hazel Buchan Cameron.  Hazel is mentoring young writer Josh Morris in a variety of writing skills and approaches, drawing inspiration from the collections and history of the RSGS, currently in its 130th year.  With a collection of 250,000 maps, 40,000 books, a bulging archive, and an association with many of the world’s most famous scientists, explorers, adventurers and educationalists, the charity has been described as a repository of some of the best stories of the past century and a half.

 There are so many inspiring people’s stories connected to the Society it is hard to draw breath,”  Hazel commented.

Mike Robinson, our Chief Executive, is very enthusiastic: “We are grateful to Creative Scotland and PKC for giving us this opportunity to introduce Hazel and Josh to our collections.  It has been really rewarding seeing them become more and more engrossed in discovering the many and varied stories hidden away.  I genuinely believe there is something here to interest everyone.”

The project, funded by Creative Scotland through the Perth & Kinross Place Partnership, runs throughout the summer months, and will culminate in an exhibition in Perth Museum, opening in early October.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

World War One Centenary

The impact of World War One affected communities everywhere and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and its members were no exception.   As the centenary of WW1 is marked across the world it seems fitting that we acknowledge and remember some of the RSGS members and council who fought and lost their lives in The Great War.

Alastair Geddes

Alastair Geddes, born in 1891 in Dundee, was the son of Professor Patrick Geddes and Anna Morton Geddes.    Patrick was a famous polymath, planner and educationalist, and an RSGS Council Member during the 1890s and Alastair was a well-travelled and adventurous early member.

Alastair gained a BSC from the University of Edinburgh in 1914, then in July 1915 joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as a temporary flight sub-lieutenant, before being posted to No.6 Kite Balloon Section RNAS in the autumn.   Alastair was promoted to the rank of  Major in the Royal Flying Corps, Balloon division, a highly dangerous role, with high mortality, sitting as they were in balloons taking aerial drawings or photos of the enemy lines, but open to sniper fire and attack by fixed wing planes.  The average flying life of a Royal Flying Corps pilot was just 18 hours in the Arras region.

In April 1918 whilst up in the observation balloon Geddes survived an attack by an enemy fighter plane, he and his companion were able to parachute to safety after their balloon was destroyed by fire. Rather ironically after having survived attacks on his balloon, Geddes, aged only 26, was sadly killed by a shell while on the ground as bad weather had prevented him from flying.   As the most senior British kite balloon officer to be killed in action, Geddes was awarded the Military Cross and the Cross of the Legion of Honour.

A. Schomberg Byng, his friend and commanding officer wrote a poignant letter to notify his father of Alastair’s death.   
“Map reading and accurately placing on the map what is seen from the air is our chief work and you will understand that came readily to him with his knowledge of maps. His devotion to duty and care of his officers and men made me put his name forward for promotion at an early date. 
Did I tell you that we buried him very simply as I knew he would have liked. Mears, (Alastair’s brother in law) another officer and myself, were present, a Scotch Clergyman read a very nice service and then as if they knew, the guns, that had been ranged so well, boomed out on all sides, as if to pay him a last tribute.”

Rather sadly, Patrick’s wife Anna was gravely ill and Patrick could not bring himself to tell her of Alastair’s death and continued to read her the last letters that Alastair had sent from the front. A little over two months later Anna died as well unaware of her son’s demise.

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