Historian Jo Woolf, a Writer in Residence for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, explores the history of Edinburgh, looking at the desires of past and present explorers. At 100 Princes Street we will pay homage to Edinburgh's rich history and take inspiration from the explorers who put 100 Princes Street on the map. In design, our teams will look to create a 'sense of place', working with local artisans to create bespoke pieces and feature a mural honouring the adventures of several great Scottish explorers by Croxford & Saunders. Read more about this rich history below.

'Telegrams: Geography, Edinburgh.’ The old telegraph address of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society sums up the bond between explorers and Scotland’s capital city in two neat words. In the late 1800s, geographical discovery was a hot topic on the streets of Edinburgh, and travellers who brought exciting news of previously uncharted regions could be sure of a warm and appreciative reception. Their sensational appearance filled lecture theatres night after night, and each morning the newspapers were brimming with detailed reports.  Whether they were returning from the tropics, the deserts, or the polar regions, explorers were the superstars of their day, and everybody wanted to shake their hand.

Early letterhead of RSGS (courtesy RSGS)

In 1884, there could not have been a better time to establish a Scottish geographical society;  and its co-founders were uniquely placed to bring all the greats of exploration face-to-face with an adoring public. Agnes Livingstone Bruce was the daughter of David Livingstone, renowned for his travels as a missionary in Africa and his passionate opposition to the slave trade.  Her friend John George Bartholomew was a cartographer, the fourth generation of an Edinburgh map-making dynasty. Young and ambitious, they had all the right connections, and within months their new society, based in Princes Street, Edinburgh, was hosting explorers at prestigious geographical events.

Bartholomew’s Chart of the World, 1914

But who were these amazing explorers? Where had they been, and where did they come from?  If you open the RSGS Visitors’ Book at random, you’re more than likely to alight on a signature that will transport you back to the ‘heroic age’ of polar exploration. A prime example is Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. In 1888, aged only 27, Nansen led a party of six men on the first-ever crossing of the Greenland ice cap. Then, between 1893 and 1896, he spent three winters in the Arctic, two of them on a ship that he had deliberately allowed to become frozen into the ice, in the hope that it would drift over the North Pole.  Nansen, even in his own day, was a legend. He was the guest of honour at a lavish banquet in Edinburgh in 1897 and became one of the first explorers to receive the RSGS Gold medal.

Fridtjof Nansen

In the late 1800s, a handful of trail-blazing women broke away from the constrictions of Victorian society and took off on their own adventures. One of these daring ladies was Isabella Bird. Travelling solo, Isabella worked as a cowgirl in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, lost her heart to a desperado, and then embarked on lengthy expeditions in China, Japan and Korea.  Not only did she successfully avoid scandal - a miracle in itself - but she became a bestselling author and an accomplished travel photographer. Isabella, who lived in Edinburgh, was the first woman to be made an Honorary Fellow of RSGS, and she was also the first woman to deliver a lecture to the Society. Her talk, which focused on her travels in Persia, was heard by a packed audience in Edinburgh in November 1891.

Another iconic figure with strong links to Edinburgh is Sir Ernest Shackleton. Early in 1904, when Shackleton was offered the post of Secretary to RSGS, he and his wife, Emily, moved to a house in South Learmonth Gardens.  Shackleton made some influential new friends while he lived in Edinburgh, but he soon realised that he had unfinished business in the Southern Ocean. He had previously served on Robert Falcon Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, and there was an undeniable rivalry between the two men. Scott was a guest at RSGS’s 20th-anniversary celebrations in Edinburgh, and during his after-dinner speech, he gently teased the Irish-born Shackleton about his apparent new-found Scottishness, amid much hilarity.  In the years to come, both men would be drawn irresistibly back to the Antarctic, to a fate that was still unseen.    

Sir Ernest Shackleton

An explorer who earned the respect of both Shackleton and Scott was William Speirs Bruce. A man of few words but great ambitions, Bruce was Scotland’s own Antarctic hero, commanding the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition which sailed out of the Clyde in 1902. Bruce set up the first meteorological station in the Antarctic, whose recordings have continued uninterrupted to the present day. He was the co-founder of Edinburgh Zoo, and established a Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, to display the many natural history specimens that he brought back from his travels.

Painting of icebergs in the Antarctic, by W G Burn Murdoch (1893). Burn Murdoch was a close friend of William Speirs Bruce.

Scotland has many more home-grown explorers: in the 1920s and 30s, Isobel Wylie Hutchison left her home at Carlowrie, near Edinburgh, and headed off on ambitious plant-collecting adventures in Greenland, Alaska and Arctic Canada. A talented writer, photographer and artist, who travelled purely for the thrill of adventure, she was the first woman to be awarded the Mungo Park medal. 

Isobel Wylie Hutchison (right) with friends in Greenland 

Before Isobel was even born, Sir Charles Wyville Thomson and Sir John Murray were preparing to embark on the Challenger expedition, an ambitious four-year voyage of scientific discovery around the world’s oceans. And in the 1840s, when Sir John Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror disappeared in the Arctic on their quest for the Northwest Passage, Scotsman John Rae was among the experienced polar travellers who were tasked with discovering their fate. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the major rivers of the African continent lured many Scottish explorers keen to discover their source;  among them were Mungo Park, James Bruce and Joseph Thomson, all of whom were educated at Edinburgh University. Meanwhile, plantsmen Archibald Menzies and David Douglas headed west across the Atlantic on a quest for new botanical species. Menzies brought back the first seeds of the Monkey Puzzle tree, while David Douglas introduced the majestic Douglas Fir. Some of their plant specimens are held in the Herbarium of the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh.

Climbers on Everest

With its challenging peaks in the Cairngorms and Northwest Highlands, it is no surprise that Scotland has produced some remarkable mountaineers. In 1921, Alexander Kellas accompanied George Mallory on the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition;  in later decades the Himalayas also attracted Dougal Haston, Hamish MacInnes, and Evelyn McNicol, all supremely talented climbers. Myrtle Simpson has made 10 first ascents of peaks in the Andes, Himalayas, and New Zealand, and in 1965 she became the first woman to ski across Greenland.

Hazel and Luke Roberston on the Finnmark Plateau 

Today, the torch of exploration has passed to a new generation of explorers. People like Hazel and Luke Robertson, Mollie Hughes, Craig Mathieson and Mark Beaumont are not only re-defining exploration for the 21st century but are inspiring hundreds of other young people to tap into their own unique potential. There are no longer any blank spaces on the map, but there are discoveries yet to be made as we continue to learn about the amazing planet that we call home.