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The Great Horizon: Fifty astonishing stories of exploration

Fifty astonishing stories of exploration, gathered from the archives of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society

by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

A Repository of Stories

RSGS is a repository of some of the best adventure stories of the last century and a half. Since HM Stanley gave our first public talks in 1884, a dazzling array of explorers have shared enthralling tales of discovery with hushed RSGS audiences across Scotland. Scott, Shackleton, Bruce, Hillary and Armstrong have inspired generations, but some lesser-known names were just as remarkable. All were uniquely gifted, fearless to a fault, driven by a compulsion to find out what lay beyond the known world, to cross the great horizon.

“If you really want some fun in a Tibetan coracle, you must get a native to take you through bad water when he is thoroughly drunk; he fears nothing then, and if you live to tell the story you will have something to boast about all your life.”(Frank Kingdon-Ward, from ‘Wanderings of a Naturalist in Tibet and Western China’, his address to RSGS in Edinburgh, 1913)

A Compelling Writer

In 2015 we appointed Jo Woolf as our volunteer writer-in-residence, to help us find and share some of the extraordinary stories locked up in our archives. Jo is a meticulous researcher with an instinct for the untold tale. She has unearthed a treasure trove of material, including unique sources such as first-hand accounts of RSGS talks, and has set up a blog ( to share her findings. Her writing is fluid and sympathetic, sparkling with excitement, and she has an incredible knack of finding the little gems of information which bring these characters to life.


“The tripod of my camera served for a candle stand, and on it I hung my clothes and boots at night, out of the way of rats. With absolute security from vermin, all else can be cheerfully endured.” (Isabella Bird, from ‘The Yangtze Valley and Beyond: An Account of Journeys in China’, 1899)

A Book of Inspiration

Now we are planning to publish a high-quality 356-page book that gathers 50 of these astonishing stories from our archives, blows the dust off some tales well worth telling, and celebrates RSGS’s role in the evolution of geographical inspiration and education. With five thematic sections (Ice, Mountains, Voyagers, Geographers, Global Vision) the book would revitalise the stories of an assortment of some renowned and some largely-forgotten characters, sharing their life-enhancing experiences, and inspiring people to explore, learn about and protect our fragile planet.

“On Christmas Day… Mr Shackleton unexpectedly produced a plum pudding about the size of a cricket ball. ‘It was,’ said Captain Scott, ‘a day to remember all your life.’” (Robert Falcon Scott, from his address to RSGS in Edinburgh, 1904, reported in ‘The Scotsman’)

Pre-Order Your Copy Now!

As a charity with a lack of resources, we often need to be creative if we want to make things happen. So to generate the funds needed for this book’s publication and marketing, we are asking people to order copies in advance. In the first instance, this is simply a pledge to purchase one or more copies at a unit price of £25 (RRP). We hope to secure pledges for enough books by early spring 2017 so that the full project can go ahead. We will then ask you to pay for your book, while Jo finishes writing it, and we will sell further copies through bookshops and online.


For your £25, you will get a copy of the book when it is published, your name will be included in the list of acknowledgements, and Jo Woolf and Professor Iain Stewart (who is writing the introduction) will autograph it. The book will help RSGS by promoting the stories and the charity, it will make the most of Jo’s hard work as a volunteer, and you will receive a wonderful high-quality and highly readable volume to enjoy and give to friends, full of some of the best stories of the past century and a half!

To order your autographed copy/copies, with your name in the acknowledgements, please contact us by email ( or phone 01738 455050 with your name, address, email and the number of copies you would like to order. When we have received sufficient pledges for the project to go ahead (hopefully in spring 2017), we will contact you to confirm your order and request payment.

Provisional and incomplete list of stories; subject to amendment as Jo explores further!

ICE: Fridtjof Nansen; Robert Peary; Roald Amundsen; Robert Falcon Scott; Edward ‘Teddy’ Evans; Ernest Shackleton; William Speirs Bruce; Wally Herbert; Børge Ousland

MOUNTAINS: Francis Younghusband; George Mallory; Chris Bonington; Edmund Hillary; Fanny Bullock Workman; W H Murray; Frank Kingdon-Ward

VOYAGERS: Bertram Thomas; John Murray; Mary Kingsley; Robert Ballard; Isabella Bird; Tim Severin; Isobel Wylie Hutchison; Freya Stark; Sven Hedin; Michael Palin

GEOGRAPHERS ON A MISSION: Mildred Cable, Francesca & Eva French; Lord Kitchener; Annie Taylor; Frederick Marshman Bailey; David Livingstone; Henry Morton Stanley; Neil Armstrong; Joseph Thomson; Alan Cobham; Rosie Swale-Pope

GLOBAL VISION: Hubert Wilkins; Lord Avebury; Wangari Maathai; Dick Balharry; David Hempleman-Adams; John G Bartholomew; Christina Dodwell; Ranulph Fiennes; Patrick Geddes; David Attenborough

Jo Woolf

Jo Woolf