Sir Ernest Shackleton: a driving force at the RSGS

scottish-national-portrait-gallery-1905-by-william-henry-goodyearScottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, Edinburgh, in 1905

I’m sure I’ve told you about the wonderful leather-bound volumes of newspaper cuttings at the RSGS, the reams of clipped articles all carefully curated and beautifully labelled in copperplate handwriting.

The volume dated 1890-1907 is a particularly interesting one, as it includes H M Stanley’s lavish reception in Edinburgh, celebrating his rescue of the beleaguered Emin Pasha;  an appearance by the elusive and dashing Francis Younghusband, who was called back to India at the last minute and only just managed to deliver his lecture in Dundee;   and the daring exploits of women explorers such as Fanny Bullock Workman and Isabella Bird.


Every so often you come across a short advertisement, worded something like this:  “Youth, about 14 to 16 years of age, wanted in the office of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, to make himself generally useful.” 

Based in the Society’s rooms in the National Portrait Gallery, part of this lad’s job, I would imagine, was to scan the morning papers for geography-related articles, and then cut them out and paste them into the album with extreme care and diligence.

What has interested me for quite a while, however, is a gap in the record that amounts to nearly two years.  You might be telling me very shortly that I’ve been looking at these albums for too long, but here’s the thing:  from the end of 1903 until the middle of 1905 there are hardly any cuttings, and it’s not as if there was a lack of news or a paper shortage.  Now, I should emphasise that this is purely my own personal theory, but I think I’ve found the answer, and I’m looking at Sir Ernest Shackleton.

shackleton-from-popular-science-monthlyShackleton was the Secretary of the RSGS in 1904 and 1905, during which time he and his bride, Emily, stayed at 14 South Learmonth Gardens in Edinburgh.  Shackleton was so keen to take up his new post that he had persuaded Emily to give up the idea of a honeymoon.  When he strode into the Society’s rooms in Queen Street he was bursting with energy – like a grenade, in fact.  The effect was almost the same.

To begin with, the dignified patriarchs of the RSGS welcomed Shackleton’s appointment;  he did, after all, still hold the Antarctic record of ‘Furthest South’.  In the days afterwards they began to have second thoughts.  Revolution was creeping in, under their very noses.  They gazed in silence as Shackleton pecked away at a new-fangled typewriter, and they tutted with disapproval at a time-saving addressograph which churned out envelopes for large-volume mailings.   Worst of all, their ears were assaulted repeatedly by the jangling of a telephone.  Noting the strange lack of humour in his associates, Shackleton wrote to his friend, Hugh Robert Mill:   “You should have seen the faces of some of the old chaps when it started to ring today…” (‘Shackleton’ by Roland Huntford)

Lounging at his desk in a light tweed suit, in itself an affront to the sober dress code of the institution, Shackleton chuckled and lit a cigarette.  And what was the young office lad doing, in this atmosphere of delinquency?   It seems, putting two and two together, that he was practising his golf swing.   According to two of Shackleton’s biographers – Hugh Robert Mill and Roland Huntford – one day Shackleton walked in and surprised an assistant who was driving golf balls into heavy curtains at the far end of the room.  Far from taking the lad to task over his neglect of duty, Shackleton borrowed the club and had a go himself, with disastrous consequences.  He smashed the ball through the window and down into the street.

The Shackletons took a house near Dornoch that summer, so that Ernest could improve his swing on the famous golf course.  When the autumn lecture season got under way at the RSGS, a series of illustrious speakers came and went –  among them William Speirs Bruce, who returned from the Antarctic in 1904 and was presented with the Society’s Gold Medal;  and Captain Robert Falcon Scott, newly home from the Discovery expedition of 1901-04.

scott-c1900-bonhamsShackleton and Scott, on the same platform at the Synod Hall.   How did that go down?

The office lad had practically abandoned his newspaper-cutting duties by that time, so I tracked down some newspaper reports in the National Library of Scotland, and the account of Scott’s address in Edinburgh is fascinating and revealing.   You can read more in the second part of this blog, ‘Voices from the Antarctic – Scott and Shackleton at the RSGS‘.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery was the home of the RSGS from 1890 to 1908.  The Society’s rooms were behind the three arched windows to the right of the main entrance.  The top photo was taken in 1905 by William Henry Goodyear (public domain). Photo of Shackleton (above, left) and Scott (above, right) also in public domain.


  • ‘Shackleton’ by Roland Huntford
  • ‘The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton’ by Hugh Robert Mill
  • Newspapers in RSGS archives

Writing about history and landscape at The Hazel Tree ( Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

2 thoughts on “Sir Ernest Shackleton: a driving force at the RSGS

  1. An ace bit of detective work, very entertainingly told. I love the vision of Shackleton and the young assistant practising golf shots into long curtains. I can well imagine how black affronted the fellow RSGS members were at Shackleton’s modern approach. This whole post made me smile. 🙂 Looking forward to Part 2.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you kindly, Lorna! 🙂 I am doing some other detective work as well at the moment, with some old photos in the archive. Shackleton just didn’t care about appearances, yet he was so vulnerable, and I think that’s what I love about him. I would so love to have been there. Really glad you enjoyed it!


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