The Livingstone Medal: A history behind the iconic award

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s writer-in-residence, Jo Woolf. looks at the history of the prestigious Livingstone Medal and some of its most famous recipients.

One of the last photographs ever taken of legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton
One of the last photographs ever taken of legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton

The Livingstone Medal is awarded “for outstanding public service in which geography has played an important part, either by exploration, by administration, or in other directions where its principles have been applied to the benefit of the human race.”

It was in 1884 that the idea of forming a Scottish Geographical Society was first suggested to Mrs Agnes Livingstone Bruce.

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The proposal was made by John George Bartholomew, a member of the celebrated family of map-makers.

British journalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough with the Livingstone medal he received at a Royal Geographical Society lecture in Edinburgh, March 1990.
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Mrs Bruce was the daughter of the explorer David Livingstone, and she had inherited her father’s enthusiasm for knowledge and adventure. She thought it was an excellent idea, and the eminent geologist James Geikie was also persuaded to give it his blessing.

Three years later, the Scottish Geographical Society was granted ‘Royal’ status by Queen Victoria.

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As membership figures began to soar, the Society’s headquarters were opened by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who gave a lecture about his exploration of Africa.

A Gold Medal was introduced in 1890, honouring the work of eminent geographers, and in 1901 Mrs Livingstone Bruce added a second, with the endowment of the Livingstone Medal.

Sir John Bagot Glubb receives the David Livingstone medal from Dr D A Allan - Lord and Lady Provost Banks, Lt Col F Pearce.

Designed by the renowned sculptor James Pittendrigh MacGillivray, it bears “on the obverse side a portrait of the great explorer, and on the reverse an allegorical representation of the Spirit of Civilisation bearing the torch of progress and the olive-branch of peace.”

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From the Scotsman newspaper, 20th February 1901:

“Royal Scottish Geographical Society - At a meeting of the Council held yesterday, it was intimated that Mrs A L Bruce had undertaken to endow a Livingstone Gold Medal for the Society in memory of her father, Dr Livingstone. It is proposed that the medal shall be the principal award of the Society, to be granted annually for exploration and research.”

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The Livingstone Medal is among the prestigious awards that the RSGS continues to bestow upon extraordinary people - travellers, writers, explorers, statesmen, politicians - who have made an exceptional contribution to our knowledge and appreciation of the planet on which we live.

Ernest Shackleton with his wife Emily on board 'Endurance' before setting sail for South American and Antartica in August 1914.

Among the past recipients are Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sir Alan Cobham and Michael Palin.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

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On 25th March 1909 the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch published a short news item. It read:

“London, 1 pm. Lloyd’s agent at Christchurch, New Zealand, cables that the Antarctic expedition vessel Nimrod arrived to-day, all well, in good condition.”

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Sir Ernest Shackleton, C.V.O Antarctic explorer, 1908.

Underneath was copied the prompt reply from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society:

“Heartiest congratulations, magnificent result, safe return; hope to welcome you Edinburgh. – Geographical.”

On board the Nimrod was Ernest Shackleton, Anglo-Irishman, compulsive explorer, swashbuckling hero, hopeless businessman and inveterate dreamer. He was coming home to the rapturous welcome that he yearned for, to the peaceful life that his mind said he wanted, but which his soul made sure he’d never have.

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The message from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society reflected a connection with Shackleton that had begun five years previously, in January 1904.

The warmth and depth of regard was entirely mutual, but it had got off to a rather shaky start...

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In 1903 Shackleton had been sent home early from Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition, officially on medical grounds. Mortified by the slur that this cast on his capabilities, Shackleton was desperate for a fresh project. The post of Secretary to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society was conveniently vacant, and a little judicious nudging secured him the job. Shackleton moved to Edinburgh with his bride, Emily, and together they started to move in the polite circles of distinguished society.

Michael Palin sets off to go 'Full Circle' around the Pacific rim - here shown in Japan.

But Shackleton wasn’t cut out for courtesy and compromise. He blew in like a force nine gale, with an irrepressible love of life and no regard for convention. For many years, the dark musty corners of the RSGS offices had watched time pass like the solemn ticking of a grandfather clock. Shortly after Shackleton’s arrival, this quiet dignity was rudely shattered with the horrific installation of a telephone. The Irish eyes were twinkling. “You should have seen the faces of some of the old chaps when it started to ring today,” he wrote to one of his friends.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. Shackleton’s behaviour was outrageous in every respect:

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“In his office, when he was there, Shackleton was generally to be found smoking a cigarette and lounging about in a light tweed suit. That in itself had distressed the luminaries of the society from the start. Dark, formal garments were the order of the day. A story was also told of Shackleton surprising an assistant practising golf shots by driving a ball into heavy curtains.... Instead of administering a rebuke, Shackleton is supposed to have borrowed the club, tried a few shots himself, and in the process driven a ball through a window pane into the street.”

Did Shackleton actually do anything? It seems that he did. When the Society held its annual meeting in November 1905, it was revealed - probably in clipped tones - that over the last 12 months its membership had risen by nearly 23 per cent, and that the total number of people attending lectures was 36,000 - an increase of 21,000 over the previous session.

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“Mr James Currie, the treasurer, reported that largely owing to Lieut. Shackleton’s efforts, the finances had considerably improved…”

Shackleton wasn’t there to hear about his success, because he had resigned his post in January. His restless nature was always moving him on to new things, and for the time being he was concentrating his efforts on getting into Parliament. But while he had undoubtedly kissed the Blarney stone, Shackleton was far too much of a wild child to succeed in government office. As a businessman, he had one brilliant idea after another, but it seemed he just couldn’t focus on a project for long enough. He was torn apart by two conflicting desires: to return to the Antarctic, and to settle down into a life of comfortable domesticity.

The Antarctic won.

With the return of the Nimrod, Shackleton became a celebrity figure, a household name, but the gleam of real money still eluded him. The trouble was that he still hadn’t reached the South Pole: he had turned back when he was just 97 miles away, knowing that to continue would mean certain death. All he could lay on the altar of British pride was a ‘Farthest South‘ of 88° 23’. In his home country, the newspapers carried the headline ‘South Pole Almost Reached by an Irishman’. It was too much to bear. Ignoring his burgeoning debt, he started planning again.

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“Although Shackleton was always alert for any interest - always full of flashing new ideas - Antarctica to him did not exist.” wrote Louis Bernacchi an Australian physicist on board the Discovery

Did Shackleton see the Antarctic only as a means to an end?

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It seems a little bit harsh to say so. What Bernacchi perceived was perhaps something even deeper, of which Shackleton himself may not have been fully aware. Emily, his wife, understood it, and when he wrote yearning letters to her from the deck of a heaving ship, promising never to go away again, she saw what was written between the lines - or rather, behind them - and forgave him, because she loved him anyway. For Shackleton, it wasn’t about the science, or the hardship, or the discovery, or even the glory: it was about the seeking and not finding, the eternal heart-rending quest for something just over the horizon.

The story of Shackleton’s third and penultimate foray into the Antarctic has gone down in the annals of history as one of the most extraordinary feats of human endurance. After all, ‘Endurance’ was the name of his ship, inspired by his family motto Fortitudine Vincimus - ‘by endurance we conquer’.

Having watched his boat crumble like a matchstick toy in the pack ice, he and a small band of men embarked on a voyage of unimaginable proportions to save themselves and the rest of their crew. Even by today’s standards, their survival is nothing short of miraculous.

The most inhospitable place on Earth had claimed the lives of so many noble men, but Shackleton wasn’t one of them. His fate lay under a different star, and he seemed to have known it all his life.

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“Shackleton had this weird feeling he’d developed in Ireland. Some old nurse had told him he’d die at the age of 48, and he believed this, he absolutely believed it.”

In 1921 the Quest was the fourth and final ship to carry Shackleton to the Antarctic.

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At Grytviken in South Georgia he went ashore for a reunion with some of the whalers who had helped to rescue him eight years before, but when he returned to the boat he was unable to sleep. In the early hours of 5th January 1922, to the shock and dismay of his crew, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. It was just five weeks until his 48th birthday.

“Extraordinarily powerful, he moved with the rolling sailor’s gait and looked at you with his great, humorous dark-blue eyes which... had often in them the brooding eye of the dreamer.” F W Everett, editor of Royal Magazine wrote.

Sir Ernest Shackleton was honoured with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Livingstone Medal in 1911.

Michael Palin

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“What I feel we have achieved... is to put the Himalaya in a human perspective. We found people living at altitudes higher than the highest mountains in Europe; ancient civilizations surviving on arid, wind-scoured plateaux; gorges two and a half miles deep, through which traders have found their way for thousands of years and, everywhere, religion, vibrant and colourful, and thriving in adversity.”

In 1989, when Michael Palin accepted a challenge to travel around the world in 80 days, following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg, he took a large number of his fans by surprise.

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The British public already knew and loved him as a founder member of Monty Python, a team of comedy writers who produced a series of whacky TV shows and movies in the early 1970s.

Palin was often cast as a rather simple, self-effacing character who felt the sharp end of John Cleese’s acerbic wit.

Now, faced with a mind-boggling 80-day deadline, Palin was contemplating a non-stop trek of 28,000 miles by land and sea.

It was a huge commitment, and it included a fair amount of personal risk. What was he thinking of? As he said himself, “I’ve been anxious about everything I’ve ever done. I kept thinking, ‘Why me? Am I really up to the job?’”

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The answer, as we all know, was an emphatic yes.

Not only did Palin complete his challenge within the allotted time, but he created a series for television that was completely unlike anything that had been produced before. Until then, travel presenters had been fairly stiff and formal; their purpose was to educate, but in a strictly old-school kind of manner.

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They certainly wouldn’t have complained about diarrhoea while they were sailing in a dhow across the Persian Gulf. But it was his honesty that endeared Palin to his audience.

“I was kind of acting the role of Phileas Fogg, the old Victorian fogey, and then I got ill and just said so to camera. Said how lousy I felt and that I wanted to go home. It was a turning point because after that I could just be myself,” he later recalled.

A quiet revolution began. In a phenomenon nicknamed ‘the Palin effect’, thousands upon thousands of armchair travellers were inspired to pack their bags and head off for regions that they had seen in Palin’s programmes. His TV ratings soared, reaching a peak at 12.5 million, and his accompanying books shot straight into the bestseller lists.

For Palin, ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ was just the start. Subsequent series saw him trek from the North to the South Pole, around the rim of the Pacific Ocean, up into the Himalayas, and across the Sahara Desert. Everywhere he went, he treated people with the same relaxed politeness, blending easy-going humour with gentle curiosity. He certainly struck a chord with the Dalai Lama, who joked that he would like to be reincarnated as Palin’s travelling assistant.

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No one was more surprised by his success than Palin himself. As a child, one of his hobbies was trainspotting, but that was still a world away from the globe-trotting adventurer, the ‘accidental traveller’, that he has now become. His mild manners and abiding good nature have earned him the unofficial title of ‘Britain’s nicest man’, an epithet which he downplays with typical modesty. In his own words, he is “always the pupil, never the professor.”

Still living in North London with his wife, Helen, whom he married in 1966, Palin continues to publish diaries of his travels; he has also written several novels and children’s books. In the autumn of 2014 he toured the UK with his one-man show, entitled ‘Travelling to Work’, which was described by reviewers as “witty and charming”.

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Palin never makes any extraordinary claims about his own contribution to the planet or our understanding of it, but he still quietly lends his support to communities under threat. His programmes and books have helped to throw open the doors of the world, not only inspiring people to travel but also sparking an awareness of complex issues for which there is sometimes no easy answer.

“We need more than ever to keep in touch with the rest of the world, to see how others are coping and hopefully to learn something along the way.”

And Palin’s other legacy? Somewhere in the Ténéré desert in Africa, a group of Touareg tribesmen are probably sitting around a campfire, raising their glasses and toasting each other with a hearty “Bottoms up!”

In 2008 Michael Palin was awarded the Livingstone Medal and Fellowship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society “in recognition of his outstanding contribution through public outreach, particularly television, to a greater understanding of the world and its peoples.” He accepted his award in March 2009, and gave a talk to a packed audience in Edinburgh.

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Sir Alan Cobham

You can imagine the scene. It was 1924, and Sir Sefton Brancker, Britain’s Director of Civil Aviation, was planning to go to India. The journey usually entailed a lengthy sea passage, and he was discussing the prospect with de Havilland test pilot and all-round aviation daredevil, Alan Cobham.

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“Nothing could be simpler, my dear chap,” Cobham probably advised him. “I’ll fly you there.”

Having set their minds firmly on air travel, the two of them pored over some maps and worked out a route to India that would take them via Prussia, Poland and Rumania. Knowing that it was possible to fly this route in the summer months, Sir Sefton suggested that they should go in the winter. If it proved to be viable, it could be added to the schedules of commercial airlines. And if it didn’t... well, they were guaranteed an adventure.

Cobham was as good as his word. On 20th November 1924, resplendent in fur-trimmed jackets and flying helmets, Cobham, Brancker and flight engineer Arthur Elliott clambered aboard Cobham’s flimsy-looking de Havilland DH50 biplane and taxied down a runway in Edgware, North London.

Everything went swimmingly until they crossed the Carpathian mountains, when they found themselves engulfed by a fast-rising wall of fog. Cobham was forced to land the plane in a snow-bound valley, which must have demanded a fair amount of skill, and the invincible trio had to await the arrival of soldiers from Bucharest, 100 miles away, to help dig them out and fashion a makeshift runway out of snow.

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They reached Rangoon in Burma on 6th February 1925, 79 days and many overnight stops after setting out.

When you read about the exploits of Sir Alan Cobham, who blazed a trail through the skies of the world at a time when air travel was still a new and risky venture, it comes as a reassuring surprise to discover that he died of old age.

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Having enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, Cobham was truly bitten by the aviation bug, and when the war was over he became a pilot for de Havilland, based at Stag Lane Aerodrome in Edgware. In 1921, a wealthy American called Lucian Sharpe chartered Cobham to fly him around Europe.

Cobham leapt at the opportunity, seeing it as a marvellous means of promoting air travel both to the government and the general public; on their 5,000-mile journey, he and Sharpe landed at 17 cities in the course of three weeks.

In 1924, only two months after lifting the trophy in the King’s Cup Air Race, Cobham embarked on a bigger challenge: flying to India and back. Having accomplished this with typical aplomb, he took himself on an airborne sight-seeing tour of the Himalayas, but was forced to turn back at 16,000 feet when his photographer, starved of oxygen in the freezing cockpit, became unwell.

Only months after his safe arrival back in England, Cobham took to the air again for a 94-day journey to Cape Town, South Africa.

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Naturally, he wanted his itinerary to include some of the continent’s spectacular sights, but as he flew low over Victoria Falls, spray from the water got into the engine of his biplane and caused it to cut out. As the plane careered downwards, Cobham pulled back on the control stick and forced it into a steep climb; his photographer, for whom the term ‘stiff upper lip’ must surely have been invented, was unaware of the danger and carried on filming.

Honours poured in, but Cobham had still not achieved his dream.

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In his vision, Britain was ‘a nation of airmen’, with a landing strip beside every town. Air transport held the key to excellence in communications and travel, and he wanted Britain to lead the world in the skies, just as it had done for centuries on the seas. With his daring exploits, he wasn’t just seeking glory for himself: he wanted to convince the government that significant investment should be made in civil aviation.

“The aircraft industry at this juncture should receive every assistance possible, so that it might try to capture the markets, not only of the Empire but of the world, and give them a new industry which they needed so badly.”

The government, like the British public, was still ever so slightly wary of these new-fangled flying machines, but Cobham had another card up his sleeve.

He was going to deliver a petition to Parliament, calling for a more forward-thinking aviation policy. To do this, he had intended to fly himself from Rochester to London, but the thought struck him - as perhaps it would only ever strike Sir Alan Cobham - that his plea would have more impact if it was delivered via Australia.

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Cobham set off from Rochester on 30th June 1926, and was greeted by rapturous crowds in Melbourne on 15th August. He stayed in Australia for just over two weeks, and on 1st October he arrived back in England, landing his seaplane on the River Thames outside the Houses of Parliament; an estimated one million people, almost a quarter of the population of Inner London, turned out to watch.

This time, both King and Parliament sat up and took notice. Cobham was awarded a knighthood, and somehow his ideas about aviation didn’t sound so crazy after all.

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“I found that my message was starting to get across. I wanted people to stop thinking of flying as a ‘stunt’ and start thinking of it as a normal means of transport.”

What next, for a man who had paved the way for long-haul commercial flights? The Great British public remained to be convinced, largely because they had no real first-hand experience of aeroplanes. But if they couldn’t get to see the planes, Sir Alan Cobham reasoned, then he would take the planes to them. He would offer them joy rides, and an aerial spectacle that they would never forget.

For four years, between 1932 and 1935, Cobham toured almost every major town in Britain, putting on air shows in the summer, often at the rate of two a day. He gathered a fleet of planes and recruited pilots, a parachutist, wing-walkers and a female glider pilot.

Over the green fields of Britain, a troupe of biplanes dipped, swooped and soared in crazy mock battles, thrilling the crowds to the extent that keeping over-excited spectators off the landing strip became a major problem. Nothing of the like had ever been seen before. Cobham’s ‘Flying Circus’ became a barnstorming phenomenon, sweeping the nation - quite literally - off its feet.

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Sir Alan went on to become a founding director of Airspeed, an aircraft manufacturing company, and he established a small airline, called Cobham Air Routes. He also devised a means by which aircraft could be re-fuelled in mid-air, a technique which is still in use today. He helped to inspire a generation: in 1939, he was told by a Wing Commander in charge of selecting prospective pilots for the Second World War that three-quarters of the candidates had taken their first flight with Cobham’s Flying Circus.

Sir Alan Cobham had such a far-reaching vision that it’s easy to forget he was born over 120 years ago. Modern-day aviation owes him a great deal, and his energetic attitude to life is just as relevant today as it was then.

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“If the present seems less satisfactory, we ought to do something about it; we shouldn’t take refuge from it in mere nostalgia. One ought to engage with the future and grapple with it.” Sir Alan Cobham, ‘A Time to Fly’

In 1926 the Royal Scottish Geographical Society awarded the Livingstone Medal to Sir Alan Cobham, “for his two flying expeditions from London to Cape Town overland over Africa, and from London to Melbourne and back.”

Palin standing by the chorten at Ronbuk, the world's highest monastery.
Michael Palin sitting on rock in the Julian Alps, Slovenia.
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Sir Alan Cobham's flying circus with Martin Hearn performing the last wing-walk before it was outlawed. Early in the 1930s.
The last photographs ever taken of legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton.