Book review · Non-fiction · Scotland

Book review: “The great horizon” by Jo Woolf

Fellow blogger and editor of The Hazel Tree, Jo Woolf is also Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS). During her investigations into the society’s archives, she came across a wealth of fascinating material relating to explorers and adventurers, some of which has ended up in her wonderful book, “The great horizon”.

The Great Horizon by Jo Woolf
“The great horizon” by Jo Woolf (2017)

The book, meticulously researched and extremely well written, contains 50 biographies of remarkable people associated in some way with the RSGS, dating from the society’s inception in 1884 to the present day. Many of those featured received medals from the society for outstanding contributions to geography, and all of them have inspirational stories to tell.

The 50 individuals are organised under five category headings: Ice, Voyagers, Heaven and Earth, Missionaries and Mavericks and Visions for Change. Each category contains ten personalities, a mixture of the well known and not so widely recognised. Famous names such as Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong, David Livingstone, Thor Heyerdahl, Ranulph Fiennes and David Attenborough sit comfortably alongside people I hadn’t heard of such as Børge Ousland, Sven Hedin, Robert Ballard, Joseph Thomson and Marion Newbigin.

The world of exploration was dominated by men in the Victorian era, but there were notable women whose adventures were just as astonishing; women such as Isabella Bird, who was born in 1831 and became the first female Fellow of the RSGS. Having trekked through remote mountain ranges and travelled through hostile foreign territory, at a time when such behaviour must have seemed scandalous for a well-bred western woman, her story particularly stood out for me. Having said that, each of the biographies is unique and noteworthy and I would find it impossible to pick a favourite.

Although many of the explorers detailed in the book displayed amazing feats of endurance, determination and courage while conducting their daredevil adventures, they must have been quite difficult to live with at home. As Jo describes, it’s easy to imagine them struggling to accept a mundane daily existence that failed to provide sufficient challenges for their restless spirits. This side of the adventurer’s character came to mind quite a few times as I read through the book.

Every generation needs its mavericks and heroes, and despite the lack of ‘big firsts’ left to achieve on terra firma, there are plenty of modern day adventurers desperate to push the limits of what’s achievable. In some ways the world has become a smaller place since the 1880s, but there’s still a great deal to discover, both on Earth and beyond. I like to think the Royal Scottish Geographical Society will still be here in another 130 years, encouraging new generations of geographers, and providing inspiring and uplifting tales of adventure to fill future editions of “The great horizon”.

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8 thoughts on “Book review: “The great horizon” by Jo Woolf

    1. It is full of information but I read it in short instalments of one or two biographies a day, which felt like a very civilised way to devour it. There’s so much to take in with each one that it pays to space them out a bit. It’s a book I’ll no doubt be dipping into and re-reading in years to come.

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  1. Such a lot of work went into that book. I am sure it must be a wonderful one that needed to be written. I have heard of Isabella Bird and what a maverick she was. There is, odd as it might seem, a clothing company called Territory Ahead that named one of their divisions the Isabella Bird line in honor of the adventurous lady! Don’t know if it still exists….. but I liked the clothing.😊

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    1. It was a great idea for a book, you’re right. I hadn’t heard of Territory Ahead and certainly didn’t know about the Isabella Bird line of clothing. I looked them up online and typed her name into the search box on their website but it didn’t find anything. Hers seems a suitable name for them to use though, given their range of adventure clothing. She might have been glad of a few stretchy and breathable fabrics back in the 1800s.

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  2. This really took me back. My first writing mentor, Olive Checkland, wrote a biography of Isabella Bird. You can see a description here. //www.amazon.co.uk/Isabella-Bird-Womans-Right-What/dp/1898218331. I have a spare copy if you would like to read it. Let me know.

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    1. That sounds like a fascinating book, Hilary. I’d be interested to read it, thank you. I see from the blurb on Amazon that Isabella Bird is buried in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery, also the last resting place of several other well-known names. It would be interesting to visit one day and see if I can find her grave.

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