Show a cat an empty box and the chances are, they’ll jump into it. Show a human a mountain and it’s quite probably they’ll feel the urge to climb it.
That’s what’s at the heart of Jo Woolf’s excellent The Great Horizon – the need for mankind to get out there and explore.
Over the years, there have been many great explorers – David Attenborough, David Livingstone, Chris Bonington, Neil Armstrong, Michael Palin and Sir Ranulf Fiennes, to name but a handful.
Jo chronicles them into five categories – Ice, Voyagers, Heaven and Earth, Missionaries and Mavericks and Visions for Change.
Scots have played a hugely important role in explorations of our world. While some are better known that others, David Livingstone is without doubt the best known. It was a surprise to this reader to learn that during his famous encounter with Henry Morton Stanley, the man from Blantyre was a weak and dying man, rather than the image which has been presented over the years of two men in white suits sipping tea in the jungle. Livingstone’s dedication to abolishing the slave trade in Africa is of note, and that six weeks after his death, the British Government brought pressure that abolished the trade in the east of Africa.
Some didn’t have to go so far from home to explore. Sir John Murray took on an ambitious project which ran from 1897 until 1907 which saw him survery all the freshwater lochs in Scotland. His investigations took him the length and the breadth of the country as he and his small team looked at all 562 lochs from Orkney all the way to Dumfriesshire, using a clever weighted pulley that let them map each loch’s depths.
But there’s a current explorer whose work is proving to be important. Craig Mathieson grew up in Stirlingshire and developed an interest in the Arctic, later spending some time there. On his return, he was shocked at the superficial interests of the media, the minor things people complained about, and how so many children seemed to be without hope at school. Rather than sitting back, he became proactive and now, his Polar Academy selects ten Scottish children and trains them for an expedition to the North Pole.
The Great Horizon features scientist, oceanographers, botanists, campaigners and athletes, as historians try to emulate their feats of bygone years by following in the footsteps of ancient explorers, as Thor Heyerdahl and Time Severine recreated the sixth-century journey of St Brendan from western Ireland to the New World.
Woolf was given full access to the archives of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in her mission to bring to light some of the half-forgotten figures from the field of exploration, and has more than succeeded in finding unsung heroes, whose only reward for their labours was adding to human knowledge.
The Great Horizon: 50 Tales of Exploration, by Jo Woolf, Sandstone Press, £24.99
Scottish Field rating: *****