History of the Club

lain Smart, William (Bill) Wallace, Hugh Simpson and George Waterston first met in October 1969 to discuss the idea of a Scottish Arctic Club. This group were particularly interested in Greenland and there was concern over safety and approval of expeditions to Greenland at this time. They thought that one of the prime functions of the club could be to “vet” proposed expeditions. They were joined at the second meeting on 20th November 1970 by Phil Gribbon. On 23 December 1970 a constitution was drafted but never ratified. lain was the first president, with Bill as the secretary and treasurer. The original constitution stated that the “purpose of the club shall be:

  • to provide opportunities for the exchange of information on research and travel in high latitudes.
  • to encourage good expedition practice and thereby establish good relations with those governments administering polar territories”.

The membership of the club at that time was open to anyone with a committed interested in polar travel but it was by invitation, and with the approval of the committee.

The club was loosely modelled on The Arctic Club but the founder members insisted on minimal bureaucracy. The original plan was to have a president and a couple of committee members who would propagate themselves by changing over every year or two with other members. The only duty of the president and committee would be to organise an annual supper for the members and circulate the date and location to the members. There would be no AGM “to sully the annual supper”. It was originally to be an all-male club “in order that the supper should not degenerate into a social occasion with wives coming along for the chit-chat”. This failed but the club has survived. Irene Waterston and Myrtle Simpson were the founding gatecrashers.

In the early 1970s there was genuine hope that Scotland would become independent and have its own creative centres. There were plans to establish a Scottish Academy to encourage intellectual life in Scotland, supported by the then principal of St. Andrews University, Stephen Watson. The Scottish Arctic Club and Dr Harald Drever’s proposed Scottish Arctic Institute were seen as part of this movement.

For the first few years the club was on a trial basis but the support was there. A lecture was given on 21 March 1970 by Stan (Physics of Ice) Paterson at the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in Edinburgh, and he used the occasion to present The Scottish Arctic Club with the World Aviation Charts of Greenland. These are now laid out at the annual supper. The date and location of each supper is written on the margin, and members who have travelled to Greenland that year are invited to sign the map at the appropriate location. The maps provide a fascinating record of members’ activities through the years.

The first buffet supper was held at the Dundee University Staff Club on Friday 30th October 1970. Drink was self-service from a table and whisky was available for 20p a nip! “For space reasons if nothing else” (!) it was all male. It was suggested that a later dinner could be held in March for “lady explorers, wives, etc.” The idea was to have one informal chat and supper a year “along with such other activities which may be desirable at other times of the year”.

Over the second and third years lain Smart “didn’t do anything much” and letters started to arrive asking when was the supper to be this year? From 1970 to 1976 the suppers were haphazard and entirely informal. No more committee meetings were held prior to the 1976 supper and no statements or accounts produced. At the 1976 supper the second draft of the constitution was put forward and the words “to hold an annual supper” were added. Richard Hamilton and Angus Erskine were invited to the 1976 committee meeting.

Later, in the early 1980s, Hugh and Myrtle Simpson initiated the Summer Solstice Walks, which were originally “expeditions” to remote Cairngorm huts on Friday and Saturday nights over the weekend closest to the Solstice.

In 1984 there started a chain of events that altered the whole Scottish Arctic Club organisation. George and Irene Waterston had both been involved in founding the club and had been office-bearers in it. With the death of Irene Waterston in 1984, it was discovered that the Waterstons’ executors intended to sell their Arctic library piecemeal, so an appeal was launched to raise enough money to acquire all of this valuable collection of books. Following this success, it was felt that the Club should have a formal constitution in order properly to administer this library. The constitution was finally adopted in November 1986, when an annual subscription was levied and membership cards introduced – much to the disgust of the anti-bureaucracy brigade. The Waterston Arctic Library was housed with the Scottish Ornithological Club, Regent Terrace, Edinburgh. The new Librarian, Angus Erskine, felt that the collection might become the nucleus of a Scottish Polar Research Centre such as that envisaged by Harald Drever. At about the same time, the Club obtained charitable status from the Inland Revenue. All this had been masterminded by John Watson, who for many years was secretary and treasurer of the Club.

The informality of the Suppers of old now seems a long way off, but the Club is still very different from the formality of The Arctic Club. The presentations at the Annual Conference and the opportunity to exchange information about Arctic expeditions, both past and planned, provide a unique occasion each year. A number of the old stalwarts of the early years have passed on, but membership now stands at over 160, and is growing. The Club wishes to encourage younger members, and in 1995 it set up an Expedition Fund to provide small grants to young people wishing to travel in the Arctic.

In 2019 the Club started planning an ‘anniversary expedition’ to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Club in 2020. This was envisaged as a multi-generational expedition which would bring diverse club members together in a shared experience and hopefully also bring new people into the Club. Twice postponed due to covid, the expedition finally took place in summer 2022. 25 members took part in the expedition to Ammassalik Island in East Greenland, splitting into smaller groups with a wide range of objectives: from climbing and mountaineering to boat trips and whale watching. The youngest participant was 6 and the oldest 77. All had an amazing time, and the diversity of the participants added so much to the experience.

Photograph of a group of Scottish Arctic Club members in Tasiilaq, East Greenland
Members of the 50th Anniversary Expedition in Tasiilaq, East Greenland

Based on an original article by Sue Fenton