The Royal Society of Edinburgh


I have been to the Royal Society of Edinburgh twice in the last two weeks, for different reasons.

Yesterday it was for my induction as a Fellow, along with forty-odd others. One of the things that we were told was that the RSE is trying to diversify its membership, and it is no longer true that all the new Fellows are 70-year-old male professors; but there are still a few of us, doing what we do best.

We were encouraged to spread the word about the RSE and the good things it does, so here is my small contribution.

The RSE was founded by royal charter from George III in 1783. It differs from many national academies in the diversity of interests of its Fellows: it is not just a scientific society like the Royal Society of London, although it is true that academics in the science subjects predominate. Academics in the humanities and social sciences, public figures, business people, authors and artists all figure. Indeed, probably the best-known President ever was Sir Walter Scott, whose towering monument you pass on the way to the RSE premises from Waverley Station in Edinburgh.

Among its other functions, the RSE gives entirely non-partisan advice on matters of national interest to the Scottish government.

Before the induction ceremony we were given a tour of the building, whose chief treasures are large portraits of famous people, mostly former presidents. Here are a few of them: Michael Atiyah, Thomas Brisbane, David Brewster, P. G. Tait, and D’Arcy Thompson. (Which of these was not RSE President?)

RSE Presidents

Brisbane gave his name to the city where I was an undergraduate for four years (educated in a system based on the Scottish system). According to our guide, he took the job as Governor of New South Wales because he was an astronomer and was interested in viewing the Southern stars. But he was not the worst governor of New South Wales, although there are probably fewer things named after him than either his predecessor Lachlan Macquarie or his successor Ralph Darling. (Incidentally, in Australia he is Thomas Brisbane but the RSE calls him Makdougall Brisbane.)

My previous visit two weeks ago was for a lecture on the new Queensferry Crossing, given by Naeem Hussain, the global leader of bridge design at Arup, who had designed it. It was a good lecture, inspiring and humorous by turns. He told us that he first came to the UK in 1964, went for a holiday in Scotland, saw the then-new Forth Road Bridge, and thought to himself, “I wish I could have designed that bridge”. So, fifty years later, he got his chance. Designing a third bridge to stand beside the two iconic bridges already there was an aesthetic as well as an engineering challenge, as he acknowledged; the new bridge, like the one on the other side (the nineteenth-century Forth Bridge) has three cantilever points, while the one in the middle is suspended from two points. Moreover, although politicians boast that the bridge towers are the highest such in the UK, Naeem would rather stress how low they are. (He made them as low as the engineering would allow, and used slim pillars rather than the more common A, H or diamond shapes, so as not to overwhelm visually the other two bridges.)

This was preceded by a trip to the Visitor Centre where we had a view of the three bridges, some models of the new one, and talks by the person who commissioned it, the engineer who built it, and a university professor who gave a very entertaining talk putting it into context. (Did you know that, when the Forth Road Bridge was designed, the only motorway in the UK was the Preston By-pass?)

Here are the bridges, taken last year from the Fife side, near Aberdour.

Three bridges

On that occasion, I was able to take a good look at the grant of arms to the RSE. The heraldic description includes the phrases

Per fess wavy Sable and Argent the scientific sign “D.N.A. Helix” fessways enhanced Gules and Azure


A celestial crown Or showing five mullets Argent

Do you know what “mullets” are in this context? (You might be able to cheat by looking at Wikipedia.)


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in events, history and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Royal Society of Edinburgh

  1. If you want to read more about Naeem Hussain’s lecture on the Queensferry Crossing, the official report is at

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