Scots Scientists and Climate Change: A Crucial Contribution

By Prof. James Renwick, VUW School of Geography and Environment and Earth Sciences [May 2018]


The roster of Scottish scientists, researchers and explorers who have contributed to climate research is far too long to cover in a single essay or presentation. Here, I touch on the lives and works of five eminent Scots who made crucial contributions to climate science over the past few centuries.

joseph-black
Joseph Black (Wikimedia)

The story starts with Joseph Black (1728-1799), the discoverer of carbon dioxide. Black was a prominent member of the “Enlightenment” in Britain, contemporary of James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgewood. He was there at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, helping Watt improve the efficiency of his steam engines, and along the way helping to found the science of thermodynamics. He established the concept of “latent heat”, the energy it takes to change ice to water and water to vapour. The absorption and release of latent heat turns out to be a very important way for the atmosphere to move heat around and regulate the climate of planet earth. For climate change research though, carbon dioxide is even more important. It is very good at absorbing the heat the earth radiates towards space, and it stays in the air for centuries, making it the most important “greenhouse gas” in the long run. Most of the carbon dioxide Watt’s coal-burning machines released in the 1750s is still in the atmosphere, warming us. Carbon dioxide in the air has increased nearly 50% since Black’s time, the highest level it has been for millions of years. Continue reading

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The Ryder Cup

By Bernard Quinn [from his talk in February 2014]


The Ryder Cup is a men’s golf competition between two teams of professionals, originally from Europe and the United States, but expanded in 1979 to include players from Europe. Contested every two years, it commenced in 1927. It is named after English businessman Samuel Ryder who donated the trophy.

Gleneagles_Hotel_and_grounds
Gleneagles hotel and grounds (Wikimedia)

Gleneagles in 1921 was the first time that an American golf side had ever been assembled, the first time the nations had come together for a match, and it took place right here in Perthshire. Called The International Challenge, effectively it was the forerunner for the Ryder Cup. Some scribes reckoned that America would win; they had young and hungry players who would sweep Britain’s old guard away, They had to eat humble pie as some of those 51 year olds (Harry Vardon and James Braid) six times and five times British Open Champions respectively, gave their young visitors a golf lesson over the next two days. All agreed these matches should be repeated sometime; there was great potential in the idea of a Transatlantic joust.

The second unofficial match between the United States and Great Britain was in 1926 at Wentworth. Among those in the gallery was Samuel Ryder, an English seed merchant and entrepreneur from St Albans in Hertfordshire who made his money selling penny seed packets. He had taken up golf relatively late in life to improve his health and employed Abe Mitchell, one of the golfing greats of his era, as his personal tutor. Ryder was enthralled by the match at Wentworth. “We must do this again” he said in the bar afterwards and The Ryder Cup was born. He donated a small but striking gold cup that today epitomises all that is good in sporting competition. It cost £250 and the small golfing figure atop the cup, as requested by the donor, stands as a lasting memorial to Abe Mitchell.

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Reading the Bard with Harry Holland

By Dr. Dougal McNeill, VUW Senior Lecturer School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies [February 2017]


In February 2017 I had the pleasure of speaking to VUWSIG about Harry Holland and his work on Robert Burns.

Holland (1868 – 1933) was the New Zealand Labour Party’s first leader, and spent his life in Australia (the land of his birth) and New Zealand amongst the radical and dissenting sub-cultures of the labour movement, radical socialist journalism, and trade union activism. The poetry of Robert Burns was a constant through all of this tumult of agitation and political organizing.

Poetry figured prominently in the life of the early twentieth-century labour movement. Its journals, the Maoriland Worker here and the International Socialist in Sydney in particular, regularly printed verse, both from famous British poets and from their own reader-contributors. Holland had no formal education but was an avid reader and seems to have had an interest in almost everything: science, theology, history, literature, economics, family planning, geology. In this he was like Burns, himself a restless and curious reader and thinker. Burns could slip details from the most innovative scientific investigations of his day into his most delicate love lyrics (‘till all the seas gang dry my dear’), and Holland in turn slipped Burns in at every chance to his political speech-making and article-writing.

I had a vague sense of all of this literary culture before I started my work on Holland in particular, but three years of living with the material has given me a sense of greater appreciation of just how thoroughgoing his engagement with Burns was, and what it involved. How the men and women of the early labour movement must have read, and how they must have listened! As I was working through Holland’s papers I noticed all sorts of minor errors in his quotations from Burns. These seemed curious at first – a line transposed from one poem to another here, a stanza placed out of order there – until I realized, with a start, that he must have been quoting from memory in all of his work…

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2018 Programme

Meetings are on the 28th day of the month, held at the Victoria University of Wellington Law School*, Old Government Buildings, Lambton Quay (between Bunny and Whitmore Streets);  entrance door from Bunny Street.

Vehicle access to Bunny Street is allowed on VUW business; to park in the grounds enter by Lambton Quay gate.

7.15 for 7.30pm start [* Unless stated otherwise].

Visitors are welcome (no charge for regular meetings), Scottish blood not necessary! Other events may also be held.


Wednesday 28 February 2018
The Scottish Harriers – origin and contribution to Wellington and NZ athletics

Founded by a Scot, Walter ‘Pop’ Ballantyne, now the Wellington Scottish Athletics Club – long known as the Scottish Harriers, has provided an opportunity for Wellingtonians to explore our local lowlands and highlands for over 100 years – since 1915! Grant McLean, a top marathon runner and historian, has written the Club’s history and will share stories from its founding and early years of struggle, to the club becoming the most successful athletics club in the country.

Wednesday 28 March 2018
New Zealanders in the Scottish Women’s Hospital units in World War 1

Wellington historian Jane Tolerton will talk about the New Zealand women who worked for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service during WWI e.g. Wellingtonians Dr Agnes Bennett and Dr Mary Blair and Kate Fulton (aunt of Kate Harcourt) from Christchurch – she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for ambulance driving under fire on the Western Front. Jane is the author of Make Her Praises Heard Afar: NZ women overseas in WW1, published in November 2017.

Saturday 28 April 2018 at 2.30pm*
A very significant milestone! Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand in 1893!

A prime mover was Kate Sheppard, a Scotswoman, as were others. National Archives’ Stefanie Lash will take us on a tour of the Suffrage Exhibition at the National Library; she led the curatorial team.

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2017 Programme

Meetings are on the 28th day of the month, held at the Victoria University of Wellington Law School*, Old Government Buildings, Lambton Quay (between Bunny and Whitmore Streets);  entrance door from Bunny Street – meetings in Room G07.

Vehicle access to Bunny Street is allowed on VUW business; to park in the grounds enter by Lambton Quay gate.

7.15 for 7.30pm start [* Unless stated otherwise].

Visitors are welcome (no charge for regular meetings), Scottish blood not necessary! Other events may also be held.


Tuesday 28 February 2017
Robert Burns:  Poet and Revolutionist – writings by Harry Holland

Upheavals in daily living patterns inspired Burns’ writings which expressed great concern for the resultant plight of his fellow man – they resonated around the world. Later the socialism movement arose, grappling with similar issues. Harry Holland, eventually leader of the NZ Labour Party, wrote widely reiterating Burns’ messages. Still very relevant today, Dougal McNeill (VUW Lecturer) has gathered and edited them and will introduce his book.

Tuesday 28 March 2017
Scots College :  the Centenary Celebrations in 2016 – 100 years of people and events

The School’s motto (translated), “Let education make the all-round man” is reflected in the many prominent Old Boys who followed in the footsteps of the founders – city leaders e.g. Wellington Mayor, MP J.G.W. Aitken and Rev. Dr. James Gibb.  Former Headmaster Ian McKinnon (VUWSIG’s Patron) will tell of the 100 year journey..

Friday 28 April 2017
Easter Island – in the jurisdiction of Chile;  Scots were involved in them both too!

The Island – with an ancient indigenous people – was ‘discovered’ by the Dutch on Easter Day 1722 then annexed by Chile in 1888.  Scottish settlers contributed greatly to its development, also were/are prominent in mainland Chile.  Marco Martinez from The Chilean Embassy will describe his country and the Scottish connections.

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2016 Programme

Meetings are on the 28th day of the month, held at the Victoria University of Wellington Law Faculty*, Old Government Buildings, Lambton Quay (between Bunny and Whitmore Streets);  entrance door from Bunny Street – meetings in Room G07.
Vehicle access to Bunny Street is allowed on VUW business; to park in the grounds enter by Lambton Quay gate.
7.15 for 7.30pm start [* Unless stated otherwise].

Visitors are welcome (no charge for regular meetings), Scottish blood not necessary! Other events may also be held.


Sunday 28 February 2016 at 4.00pm*
Growing up in Glasgow with the “divi” (dividend)

Glaswegian Sheena Hudson will give us a personal perspective on a History of the Scottish Wholesale Society which played a vital role in many families’ lives, promising some reward for loyalty to the Co-op when buying goods – from food to furniture!

Monday 28 March 2016
No meeting (Easter Monday)

All are welcome to attend the Easter Monday service at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Willis Street, at 10am.

Thursday 28 April 2016
John Kirkcaldie – his store and legacy (founder with Stains of the much loved Lambton Quay store)

In January, with sad hearts, Wellingtonians farewelled their beloved ‘Kirks’ – an institution frequented by generations of families.  Historian, biographer and publisher (Writes Hill Press Ltd.), Julia Millen, in “A Wellington Story” (2000), does indeed tell its story which she will share with us. It is one of her numerous books – about NZ writers and ‘characters’, memoirs, etc.

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