Obituary: George Downie

By British Exploring Society,

George Downie, was a long-time and much-respected member of the Geology Department at Aberdeen University, a frequent leader of geological fieldwork expeditions in Scotland, led on fifteen BSES expeditions, making him the second most frequent leader in BSES history. Only his good friend Ian Ashwell, deceased in 2015, beat him, with sixteen expeditions, and it was Ian who taught George the BSES ropes (well, this is what Ian claimed) when they met on George’s first, but Ian’s sixth, BSES expedition, to Iceland in 1970 when Ian was Chief Leader and George ran the Geology Fire; since then they remained steadfast friends, both imbued with the BSES ethos and quest for excellence. For three decades George was at the heart of all that was best about BSES.



By George’s own admission, his association with BSES began a little late in life – goodness me, he was 40! – and he wishes he had become involved when younger (especially as a boy); then he would have beaten Ian’s record! But George was never after records; what he wanted was helping young people to explore the wild, preferably if they were doing some geology as well. His field activity impinged upon the lives and experience of almost 1000 young explorers, spanning three decades (1970-2000), and a good few leaders as well. One who proposed him (and Ian) for the Murray Levick Award remembers well his two hour lecture, on the march, in 1977 as we struggled hard to keep up with his walking pace while he taught us the entire geology of Iceland as we yomped across the volcanic debris of Myvatyn; and he was doing precisely the same to the same poor innocent victim four decades later on the Aberdeen coastland, only this time it was the entire geological history of Scotland in a Sunday morning session on, round, through, and up the Stonehaven cliffs. The enthusiasm for geology was, and remained, utterly infectious. This was, that “youngster” realised, an experience enjoyed by countless Aberdeen students – what lucky students they were!

There will be few who will not recall George’s Scottish vernacular when requiring stoves to be cleaned thoroughly; and he himself would provide the perfect example of a cleaned stove and with utmost patience teach all (even leaders) how to maintain and operate the dreaded Optimus. In Greenland in 1983 Chief Leader George was rather displeased with the sanitary state of basecamp after the first couple of days, and drew all the troops together just before they were about to disperse on their scientific fieldwork activities; not many of the youngsters quite knew what a “midden” was, and various other Scottish words not repeatable here, but they all understood his drift; and it did not take long on George’s departure from the scene in high dungeon for his English-speaking Deputy Chief Leader to initiate remedial action, for his own safety, if not those of the youngsters. But there was another lesson; the basecamp had not been chosen by George, but had been imposed on him by an Office recce and over-wintering expedition, and it, even perched as it was on an incredibly steep slope with little space to pitch tents, was prone to disastrous flooding; his Deputy remembers clearly a morning when George wandered those slopes, spade in hand, and harnessed the various rivulets into one flowing steam, suitable for water collection and campsite drainage – so academic expertise was transformed into practical work for the benefit of the expedition, an expertise which was to be harnessed by the Aberdeen City Council in planning its sewage disposal. Nor will those on that expedition ever forget his fishing expertise, as fresh Greenland cod was added to the basecamp rations on a regular basis. George was not just an academic, he was a teacher, with a love of his subject and a determination that his students should learn and experience – and that word “students” included BSES members. Members, of course, included leaders as well as young explorers. One could not be on an expedition with George and not realise the high standards required by him of all concerned and appreciate his outdoor wisdom and expertise, and it was his example that prepared many a young leader for the troubles and trials of chief leadership in the years ahead.

George’s expedition locations spanned the entire northern hemisphere, to destinations such as Iceland (twice), Greenland (six times) Arctic Norway / Sweden (twice), the Yukon (twice), Montana, and Alaska (twice). Which was his favourite? Anywhere where there were rocks! On twelve of these expeditions he ran the Geology Fire; he was Chief Scientist on three occasions (and was the first leader ever appointed to that position, on Iceland 1977); he was Deputy Chief Leader on six expeditions; and was Chief Leader on two (1974 and 1983). It was a tremendous pleasure to work under George as Chief Leader, for he appreciated the efforts being made by his leader team to the full and offered all the assistance that he could. However, he was never very happy with this position, for his forte was to be out there at the sharp end with the Fires, doing the work, and exploring. When he was injured in the Yukon in 1986 and could but issue directives to his more than competent Geology assistant leader he was a very unhappy man. But in his older years he was a rock (pun entirely intentional) upon which other leaders could depend, a safe secure and sensible man at base who could be relied upon to do precisely the right thing at the right time with minimal panic. So when messages came flooding back to him, in 1983 in Greenland when he was Chief Leader, of potentially fatal accidents on the ice-cap, those who sent the messages knew with utter certainly that help was close at hand, and of course they were right. And in Montana in 1994, when the Chief Leader received a message of starvation threatening at Glacier Park, he was not at all surprised to find, when he arrived with supplementary rations, to find George deep in the supply box, re-allocating the remaining victuals on an emergency basis – supervised, as ever in his life, by his wife, Jean, herself a full and life member of the Society, three times an expedition leader (and on the first ever co-educational expedition of the Society in 1980). George loved expeditioning; and he only gave up leadership after his very last adventure (in 2000 in Alaska) when, even with a selfproclaimed light pack, he just could not “keep up with the girls even going downhill”, as he put it.

As one who wished always to be at the sharp end of leadership, he found it difficult to appreciate that his wise opinion – never offered, but available on request – and practical help was what an harassed Chief Leader really needed; there was, or ought to have been, room for him on every BSES expedition.

George’s involvement was not only as an active expedition Leader but also as a member of Council; he joined Council in 1973 and served on it spanning three decades, retiring to make room for “younger men” in 1996, during which time he never once claimed his travel expenses from Aberdeen. In all that time perhaps the only Council meeting that he missed was when he bumped into another absentee Council member in the far North West of Scotland when George was running a geology field trip for his Aberdeen students and his truanting colleague was supervising Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions for his school. They agreed that the north-west of Scotland in Spring was preferable to the Council room of the RGS. Throughout those many Council meetings, his quiet advice and support were invaluable, for he never took pre-determined sides on burning issues and evaluated all such issues with his usual clarity and sagacity. It is to the Society’s great disadvantage that he turned down the offer to be nominated as Vice-Chairman (and indeed, Chairman) on a number of occasions, simply because he felt that Aberdeen was a little too far from London. Perhaps the Society ought to have moved its headquarters to Aberdeen! George continued to be a supportive life member, and along with his wife Jean, must hold the record (save perhaps for Ian, once again) of attendances at AGMs until age and infirmity became too much for the long journey south. George was born in Rosehearty on the north Aberdeenshire coast on 23rd July 1931, educated at Fraserburgh High School, took his BSc in geology from Aberdeen University and returned thereafter serving as a commissioned officer in the Army (Royal Engineers) during National Service, first as a professor’s assistant, then as an assistant lecturer and finally as a full lecturer in Geology.

Throughout his life, he was active in adult education outside the confines of the university, particularly in producing and monitoring geology courses for the Open University and running adult education courses in Aberdeen until well after formal retirement. George met Jean in Aberdeen as students in the same year, wooed and married her, and was never the same man again when he lost her to cancer in 2013; their single tragedy in their many years of contented marriage was the lack of any children. George died in Aberdeen after a long period of debilitation and illness on 31st May 2016, aged 84.

George supported and led BSES through thick and thin and contributed enormously to its growth, development and success; he added much to the lives of young people and, indeed, of Leaders; he was a most deserving recipient of one of the first-ever Murray Levick Awards. In George our Founder Murray Levick would have recognised a soul-mate; George would have been an invaluable companion on the Northern Party of Scott’s last expedition and would have emerged with equal glory to our Founder. This Society owes so much to him and Jean.