Laureation address: Mr Michael Palin

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor William Austin

Friday 23 June 2017

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Mr Michael Palin.

In presenting Michael Palin to you today, I run the risk of emulating a character created by him and Terry Jones, a certain Dr Bertram S Fegg GBH (Parkhurst): Editor of the Encyclopeadia of ALL World Knowledge! Like that great educational work, this laureation address has mysteriously been assigned to the most unsuitable man in the world to write! But as one of the people who nominated Michael for the award the pleasure certainly is all mine.

Michael Edward Palin, CBE is a comedian, actor, writer, television presenter and geographical educator. He has been a household name for half a century, universally held in high respect and affection, a rare combination. After graduating from Oxford, with a degree in Modern History, he worked with fellow writer and performer Terry Jones, finding fame in 1969 as a member of the Monty Python comedy group. Given that other Pythons have strong St Andrews connections – Terry Jones as an honorary graduate and John Cleese as a former Rector of the University – today’s event cannot be claimed as ‘something completely different’! Thank you. Notable appearances in films followed, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Jabberwocky, The Missionary (which he wrote), A Private Function, and A Fish Called Wanda, for which he won the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Roles have also included a number of serious television dramas as well as travel writing and a highly successful career making ambitious travel documentaries for television, including Around The World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Sahara and Himalaya – all delivered with infectious enthusiasm, insightful commentary and lightly-worn learning. Millions loved travelling with him – and learned much along the way. For his memorable contributions to television drama and travel, he was awarded a CBE in 2000.

Through these endeavours, Michael Palin developed an active interest in Geography, ultimately leading to his appointment as President of the Royal Geographical Society, a position which he held from 2009 to 2012 and which he used to promote the public understanding of geography with energy and enthusiasm. In 2008, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society awarded him the Livingstone Medal which recognises ‘outstanding public service in which geography has played an important part’. This medal is a high accolade which places him in illustrious company, given that previous recipients include Scott, Shackleton, Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 2013 the Royal Canadian Geographical Society awarded him their Gold Medal for services to the promotion of geography. He has been President of the Campaign for Better Transport since 1986, and established the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in 1993.

In his inimitable, understated fashion, he has gently, yet persuasively, educated and inspired millions about nature and culture and the interactions between them around the world. As a singularly effective President of the Royal Geographical Society he worked energetically in promoting geographical understanding and the discipline of geography in schools and universities across the UK, contributing to the subject’s surging popularity in recent years. In a much-quoted statement, quoted yesterday afternoon, he is on record as saying that ‘Geography is the subject which holds the key to our future’, encapsulating his belief in the power of an integrative geographic vision to address today’s pressing environmental issues.

In an interview for the 2013 television awards, when receiving the BAFTA Fellowship, Michael Palin reflected on a moment in 1964 when, at the age of 21, he performed with the Oxford University Revue Group at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He describes a passion, a sense of accomplishment in doing something well, of writing, of collaborating and, with the hindsight of over 50 years, of having taken the right course – despite parental concern! Let me finish by highlighting three themes that ran through that interview, themes which can challenge and inspire all of us: ‘be bold’ (take some risks in offering something distinctive of yourselves), ‘trust’ (seek meaningful collaboration and teamwork) and ‘be strong’ (don’t give up).

Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to the public understanding of contemporary geographical issues and his notable service to the development of the discipline of geography in UK secondary and tertiary education (and a bit of writing and acting along the way), I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Mr Michael Palin.

Professor William Austin
School of Geography & Sustainable Development


Michael Palin’s laureation address response

In accepting this great honour, I’d just like to put on record how suitable it is that I should receive it from Scotland’s oldest university. For, ever since I first visited Scotland, as Professor William Austin reminded you, to perform the Edinburgh Festival in 1964, this country has been a great inspiration to me.

I’ve made good friends here, I’ve made many films here and I’ve always been powerfully impressed by the beauty and diversity of the landscape. But most of all, Scotland has been a lifelong inspiration to me as a traveller.

The Scots themselves are great travellers, producing explorers and adventurers from David Livingstone, to Robert Louis Stevenson to James Clark Ross. The great publishing house of John Murray in Edinburgh practically codified travel, and their famous guides were the pioneers of the ‘Rough Guides’ and the ‘Lonely Planet’ guides that we take for granted today. 

When I was growing up, my favourite encyclopaedia was published by Robert and William Chambers of Edinburgh. The maps I used to chart the progress of the great explorers were in an atlas published by Bartholomew’s of Edinburgh. 

Quite why so many Scots are obsessed with getting away from Scotland is a question for another day.

But in accepting this honorary doctorate here today, I must say I feel the hands of Stevenson, Chambers, Livingston, Conan-Doyle, John Murray and many others firmly on my shoulder.

I hope that sitting amongst you today will be the next generation of travellers and adventurers. From north and south of the border, and from all over the world.

Thank you.