Remembering Prince Philip: outdoorsman and conservationist

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 14/04/2021

His Royal Highness Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, who died at Windsor Castle on April 9, encouraged millions of young people into the outdoors and campaigned about the importance of conservation for six decades. Sarah Stirling traces how the outdoors shaped Prince Philip’s life.

His most well-known contributions were founding the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and being the inaugural president of the WWF, an organisation he would be a president of for 60 years.

A couple of lesser-known facts: Philip was also an unlikely Pacific mountain deity and a BMC member, through his honorary membership of The Alpine Club. We liked to think that he'd enjoy reading Summit magazine at Buckingham Palace. 

A difficult childhood, eased by outdoor activity

It was Prince Philip’s own lonely and challenging childhood that led him to found the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Born into a family of Danish-Greek royalty on the idyllic isle of Corfu, his young life was dashed by a series of events. Following a coup, his family fled to Paris, his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, his father moved to Monte Carlo with his mistress and his older sisters married Gernan princes with Nazi affiliations and moved to Germany. Philip was alone in the world, at school in England, at just 10.

In 1933, aged 12, relatives sent the blonde royal to the Schule Schloss for boys in Germany, where he met the man who would change his life: the headmaster, Kurt Hahn. This school was a testing ground for Hahn, who would later found the Outward Bound School in Aberdovey, Wales, and then the worldwide Outward Bound Trust.

Hahn believed that the ‘awkward’ teenage years could be eased by fostering physical fitness, initiative, imagination, craftsmanship, self-discipline and compassion. At Schloss, unusual compulsory classes included running before breakfast and helping with school maintenance. On Saturdays they formed ‘guilds’ of explorers, farmers and artists, which Hahn said made their eyes ‘gleam’.

When Hahn, a German Jew, fled to Britain later that year, 1933, he founded Gordonstoun school in a stately home in Morayshire, and ran it in a similar fashion to the Schule Schloss. There was an emphasis on learning mountain and sea rescue, activities which Hahn believed encouraged teamwork and compassion. 

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award

One of the first pupils at Gordonstoun was Philip. The Gordonstoun regime wasn’t for everyone - some, including Prince Charles, hated it - but Philip adored it. ‘You were meant to suffer,’ he joked, later. ‘It's good for the soul.’

In 1956, helped by Kahn, Prince Philip founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a set of challenges for young people. Participants gain Bronze, Silver and Gold awards by volunteering for community service, learning physical skills and going on an expedition, such as a mountain trek or a sailing trip.

From 1958, girls were allowed to join the scheme. At first the girl’s award focussed more on domestic skills and community service but it was finally made the same as the boys’ program in 1980.

Those who achieve the Gold award are invited to a ceremony, and many met Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. Over 2.5 million awards have now been handed out in more than 140 countries and territories. “The Duke,” commented the award scheme's chief executive, Peter Westgarth, saw “the awards as a sort of self-help scheme for growing up.”

Prince Philip the Pacific deity

The strangest on this list: it's true that a cargo-worshipping sect on the isle of Tanna in the Vanuatu archipleago revered the Duke of Edinburgh as the pale-skinned son of an ancient mountain spirit.

The origins of Philip’s divine status are unclear, but seem to date back to the ‘50s or ‘60s. Ancient tales tell of the mountain spirit’s son travelling to a distant land, marrying a powerful lady and, in time, returning.

The belief that Philip was this spirit was strengthened when he and the Queen visited Vanuatu in 1974, unaware of his status. Informed later, he agreed to send an official photograph of himself to the sect. In return, the villagers sent a traditional pig-killing club. A photo of Philip holding the club outside Buckingham Palace was sent to the villagers.

Another official portrait followed in 2000, and in 2007 five members of the Tanna community, invited to Britain for a TV reality show, met him privately and off-camera. All three photographs were kept by the chief Jack Naiva, who never saw his dream of the duke’s ‘return’ to Tanna realised.

WWF President

Sixty years ago, in 1961, the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature; previously the World Wildlife Fund) was founded and the Duke of Edinburgh was asked to be its voice as its first president. He held the position of president until the the day he died; latterly as president emeritus.

Pavan Sukhdev, President of WWF International, said: “Across more than 50 years ... Prince Philip’s efforts on behalf of WWF have been inestimable – visiting WWF projects in over fifty countries on five continents, promoting conservation issues at the highest government and corporate levels, and helping with essential fundraising and awareness promotion.”

Philip spoke powerfully and committedly on issues such as biodiversity loss long before they entered the mainstream. Speaking, for example at the Australian Conservation Foundation, Canberra, in April 1970, he said: "The conservation of nature, the proper care for the human environment and a general concern for the long-term future of the whole of our planet are absolutely vital if future generations are to have a chance to enjoy their existence on this earth."

The BMC is saddened to hear of the death of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and wishes to convey deep condolences to Her Majesty The Queen and the Royal Family.

We want to say a big thanks to every BMC member who continues to support us through the Coronavirus crisis.

From weekly Facebook Lives and GB Climbing home training videos, to our access team working to re-open the crags and fight for your mountain access, we couldn’t do it without you.

Did you know that we've just launched a new U27 membership offer for just £1.50 / month? And with full membership from £2.50 / month, it's never been easier to join and support our work:

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