We inhabit a world which has been increasingly referred to as a “global village” in an age where multimedia digital technology and cheaper, more accessible air travel has allowed the exploration of other cultures and countries to become much more attainable.
It has not always been thus. The ease with which we can now see and experience what were once considered far-flung corners of the globe is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even for generations of people coming of age in the 20th century, opportunities for foreign travel and, indeed, opportunities to learn about and engage with people and societies beyond our own shores were scarce indeed.
For many, a trip beyond the borders of even one’s own county – let alone one’s own country – could be something of a rarity and, despite educational advances and increased library provision, the chances to quench a thirst for knowledge about the wider world were often limited to those who could afford the high price of international travel or, as an alternative, atlases and encyclopaedias (and even these were beyond the financial reach of many).
So, for those with inquiring minds interested in acquiring something tangible to fire their interest in our global neighbours, options were few and far between. That is why stamp collecting appealed in some cases to the internationally curious, providing as it did something of “a window on the world” to places they may never actually get to experience for themselves.
One such youngster going through boyhood in 1920s and 1930s Scotland was Ronnie Guild. He amassed an extensive and wide-ranging collection with an album of stamps from many countries, which we can now view as something of a physical manifestation of his fascination for the peoples and cultures beyond his homeland. Indeed, it arguably played an instrumental role in feeding the imagination of this much doted upon only child, providing him with a taste for the foreign and the exotic – worlds away from the somewhat limited and sheltered confines of a life in pre-war Scotland.
A polymath, former soldier, schoolteacher, environmentalist and campaigner, Ronnie had a sizeable variety of interests in his long life – not least among them his passion for and involvement with the ESU – but it was the stamp collection he started as a boy that almost certainly “kick-started” his international outlook on life more generally.
The album is an eye-opening insight into nations from around the world, containing as it does well over 300 stamps from Egypt to El Salvador, Senegal to Sweden, Panama to Palestine and Newfoundland to the Netherlands. One can only imagine the extent to which receiving these small, colourful artefacts from remote lands and cataloguing them in the album shaped a curious mind’s interest in foreign travel, geography, politics, history and culture.
Like many of his generation, Ronnie’s thirst for information about the world in which we live was sated in part by the opportunities afforded by the Second World War. Like it or not, the global conflict provided for many young men a chance to see and experience places and peoples they could never have dreamed of visiting when the world was at peace – even though the circumstances of their travels were far from ideal…
He left his native Edinburgh in the early stages of the war to serve in the world-famous Scottish infantry regiment known as the Black Watch. He was seconded to the Indian Army (13th Frontier Force Rifles), going on to travel extensively around South Asia from the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan to Burma and Sikkim – a vast region taking in parts of what is present day India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar and Thailand.
During this period as a young officer, he was put in command of a group of men for whom Urdu or Pashtu was their principal language. He attempted to learn and understand their mother tongues and was still able to hold a conversation and write phrases in both languages well into his 90s.
His son Alastair Guild recalls:
“He felt an enormous sense of privilege that he had under him a group of men from such a varied and diverse ethnic background, from Sikhs to Pashtuns. He never lost his interest in different peoples and how in particular their character and outlook was shaped by their surroundings, environment and circumstances more generally. His favourite reference books included The Times Atlas of World History, Times World Atlas and Times Atlas of the Oceans.”
One senses in Ronnie Guild that here was an individual for whom stamp collecting was an early hobby that went on to shape his lifelong passion for the people and places that went way beyond those with which he was familiar – the challenge of acquiring the stamps and the pleasure he took in amassing them akin to the challenges and pleasures of travel and embracing new cultures, creeds and ideas. Little wonder then that he was such an important figure in the ESU which values the power of shared language and global friendship.
A committed schoolteacher for the bulk of his working life, teaching geography, economics and English at Edinburgh’s Fettes College, his interest in the wider world never left him, in particular the extent to which, as global citizens, we are all interconnected and inter-dependent, reliant on partnerships and alliances to build bridges of understanding and constantly learning from one another.
This was manifest in everything from his efforts to win more recognition for the part played by the Romans in Scottish history – at settlements such as Cramond in Edinburgh – to his campaign for a “University of the North Sea” to provide distance learning modules from all the bordering countries to promote greater understanding and knowledge-sharing about the region.
“Throughout his life he took a keen interest in other European countries and was a member of several Scottish Friendship Societies including those with Poland, Denmark, Norway and Finland,” recalls his son. “His motivation was in cultural exchange and in learning from other countries in such fields as housing, energy, the environment and security”.
His desire to bring about change in those fields he regarded as important was reflected in his committee work, not just for the ESU but for organisations as disparate as the Scottish Liberals and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
Looking through the array of stamps within it, it is fascinating to speculate how these small squares and rectangles of paper from around the globe – with their fine artwork and compelling imagery – helped to inspire a young, ambitious mind to embrace life as a true citizen of the world.