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Orkney’s Emma Steel on Her Solo Expedition to St Kilda

The Des Rubens and Bill Wallace grant, administered by wild places charity the John Muir Trust, funded a young researcher to undertake a solo expedition to the uninhabited islands of St Kilda to survey whales, dolphins, and porpoises in order to better understand and protect them.  

Emma Steel, 28 from Orkney, spent 19 days on St Kilda in an entirely self-supported, solo expedition to record the presence and absence of marine mammals around the islands.

On receiving the news of the grant offer Emma said:

“I was absolutely delighted to receive support from the Des Rubens and Bill Wallace Grant for my study trip. It’s always been a dream of mine to travel to St Kilda, to experience its remoteness and learn more about the people who once called this place home. This expedition has reinforced my love for nature and my drive and enthusiasm in protecting what we have, at a time when the planet’s future feels very uncertain. ” 

Emma has a BSc in Zoology and MSc in Environmental Science and now works in marine conservation for Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Emma’s mission was undertaken with permission from the National Trust for Scotland which owns and manages the archipelago.

During her time she collected data from key vantage points around the islands. The research Emma collected will now be shared with conservation charities as well as Shorewatch, a well-established citizen science programme focused on collecting marine data around the coast of Scotland.

Jenny Seaman of the John Muir Trust, who administers the Des Rubens and Bill Wallace Grant said:

”The grant panel were inspired by Emma’s passion for her work and the dedication she has shown in planning a solo, entirely self-supported research trip to such a remote location”.

Emma is one of eight successful applicants to the Des Rubens and Bill Wallace Grant in 2022. This grant was established to give people the opportunity to seek out life-changing experiences in wild places in ways which will benefit both the person, and the wild place itself.


The grant commemorates two former Presidents of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, who each led inspiring and adventurous lives. It was set up to give others an opportunity to follow in their footsteps and experience wild places. Projects should be adventurous, have an educational or scientific component and benefit the wild places themselves. In the decade since its inception the grant has made over 60 awards to a wide variety of recipients.

Bill Wallace, died of heart failure in February 2007 while skiing in the Alps at the age of 73 with two artificial hips.

Des Rubens, was a popular teacher at Craigroyston High School in Edinburgh was killed in June 2016 in an Alpine climbing accident at the age of 63.

Grants are for £200 to £2,000 and open to UK applicants of all ages.  Closing date for applications is 15 January each year. Further details on how to apply: https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/whats-new/grants/des-rubens-and-bill-wallace-grant

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