A conversation with former First Minister Jack McConnell changed explorer Craig Mathieson’s life forever.
He had just returned from the first dedicated Scottish expedition to the South Pole, raising £100,000 for the trip and arriving on December 28, 2004.
On his return, he spoke about his 56-day adventure to school pupils and organisations across the country.
He was also invited to a reception at the Scottish Parliament where he struck up a conversation with the then First Minister, a former school teacher.
Craig said: “We discussed the fact that schools hadn’t changed much since I had been a pupil.
“There were three groups of children in every school – the elite pupils from good, solid backgrounds; the troubled youngsters at the other end of the scale and the forgotten group in the middle – that’s the kids that I really wanted to help.”
Craig asked Jack McConnell what he could do to help these forgotten youngsters and the politician’s response surprised Craig.
He said: “He agreed with me that there were forgotten children – he had witnessed the same thing as a teacher.
“But he asked me what I was going to do about it!”
Inspired by that chat, Craig wondered whether he could inspire youngsters by training them for their own polar expeditions.
As a pilot, for a year he trained a Braes High School pupil from Falkirk, Chris Struthers, for an expedition to the North Pole.
And on April 24, 2006, they both made it to the Pole.
Chris subsequently applied to university, studied as a geologist and has worked all over the globe, most recently as a geology lecturer in Auckland.
And that pilot pole trip also had life-changing consequences for Craig, cementing in his mind that he could make a difference in young peoople’s lives.
In 2013, he packed in his job at an accountancy firm, taking a 100 per cent pay cut overnight, to launch his children’s charity, The Polar Academy.
It is a decision he has never regretted and he has since worked with 12 schools all over Scotland, taking scores of youngsters on five separate expeditions.
The resultant success of The Polar Academy’s pupils speaks volumes about what Craig has achieved.
He said: “The children we work with often have little confidence in their abilities but they all have one thing in common – a real spark.
“Each pupil undergoes 10 months of arduous training to prepare them for the expedition. And when they return, they have to speak to around 20,000 fellow pupils about their experiences.
“We see them transform from painfully shy youngsters into young adults who are confident enough to lead the expedition.
“Our pupils have gone on to study at university and be leaders in their fields. It’s life-changing for them.”
Craig is currently working with Bathgate Academy pupils who, on April 2, will leave for an 18-day trip to Greenland.
And when he returns, he will start working with a new group of pupils – at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway and the Sir E Scott School in West Tarbert.
He claims the commute will actually be easier than working with five schools in Edinburgh at the one time!
But as well as training and coaching the youngsters, Craig has the not-so-small task of raising £170,000 for each and every trip.
He would dearly love to work with more schools every year but, with no government funding, he is reliant on businesses and members of the public to help fund the charity.
Craig (49) said: “If I moved to Norway tomorrow, I would be able to fund five or six expeditions every year.
“They are years ahead of us in viewing outdoor pursuits as educational and beneficial for youngsters.
“The problem is, I don’t want to live in Norway!
“That means I have to try to raise £170,000 every year for the expedition.
“When I’m out with the begging bowl, it’s time I could be spending with the pupils.
“We have some amazing supporters, including Chris Tiso who has been a long-term sponsor.
“However, sadly, the question I most often get asked here in Scotland is not how The Polar Academy benefits youngsters but rather how the charity can help businesses.
“The demands of some organisations would actually cost The Polar Academy in the long-run.
“It’s sad but it’s often the case here that businesses are more interested in their own bottom line than the children we help.”
However, Craig remains committed to working with the forgotten children he first set out to help.
He added: “I’m never going to be rich but it’s the greatest job in the world – I still love it.
“It’s incredible to see the youngsters blossom and go on to achieve more than they ever thought possible.
“That makes all the fundraising worthwhile.”
To find out more about The Polar Academy and how you can help, visit the website www.thepolaracademy.org.
Accolades are great but funding is Craig’s main mission
Named Explorer in Residence by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) in 2013, last year Craig Mathieson was also invited to join the illustrious Explorers Club.
Founded in 1904, fellow members include Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Jacques Piccard, Don Walsh, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Craig will travel from his Bo’ness home to address fellow members in New York this year.
He said: “Only those who reach the pinnacle of exploration are asked to join.
“To me, it’s like receiving 1000 Olympic gold medals at the one time. You know you have made it as an explorer if you’re asked to join.”
It is an amazing accolade but Craig’s main focus remains funding. He has launched a Patrons’ Club which has seven members but he is hoping to attract more.
He explained: “Individuals, companies or syndicates can become a patron, as long as they are willing to donate £10,000 every year for a minimum of three years.
“Patrons are not allowed to shout about their support – they are doing it solely to help the children we work with.
“We currently have seven patrons but would love to attract at least another ten – that would meet our annual fundraising target and free time up for me to work with the children more.”
To become a patron, contact Craig Mathieson on 01506 825115 or email email@example.com.
Craig added: “We’d also be delighted to hear from big name sponsors.”
Individual donations can also be made via the charity’s website.