by Jeremy Hodges, writing in the Daily
Mail, Nov 30, 2002
the ship slipped her moorings and set sail on a 7,000-mile voyage to the
unexplored wastes of Antarctica, the peace of a Scottish Sabbath was
broken by the skirl of the pipes and voices on the quayside
Auld Lang Syne.
At the masthead of the polar
exploration vessel Scotia, the Scottish Lion Rampant fluttered proudly in
the breeze. The 33 men who sailed from Troon harbour that November in 1902
were determined to make the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition a
world-class success - and none
more so than their leader.
William Speirs Bruce was an
Edinburgh scientist with unrivalled experience of polar conditions, but
the Royal Geographical Society in London had ignored his application to
join the Antarctic expedition on the Discovery. Instead, the society
appointed a relatively inexperienced naval commander called Robert Falcon
Scott to lead the government-backed expedition which aimed to plant the
Union Jack firmly in Antarctica, if possible at the South Pole. But Bruce
was an internationalist whose sole aim was to advance human knowledge of
the last unexplored continent. Undaunted, he put together his own
expedition to complement Scott’s.
In vain, Sir Clements Markham, the
society’s president, warned the upstart: ‘I do not know why this
mischievous rivalry should have been started but I trust that you will not
connect yourself with it.’
By then Bruce was already assembling
his team of Scottish scientists and seasoned Antarctic sailors, bankrolled
by the Paisley textile magnate James Coats. The former Norwegian whaling
vessel had been transformed by a Troon shipyard into a ship stout enough
to resist Antarctic ice. As she pitched and rolled across the Bay of
Biscay, her crew hastened to secure all the meteorological instruments and
scientific supplies with which Coats’ fortune had equipped her.
knew exactly what to expect in the Antarctic, which he had explored ten
years before aboard a Dundee whaler. So, too, did Captain Thomas
Robertson, who had sailed on countless polar whaling expeditions out of
Peterhead. Apart from taking oceanographic soundings, the team netted
numerous marine specimens and, a week before reaching the Falklands,
hauled in a giant sun-fish weighing three-quarters of a ton with a hide so
tough it had to be dissected with an axe.
From then on the voyage was cold and
dangerous, through heavy seas with the increasing hazard of icebergs.
Mountainous seas crashed over the Scotia’s deck, sweeping away deck cargo
and nearly sweeping away men. Bruce was anxious to find a land base before
winter set in and the ship became ice-bound, yet already pack-ice blocked
the way. Icebergs were numerous, including a monster whose 200ft summit
was shrouded in mist. Yet the worst mishap was a collision with a
’growler’, a large lump of ice that shook the Scotia from stem to stern
but left her unharmed. Fire, not ice, nearly wrecked the expedition. A pan
of sealing wax left on a stove in the deck laboratory went up in flames,
perilously close to a 1,000-gallon tank full of methylated spirits used to
preserve marine specimens.
Eventually the Scotia pressed south
through the ice, beyond where Bruce’s Scottish predecessor James Weddell
had been forced to turn back in 1823, and came to the islands known as the
South Orkneys. There was a long and worrying search in blinding snow for a
safe harbour, and in the middle of the night a block of ice half tore off
the ship’s rudder. At last, on the south side of Laurie Island, they found
a well-protected harbour in what would be christened Scotia Bay.
Within a week the ship was frozen in
for the winter. The snow on her decks was left lying for insulation, while
the crew built a snow bank around her to fend of ice-cold winds and up to
60 degrees of frost. A wooden hut was set up on shore to house the
delicate instruments which would be used to track the magnetic South Pole
as it shifted its position, laying the ground for more accurate
A more gruelling task was
constructing the first stone building in the Antarctic, from boulders
that had to be hacked out of the
ice and hauled into position by sheer brute strength. The result, named
Omond House, would provide a base for a team of meteorologists when the
Scotia left. Men worked round the
clock to take hourly readings that would build up a picture of the
hitherto uncharted Antarctic climate and help understand its impact on the
rest of the world.
Marine specimens were obtained by
laboriously hacking a hole in the ice and dropping in a trap to be hauled
up later. By hacking two holes some distance apart in the ice, a trawl net
on a line could be hauled from
one to the other.
A WEALTH of sealife was discovered under the ice, from
brightly coloured sea urchins and cushion-starfish to sea spiders and
creatures like prehistoric trilobytes, plus quantities of fish — not all
of which were required by science. 'The first ones went to the laboratory’
recounted the expedition’s botanist Robert Rudmose Brown. ‘But even the
greed of the zoologist found satisfaction, and when the cook asked for
fish for breakfast, the zoologist showed himself open to human temptations
after all, and several days a week we all committed the sacrilege of
feeding on what was an animal probably new to science.’
Fresh fish and fresh meat were vital
for proper nutrition, as Bruce was well aware. On the other side of the
Antarctic, Captain Scott’s men were already weakening on a bully-beef diet
and succumbing to scurvy —
Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson were badly affected during
their vain attempt to cross the Ross Ice Shelf.
But Bruce’s men remained a picture
of rude health, thanks largely to his insistence that they eat penguin.
The birds were impassive, even when serenaded with bagpipes at close range
by the ship's doctor, Dr Gilbert Kerr, and could be approached quite
easily. Hundreds were killed, to be eaten fresh or stored in the natural
freezer outside. When spring and the nesting season arrived, the men would
gather thousands of penguin eggs and gorge themselves on an average of 15
After each day’s labour they would
gather in the ship to chat, smoke and play poker for candles and matches,
which were in limited supply. There was no contact with the rest of the
world and the only human voices beyond their own were on phonograph
THROUGHOUT the expedition there was
only one fatality, Allan Ramsay, the ship’s engineer, had been ill for
months with a pre-existing heart complaint and John Pine, the ship’s
medical officer was unable to save him. That summer Pine took part in
sledging Journeys, including one across a 500ft ridge down which the party
had to lower themselves on a whale line. Beyond this the way ahead lay
across an ice-floe which was starting to crack. Pirie was all for pressing
on, but Bruce held him back, leaving him to reflect on his narrow escape:
‘But for his seeing the danger (knowing ice of old), I had been off to sea
on a trip of my own on an ice-floe
— a trip that had surely ended in Davy Jones’s
On another sledging trip, snow
blindness struck. Darkness and cocaine was the only remedy. One man’s
sight was so badly threatened that Pine had to take him on foot back to
the ship. Pine’s own right eye was badly affected but ‘in the kingdom of
the blind, the one-eyed are king’ and the two stumbled, arm-in-arm, in the
dark before falling through a traphole into the icy waters by the bow of
the ship. They narrowly escaped drowning.
Yet the worst fright Pirie had was
on another trip when he had to cross a ridge of hard, slippery Ice with a
60ft drop to the sea, down which one false step would send him plummeting
‘without time to shake hands with myself and say goodbye’. Much to his own
disgust, he froze with fear and had to be led across by another more
nonchalant member of the party.
As the months passed with no sign of
the ice freeing around the ship, the expedition grew restless and even
spent two fruitless weeks trying to cut a channel through ice 15-20ft
thick. The crew joked that they must have a 'Jinker’ or Jinx on board.
Having decided it was Rudmose Brown, they created an effigy of him,
complete with shaggy red beard, which was tried, found guilty and
sentenced to be burnt.
A month later, the ice around the Scotia at last broke
up and she put to sea for a refit in Buenos Aires, leaving a party of six
at Omond House to carry on the hourly meteorological observations. On
Christmas Day they feasted on Penguin a
la Scotia with potatoes and brussels sprouts, followed by Plum Duff a la
Drift, coffee and cigars. There was even a bottle of champagne.
But there was always the
worry of isolation. If anything happened to the Scotia, nobody would know
they were there or come to rescue them. Their only lifeline was a rickety
whaleboat that would have to be rowed or sailed 800 miles to safety - as
Shackleton later would have to do.
BY February 1904, with no
ship in sight, the tension in Omond House was unbearable. The six took
stock of provisions and had just decided to go on strict rations when
there was a shout outside - and they stumbled out to see the Scotia
sailing into the bay. On board
were Argentinian scientists who were to take over at Omond House, with
Robert Moss-man and William Smith the cook staying with them.
Bruce had persuaded the Argentinian
government to take on the meteorological station, which has operated
continuously to the present day. Yet as the Scotia sailed off to chart 150
miles of Antarctic mainland, named Coats Land in honour of the expedition
sponsor, the little party left on Laurie Island was nearly wiped out by a
hurricane-force gale and tidal wave that half-demolished Omond House.
Perhaps the greatest feat of the whole venture was the way the two Scots
and three Argentinians hung on and repaired their shattered home, handing
over a going concern to the new meteorological team when relieved by the
Argentinian gunboat Uruguay.
By then Bruce and his men had
reached home, sailing up the Clyde in triumph, with bunting flying and
Coats’ yachts in attendance for a heroes’ welcome, heralded by sirens and
salvos of guns. There was a telegram of congratulation from King Edward
VII, but the British establishment would never quite forgive Bruce for his
audaciously successful voyage of 30,000 miles in which 1,100 species of
animal were catalogued, 212 of them previously unknown.
He was refused the Polar Medal
bestowed on Scott and Shackleton, but he had silver medals cast at his own
expense for his crew. His own assessment of his achievement was clear: ‘It
has been suggested that the despatch of the Scottish Expedition was
superfluous and unnecessary but I venture to state there is at least no
biologist or oceanographer of note who will agree with that opinion.
‘While Science was the talisman of
the Expedition, Scotland was emblazoned on its flag and it may be that, in
endeavouring to serve humanity by adding another link to the golden chain
of Science, we have also shown that the nationality of Scotland is a power
that must be reckoned with.’
The Voyage Of The Scotia, by RH
Rudmose Brown, JH Pirie and RC Mossman, is published by Mercat Press on
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