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Scots of the Antarctic
by Jeremy Hodges, writing in the Daily Mail, Nov 30, 2002


William Bruce: Veteran explorer AS 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 singing 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.

Seranade: Penguins would stand impassively as Dr Gilbert Kerr played. BRUCE 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 navigation.

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.

Scotia and her crew

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 a day.

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 records.

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 big locker.’

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 December 9.