Tag Archives: ‘Scotia’ expedition


12 Jun

In 1903 William Speirs Bruce departed his winter base in the South Orkneys and sailed to Argentina for refueling and refit of his ship the Scotia. On arrival in Buenos Aires he offered the continued control of his South Orkney meteorological and magnetic huts to Argentina and agreed to transport Argentine scientist to the site to continue the scientific work under the leadership of his meteorologist Mossman. His rationale was firstly, to ensure that his team’s detailed work would continue and secondly, to further his dream of a coordinated complex of meteorological stations in and around the Southern Atlantic. His motives were purely scientific.
On arrival at Buenos Aires Bruce contacted both the British First Minister
Mr. W. Haggard and the head of the Argentine Meteorological Service – a Mr. Walter Davies. Haggard contacted both the British and Argentine governments and the Argentine authorities responded with remarkable alacrity, thanking Dr. Bruce and promptly accepting the offer within a few days (incidentally about three months before Haggard heard from the British authorities)!
The Argentinean government clearly knew what they were doing. They allocated the work of ‘Postmaster’ to one of their staff. Stamps were issued representing the South Orkneys as an Argentinean suburb. This was a most significant decision -the presence of a postmaster is an internationally recognized part of demonstrating effective administration and authority over any claimed and occupied area. The South Orkney station has now been continuously manned by Argentina for the past 114 years. Bruce’s decision thus opened the door for the claims and counter claims in the region that continue to this day.
Argentina’s claim is based on her continued occupation of the station. British claims to the area are via the Falkland Islands Dependencies, a complex constitutional arrangement for administering British territories in Sub-Antarctica and Antarctica. In 1908 the Dependencies were listed as: South Georgia, the South Orkneys, South Shetlands, and the Sandwich Islands, and the territory of Graham’s Land, an area south of the 50th parallel S, and between 20° and 80° W. longitude. The agreement was modified in 1917 when it was recognized that this definition could be interpreted as a claim on Southern Argentina and Chile! Also explicitly, to extend to the South Pole.
Argentina’s challenge to the Dependencies came first in the late 1920s and then more extensively in the second-world war. In response, in the height of World War II, in the Antarctic Summer of 1943/44, Britain established what became a permanent occupation called ‘Operation Tabarin’. This was primarily a political statement — the Admiralty and Colonial Office aimed to strengthen British territorial rights to the sovereignty of the Falklands Island Dependency, whilst the Foreign Office aimed at minimizing disruption to Britain’s long-standing ties with Argentina and, particularly at that dark time, to ensure the shipment of war-time meat supplies.
Tabarin was the basis from which Britain’s subsequent post-war, long-term involvement in Antarctica developed. The Falklands Island Dependency Survey was renamed the British Antarctic Survey in 1962, its northern boundary changed to 60°. The organization now operates three research stations in the British Antarctic Territory: year round at Rothera, Halley, and summer only at Signy. In addition there are two summer field support stations: Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu.
In addition to continuous climatic, oceanographic, geographic, ice, atmospheric and space weather observations, findings include the record of a volcanic eruption from under the Antarctica ice sheet, which occurred over 2.000 years ago. This was, apparently, the biggest eruption in the last 10,000 years. The volcanic ash was found on the ice surface. A world-changing observation in 1985 was the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This led to an international reduction in the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone depleting substances (ODS) which are mainly responsible for man-made chemical ozone depletion and which were used, for example, in fridges and inhalers.
Halley Research Station is built on a floating ice shelf in the Weddell Sea. The current Halley (VI), is the world’s first re-locatable research facility and indeed has been moved recently because of huge ice cracks in the ice shelf.
Signy is in the South Orkneys Island where Bruce’s work was based. It is a laboratory for biological research open from November to April each year (the southern hemisphere summer).
Bruce is not forgotten here. The Scotia Sea in the South Atlantic is named for his expedition. Also the research community named a laboratory on Signy Island for him in 2016.

Recognition for William Speirs Bruce

30 May

I have just spent another five days in Edinburgh; at the National Museum and the Edinburgh University Library, continuing my researches on William Speirs Bruce. I find it truly amazing how much information there is on the man, but how little his name is recognised — even in Edinburgh!
Now however, he has received some public recognition. His major contribution to Science was the ‘Scotia’ Expedition, which went to the Weddell Sea and wintered in the South Orkneys. The expedition was successful scientifically: discoveries that were made changed the way the geography of Antarctica was understood, the seas around the Antarctic were explored, a scientific base was set up on South Georgia (which continues today), 1100 species of animal were catalogued of which 212 of them were previously unknown, miles & miles of unknown ocean were explored.
When he returned to Edinburgh Bruce needed to house Scotia’s Antarctic data and specimens. Also, he needed to amalgamate this collection with collections he had made previously on five visits to Arctic. He took a storage area, contiguous with The Surgeons Hall of the Royal College of Surgeons, which he named the Scottish Ocenographical Laboratory, and from here, he worked endlessly and tirelessly in the preparation of six scientific volumes, and a log book,the seventh,which was on the day to day activities of the voyage, This was a Herculean task and took years and years of work. The scientific volumes were published between 1909 and 1920. Bruce’s Log, the narrative of the voyage, was not published until 1992.
The Oceanographic Laboratory had to be closed due to lack of funds before Bruce died in 1921 and, after his death, Bruce drifted into obscurity in the minds of the general public,
Now however, and at last, Bruce has been recognised by the naming of a laboratory at the British Antarctic Survey Research Station on Signy Island in the South Georgia Islands. A commemorative plaque has been erected in the laboratory. The news was given to Bruce’s great, great grandsons at a meeting hosted by the Oban-based Scottish Association for Marine Science in its William Speirs Bruce lecture room.
Dr John Dudeney, an Antarctic specialist, made the approach to the Brutish Antarctic Survey. It is a long needed recognition for one, who struggled ceaselessly, and with insufficient funds, to draw public attention to the wonders and opportunities of Antarctica.


25 Mar

I have spent a considerable amount of time in the past few years researching the life of William Speirs Bruce Polar, the naturalist and explorer of the late 1800s and early1900s. There is an immense (overwhelming), amount of information about him stored in various museums and libraries: The Royal Scottish Geographic Society, The National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh University Library, Glasgow Museum, The Scott Polar Research Institute, The Royal Geographic Society and more, yet hardly anyone has heard of Bruce, – even in Scotland where he lived and worked for thirty years.

In the late 1800s it was uncertain whether Antarctica actually existed – were the sightings that had been made of land in the region simply islands or part of the mythical continent? Bruce’s scientific findings on his original visit (as a junior naturalist and doctor in 1892) did much to stimulate ongoing interest in an area. His own expedition, the Scotia expedition really opened up the region for the first time. On Scotia he organised hundreds of ‘stations’ where, sometimes with great difficulty, scientists collected a vast amount of data about the ocean. For each station the ship was halted and sea depth, sea characteristics, trawl findings, drag net findings and comprehensive meteorological data was collected over a distance of hundreds and hundreds of miles. In addition the scientists studied the animals; fishes seals whales birds – and the expedition discovered land (Coats Land), which changed what was understood about the geography of the Weddell Sea. It was on this expedition that a meteorological station and magnetic observatory were set up in the South Orkneys. These stations continue today.

In addition he added much to knowledge about Spitsbergen and surrounding islands in the Arctic

So why is he so little remembered? He knew the answer himself. His expeditions were scientific, no deaths no dramas, no financial support from big, publicity blazing newspapers. He wrote that the public wanted ‘narratives bristling with hairbreadth escapes, and thrilling adventures’. On one occasion, when he was invited to address a SCIRNTIFIC society, the secretary wrote to give his opinion that possibly one the hardest athletic feats to be achieved, was to get to the North or South Pole. He (the secretary) added that ‘it would be quite suitable if one of our university athletic clubs would take up this piece of work. No greater fame could accrue to such a club than to record that they were the winners of the Polar Blue Ribbon. I should quite well like to see the athletic club of one of our universities in Scotland victorious in this regard’

If the Secretary of a scientific society could write this =what hope with the general public?

Was he an Antarctic Hero? A hero is defined as a person admired for their courage,
outstanding achievements or noble qualities, I don’t think he was noble, he did what he was driven to do, nothing could, or would stop him, but in terms of outstanding achievements, and his grit, courage, doggedness to keep going in spite of all set backs, I think he qualifies..


3 Feb

The medal is awarded by the Queen. It was known first as the Arctic Medal, which was issued in 1857 and awarded to, amongst others, the expedition trying to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, lost in 1847 whilst trying to discover the North West Passage. The Polar Medal was introduced in 1904 in recognition of the achievements of Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctica. It was awarded to members of the Discovery crew, also, I understand, to the crews of both rescue ships the Terra Nova and the Morning. A few years later members of Shackleton’s expeditions (1907-09 and 1914-1916) were honoured also.

The medal is given to citizens of the United Kingdome and Northern Ireland who have made significant contributions to knowledge in the Polar Regions or those who have given outstanding support in the acquisition of this knowledge and the objectives of polar exploration. Both groups have to have had experience of the hazards and rigours of the Polar environment.

The Arctic Club is delighted that its honorary secretary has been awarded the 2016 Polar Medal. Seven people have been awarded the medal this year ‘for outstanding achievement and service to the United Kingdom in the field of polar research’ with three of these related to Arctic work’.

As you know I am writing about William Speirs Bruce who led the major (Scottish) expedition, the Scotia expedition, to the Weddell Sea in 1902. After the expedition Bruce expected that he would get London-based recognition for his scientists and officers, but none received the Polar Medal. Bruce considered this a tremendous slight to himself and his crew and battled for years for the honour. He was convinced that Sir Clements Markham, the powerful President of the Royal Geographical Society and not a man to be crossed, influenced the decision. Sir Clements was the father of the Discovery expedition. He thought (and wrote) that he considered that Bruce had diverted monies that should have gone to Discovery to the coffers of the Scotia. This fundamental disagreement left Bruce with a lifelong distrust of Sir Clements and a conviction that the powerful president had effectively prevented the award.

Appeals by the Government to convince the Palace that the award should be granted were rebuffed. But recent evidence suggests that Bruce’s suspicions were wrong. The refusal appears to have been neither due to doubts as to Bruce’s scientific achievements, nor to Sir Clement’s malign influence, but because the Scotia expedition had been financed in Scotland and did not require government monies nor Admiralty rescue i.e. it had not had financial support out of Scotland (one of the ironies of this decision is that Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition did not have London-based financial support either). King Edward VII refused the award, his son George V was not prepared to overturn his father’s decision, a reason given that to honour Bruce’s expedition would set a precedent by widening the scope of the medal. A more recent application also failed.
Bruce considered, until his dying day, that Sir Clements had caused an estrangement between him and the Royal Geographical Society after the Scotia Expedition


9 Dec

I read a piece recently about conditions on the top of Ben Nevis, horrible– deep snow, fog.

Just over 100 years ago there was a meteorological station on the summit of Ben Nevis. This was a wonderful, progressive concept. Meteorologists wanted to understand weather systems better in order to be able to improve forecasting. The observatory was opened in 1883, funded mostly by private donors (supposedly including Queen Victoria) and it worked in synchrony with a second station at Fort William which provided a continuous record for comparison with records taken from the summit. Temperature comparisons showed that the average fall in temperature between Fort William and the summit was 8.5°C and that the mean annual temperature was -0.3°C at the summit and 8.4°C at the low level observatory. The Fort William station was manned by the 25-year-old Robert Mossman, who was to be a long-term associate and friend of William Speirs Bruce

Before the summit building was constructed, a local man, Clement Wragge climbed the peak daily to make meteorological observations in the summer of 1881, getting up at 4.30 each morning to do so. His wife made the simultaneous observations at Fort William. Wragge was not appointed as Superintendent when the observatory opened which must have riled him considerably, the unanimous choice for Superintendent was Robert Traill Omond an expert meteorologist. Omond was succeeded by Angus Rankin who had been an assistant to Wragg. Both Omond and Rankin were to be long term associates of Bruce also.

Bruce started his apprenticeship for his ‘Scotia’ adventure when he joined the summit observatory as Rankin’s assistant in 1895. He had studied medicine in Edinburgh without much enthusiasm until he was offered a position as surgeon/ naturalist on a whaling expedition to the Antarctic. This experience convinced him of the benefits of a purely scientific expedition to Antarctica and on his return, he gave up medical studies to become a full-time naturalist. Ben Nevis gave him valuable training in meteorological work in all conditions – it could be dangerous to make observations when there was a southerly wind, the observatory was situated close to the cliffs on the north of Ben Nevis. In winter, snow tunnels had to be made to get to the instruments.

His association with Ben Nevis continued. When he led the ‘Scotia’ expedition to Antarctica he built a meteorology base and a base for magnetic observations on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. He called the meteorological base Omond House after the first superintendent of Ben Nevis. His friend Robert Mossman (of Fort William) played an important part in both the ‘Scotia’ journey to the South Orkneys and the Laurie Island stations. Bruce was determined his scientific work should continue long term Neither the British Foreign Office not the Admiralty were interested in small South Atlantic islands of no strategic significance, so Bruce arranged (with the acquiescence of the British Authorities) for Argentina to take over the stations. Three Argentine scientists worked on the South Orkney base under the supervision of Robert Mossman (from Fort William). This was a decision that was to have long-term geopolitical consequences unforeseeable in 1904. One of the Argentine scientists acted as postmaster, a position that is reco0gnised internationally as a tool of effective administration. The claim of effective administration continues today.

Sadly the Ben Nevis station closed in 1919 due to lack of funds, but the men working there were to have a long lasting influence