Tag Archives: Scottish National Antarctic Expedition


26 Jan

Penguins were of great interest to the early Antarctic explorers, but where does the word come from?
Alastair Ross,a medical student, went with William Speirs Bruce on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition as taxidermist. He made notes and a comprehensive log book on the birds they saw, particularly penguins. (W.S.Bruce.National Museum of Scotland, Box 5, File 53)
He too was interested in the derivation of ‘penguin’ and made quotes from “A Dictionary of Birds” by Alfred Newton (as cited by Hans Gadout in 1894).
There are 3 suggestions;
a) The word comes from the Welsh pengwyn “white head”. This is questioned—penguins don’t have white heads, there is no evidence of a Welsh discovery of the birds and anyway, it is thought unlikely that even if the Welsh did discover penguins, they would have persuaded English sailers to use the term.
b)”Penguin” derives from the Latin pinguis (fat). This is thought unlikely.
c) Apparently the word was first applied the the Great Auk of North America and a plausible theory is that the name is a corruption of “pin-wing” meaning that the bird had been pinioned (immobilised) and referring to its rudimentary wings. The Auk was seen in the 1500s and the name “pin-wing” was given to the birds in North and South America and, after this to the Southern penguins.
This seems a reasonable suggestion and as modern dictionaries throw no further light on the mystery, I am sticking to it.

William Speirs Bruce

9 Nov

I am thinking of writing a biography on Bruce, so any information or special anecdotes will be welcome.

Bruce’s  ambitions in relation to Antarctica came up against the formidable hostility of Sir Clements Markham, the geographer and explorer who was Secretary of The Royal Geographical Society in London for 5 years and its President for 12. When Bruce wrote to Sir Clements asking to join the National Antarctic Expedition, Sir Clements apparently did not reply, so Bruce organized the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. This Sir Clements considered mischievous rivalry.

Due to Markham’s influence no Polar Medals were awarded to the Scottish expedition

Incidentally two attempts to have a Blue Plaque  on Markham’s London house, organized  by Robert Stevenson of the Antarctic Circle have been unsuccessful. Rob wanted to acknowledge  Sir Clement’s role in re-invigorating interest and enthusiasm for Antarctic exploration in the early 1900s and for his role in helping to eradicate malaria.  But both applications were turned down.