Tag Archives: the Polar Medal


12 Feb

Why did William Speirs Bruce, the leader of the Scottish Antarctic expedition,(the ‘Scotia’) become a supporter of Scottish independence? ‘Scotland is not a dependent country but an individual nation working hand in hand on at least an equal footing with her partners in the Great British Federation… An independent kingdom she has been, an independent kingdom let her remain’. An unexpected statement from a man born and brought up in London and Norfolk and the son of a successful physician. The transition was not obvious and came slowly.

Bruce planned to follow his father and train as a doctor in University College London, but before starting the training, in 1887 he attended two summer courses in biology in Edinburgh. The late 1880s was a golden period of Scottish academic and scientific life; Edinburgh was a hotbed of scientific activity. Bruce came into contact with scientists of outstanding intellectual ability He became an instant enthusiast and transferred his training to Edinburgh.

At this time the scientific significance of Antarctica had become better understood by many geographical and scientific men and Antarctic committees were set up. Probably the most influential of these was The Joint Antarctic Committee of the Royal Society (RS) and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), based in London. Sir Clements Markham who masterminded the ‘Discovery’ expedition was Chair

In Scotland, increasing resentment of a ‘dictatorial’ attitude from London probably simmered for years and Bruce would have been aware of this as he worked with the men he so admired. Resentment would have definitely been exacerbated by a letter dated 14/11/89 (signed by the secretary of the RS Sir Michael Fowler, on behalf of his society and the RGS.) turning down, with no explanation, the request of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society to send a representative to the Antarctic Committee. Problems must have simmered again when in 1893, Sir Clements, who as President of the RGS had pitched his presidential address on the importance of Antarctic exploration, was followed fourteen days later, by John Murray, a noted geographer and Bruce’s mentor and friend, who laid a different emphasis on the priorities in Antarctic work. Murray gave a comprehensive history of Antarctic history and emphasised the need for research in all branches of science, but stated that he did not advocate ‘A dash to the South Pole’, nor ‘do I believe that this was what British Science, at the present time desires. It demands rather a steady, continuous, laborious and systematic exploration of the whole southern region’ Markham, a geographer disagreed. These disagreements and Murray’s conviction that the first expedition should be mainly oceanographic, led eventually to Murray resigning from the joint venture and supporting a Scottish expedition.

The personal fracture in relations between Bruce and Sir Clements Markham started in 1899 when Bruce applied to join the ‘Discovery’ expedition. He listed his considerable qualifications for the post (a summer in the Antarctic, three summers and one winter in the Arctic, a year on the summit of Ben Nevis) and he included details of his university training and he added that he would be happy to send a formal application accompanied by testimonials if required. Sir Clements replied that no decisions had been made as to staff but that he would be glad to meet Bruce.

Bruce did not meet Sir Clements in 1899. A message was sent to him a year later saying should apply for an assistant’s place on ‘Discovery’.

Bruce’s repeat application soured relations irreconcilably. He wrote that he had hopes of raising sufficient capital to lead a second British ship to Antarctica. Three days later he wrote to say that funding was assured. He said that the Scottish expedition would complement the British expedition.

It is difficult not to have some sympathy for Sir Clements. He had spent years canvassing, appealing, negotiating, scheming for the British Antarctic venture. He still needed more finance and he thought that Bruce’s monies should have been added to Discovery’s coffers. He felt betrayed, but his prickly, vitriolic response was bound to excite antipathy. ‘Sorry to hear that an attempt is to be made in Edinburgh to divert funds from the Antarctic Expedition in order to get up a rival enterprise’. ‘Such a course will be most prejudicial to the Expedition…I do not understand why this mischievous rivalry should have been started…’ ‘trust you will not connect yourself with it’.

Scottish attitudes hardened. In Bruce they had a scientist and explorer with more experience of Polar research than anyone in Britain. In June 1900, Bruce outlined his plans in the Scottish Geographical Magazine emphasising that the Scottish expedition would go to the Weddell Sea and be complementary to other expeditions (‘Discovery’ went to the Ross Sea).

Further correspondence with Sir Clements corroded any hope of meaningful rapprochement. Bruce could not understand why his expedition was considered a rival to ‘Discovery’. He was also a proud man and Sir Clements’ comments must have insulted him. Sir Clements wrote that Bruce had volunteered to join ‘Discovery’ and that he (Sir Clements), had the right to prior consultation.

Further correspondence did not heal the breach and Bruce developed an implacable life –long antagonist to Sir Clements and a conviction that an English based establishment dominated Scotland. He had good reason to resent Sir Clements and the influence he wielded. Ten years after Bruce had made his impressive expedition to Antarctica on the ‘Scotia’, Sir Clements wrote a remarkable letter in the Royal Geographical Journal saying that the work of the Scottish expedition was of no use as regards Antarctic discovery (the then President responded to Bruce’s protest by writing that views expressed were those of the author and that the society could not turn down a communication from a man of Sir Clements’ stature). Bruce also blamed Sir Clements for the failure of his expedition members to be awarded the prestigious Polar Medal. He considered till his dying day that Sir Clements had caused an estrangement between him and the RGS after the Scotia expedition. He became passionate about the Scottish cause and was convinced by the idea of Scottish independence