Recovering Scotland’s Antarctic Research and Literary Contributions

In the history and literature of Antarctica, Scotland and its people hold an anchored presence. One of the earlier crews to venture south, on 2 November 1902, was an all-Scottish expedition, intent on researching Antarctica in as much totality as possible, including climate, astronomy, meterology, botany, biology, geology, and geography. William Speirs Bruce was a polar scientist and oceanographer who organised and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition to the South Orkney Islands and the Weddell Sea, to Antarctica itself. Having been refused funding from Clement Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, who supported the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition instead, Bruce appealed for public donations to equip his voyage and expedition, and his success means that we have substantial Scottish pieces in early Antarctic literature, including the photographic book, Life in the Antarctic; the volume, The Voyage of the “Scotia”: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration in the Antarctic Seas, by Mossman, Pirie, and Rudmose-Brown (three of the expeditioners); the ship’s logs; and the meticulous diaries of one of the sailors, John MacMurchie. The present essay begins by focusing on The Voyage of the “Scotia”, as the authors’ disparate opinions and impressions of Antarctica offer a foundational account of the Scottish presence on that continent. This account is then compared with a much later memoir by another Scotsman, Gavin Francis’s 2013 book, Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins. As a physician at a research station for fourteen months, Francis’s perspectives on Antarctica are also marked by his distinctive Scottish voice and identity.

In 1902, at the time Bruce selected a nearly all-Scottish crew for his Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, the North Pole had already been conquered and the Englishmen, Scott and Shackleton, had made a voyage to the southern polar region in the previous year. Bruce chose as part of his team his fellow Scots, Robert Mossman, Dr James Harvie Pirie, and Robert Rudmose-Brown, who together both wrote and edited the volume, The Voyage of the “Scotia”: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration in the Antarctic Seas. The fourteen chapters of the book contain contributions that alternate amongst the three men and incorporate some of the other expedition members’ quotes and writings, too. Mossman was a meteorologist; Pirie was a geologist and bacteriologist, who also served as the medical officer; and Rudmose-Brown was the expedition’s botanist. In addition, the zoologist David Wilton and the Scotia’s captain, Thomas Robertson, and most of the other twenty-five officers and sailors were also Scottish, most of them accustomed to icy waters from working on Arctic whaling ships.

What perhaps stands out the most in The Voyage of the “Scotia” is the authors’ penchant for nature and their innate sense of curiosity. The book opens with a joint preface by Rudmose-Brown, Mossman, and Pirie, who state:

But if there is one note the authors would more gladly dwell on than another, it is the truly Scottish nature of this expedition. Germany, Sweden, and England, and later France, each had its own expedition, several of them largely aided by Government support. It remained for Scotland to show that as a nation her old spirit was still alive, and that she could stand beside the other nations and worthily take her place in this campaign of peace. It is was in this spirit that the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition was planned, organised, and carried through by its indefatigable leader, Mr. William S. Bruce. (xi)

As the volume proceeds, it becomes clear that the three main authors each has his own individual style and preferences. Dr Pirie’s first chapter brings us from Scotland to the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas, and is characterised by his typical dry humour: 

Sharks were occasionally caught when the ship was stopped for any purpose. No skill is required, merely a strong hook baited with a juicy morsel of pork, with a strong rope to haul up the victim. But keep at arm’s-length once he is on deck. Shark cutlets are tender enough, but just a trifle strong flavoured: if you don’t know what is being served up, it is all right. (40) 

Mossman’s contributions are marked by a charmingly descriptive style: 

Several icebergs were passed, the most characteristic being those of the tabular form, with perfectly smooth sides, as though they had been chiselled out of masses of beautiful alabaster. Others again, that had been exposed for some time to the action of the sea, were beautifully excavated into a series of lofty arches and deep caverns which sparkled in bright sunshine with many-coloured tints. (50) 

Mossman also frames his perceptions of Antarctica with regard to the flora and fauna of Scotland, in passages such as: ‘Until snow fall this ice is very difficult to ski over, as the snow-shoes will not slide over the surface, so that the foot has to be raised at each step, as in walking through heather’ (62). 

The third co-author, Rudmose-Brown, has a tendency towards poetic passages: 

I can imagine nothing more perfectly beautiful that the glittering snow-tipped ranges rising in a sea of peaks into the blue sky, perhaps with its veil of soft fleecy clouds, while around one on the sea-level runs a line of bright azure-blue ice-cliffs, clear cut or crumbling into fairy caverns, or on the verge of tumbling in huge titanic blocks on to the undulating plain of sea-ice stretching to the horizon. (77) 

He continues shortly thereafter:

The evening and early morning colours are not for a pen to describe: it requires the magic touch of an artist’s brush to paint those deep violets on the ice-floe at evening, or the delicate blush o’erspreading the snowy ranges at sunset, or still more, those amazing skies which, tinged with every color of the rainbow, are one of the greatest wonders of the Antarctic,―itself a world of wonders. (78)

Amongst the three authors, there are numerous entertaining observations about food, clothing, and shelter, but here I focus passages that address the South Orkney Islands. The members of this Scottish expedition spent many hours discussing the ownership of these Antarctic islands, named in 1823 by their compatriot James Weddell, from Leith, after whom the Weddell Sea is named. Rudmose Brown recounts that ‘we arrived at the pleasing conclusion that even in this age of imperialism the South Orkneys had escaped the grasp of any country, and that we enjoyed the privilege of living in No-man’s Land’ (78–79). 

That the Scottish explorers express pleasure that they could not claim the South Orkneys for Britain without a government mandate seems a salient and telling fact and presages the much later Antarctic Treaty System of 1961, which clearly states that ‘No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica.’

The Treaty remains in force until 2048. If the members of this Scottish expedition resisted the aspirations of European imperialism, in 1903, a team nevertheless disembarked and built a metereological observing-station on Laurie Island, one of the South Orkneys, and naming it Omond House, after Mr R. T. Omond of Edinburgh, who had been responsible for the establishment of a meteorological station on Ben Nevis. By the time the ship returned to the South Orkneys, in 1904, Omond House had been sold to the government of Argentina, and the new Argentine staff relieved six members of the expedition who had wintered over. The establishment of Omond House remains an important Scottish accomplishment, as it is still the longest running scientific base in Antarctica. Other traces of the expedition remain, perhaps most charmingly, in an iconic photograph, ‘The Penguin and the Piper’, taken when the Scotia became trapped temporarily in the ice-pack. The expedition bagpiper Gilbert Kerr proceeded to play different styles of music to a penguin, in order to see its reactions. 

The experiences recounted by the members of the Scotia expedition presage those recounted by Dr Gavin Francis in Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins. Born in Fife in 1975, Francis was selected by the British Antarctic Survey to be the medical officer at Halley Station for fourteen months, and he arrived there on Christmas Eve 2002. As nearly a century had passed by, certain aspects life in Antarctica, such as food and heating, in Antarctica had improved greatly, though others, such as outdoor clothing, remained surprisingly unchanged. Francis in his writing shows a familiarity with the earlier Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, as well as to other pioneering explorers. His distinctively Scottish perspective is evident in his descriptions of the aurora australis: ‘To the Scots it is their movement that most inspires: they call them “the merry dancers”’ (125). 

Francis overall proves himself a worthy heir to the introspective and philosophical observations of his predecessors. He details astronomical phenomena in vivid detail, and he consistently appeals to religious metaphors to convey is near-spiritual impressions of the ‘purity and immensity’ (27) of icebergs: ‘There was something architectural about them; fairy-tale castles sculpted into turrets and spires. One looked like the Gothic cathedral of Milan, lolling lopsided into a gleaming piazza of sea ice’ (29).

A major theme in Francis’s book, unlike those of his predecessors, is his beloved emperor penguins. After a winter’s separation, Francis returns in spring to visit the emperor penguin colony:

We were engulfed by the emperors. To my eye they seemed sun-happy, delirious with pride and relief. One by one they waddled up and, pointing with their beaks towards their toes, hoisted the brood fold of their bellies to show me the grey-fluff squealing treasure inside. I saw shattered eggs discarded on the ice like Houdini’s ropes, and some eggs turned prematurely to tombs. There were little corpses, too, isolated and drifting over with snow, of those chicks whose mothers had not returned in time. (196)

The diverse accounts of Scots in Antarctica prompt readers to address fundamental questions: we ask ourselves, What is our Antarctic? What do we battle, nearly hopelessly, yearning to surmount? For those aboard the Scotia, sometimes it was a strong gale, such as the one they endured for a week in March 1903, and Mossman writes, ‘Needless to say, the prospect of a quiet night after such a trying week as we had experienced was much appreciated, and there were few on board who did not sleep the sleep of the just on this occasion’ (71). 

For Francis, 

[S]ublime landscapes can teach us a lesson that we might otherwise only learn through hardships: that the universe is unimaginably vast, that we are relatively small and fragile, that we must accept our limitations, and get on with enjoying the magnificent aspects of being alive (101). 

The glimpses presented in this short essay, I hope, will encourage others to explore the Scottish voice and presence in Antarctic literature and scientific research out of the shadows and into the spotlight.


References & Further Information

Brown, R. N. Rudmose, J. H. H. Pirie, and R. C. Mossman. The Voyage of the “Scotia”: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration in the Antarctic Seas. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978; Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1906. 

Francis, Gavin. Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2013;  London: Chatto and Windus, 2014.

Pynchon, Thomas. V. New York, NY: Perennial Classics, 1999. (Retrieved 8.1.2022).


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Ellen Frye

Dr Ellen Cressman Frye is a tenured professor at the William Paterson University of New Jersey, and her field of specialisation is Renaissance and Baroque literature of Spain.

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