Historian Jo Woolf, writer in Residence for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, explores the history of William Speirs Bruce - a Scottish scientist and polar explorer - and how he left his mark on the world.

At 100 Princes Street we will pay homage to Edinburgh's rich history and take inspiration from the explorers who put 100 Princes Street on the map. In design, our teams will look to create a 'sense of place', working with local artisans to create bespoke pieces and feature a mural honouring the adventures of several great Scottish explorers by Croxford & Saunders. Read more about this rich history below.

On the morning of 2nd November 1902, a three-masted ship, barque-rigged, sailed out of Troon in Ayrshire to the strains of bagpipes and much fluttering of handkerchiefs among the spectators who lined the shore. Her name was Scotia, and she was bound for the Southern Ocean. On board was William Speirs Bruce, a scientist and polar explorer; with him were 33 men, constituting the scientists, officers and crew of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition.

William Speirs Bruce

William Speirs Bruce

Did Scotland really have its own Antarctic expedition in the ‘heroic age’ of polar exploration, alongside Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton? The answer is yes, it did. William Speirs Bruce might not be a household name, but he is worthy of a place in the history books for many reasons. He was a proud patriot, a gifted scientist, and a tireless campaigner. He was also, as his men would find out, a fair and generous leader.

Born in 1867, the fourth child of a physician with a practice in London, Bruce studied medicine at Edinburgh University and in his free time he worked on the oceanographical specimens that had been brought back by HMS Challenger on her four-year voyage around the world. Fuelled by the enthusiasm and knowledge of Sir John Murray, who had served as a naturalist on that expedition, Bruce’s interest shifted gradually from medicine to natural history.

William Speirs Bruce

William Speirs Bruce

On impulse, while he was still a student, Bruce signed up as ship’s surgeon on a whaling expedition in the Antarctic. The whaling aspect disgusted him, but at the same time it was a unique and valuable opportunity: in the late 1800s, very few people had the chance to travel to the Antarctic, and Bruce enjoyed his first experience of genuine scientific research. When he returned to Scotland, all Bruce could think about was how he was going to get back to the Antarctic. To his friend, the geographer Hugh Robert Mill, he wrote: ‘I am burning to be off again anywhere, but particularly to the far South, where I believe there is a vast sphere for research.’

Keen to pursue his goal, Bruce learned to sledge and ski. Despite his rather stooping gait he was extremely fit and could walk 60 miles in a day. To gain experience of living and working in an icy climate, he took a job in the meteorological station on the summit of Ben Nevis. This high-level observatory had been opened in 1883 and its occupants braved extreme conditions, being cut off from the outside world for months during the winter. Then, during the last few years of the 19th century, Bruce joined a couple of oceanographical expeditions to islands within the Arctic Circle. When he came back, he was completely ready for his own polar challenge.

Bruce was not alone in his dreams. There was an awakening of interest in the Antarctic, both in Britain and abroad. The Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache had spent a year in Antarctic waters on board his ship, and shortly afterwards the Oslo-born Carsten Borchgrevink had over-wintered on the Antarctic continent. Britain was planning her own national expedition, under the leadership of Robert Falcon Scott. Much emphasis was placed on scientific discovery, but among competing nations there was also an increasing sense of urgency to be the first at the South Pole.

With his skills and experience, Bruce knew that he was an ideal candidate to join the much-anticipated British National Antarctic Expedition. Organised jointly by the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, this was scheduled to leave Britain in 1901. But what happened next was a result either of bad timing or mis-matched personalities - or most likely both. In 1899, Bruce wrote to Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, putting himself forward as an applicant. Markham sent a non-committal reply, inviting Bruce to visit him in person when he was next in London. This Bruce failed to do; meanwhile Markham sent, via a third party, a message to Bruce advising him to apply for a post as assistant on the expedition. Bruce didn’t see why he should repeat his first application and sent a cordial reply in which he added some referees - impressive names, including Prince Albert I of Monaco and Fridtjof Nansen. He concluded his missive with something of a bombshell: he was hopeful of raising funds for his own expedition to the Antarctic.

Scottish National Antarctic Expedition flag stitched by Bruce’s wife

Scottish National Antarctic Expedition flag, stitched by Bruce’s wife, Jessie (courtesy RSGS Collections)

Markham was outraged, and denounced Bruce’s plan as a rival undertaking. Bruce, of course, was a staunch Scottish patriot, and the expedition would fly the Scottish flag. A rather heated exchange of correspondence followed, which only served to crystallise Bruce’s intentions. He had some powerful contacts of his own, among them experienced scientists and enthusiastic sponsors. He purchased a vessel from Norway and sailed it down the Caledonian Canal to Troon, where it was re-fitted and converted into an expedition vessel, complete with a laboratory. He hired officers and seamen, many of whom were experienced sailors in the polar regions. Backed by some wealthy patrons, among them the Coats brothers of Paisley, and supported by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition was ready to depart.

William Speirs Bruce and his crew

Bruce (legs crossed) and some of Scotia’s crew (courtesy RSGS Collections)

By the end of March 1903, Scotia was stuck fast in the ice around the South Orkney Islands, a small archipelago about 375 miles north-east of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship was well-prepared for the rigours of being trapped in sea ice, having been strengthened with timbers 25 inches thick. With the Antarctic winter approaching, Bruce and his men set about building a land base for their expedition on the shore of Laurie Island. Designed very much like a traditional Highland bothy, it was stone-built, roofed with timber and lined with canvas; inside were beds and living quarters, as well as an array of scientific equipment. They called it Omond House, after Robert Traill Omond who had founded the observatory on Ben Nevis.

Scotia in ice

Scotia trapped in ice (courtesy RSGS Collections)

Dividing their time between the ship and the bothy, Bruce and his men embarked on a demanding routine of scientific observation and investigation. They examined the Antarctic’s climate, geology, flora and fauna; regular, timed observations were made throughout the day and night, with the men working in shifts. In their leisure time, they entertained themselves by reading, playing games on the ice, and putting on theatrical shows; every evening the expedition’s piper, Gilbert Kerr, walked around the decks playing traditional Scottish airs.

Gilbert Kerr and penguin

Gilbert Kerr serenading an Emperor penguin (courtesy RSGS Collections)

Special events, such as birthdays, called for a wee dram, and on midwinter day it was time to crack open one of the barrels of porter that had been kindly donated by the Guinness brewery in Dublin. No one bothered to wonder why the men got drunk so quickly; they were all too busy having a good time. It was only afterwards that someone looked inside the barrel and discovered that the water content had frozen, leaving behind only alcohol. That hilarious evening was remembered forever after as ‘the night of the porter supper.’

Scotia's laboratory

Scotia’s laboratory (courtesy RSGS Collections)

Isolation, combined with prolonged and inescapable proximity, has often resulted in tension among the crew on long polar expeditions. Although Bruce acknowledged some ‘tiffs’, these were relatively minor. In his log, he reported that everybody ‘tried to forget and forgive… and to acknowledge by his actions that perhaps he has been as liable to error as his temporary opponent.’ The men were dedicated to their work, and they were in good physical shape; the only sad loss was Allan Ramsay, the chief engineer, who died of a previously undetected heart complaint and was buried on Laurie Island.

Scotia expedition base

Omond House, the expedition base on Laurie Island (courtesy RSGS Collections)

In November, when the pack ice began to break up, Scotia set sail for Buenos Aires. Bruce had left six men behind in the South Orkneys, tasked with maintaining regular recordings. In his telegrams to the British Admiralty and Foreign Office, he reported their success: 4,000 miles of ocean had been explored, and they had plumbed depths of up to 2,700 fathoms. A meteorological station had been set up, and its work was well under way. He felt sure that all of this would be of interest to the British government.

But Bruce received a decidedly lukewarm reply, and he therefore turned to the Argentinian government for support in continuing his scientific work. When he returned to the South Orkneys, he took with him a small team of Argentinian scientists to relieve some of the men in the bothy. The ship sailed on, reaching a ‘furthest south’ of 74°01’. As they skirted Coats Land, which he named after his sponsors, Bruce called for champagne and cigars to be handed round. Then they set sail for home, calling at Cape Town, St Helena, Ascension Island and Dún Laoghaire. With pennants fluttering triumphantly, and a flotilla of small ships blowing their whistles in welcome, they entered the Firth of Clyde on 21st July 1904.

Scotia's homecoming

Scotia’s homecoming in the Firth of Clyde (courtesy RSGS Collections)

At Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae, Bruce and his men were given a hero’s welcome. Sir John Murray read out a telegram of congratulations from King Edward VII and presented Bruce with the Gold Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Thomas Robertson, the ship’s captain and a superb ice-master, received the Silver Medal. Speeches were made, and four hundred people sat down to a celebratory lunch. (Out of interest, the Secretary of RSGS, who also attended the event and was no doubt impressed by Bruce’s achievement, was Sir Ernest Shackleton.) 

Scotia's crew

Bruce and his men in Coats Land (courtesy RSGS Collections)

Bruce had indeed excelled himself. In addition to surveys of previously uncharted land and ocean, his expedition brought back a wealth of natural history specimens, including seven new genera and at least 24 new species. His records and specimens were later housed in the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory, which was officially opened in January 1907 by Prince Albert I of Monaco, himself an experienced oceanographer. Bruce campaigned for his men to be awarded the Polar Medal for their efforts, and when he was unsuccessful he paid for a specially-designed medal to be struck in silver for members of the Scotia expedition.

Kerr medal

Bruce’s silver medal awarded to Scotia’s bagpiper Gilbert Kerr. It shows a picture of Omond House (courtesy RSGS Collections).

For a self-effacing man who disliked public attention, Bruce has left an impressive legacy. He was a founder of the Scottish Ski Club and became its first President. He co-founded Edinburgh Zoo, and some penguins which he brought back from Antarctica were among its first residents. Scotia’s crew took the first ever moving pictures of the Antarctic, which were of penguins in the South Orkneys. And he established the first ever meteorological station in the Antarctic: it has since moved house, but its records have continued uninterrupted to the present day.

Bruce preferred to keep his emotions private, but some insights into his personality were shared by his closest friends. He was, according to H R Mill, ‘a shy gentle fellow with appealing eyes... always ready to do a kindness to anyone.’ The naturalist J Arthur Thomson wrote: ‘We never heard him once grumble about himself, though he was neither to hold or bend when he thought some injustice was being done to, or slight cast on, his men, on his colleagues, on his laboratory, on his Scotland. Then one got glimpses of the volcano which his gentle spirit usually kept sleeping.’


Peter Speak, William Speirs Bruce (2003)
W S Bruce, Polar Exploration (1911)
Robert Mossman, James Pirie, Robert Rudmose Brown, The Voyage of the Scotia (1906)
Scottish Geographical Magazine