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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK
Scotland's polar hero remembered
William Speirs Bruce, BBC
The expedition was driven by science
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By Christine McGourty
BBC science correspondent
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Polar explorers like Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton are famous the world over for their heroic exploits in the Antarctic.


We remember Scott and we remember Shackleton because we like these glorious English failures and Bruce wasn't like that at all

Gordon MacPherson, composer
But there is another "Scot" of the Antarctic, who remains largely unknown, even in the country where he made his home.

William Speirs Bruce ran one of the most successful expeditions during what has since become known as the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration.

Now, there is a move to raise awareness of this scientist and adventurer, who headed up the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 100 years ago.

Very experienced

Bruce wanted a place on Britain's "Discovery" expedition - which was ultimately to be led by Scott, with Shackleton among the crew. He was snubbed by the organisers.

William Speirs Bruce, BBC
William Speirs Bruce: Succeeded where others failed
They delayed so long in making a decision on whether he should have a place that Bruce decided to run his own expedition instead.

Geoff Swinney of the Royal Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh, who is organising an exhibition on Bruce to open next year, says it was a mistake to overlook Bruce.

Unlike Scott and Shackleton, Bruce had actually been to Antarctica before, on a whaling expedition. He had a wealth of other experience, too.

Rival bid

"He worked for nearly a year at the meteorological station at the top of Ben Nevis, training himself in the methodology of recording weather and climate," Geoff Swinney told BBC News Online.


Bruce began to believe that polar exploration was becoming more of an adventure than a science

David Munro, Scottish Royal Geographical Society
"And following that, he then got the opportunity to go on a number of Arctic expeditions.

"So, by the time Britain was planning an Antarctic expedition, he was by far the best qualified person to be on that expedition, with a wealth of polar experience and polar condition experience."

Sir Clements Markham, of the Royal Geographical Society, was angered by Bruce's move to launch a rival expedition.

Bruce raised funds from the wealthy Coats family of Paisley, near Glasgow, and set off on the voyage he dubbed the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition.

Real science

He took a converted Norwegian whaling ship, which he named the Scotia. Unlike Scott, he had no interest in a race to the South Pole - his priority was to do original scientific research.

David Munro, president of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society, in Glasgow, said: "Bruce began to believe that polar exploration was becoming more of an adventure than a science and it was only the science he was interested in.

"From that point of view the expedition was a huge success - they discovered several hundred miles of previously unknown Antarctic continent, collected a wealth of geological and biological specimens and when they came back, published six volumes of scientific reports on their results."

The aim had been to establish a scientific research station on the continent, but bad weather prevented that.

Instead, they set it up on a sub-Antarctic Island, called Laurie Island, where scientists are still working today.

Penguin piper

A series of striking images remain from the voyage, including a classic photo of a piper in a kilt, apparently serenading a penguin on the ice.

William Speirs Bruce, BBC
The penguin was unmoved
"Bruce dressed up Gilbert Kerr, the ship's piper, in full Highland gear and got him out on the ice and produced a penguin," said David Munro.

"The idea was they were going to play it jigs, strathspeys, reels, slow marches, etc, and see if the penguin had any reaction.

"It stood unmoved. Of course, it's largely unmoved because it's tied to the foot of the piper."

The SRGS is mounting a two-year campaign to raise awareness of the expedition of the Scotia.

Climate change

They are trying to raise funds for another expedition to the Antarctic early next year, to celebrate the achievements of Bruce and continue the science he began in a series of research projects which will be carried out mainly on the island of South Georgia.

Laurie Island, further south, is more difficult to reach and the research possible there is more limited.

John Gordon, of Scottish Natural Heritage, is one of the scientists who will be leading that expedition.

"It will reflect the ideals of Bruce, rather than do a journey for the sake of it. We want to set out on an expedition that would produce serious scientific results.

"We've put together a team of about 10 scientists and they'll be doing a lot of glaciology, looking at past climatic conditions on the island.

"We want to investigate how the climate and environment on South Georgia has changed in the last 10-15,000 years, since the last glaciation."

English failure

As part of the Scotia celebrations, the Dundee-based composer Gordon MacPherson has been commissioned to write a symphony to be premiered in the summer.

The composer said Bruce had become bitter to some extent at being overlooked for the Discovery expedition and he had tried to capture the essence of how it must have felt to be so forgotten.

He said it was precisely because the expedition was so well run that Bruce was so little known today.

"There was a lack of drama to the voyage," said MacPherson. "It's not the sort of thing that would sell well in tabloid newspapers.

"We remember Scott and we remember Shackleton because we like these glorious English failures and Bruce wasn't like that at all because he was so well prepared for the trip."

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Christine McGourty
Bruce had more experience than Scott and Shackleton
See also:

09 Apr 02 | Arts
Shackleton prose thawed out
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