Scottish Antarctic expedition led by William Speirs Bruce is an artistic inspiration – Annie Broadley

One hundred and twenty years ago, an Edinburgh man, William Speirs Bruce, was in the throes of organising an expedition to Antarctica.

Part of Annie Broadley's painting Night, Laurie Island, showing The Scotia at anchor (Picture courtesy of Annie Broadley)

The preparations including the conversion of an ex-Norwegian whaler, renamed The Scotia, took a further ten months before, in November 1902, the expedition finally left Glasgow on the first leg of the 7,000-mile journey to Antarctica.

Bruce, a polar scientist and naturalist, recruited men qualified in all the disciplines required for collecting and analysing significant data. Also on board were a piper and an artist.

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Despite a long-standing interest in Antarctica, I didn’t know about the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition until recently. When I came across it and read the Captain’s log in the National Library of Scotland, I was amazed it hadn’t had more recognition.

I am a painter and at the time was preparing for an art exhibition based on a visit to Antarctica. On learning about Bruce’s expedition, I added a number of paintings inspired by the entries in The Scotia’s log.

It is filled with meticulous daily recordings of water salinity, temperature and depth, notes of biological specimens found and fossils extracted, descriptions of land surveyed and mapped, and equipment used.

It describes in detail the building of a meteorological station, Omond House on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys where they established their headquarters. My painting Night, Laurie Island, Antarctica 1903 shows The Scotia moored in the bay, illuminated only by the moon and the light from Omond House.

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It is the description of everyday life, however, that fascinates me. The accounts of working in extreme conditions and navigating uncharted ice-filled seas are both gruelling and terrifying. I noticed with amusement that porridge was a breakfast staple while woollen garments and tweeds kept them warm – surely Scotland was custom-made for such an Antarctic journey!

Eight dogs formed part of the expedition but only Russ leaps large as life from the page. He was as integral a part of the crew as the human members and was held in certain esteem as his nickname “Sir John” demonstrates.

An entry for March 26, 1903, says, “Sir John (otherwise Russ) went ashore with us and had a great time with penguins, thoroughly tiring himself out”. The log doesn’t say how the penguins felt about this encounter!

The following day Russ disappeared. They had given up hope of his return, then 12 days later he came back “rather thin but in good condition” and very hungry. The log records that “as a special privilege he was allowed into the cabin but got ejected at 2.30am”. It doesn’t specify why, but I do wonder whether this precipitous expulsion might have been a result of nocturnal gastric disturbances brought on by unstable eating habits over the period of his absence!

Russ survived the expedition and returned to Scotland with the others on July 21, 1904.

One man, however, did not return, with the first engineer Alan Ramsay dying of a pre-existing heart condition in August 1903 . He was buried on Laurie Island on a clear, crisp day with the piper playing The Flowers of the Forest.

The following poignant passage by J H Pirie, the ship’s doctor, is taken from the book The Voyage of the Scotia, a fascinating account written by three members of the expedition: “There are those, I know, who envy him his last resting-place beneath the shadow of the ice-capped hill that is named after him, where throughout the ages the sea-birds wheel in their restless flight, and the waves crash on the shore... and there is stillness deep as death.”

The British government gave no support to the expedition so all its finances had to be raised by public subscription. Coats, the Scottish textile merchants, were principal benefactors and their generosity was acknowledged by Bruce when, on discovering new territory on the Antarctic continent, he immortalised them by naming it Coats Land.

Bruce offered Britain sovereignty of Laurie and the surrounding islands, including possession of the meteorological station, but received the following reply: “Their Lordships do not attach any importance to the possession of these islands from a Naval point of view. It does not appear that they would ever be of any value.” Argentina took over Omond House, rechristening it Orcadas. Still in operation, it is the oldest manned weather station in Antarctica.

Summer 1903 arrived and, leaving six men on Laurie Island, The Scotia set off for Buenos Aires to restock for the coming winter. My painting, Rounding the headland, is based on their struggle to sail around Cape Corrientes point. It took them four days of “tacking to and fro” before the wind direction changed allowing them to proceed.

It is difficult to imagine such a journey without modern technology. Buenos Aires was the closest place with telegraph cables, although the Falkland Islands had a postal service. When The Scotia returned via the Falklands to Laurie Island in February 1904, the men got their first letters from home – 13 month’s worth all at once.

Evenings were spent in reading, discussion, or recounting anecdotes. About Bill – “a born raconteur” – Pirie comments that to have lived all the experiences he told them about would have made him at least 143 years old!

Bruce wanted to show Scotland could hold her own by mounting an impressive, well-organised expedition, which he undoubtedly did. The expedition members, however, were never awarded the Polar Medal.

Although the then government refused to acknowledge their achievements, history records a different verdict. Peter Speak, of the Polar Research Institute, called it “the most successful of the smaller polar expeditions” producing “scientific results of the highest order as well as discovering new land on the Antarctic continent”.

I would love to increase public awareness of it by mounting an exhibition of my paintings about the expedition, together with extracts from the Captain’s log and photographs taken at the time.

Annie Broadley is a well-known Scottish artist

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