Scotsman 200: Captain Scott's work for science

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, we are dipping into our archives to bring you a selection of some of the greatest stories ever told over the last two centuries. The following edited extract assesses what was achieved in Captain Scott's journey to the South Pole, in the opinion of Scottish polar scientist William Speirs Bruce.

Captain Scott leads a sleigh party over the ice.  Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Captain Scott leads a sleigh party over the ice. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Dr WS Bruce, the well known Scottish authority on the Polar regions, writes:

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Antarctic exploration has suffered a heavy blow with the bad news that has reached the civilised world reporting the disaster to Captain Scott’s Expedition, which has cost him his life as well as the lives of his four companions.

Antarctic exploration has been singularly clear of any disaster of the kind. Some of the severest hardships experienced by human beings from the time of Captain Cook of 1773 up to the present day have been experienced by Antarctic explorers, but on every occasion they have come through triumphantly out of even almost insuperable difficulties. Consequently, the blow has been heavier because it was thought that Captain Scott and his companions would overcome all those difficulties, as his predecessors had done before him. One of the reasons for immunity from disaster has been that nothing in the way of winter work was done before the gallant Belgian expedition wintered in the Antarctic during 1899 and 1900, and that nothing in the way of extensive sledge journeys was done until Captain Scott himself initiated them in the winter of 1901-1902.

Captain Scott, indeed, was the pioneer of interior land work in the Antarctic regions, and in this work he was ably supported by Captain [Albert] Armitage, who was the pioneer of high altitude land work there. Captain Scott was the first to push southward to a high latitude on the land reaching 82° 17’ S. in December 1902. The following season Scott made a fine journey to the westward on the high inland plateau, following Armitage’s track and going considerably further to the west. The route that Scott selected to the south was followed by Sir Ernest Shackleton, who made his magnificent record, reaching within 100 miles of the South Pole. Following his former companion’s track, and gaining by his own and Shackleton’s experiences, Scott set out again last winter to reach the Pole itself, and succeeded in his aim on 18 January 1912.

Unfortunately, disaster has met him on his return journey. It is said that a blizzard has overtaken his party and himself, but it seems probable that there must have been some other cause which weakened the resistance of Captain Scott and his companions to such a blizzard. This may have been due to a shortage of provisions, or it may have been due to an undermining of their strength by an outbreak of scurvy, for the return party appears to have suffered from this dire complaint.

Reaching the South Pole on January 18, Scott probably began his return journey almost immediately. He found the tent and other material Amundsen had left, and proceeded northward. Evans died of a fractured skull on February 17, and Captain Oates on March 17. Scott, Wilson and Bowers pushed on to within 11 miles of One Ton Camp, where a ton of provisions was stored, about 155 miles south of Cape Evans, the headquarters of the expedition.

The weather experienced by Shackleton and Scott seems to have been of a severer nature than that experienced by Captain Amundsen, although probably the skill which any Norwegian party would have in the use of ski must have made travelling for them over those same regions infinitely lighter. Captain Amundsen also seemed to have had a finer equipment of dogs than any other Antarctic expedition has ever had, which has also told in his favour.

Be that as it may, had not some untoward event happened such as I have indicated, Scott, with the fine equipment that he had, would certainly have accomplished the journey to the Pole and back to McMurdo Bay.

It seems certain from the news, meagre as it is, that has reached us that the records of Captain Scott and his companions have been saved, as undoubtedly both he and his companions would consider their last duty to Polar exploration was to leave behind them the record of work done. These records cannot fail to add much to the knowledge of the interior Antarctic continent that will be of extreme value, not only to future explorers, but to those who are undertaking at the present day systematic scientific survey of all Antarctic exploration, and the scientific work that has been done in South Polar regions during the last 20 years. These observations that have been taken cannot fail to enhance the value of other observations taken in different parts of the Antarctic region during the same period, especially in respect to meteorology and magnetism.

The combined results of Scott’s, Amundsen’s, [Douglas] Mawson’s and [Wilhelm] Filchner’s expeditions in different parts of the South Polar regions working synchronously, as well as those observations being taken by the Argentine at Scotia Bay, must add much to our knowledge not only of the meteorology and magnetism of the Antarctic Region, but also of the meteorology and magnetism of the whole world, and more especially the southern hemisphere.

In Polar exploration Captain Scott was a capable leader, esteemed by his officers and men, as was shown by the fact that many of those who accompanied him on his first expedition have followed him again during his present one. Notably we may mention Dr EA Wilson, who has perished with him, and who distinguished himself in his zoological work during the voyage of the Discovery, and who brought back some exceptionally beautiful pictures, which gave us a vivid idea of the colour of the Antarctic birds collected by the Discovery in one of the most important monographs in the scientific reports of that expedition.

Captain Scott was well known in Scotland, for he paid frequent visits during the building of the Discovery, and he not only lectured to the four centres of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, but was also entertained by that Society on his return from his first expedition, and received the high honour from that Society in the form of the Livingstone gold medal. In Antarctic circles Captain Scott’s death removes a distinguished explorer, who has added much to the annals of Antarctic discovery, and who, had he been spared, would probably have still made more important discoveries. The sympathy of all will be extended to his widow and infant son in their bereavement.

The full version of this story is available at the Scotsman Digital Archive