The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (SNAE) took place between 1902 and 1904 and is one of the lesser known endeavours of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Although overshadowed in terms of prestige by Robert Falcon Scott's concurrent Discovery Expedition, the SNAE completed a full programme of exploration and scientific work. Its achievements included the establishment of a manned meteorological station, the first in Antarctic territory, and the discovery of new land to the east of the Weddell Sea.
The expedition was organised and led by William Speirs Bruce, a natural scientist and former medical student from the University of Edinburgh. Bruce had spent most of the 1890s engaged on expeditions to the Antarctic and Arctic regions and by 1899 was Britain's most experienced polar scientist. In March of that year, he applied to join the Discovery Expedition; however, his proposal to extend that expedition's field of work into the Weddell Sea quadrant using a second ship was dismissed as "mischievous rivalry" by Royal Geographical Society (RGS) president Sir Clements Markham.
The rebuttal drove Bruce to seek independent finance and so the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition was born, funded by the wealthy Coats family and supported and promoted by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In late 1901, Bruce purchased a Norwegian whaler named Hekla. During the following months, the ship was completely rebuilt as an Antarctic research vessel, with two laboratories, a darkroom, and extensive specialist equipment. The hull was reinforced to withstand the pressures of Antarctic ice, and the ship was re-rigged as a barque with auxiliary engines. Renamed Scotia, the ship was ready for her sea trials in August 1902.
The expedition's scientific staff consisted of six persons, including Bruce. The zoologist was David Wilton, the botanist Robert Rudmose-Brown, the geologist and medical officer John Murray and Alastair Ross was the taxidermist. Thomas Robertson was appointed as the Scotia's captain. Robertson was an experienced Antarctic and Arctic sailor who had commanded the whaling ship Active on the Dundee Whaling Expedition. The rest of the 25 officers and men, who signed for three-year engagements, were all Scotsmen, many used to sailing in icy waters on whaling voyages.
The expedition’s objectives included the establishment of a winter station "as near to the South Pole as is practicable", deep sea and other research of the Antarctic Ocean, and systematic observations and research of meteorology, geology, biology, topography and terrestrial physics. The essentially Scottish character of the expedition was expressed in The Scotsman shortly before departure:
"The leader and all the scientific and nautical members of the expedition are Scots; the funds have been collected for the most part on this side of the Border; it is a product of voluntary effort, and unlike the expedition which will be simultaneously employed in the exploration of the Antarctic, it owes nothing to Government help".
The Scotia left Troom on November 2nd 1902, arriving in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands on January 6th 1903, where she was re-provisioned for the Antarctic journey ahead. She sail for Antarctic waters on January 26th and by February 3rd was having to manoeuvre round heavy pack ice some 25 mikes north of the South Orkney Islands. The next day however the Scotia was able to move southward and landed a small party on Saddle Island, where a large number of botanical and geological specimens were gathered. Ice conditions prevented any further progress until February 10th, though the Scotia was able to enter the Weddell Sea and reach as far south as 70°25′S.
Winter was now on its way and the crew needed somewhere to hunker down. They decided to head back north to the South Orkney Islands and found safe anchorage at Laurie Island on March 25th, settling into ice some 400 metres from shore. She was then converted into winter quarters and Bruce set about instituting a comprehensive programme of work involving meteorological readings, trawling for marine samples, botanical excursions, and the collection of biological and geological specimens. A permanent shelter was also constructed, which would act as a meteorological station and living accommodation for those who would remain on the island. The 6x6 metre dry-stone building was christened 'Omond House' after Robert Omond, director of the Edinburgh Observatory and a supporter of the expedition.
While the party were generally in excellent health, Allan Ramsey, the ship’s engineer, died on August 6th and was buried on the island. He had been taken ill with a heart condition early in the journey and had grown steadily weaker as winter progressed.
The Scotia remained icebound throughout September and October and it was not until November 23rd that strong winds broke up the bay ice, allowing her to float free. Four days later she departed for Port Stanley, leaving a party of six under Robert Mossman at Omond House.
The expedition reached Port Stanley on December 2nd and a week later departed for Buenos Aires where the Scotia could be repaired and re-provisioned. While there Bruce arranged for the Argentine government to assume responsibility for the Laurie Island meteorological station after the expedition's departure. The British Foreign Office raised no objection to this so it was confirmed that three scientific assistants of the Argentine government would travel back to Laurie Island to work for a year as the first stage of an annual arrangement. He then formally handed over the Omond House building, its furnishings and provisions, and all magnetic and meteorological instruments, to the Argentine government. The station, renamed Orcadas Base, has remained operational ever since, having been rebuilt and extended several times.
The Scotia left for Laurie Island on January 21st 1904, arriving on February 14th. A week later, having settled the meteorological party, who were to be relieved a year later by the Argentine gunboat Uruguay, Scotia set sail for her second voyage to the Weddell Sea. No pack ice was encountered before they were south of the Antarctic Circle, and they were able to proceed smoothly until March 3rd when heavy pack ice stopped the ship at 72°18'S, 17°59'W. A sounding was taken, revealing a sea-depth of 1,131 fathoms (2,068 m), compared to the 2,500 fathoms (4,600 m) which had been the general measurement up to that date. This suggested that they were approaching land. A few hours later, they reached an ice barrier, which blocked progress towards the south-east. Over the following days, they tracked the edge of this barrier southwards for some 240 km. The outline of land soon became faintly visible, and Bruce named it Coats Land after his chief sponsors. This was the first positive indicator of the eastern limits of the Weddell Sea at high latitude, and suggested that the sea might be considerably smaller than had been previously supposed. A planned visit to Coats Land by a sledging party was abandoned by Bruce because of the state of the sea ice.
On March 9th 1904 Scotia reached its most southerly latitude of 74°01'S. At this point, the ship was held fast in the pack ice, and the prospect loomed of becoming trapped for the winter. It was during this period of inactivity that bagpiper Gilbert Kerr was photographed serenading a penguin. On March 13th the ship broke free and began to move slowly north-eastward under steam. Throughout this part of the voyage a regular programme of depth soundings, trawls, and sea-bottom samples provided a comprehensive record of the oceanography and marine life of the Weddell Sea.
Scotia headed for Cape Town by a route that took it to Gough Island, an isolated mid-Atlantic volcanic projection that had never been visited by a scientific party. On April 21st, Bruce and five others spent a day ashore, collecting specimens. The ship arrived in Cape Town on May 6th. After carrying out further research work in the Saldanha Bay area, Scotia sailed for home on May 21st.
The expedition was warmly received on its return to the Clyde on July 21st 1904. A formal reception for 400 people was held at the Marine Biological Station, Millport, at which John Murray read a telegram of congratulation from King Edward VII. Bruce was presented with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's Gold Medal, and Captain Robertson with the silver medal.
Following the expedition, more than 1,100 species of animal life, 212 of them previously unknown to science, were catalogued; there was no official acknowledgement from London, where under the influence of Markham the work of the SNAE tended to be ignored or denigrated. Its members were not awarded the prestigious RGS Polar Medals, which were bestowed on members of the Discovery Expedition when it returned home two months after Scotia. Bruce fought unavailingly for years to right what he considered a grave injustice, a slight on his country and on his expedition. Some of the aversion of the London geographical establishment may have arisen from Bruce's overt Scottish nationalism, reflected in his own prefatory note to Rudmose Brown's expedition history, in which he said:
"While Science was the talisman of the Expedition, Scotland was emblazoned on its flag; and it may be that, in endeavouring to serve humanity by adding another link to the golden chain of science, we have also shown that the nationality of Scotland is a power that must be reckoned with".
A significant consequence of the expedition was the establishment by Bruce, in Edinburgh, of the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory, which was formally opened by Prince Albert of Monaco in 1906. The Laboratory served as a repository for the large collection of biological, zoological and geological specimens amassed during the Scotia voyages, and also during Bruce's earlier Arctic and Antarctic travels. Although Bruce continued to visit the Arctic for scientific and commercial purposes, he never led another Antarctic expedition, his plans for a transcontinental crossing being stifled through lack of funding. The SNAE scientific reports took many years to complete; most were published between 1907 and 1920, but one volume was delayed until 1992. A proposal to convert the Laboratory into a permanent Scottish National Oceanographic Institute failed to come to fruition and, because of difficulties with funding, Bruce was forced to close it down in 1919. He died two years later, aged 54.
The expedition ship Scotia was requisitioned during the Great War, and saw service as a freighter. On January 18th 1916 she caught fire, and was burned out on a sandbank in the Bristol Channel. One hundred years after Bruce, a 2003 expedition, in a modern version of Scotia, used information collected by the SNAE as a basis for examining climate change in South Georgia during the past century. This expedition asserted that its contribution to the international debate on global warming would be a fitting testament to the SNAE's pioneering research.
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