Encyclopaedia: Scottish National Antarctic Expedition

A contribution which Claire and I wrote for Antarctica and the Arctic Circle: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Earth’s Polar Regions.

The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition explored and performed scientific work in Antarctica between 1902 and 1904. This expedition was novel because it was organized and led by a natural scientist, and science was thus a priority. William Bruce (1867–1921) was a former medical student with an interest in the natural sciences, particularly oceanography. He had his first taste of the Antarctic on a whaling voyage in 1892 and subsequently went on several trips to the Arctic. Bruce had applied to join the Discovery Expedition and, after receiving no response, proposed a second ship for this expedition. This proposal was rejected. As a result, he set about obtaining private funding for an independent Scottish expedition.

Bruce secured a substantial donation from the Coats family, with which he purchased a Norwegian whaling vessel. This ship was extensively modified, with the addition of scientific laboratories and diverse experimental equipment. Its hull was reinforced, and auxiliary engines were added. Upon completion, she was renamed Scotia. The expedition scientists consisted of an oceanographer, zoologist, botanist, taxidermist, geologist, and physicist. These positions, as well as the captain, officers, and crew of the Scotia, were all filled by Scotsmen.

Scotia departed from Scotland on November 2, 1902, reaching the Falkland Islands on January 6, 1903. There she took on provisions and soon afterward left for the Southern Ocean. The first stop was at the South Orkney Islands, where botanical and geological samples were taken. Toward the end of February 1903, the Scotia had reached 70° S, but as the sea began to freeze over, she was forced to retreat northward, returning to overwinter at Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. During the winter, the scientific program commenced in earnest. A stone building, Ormond House, was constructed on the island, to serve as accommodation for the meteorological station that was to be established there.

Toward the end of November 1903, the ice holding the Scotia broke up, and she departed again for the Falkland Islands and hence to Buenos Aires for provisions and repairs. A small party was left at Ormond House. Bruce persuaded the Argentinean government to support the observations being made on Laurie Island, handing Ormond House over to them. The building was renamed Orcadas Base. The Scotia returned to Laurie Island before once again sailing south to the Weddell Sea. After proceeding unimpeded for some time, she encountered heavy pack ice and shortly afterward the ice shelf. Sailing along the ice shelf they sighted land, which Bruce named Coats Land. The Scotia got to 74° S before gathering ice forced her to again turn northward. She then proceeded to Cape Town via Gough Island, where scientific specimens were collected. From Cape Town she sailed home, arriving on July 21, 1904.

<img src=“orcadas-base.jpg alt=“Orcadas Base on Laurie Island. Image courtesy of https://www.culturademontania.com.ar/.">

Upon their return, Bruce and the captain of the Scotia were presented with medals from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. However, unlike the members of the Discovery Expedition, none of the expedition members received Polar Medals. The expedition left a substantial scientific legacy. It returned with an extensive catalog of animal species, many of them previously unknown. The Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory was established by Bruce in Edinburgh to house these specimens. The Orcadas Base on Laurie Island is the oldest Antarctic base still in operation.