Glasgow Digital Library Voyage of the Scotia BRUCE PEOPLE SHIP ANTARCTIC INDEX
Scotland and the Antarctic

Section 6: After the Scotia expedition

Polar explorers and William Bruce

image from Voyage of the Scotia

In his lifetime William Speirs Bruce became well known to most of the polar explorers of that time. Bruce appears to have started at the top in befriending scientists at Edinburgh University while working in the Challenger office.

Bruce's friendship with Hugh Robert Mill (ten years the librarian at the Royal Geographic Society) gave him his first chance at a voyage to the Antarctic. Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographic Society, refused his librarian a voyage to the Antarctic and Mill recommended Bruce as naturalist/surgeon on the Balaena as part of the Dundee whaling expedition. In the Antarctic he met up with Captain Robertson who was to be master of Scotia and Captain Larsen (Jason) who was to be master on the Antarctic and who later set up the first whaling station on South Georgia.

Bruce's luck continued and after a year as an observer on Ben Nevis (where he met up with leading meteorologists) he was invited on the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition to the Arctic - again recommended by Mill.

In 1898 Bruce was asked to join the Blencathra, owned by the Paisley thread manufacture Andrew Coats. This was a fortunate meeting as the Coats family were to finance the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition in 1902. On the return trip he met up with the future Prince of Monaco and joined Princess Alice for another journey to the Arctic. Another lifelong friendship began. Before Bruce set off to the Antarctic he had met Nansen several times (first on the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition) and all the expedition leaders for the Antarctic expeditions planned for the beginning of the new century. He had also met Amundsen when on Balaena and in Spitsbergen with Andrew Coats. They became friends and it was a great delight for Bruce to show Amundsen around Edinburgh at a later occasion.

Bruce made it his business to meet up with and correspond with other polar explorers. He met Robert Scott at the launch of Discovery (they met again before Scott sailed on his last expedition). Scott and Bruce received the Royal Scottish Geographical medal on the same evening in Edinburgh.

Bruce went to Kiel to see Erich von Drygalski before he sailed in Gauss and he had met Dr Otto Nordenskjold and Larsen of Antarctic.

Shackleton was another friend. When Bruce returned from the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, Shackleton was secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and he organised the welcome in the Clyde and a later reception with Nordenskjold. Bruce and Shackleton shared their plans for a transantarctic expedition.

Over the years many polar explorers came to see Bruce to borrow equipment and to seek advice. Peary went to the North Pole with Bruce's furs, Shackleton and Mawson used his sounding machines. Bruce recommended men for Shackleton's Nimrod and Endurance expeditions - in particular Forbes Mackay (surgeon - and one of the party to reach the South Magnetic Pole) and James Murray (oceanographer).

Captain J K Davis of Mawson's ship Aurora (he was also captain of Shackleton's Nimrod) came to Bruce for instruction in oceanographic matters. He was to sound and trawl between Australia and Antarctica. When Davis returned to the British Isles he went to Edinburgh to see Bruce.

'I felt a pride in telling my old teacher how much our success was due to his instructions and encouragement.'

Many of these explorers met Bruce in Burn-Murdoch's house.

Bruce never tired of helping young explorers. When Stefansson mounted the Canadian Arctic expedition in the Karluk (financed by the Canadian government) he took two men Bruce had recommended to Shackleton's Nimrod - James Murray and Forbes Mackay along with the young William McKinley (who had been working on the Scotia results in Glasgow).

While Shackleton's Endurance was trapped and sunk in the Antarctic, Karluk met a similar fate. Unfortunately more than half of the crew of Karluk died before they could reach safety, including Murray and Mackay. The diary of William McKinley and later his lifetime research into the disaster is the basis of a book, The Ice Master, published in 2000. (McKinley's book Karluk was published in 1976.)

Bruce's expertise as a scientist and his tremendous knowledge of the polar regions made Edinburgh an essential place to visit for a generation of polar explorers.

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