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Book of the Month

April 2004

William Speirs Bruce

Photographs from the Scotia Antarctic Expedition

Sp Coll WSB Photo C1

In April 1904 the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, led by William Speirs Bruce, sailed north on their ship SY Scotia at the start of their voyage home after over a year surveying the South Orkney Islands. A collection of nearly 1000 stereographic glass plate negatives of photographs taken on this expedition, mostly by Bruce himself, is the subject of this 'Book of the Month' feature.

Photo C1/2:  Hekla in Sandefjord, January 1902

Photo C1/43:  W.S. Bruce on Scotia during rebuilding in Ailsa Shipbuilding Co. dry dock, Troon, 15 July 1902

At the end of 1901 Bruce had purchased the 1872 Drammen-built barque-rigged auxiliary steam whaler Hekla in Sandefjord, Norway. She was extensively dismantled and rebuilt by the Ailsa Shipbuilding Co. at Troon, Ayrshire during the first half of 1902 and renamed Scotia. Frames were reinforced and heavy timber sheathing was added to the outside of the hull to withstand being frozen in, and facilities added included a laboratory.

Photo C1/618: Botanist R.N. Rudmose Brown and Captain Thomas Robertson
 in Scotia's cabin, September 1903

Photo C1/1731: Captain Thomas Robertson taking a sextant observation
on the deck of
21 March 1904

Bruce, although experienced at sea in whalers, did not have a master's certificate. So he appointed Captain Thomas Robertson as master of the Scotia. Robertson, then aged 48, had 20 years experience in the Arctic and Antarctic as master of the Dundee whalers Active and Balaena, and the success of the voyage owed much to his skill in ice navigation. He and Scotia were subsequently chartered for an ice patrol in the North Atlantic following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

Photo C1/539 (detail): Meteorologist Robert C. Mossman and taxidermist
Alastair Ross on the upper topsail yard of


Photo C1/539

After trials in August the expedition set sail for the Antarctic on 2nd November. Calls were made at Kingstown, Funchal, Cape Verde Islands and Port Stanley. Many scientific observations were made during the voyage, but the scientists also adapted to shipboard life and assisted crew members in tasks such as setting sails.

Photo C1/662: Helmsman at the exposed wheel of Scotia and Antarctic scientist's uniform of plus fours

Photo C1/521:
Two scientists skiing on ice with dog Russ, while Scotia is temporarily beset in the Weddell Sea, 70° 25' S, 22 February 1903

Photo C1/212:
Sledge party, escorted by dog Russ, collecting some of the 100 tons of stones used for building Omond House, 20 April 1903 

Scotia headed south from the Falklands on 26th January 1903 and the South Orkney Islands were reached on 3rd February. With the Antarctic summer almost over the voyage continued southwards to chart the Weddell Sea with the ship frequently beset in pack ice. During these enforced stops the scientists skied in pursuit of penguins - on one occasion having then to ski for an hour to catch up with the ship which had broken free while they were on the ice.

Photo C1/228: Meteorological screen, Omond House, with shed under construction, viewed from the west, 19 February 1904

Photo C1/221: Meteorologist Robert C. Mossman at work in Omond House, 21 February 1904

Returning to the South Orkneys, after investigating several unsuitable sites, a landing was made on Laurie Island on 25th March. A base was established and the anchorage named Scotia Bay. During the winter an accommodation hut was built - grandiosely called Omond House - and a meteorological observatory set up.

Photo C1/584:  First Mate B.A. Thomson using the Barr & Stroud range finder on the deck
 of Scotia during the voyage south, 1902.
Thomson subsequently left the ship at Port Stanley before reaching the Antarctic

The main purpose of the expedition was to survey the area and collect data and specimens of geology and wildlife. To this end expeditions by various members were mounted using sledges as well as the Scotia and her small boats. One prominent member of the team, a Samoyed dog named Russ, mounted an unauthorised solo expedition of his own and was feared lost for several days before reappearing at Scotia Bay. Several geographical features were named after members of the expedition, sponsors and relatives - most poignantly Mount Ramsay after the Scotia's engineer who died of heart disease on 6th August.

Photo C1/781: Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) rookery, Graptolite Isle, 15 October 1903

Photo C1/300: Camp at Flag Staff III in Fitchie Bay, Laurie Island, opposite Graptolite Isle, under  surveyance by two Adélie penguins, about 14 October 1903

Wildlife in abundance included Weddell seals, sea-leopards, giant petrels (nellies), sheathbills, skuas and penguins - gentoo, ringed and Adélie, while Emperors were encountered further south in the Weddell Sea. Large rookeries of Adélie penguins at Scotia Bay and on Graptolite Isle near the opposite end of Laurie Island afforded plentiful opportunities for both research and food.

Photo C1/211 (detail): Artist William A. Cuthbertson near the icebound Scotia, with land to the east of Scotia Bay beyond, 2 September 1903

Photo C1/545: Starboard gangway of Scotia, icebound in Scotia Bay, 28 April 1903

The anchorage in Scotia Bay was carefully selected by Captain Thomas Robertson to avoid currents and the ship was frozen in throughout the winter without suffering the crushing fate of Shackleton's Endurance a decade later. During this period several smaller islands were visited on foot over the frozen sea.


Photo C1/555: Scotia sounding Ross Deep, Weddell Sea, 28 March 1904



Photo C1/553: Lucas sounding machine in action, Ross Deep, 2,660 fathoms, 28 March 1904

The following spring, while research on Laurie Island continued, the ship sailed to the Falkland Islands and Buenos Aires for refit and stores, returning with a new engineer and three Argentinian scientists to run the observatory after the expedition returned to Scotland.

Photo C1/313: Scotia at anchor off Gough Island,
seen through a natural arch of rock, 22 April 1904

The homeward voyage began with another detour southwards to take further soundings in the Weddell Sea, where the ship was again - unexpectedly - frozen in for several days after the inexperienced engineer failed to generate enough reserve of steam to break through. However a new landfall was discovered and named Coats Land after the Paisley cotton spinners who were major sponsors of the expedition. Finally, on 28th March, soundings were made in the Ross Deep - reputedly in excess of 4,000 fathoms. The Lucas sounding machine with 6,000 fathoms of treble-strand wire - supplied by Bruntons of Musselburgh - located the seabed at 2,660 fathoms

On the way north Gough Island, in the South Atlantic, was surveyed before brief calls at South Africa, St Helena, Ascension and Madeira.


Photo C1/714 (detail)


Photo C1/714: Scotia off Millport, Firth of Clyde, 21 July 1904

Base at the Marine Biological Station, Millport in the Firth of Clyde was reached on 21 July 1904, when dozens of small craft turned out to welcome Scotia's return.

Photo C1/171: Arrival at the South Orkney Islands, 23 March 1903: the west coast of Lethwait Strait from the north

These photographs were taken using a Verascope camera designed by Jules Richard in Paris. It used a magazine of 12 glass plates, 4.5x10.8 cm, exposed via twin fixed-focus lenses to take two views of the same scene corresponding to those seen by each of a pair of human eyes. Viewed through similar lenses a three-dimensional effect was achieved. Each lens could also be used separately to take two entirely different photographs; there are indications that Bruce used this option when short of plates. Photo C1/171 and C1/662 above illustrate these two options. The plates used by Bruce were gelatin dry plates made by Ilford Ltd, London and A. Lumière et Fils, Lyon. Negatives to date were developed in Scotia's laboratory on 20 October 1903. Bruce posted three boxes of plates to his wife from Madeira on the way home, the mail steamer being much faster than Scotia.

R.N.R. Brown, A naturalist at the Poles: the life, work and voyages of Dr W.S. Bruce, the polar explorer (London, 1923): Sp Coll RQ 1951; W.S. Bruce, The log of the Scotia, 1902-04, edited by Peter Speak (Edinburgh, 1992); W.S. Bruce et al., 'First Antarctic voyage of the Scotia', Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 20 (1904), pp 57-66, 113-133: Geography Periodicals; W.S. Bruce et al., 'The Scotia's voyage to the Falkland Islands', Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 19 (1903), pp 169-183: Geography Periodicals; R.C. Mossman, J.H.H. Pirie, R.N.R. Brown, The voyage of the Scotia: being the record of a voyage of exploration in Antarctic seas (Edinburgh, 1906): Level 5 Gen Sci K94.A31 1978-M (first edition, reprinted, 1978) and Gen Sci K94.A31 2002-M (2002 edition); J.H.H. Pirie and R.N.R. Brown, 'The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition: second Antarctic voyage of the Scotia', Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 21 (1905), pp 24-37: Geography Periodicals; Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 1902-1904, Report on the scientific results of the voyage of S.Y. 'Scotia' during the years 1902, 1903 and 1904 under the leadership of William S. Bruce (Edinburgh, 1907-1920): Sp Coll RF 836-842; Peter Speak, William Speirs Bruce: polar explorer and Scottish nationalist (Edinburgh, 2003):  Level 5 Gen Sci K94:A31 SPE.


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Peter Asplin April 2004