Dances Honour Scottish Antarctic Hero


On April 8 of this year, Scottish country dancers performed in the unusual surroundings of the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, when members of the Edinburgh Branch inaugurated the Scotia Suite of Scottish Country Dances. This new set of dances, devised by Roy Goldring and set to music by Muriel Johnstone, celebrates the centenary of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition led by William Spiers Bruce. Concurrently, a major exhibition on Bruce’s life and career as a polar scientist is on display at the Museum, running until 1 June 2003. So spring visitors to Edinburgh should put it on their “to-do” list!

The recognition for William Spiers Bruce may be long overdue. Unlike the better known Antarctic explorers–Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton–Bruce was more interested in scientific observation than in playing the role of a daring explorer (he refused the position of naturalist on Scott’s expedition because its primary aim was to reach the South Pole). Yet he must have been a determined character: he bought a Norwegian whaler and had it refitted as the SY Scotia, and after failing to obtain government funding he raised the cost of the expedition through private subscription. His greatest supporters, the Coats brothers of Paisley, were eventually commemorated in the previously undiscovered Coatsland south of the Weddell Sea.

Dances Honour Scottish Antarctic HeroThe scope of Bruce’s scientific interests is evident in the specialists he took with him: they included a zoologist, botanist, taxidermist, meteorologist, geologist, bacteriologist, and a bagpipe player who worked as a laboratory assistant. This brainy crew set out from Troon on 2 November 1902. En route to the South Orkney Islands, they carried out meteorological and oceanographic work using the high-tech instruments of the day: cinematography, phonography, and photography with a verascope camera which produced stereo glass-plate negatives.

Heading further south, the Scotia was briefly entrapped in pack ice in February 1903, but broke free and anchored for the winter by Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. There the scientists observed wildlife, collected specimens, recorded weather conditions, and carried out topographic surveys. A snowbank was built around the ship to protect her from the weather, a stone cairn built as a reference point for surveys, and a magnetic observatory erected on one side of the cairn.

However, not all the work was carried out from the relative comfort of the ship. Despite the bitter cold, small parties headed out for several days at a time to carry out botanical and meteorological studies as well as survey work. The ship’s medical officer, Dr. Pirie, describes one such expedition:

Soon after nine we sallied forth with the sounding apparatus, measuring line, and prismatic compass for surveying . . . About thirty soundings we found as much as could be done in a day: each involved cutting a hole through ice at least thirty inches thick, often rather more . . . Lunch was taken out on the floe: this consisted of biscuit, butter (which was quite hard and crumbly), cheese, a stick of chocolate, and a pipe. . . . Dusk at six found us once more back in camp. The two lucky ones snugged down in their sacks, while the third cooked dinner. This meal consisted of more biscuit, thawed meat, and a large mug of tea. How the thoughts of that hot tea kept us going all day! The recollection of it is the strongest I have of our camping-out experiences–how both hands having clasped the cup so as not to lose any heat, the warm glow gradually spread and spread, till at last even the toes felt warm ere the cup was drained. Truly it was a cup that cheered. The day’s work was then plotted by the light of a guttering candle, and a pipe and chat passed away an hour ere we wooed the drowsy god.

The Scotia broke free of the ice in November 1903. Six men stayed ashore to continue studying penguins as she sailed north to Argentina for refitting. Braving the pack ice, the Scotia pushed south as far as latitude 74ƒ01′. While following the new stretch of land named Coats Land by Bruce, the ship was nearly crushed in the ice when a huge storm developed and pushed her three feet out of the water onto the ice. Fortunately on March 12 a wind sprang up, releasing the ship to begin her return journey to Scotland.

So although William Spiers Bruce did not seek fame as a polar explorer, his expedition was marked by extraordinary persistence and endurance. The intellectual achievements of the Scots have always been disproportionate to their numbers, and the recognition of William Spiers Bruce and his colleagues is long overdue. We can be proud that the RSCDS is taking a part in it.

The Scotia Suite of Scottish Country Dances includes seven dances: “Antarctic Bound,” “Scotia Sea,” “The Ice Cap,” “Coats Land,” “Bruce’s Men,” “The Piper and the Penguin,” and “Spiers Bruce–The Pole Star.” Music for the dances has been recorded by Neil Barron and his Band, and the accompanying CD also includes pipe music performed by Ian MacInnes and a musical suite “South” performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

This article was synthesized from various websites located by the all-seeing eyes of the Google search engine.

Rosemary Coupe
Editor, The White Cockade Rosemary Coupe