William Speirs Bruce, Scotland, and polar meteorology and oceanography
Bruce was born in London, England. In the summer of 1887 he came to Edinburgh as a student on a pair of vacation courses in natural history. The courses had been arranged by Patrick Geddes who also provided the accommodation for the students in a hall of residence (the first self-governing student hall in Britain) he had recently established in Edinburgh. On the courses, in particular that held at the Royal Scottish Marine Station at Granton (established partly on the profits from the Edinburgh International Fisheries Exhibition 1882), and in the residential hall Bruce met scientists associated with the newly founded discipline of oceanography. He was so impressed by the intellectual life of Edinburgh that instead of following his initial intention to study medicine in London, he enrolled as a medical student in Edinburgh (Speak, 2003; Swinney, 1999).
Through Geddes Bruce met several scientists whose influence would provide opportunities for Bruce to undertake polar research. His association with Geddes and with the artists and writers who were associated with this charismatic polymath, Bruce became increasingly aware of his Scottish identity (his father had been born in Edinburgh). In particular his friendship with the artist Robert Gordon Burn Murdoch prompted him to view scientific endeavours as a component of the romantic Scottish/Celtic cultural revival being promoted by Geddes and his associates (Swinney, 2002).
Geddes fostered in Bruce an holistic view of science and introduced Bruce to eminent scientists. Bruce worked for Andrew Herbertson and H R Mill on meteorological data and for John Murray in the offices of the Challenger expedition. Contacts made in Edinburgh offered Bruce the opportunity and Burn Murdoch to join a commercial expedition to the Weddell Sea (1892 – 1893). The data and specimens brought back from that expedition helped to promote interest in the Antarctic within the scientific community and Burn Murdoch’s paintings, and his book From Edinburgh to the Antarctic (Burn Murdoch, 1894) spurred interest in the general public (Swinney, in press). Some authors, notably Headland (1999), believe that the origins of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration, generally dated as from 1895 – 1916, can be traced back to this expedition.
Bruce had become captivated by the prospects of doing science in polar environments but, unable to find funding for further exploration he gained employment at the meteorological station at the summit of Ben Nevis (itself in part another by-product of the Edinburgh International Fisheries Exhibition, 1882). Here, under conditions as close to polar as may be encountered in Britain, he refined his meteorological skills for a little over a year (Swinney, in press).
It was H R Mill who again provided Bruce with opportunities for polar studies in the form of a place as zoologist on the Jackson Harmsworth Expedition on Franz Josef Land (1896 – 1897) and as scientist on a summer safari to Novaya Zemlya aboard Andrew Coat’s yacht (1898). Bruce’s participation in the later expedition resulted in a chance meeting with Albert Prince of Monaco. The Prince, who was himself fascinated with the new science of oceanography, invited Bruce to join his expedition to Spitsbergen. Aboard the Prince’s yacht Princesse Alice Bruce was able to work with the most modern sampling gear and alongside Europe’s most eminent ocean scientists. It was the beginning of a long collaboration with Prince Albert. Years later, when Bruce established the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh it was the Prince who performed the formal opening.
With his broad experience of sampling techniques and polar environments, Bruce was the obvious person to lead the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. This expedition was viewed as a ‘mischievous rivalry’ by Clements Markham at the Royal Geographical Society in London – he feared that it would divert funds and prestige from the British National Antarctic (Discovery) Expedition which the Society was in the process of organising. The antagonism on the part of Markham may have led to Bruce’s achievements not being fully recognised (he was never awarded the prestigious Polar Medal, or receiving adequate funding from the London-based scientific establishment or from government). This in turn fuelled Bruce’s Scottish nationalism. As his colleague and biographer Robert Rudmose Brown (1923) noted the thistle, the botanical emblem of Scotland, ‘in his keeping, was very thorny.’
Despite delays due to a shortage of funds the Scotia expedition was scientifically the most successful expedition of the Heroic Age: ‘Throughout the voyage, and during the winter period at Laurie Island, extensive meteorological, hydrological, sounding and biological observations were made fulfilling a more comprehensive programme than that of any previous or contemporary expedition’ (Rice, 1982).
Bruce staged a popular display on the Scotia Expedition at the Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art & Industry, Glasgow, 1911. However, his methodical scientific studies lacked the drama of the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton: and faded from public recognition, a matter about which became increasingly bitter: ‘It is good solid work that we want, not tales of suffering, privation & death’ (Bruce, 1911).
Unable to secure funding for further Antarctic exploration, Bruce again joined Prince Albert in exploring Spitsbergen, particularly the most westerly island Prince Charles Foreland, and the surrounding ocean. He was instrumental in establishing the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, a mineral exploration company. The Syndicate organised a series of summer expeditions used geological and surveying expertise from Scottish Universities during the long summer vacations primarily to undertake land-based mineral surveys.
Following the success of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition Bruce was keen to mount another Antarctic Expedition but could not get funding. In 1907 he established the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory, which he hoped would eventually be taken over by the University of Edinburgh and become a major centre for oceanographical research – thus putting Edinburgh, considered by many to be the birth-place of the science, at the forefront of ocean science. In 1914 it looked for a while as if his dreams would be fulfilled. Discussions were organised to find secure funding and a permanent home for both Bruce’s extensive collections and the bulk of the Challenger collection. Unfortunately, the First World War intervened and eventually, due to lack of funds, the Laboratory was forced to close in 1920.
Exhausted, both mentally and physically, Bruce died in 1921. His memory was kept alive in the volumes of the scientific literature but, unlike Scott and Shackleton he was largely forgotten in the public mind. In 1957 the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition followed a route similar to that which had been proposed by Bruce for a second Scottish National Antarctic Expedition – indeed it was also largely the proposed route of Sheckleton’s ill-fated Endurance Expedition, 1914 – 1916. The Imperial Expedition took Bruce’s Saltire flag and flew it in his honour when they reached the South Pole. This event, and Sir Vivien Fuch’s lectures on the expedition, prompted a brief resurgence of popular interest in Bruce. There was another brief resurgence of interest when, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, the Hunterian Musem of the University of Glasgow staged an exhibition which toured within Britain.
The centenary of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition has provided a focus for an extensive series of events to celebrate not only the expedition but Bruce’s life and career – The Scotia Centenary (http://www.geo.ed.ac.uk/~rsgs/touring.html). In keeping with Bruce’s own view of science as being an integral part of culture, these are very diverse. They include specially commissioned musical works, a new biography of Bruce by Peter Speak (2003) and the re-publication of The Voyage of the Scotia (Rudmose Brown et al., 1906), the naming of a train ‘William Speirs Bruce’, a touring exhibition Icy Images showing some of the photographs taken during the Scotia expedition, an educational pack and a series of drama workshops for children with special needs, and the dedication of a plaque on the building which housed the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory. Perhaps the two most ambitious events of the Scotia Centenary were the expedition to South Georgia to continue in Bruce’s footsteps and conduct cutting-edge scientific research in polar regions (albeit primarily in glaciology rather than oceanography), and the exhibition William Speirs Bruce: The First Polar Hero at the National Museums of Scotland.
This paper reviews Bruce’s career (with particular reference to meteorology and oceanography), and the recent celebrations of the Scotia Centenary, in the context of the resources available to him in Scotland and his own sense of national identity.
Bruce, W. S. (1911) Polar Exploration. London: Williams and Norgate
Burn Murdoch, W. G. (1894) From Edinburgh to the Antarctic: an artist’s notes and sketches during the Dundee Antarctic Expedition of 1892–93, with a chapter by W. S. Bruce naturalist of the barque ‘Balaena’. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
Headland, R. K. (1999) The natural history of Antarctica: the early voyages. Scottish Naturalist 111: 9 – 36.
Rice, A. L. (1982) British Oceanographic Vessels 1800 – 1950. London: Ray Society.
Rudmose Brown R. N., Mossman, R. C. and Harvey Pirie, J. H. ["Three of the Staff"] (1906) The Voyage of the Scotia: being the record of a voyage of exploration in Antarctic seas. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons.
Rudmose Brown, R. N. (1923) A Naturalist at the Poles: the Life, Work and Voyages of Dr W. S. Bruce the Polar Explorer. London: Seeley, Service
Speak, P. (2003) William Speirs Bruce – Polar Explorer and Scottish Nationalist. Edinburgh: NMS Publishing.
Swinney, G. N. (2002) The training of a polar scientist: Patrick Geddes and the student career of William Speirs Bruce. Archives of Natural History 29: 287 – 301.
Swinney, G. N. (in press) William Speirs Bruce, the Ben Nevis Observatory, and Antarctic meteorology. Scottish Geographical Journal.
Swinney, G. N. (in press) From the Arctic and Antarctic to ‘the back parts of Mull’: the life and career of William Gordon Burn Murdoch (1862–1939). Scottish Geographical Journal.
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