William S. Bruce

William Speirs Bruce was a young Scotsman when first introduced to the great southern reaches. His introduction came on a British whaling expedition to the Falkland Islands and vicinity in 1892-93. Four ships set forth from Dundee on this pioneering Scottish whaling reconnaissance: the ACTIVE, commanded by Thomas Robertson, the DIANA, commanded by Robert Davidson, the POLAR STAR, commanded by James Davidson, and the BALAENA, commanded by Alexander Fairweather. While in the Antarctic region, Bruce (aboard the BALAENA) and Charles W. Donald (aboard the ACTIVE) undertook scientific work in the Joinville Island group and northern Trinity Peninsula. The expedition actually met up with Carl Larsen and the crew of the JASON near Joinville Island. Bruce's desire and passion for further scientific work among the ice was now firmly in place.

William Bruce's love of oceanography continued to grow and his next opportunity for Antarctic research surfaced in 1900 when Robert Scott approached him to participate, as the naturalist, in the forthcoming DISCOVERY EXPEDITION. Bruce turned down the offer, not because of his tremendous Scottish pride, but rather for his lack of interest with any expedition in which the primary goal was to attain something as sensational as the South Pole. Besides, Bruce wanted to lead his own expedition.


The British government would have no part in the financing of this scientific expedition and this made Bruce more determined than ever to fund the entire program through his own efforts in Scotland. Two Scottish brothers, the Coats, made the initial deposit of £11,000. In 1901 Bruce was able to purchase a Norwegian whaler and have her refitted in a Scottish shipyard. Renamed the SCOTIA, she was placed under the command of his old friend Thomas Robertson, commander of the ACTIVE from the Scottish whaling expedition of 1892-93. Bruce assembled an impressive group of scientists as preparations were now in full swing. Joining him and the crew of 25 were a zoologist, botanist, taxidermist, meteorologist, geologist (who doubled as a medical officer), bacteriologist and a bagpipe player who worked as a laboratory assistant. The primary objective of the expedition was to do extensive hydrographic work in the Weddell Sea during the summer of 1903 and 1904 and to survey the South Orkney Islands and study their wildlife.

The SCOTIA departed from Troon on November 2, 1902 and reached the Falkland Islands on January 6, 1903 where she stayed for three weeks. Sailing south, the SCOTIA arrived in the South Orkneys on February 3 and the next day landed on Saddle Island, the first to do so since Dumont d'Urville in 1838. From here the progress was quite slow and it was not until they reached the area of South Thule Island, in the South Sandwich Islands, that they could even entertain the thought of venturing further south. By February 22 she had forced her way to 70°25'S, 17°12'W. Unfortunately, the temperature suddenly fell to 14°F and she became stuck in the ice. Any thoughts of continuing south were promptly abandoned. She finally worked her way free but after six days she had only made another half a degree of latitude to the north. Progress continued at a miserable rate and with it any thoughts of finding open water for an escape route. They decided to search for a wintering place and after several more uncomfortable days at sea they found a protected bay on the south side of Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. The bay (later named Scotia Bay) became their wintering hideaway as within three days the bay filled with pack ice and a few days later was completely frozen over.

Everyone began to work from the moment the anchor was set. A snowbank was built around the ship to protect her from the weather; ashore a 12-foot stone cairn was built as a reference point for their survey work; a wooden magnetic observatory was erected on one side of the cairn and a stone hut on the other; fish traps were laid and bird skinning undertaken. Extensive studies of what wildlife remained in the area would be another project for the winter months ahead. Despite having plenty to do, the men found time to relax by climbing to the top of a nearby glacier and skiing down.

The temperatures were bitterly cold at times but small parties were sent out to the land for short periods from July onwards where they carried out extensive botanical and meteorological studies along with a great deal of survey work. A typical day of research is best described by Dr. Pirie, the ship's medical officer, who participated in an eight-day study at Delta Island on the eastern edge of Scotia Bay:

"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 out by the light of a guttering candle, and a pipe and chat passed away an hour ere we wooed the drowsy god. The moisture from our breaths and from the cooking stove of course condensed as snow on the walls of the tent, and a considerable amount found its way into our sacks. This gave us a good deal of thawing to do in bed; but notwithstanding that and the howling wind which sometimes threatened to carry the whole tent away, we slept the sleep of the just."

The spring of 1903 found the SCOTIA still held fast by the ice as a plethora of wildlife arrived providing much-needed fresh seal meat and eggs. The snow surrounding the ship was cleared away and the men now attempted to blast a channel through the ice to open water. Despite using gunpowder, progress was slow since the ice was 15 to 20 feet thick in spots. Eventually a wind came in from the northeast and helped break up the ice to the extent that the ship was finally freed on November 22, 1903. A party of six men were left ashore as the SCOTIA headed north on November 27 for refitting and a round of negotiations with the Argentinean government. She stayed briefly in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, and arrived in Buenos Aires on Christmas Eve. The Scots negotiated with the Argentinean government to assume responsibility for continued meteorological studies at their winter quarters, named Omond House, on Laurie Island. The SCOTIA had three Argentineans aboard as she set sail for Laurie Island.

Meanwhile, extensive scientific studies on penguins were undertaken by the crew left behind at Laurie Island. When the SCOTIA arrived, the three Argentineans were left at Omond House along with meteorologist R. C. Mossman and the cook as the rest departed on its second attempt at entering the Weddell Sea.

The Antarctic Circle was crossed at 32°W longitude. The pack ice did not present itself a problem until, on the morning of March 3 at a latitude of 72°18'S, she became firmly held in its grasp. They took a sounding and discovered they were at a depth only half that assumed so Thomas Robertson climbed to the crow's nest and to everyone's surprise reported land in the distance. They finally freed themselves and the SCOTIA slowly inched her way further south until coming upon a huge ice shelf stretching in a northeasterly / southwesterly direction. They followed it southwest for 150 miles over the next ten days, taking soundings all along the way, but were never able to reach closer than 2 miles. The soundings confirmed that they had discovered a stretch of land previously unknown to mankind. They had no way of knowing if it was an island or the continent but Bruce guessed correctly when he declared it an extension of Enderby Land. He promptly named it Coats Land in honor of the two Scottish brothers who were so instrumental in the funding of the expedition. While following the new stretch of land, the SCOTIA was nearly crushed in the ice when a huge storm developed and pushed her three feet out of the water right onto the ice. When the storm died down, they discovered they had been pushed into a bight in the ice and were now at a latitude of 74°01'S proving that James Weddell, some 80 years earlier, was unlucky indeed not to have discovered the continent just to the west.

But their attention was now turned to the possibility and fear of having to spend another winter in the Antarctic. As Pirie wrote afterwards, "Had not the mental horizon been somewhat cloudy, nothing could have been finer than our situation. The air was calm, crisp, and beautifully clear, from the crow's nest one could see to the north only huge bergs--ice mast-high going floating by--and pack-ice, with every here and there a black dot where a seal or a penguin lay. To the south lay the Great Barrier, sublime and mysterious, inclining one to be in pensive mood brooding over its awful silent loneliness; but the hum of voices from the deck below, or the shouts ascending from the large floe nearby, which served for the nonce as a football field, soon brought the wandering thoughts back to the worries of our microcosmos, stranded on the edge of the chaos of ice". Fortunately, on March 12 the wind came up from the southwest and the ice began to break up which, by evening, freed the SCOTIA once again.

Robertson set out on a northeasterly course and after further soundings taken at 68°32'S, 12°49'W, evidence gathered clearly proved that James Clark Ross was mistaken all those years ago when he declared no bottom at 4000 fathoms (bringing into question whether or not the Ross Deep even existed). With land so close by, Bruce knew he would find bottom and indeed they did at 2600 fathoms. With this the final objective, the ship turned for home.

On July 15, 1904 the SCOTIA dropped anchor in Kingstown Harbor, Northern Ireland. She was greeted by a cheering group of local inhabitants as well as from the press and the Coats brothers who were there in their yacht to meet them. Guns were fired, foghorns blared and a congratulatory telegram arrived from the King.

R. C. Mossman, the cook and the three Argentineans left behind on Laurie Island carried on a great deal of scientific and meteorological work. Before the winter of 1904 arrived they built a wall in front of Omond House to help protect them from the fierce storms coming in off the bay.

On April 3 hurricane-force winds hit them hard which destroyed all their work and severely punished Omond House. As Mossmon wrote, "Every wave we thought would give the finishing stroke and to all appearance there was little hope of the southern half of the house standing...We rapidly collected clothing, bedding, documents, and some other necessary articles, which were placed in the storeroom, and vacated the building. The tents were taken over to the highest point of the north beach as a precautionary measure, but owing to the strong wind could not be pitched. Soon after eight o'clock we gathered together in the magnetic hut, where we awaited the apparently inevitable demolition of the southern half of the house with a composure due doubtless to the numbing effect of the unexpected situation. Everyone was soaked to the skin". Fortunately the storm relented and no further damage occurred. The party survived during the long winter months until the URUGUAY arrived on New Year's Eve.

Omond House, Laurie Island

Omond House was eventually taken over by the Argentineans when the last of the Scottish party departed the island in January 1905. A rotating crew has been present ever since and this lonely outpost is the oldest continuous meteorological observatory in Antarctica.

The first oceanographical expedition of the Weddell Sea can clearly be attributed to the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. Besides the Falkland Islands, Gough Island and Tristan da Cunha were also visited by this expedition and cinematographic films and sound recordings taken.

Primarily with his own money, William Bruce set up the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in 1907. He made seven visits to Spitsbergen and became the expert on the area. In 1915-16 he managed a whaling station in , of all places, the Seychelles but hated the tropics and was thrilled to return home. Bruce was a quiet, private man with his only passion being that of his scientific studies; public relations efforts were not his cup of tea. William Bruce died in 1921 after a long illness and his ashes were strewn over the Antarctic waters.


The Log of the Scotia Expedition, 1902-4, William S. Bruce.

Polar Exploration, by William S. Bruce.

The Voyage of the Scotia, by R.N. Rudmose Brown, J.H.H. Pirie and R.C. Mossman.

Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.

Antarctica, the Last Continent, by Ian Cameron.

Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.



Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest, Second Edition.

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.