Scottish Seafarers Sail into the World’s History Books

With the famous words, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time,’ Captain Lawrence Oates, a member of Robert Scott’s so-called “Race to the South Pole” Antarctic expedition, walked outside his battered tent into a blizzard and died in the frozen tundra. Scott’s body along with the others were found inside the tent, making their sombre mark on England’s Antarctic exploration exploits. Beaten to the South Pole by only a few days by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen in 1912, Scott is lauded in the history books as Britain’s greatest adventurer. Still, another part of Great Britain has an equally rich and vibrant history of Antarctic investigation.

By the 19th century, Scottish sailors, sea captains and scientists made their own permanent marks on maps of the Antarctic islands and the mainland. Indeed, the Weddell Sea, named after the Scottish seal hunter James Weddell, in 1822 was the first public recognition of Scotland’s central role in uncovering forgotten corners of the earth.

It was in this sea that Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance was trapped and crushed by ice in 1915.

Weddell was an explorer at heart. With an accuracy of navigation and charts honed in the South Orkneys, Weddell led three voyages on the ship, Jane to the South Orkney islands, one of several clusters of sub-Antarctic land masses, reaching the southernmost position reached by any ship until 1911. The slow disintegration of his ship meant inevitable financial ruin for Weddell, and the once intrepid explorer died in relative poverty and obscurity in 1834 at the age of forty-seven.

Scottish tentacles reach far and deep into the southern Antarctic. Sir Robert Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, used on his ill-fated expedition resulting in the sailor’s and his crew’s death, was built in Dundee. A lesser-known explorer, William Speirs Bruce, managed notoriety among his peers at the beginning of the 20th century becoming a highly respected scientist and explorer and mentor to many. Even Ernest Shackleton connection with Scotland was evident and was solidified when he became secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society upon his return from the ice-packed Discovery expedition.

Scottish sailors cast their sights on the sea long ago with exploration of their own clusters of island secrets. The British Antarctic Survey benefits from Scottish ingenuity and scientific knowledge to this day, assuring Scotland’s place in the world’s icy history.