William Speirs Bruce : Forgotten Polar Hero

Isobel P Williams & John Dudeney

Amberley £20.00

Review by Michael Russell

The achievements of William Speirs Bruce, pioneering Polar scientific explorer, leader of what was arguably the most successful Antarctic expedition of the so-called “heroic age” and founder of not only the first permanent weather station in Antartica but also the first Scottish Oceanographic Laboratory, have been shamefully neglected for a century or more. It is, however, increasingly difficult to justify the word “forgotten” being applied to him.

Part of the reason for that is the work of Dr John Dudeney who is the co-author of this very readable new book which gives more detail about Speirs Bruce’s life and work than any previous publication and which rightly places him centre stage in terms of Polar scientific achievement.

There have also been, since the centenary celebrations of Speirs Bruce’s Scottish Expedition in 2002, a number of events and publications which have drawn him to public attention. Those include a major exhibition at the Royal Museum, the republication of the 1906 account of the expedition written by three of its members and the naming in his honour of both a lecture room at the Scottish Association for Marine Science near Oban and a British Antarctic Survey Laboratory on Signy Island in the South Orkneys.

I tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament about Speirs Bruce on the hundredth anniversary of the departure of the expedition ship, the Scotia, from Troon in November 1902. Part of that motion called for the award of a posthumous Polar Medal for Speirs Bruce and those who went south with him for no expedition member gained that honour despite it being given to many others including not just Scott’s and Shackleton’s teams but even those on the relief ships which went to rescue them. It is worth noting that no rescue was ever required for Speirs Bruce.

John Dudeney’s Polar Journal paper from 2014, written with J Sheail, has to a limited extent set that matter to rest. Speirs Bruce always blamed Sir Clements Markham, who imperiously presided over the Royal Geographical Society for almost half a century, but Dudeney’s meticulous research has proved that the fault lay with King George V himself who was not prepared to overturn his father’s original negative decision.

That was based both on a presumption against national recognition of expeditions that were financially self-sufficient and in favour of a leadership role for military officers in such exploration.

None the less Speirs Bruce was right to feel aggrieved not just about the medal but about the way he was treated by official bodies during his entire life. He received very little financial or other support and all of his business schemes foundered. His early death came from what appears to have been a complete mental collapse brought on by constant strain and his unhappy family life. That his wife was driven to drink by his behaviour and lack of financial success, is further testament to the hardest of times.

Dudeney and Williams ask how much of that arose from personal factors and their answer is in two parts. Firstly much of his genius had a downside of extreme stubbornness and very poor social interaction. That alienated many of those who might have helped him, and made him incapable of taking good advice, such as that of his friends who wanted him to publish and personally promote a popular account of his expedition before starting on the laborious production of the scientific record.

He refused and saw others like Scott benefit from a contemporary appetite for tales of ice-bound heroism and hardship whilst he spent year after year preparing learned and very valuable, but publicly inaccessible, volumes on a whole range of scientific topics. That work has stood the test of time and his pioneering observations in meteorology and oceanography remain of great distinction. It did not however bring him widespread recognition, money or peace of mind.

The second lies in what the authors call his “obsessive Scottish Nationalism” , a regrettable and unfortunately pejorative turn of phrase. Born and brought up in England but with Scottish parents his encounter at university in Edinburgh with early advocates of self-government and Celtic solidarity made him a life-long advocate of equality for the nation of Scotland.

His views are in fact very modest by current standards but given the political spirit of the times he was inevitably seen as unruly and impractical and the establishment in London - let alone in Edinburgh - discounted and frequently dismissed him as a result.

The combination of these factors undoubtedly contributed to his neglect. Now, however, in very different times, it is possible to re-assess his achievements and give him his proper place. That process is well under way in academic circles but it needs to spread more widely so that those children who still learn about Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton in Scottish classrooms can have their attention drawn to someone who came from much closer to home and who still achieved an enormous amount in a very hostile environment, in every sense.