Pioneer comes in from the cold

The Herald Magazine - - ARTS | BOOKS - Review by Michael Rus­sell

Iso­bel P Wil­liams and John Du­deney

Am­ber­ley, £20

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 Antarc­tica 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 John Du­deney, the co-au­thor of this very read­able 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.

I tabled a mo­tion in the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment about Speirs Bruce on the 100th an­niver­sary of the de­par­ture of the expedition ship from Troon in 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 that went to res­cue them. It is worth not­ing that no res­cue was ever re­quired for Speirs Bruce.

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. 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 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.

Du­deney and Wil­liams ask how much of that arose from per­sonal fac­tors and their an­swer is in two parts. First, much of his ge­nius had a down­side of ex­treme stub­born­ness and 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 while he spent year af­ter year pre­par­ing learned and valu­able, but pub­licly in­ac­ces­si­ble, vol­umes on a range of sci­en­tific top­ics which have stood the test of time.

The sec­ond lies in what the au­thors call his “ob­ses­sive Scot­tish na­tion­al­ism”, a re­gret­table and un­for­tu­nately pe­jo­ra­tive 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 life­long ad­vo­cate of equal­ity for the na­tion of Scot­land. His views are mod­est by cur­rent stan­dards but he was 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, it is pos­si­ble to re­assess his achieve­ments and give him his proper place. That process is well un­der way but it needs to spread more 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.

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