IN the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, one set of extraordinary achievements is rarely quoted by historians. The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (SNAE) of 1902-04 was a hugely successful exploration of the seas around the Antarctic and also added greatly to the world’s knowledge of the land mass that forms the planet’s most southerly continent.

It was led by William Speirs Bruce whose work in both the Arctic and Antarctic should see his name ranked very highly, even alongside Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen, yet hardly any Scots will recognise his name at first glance.

That is because unlike Scott and Shackleton, Bruce was a difficult man – he may have been on the autistic spectrum – who was wholly dedicated to science and did not seek attention or publicity for his work. Most London newspapers ignored him, and unlike other explorers he had no media sponsor, as we would call them nowadays. Nor did Bruce die or need to be rescued on his expeditions – doing things right was rarely a way to endear yourself to the press.

There have been attempts in recent years, especially during the centenary of the SNAE, to boost Bruce’s reputation. Neil Oliver did a perspicacious BBC documentary in 2011, and a couple of books have been written about him, but he is still not given the accolades that I believe he should get, so I thank reader Willie Archibald for reminding me about SNAE and Dr WS Bruce.

Born in London in 1867 to a Scottish doctor and his Welsh wife, he was given the middle name Speirs – not the normal spelling – from a related branch of the family. As a child he took to the study of nature and was frequently at the Natural History Museum.

He was sent to boarding school in Norfolk and prepared to study medicine at University College London (UCL), but a brief stay at the Scottish Marine Station – a floating research laboratory – at Granton near Edinburgh convinced him to stay in Scotland.

Edinburgh University’s alumni website records the next development in his amazing career: “His experiences at Granton under the tutelage of Patrick Geddes and John Arthur Thomson, convinced William to stay in Scotland and he abandoned his place at UCL and enrolled instead at the University of Edinburgh.

“Despite studying medicine, Bruce was increasingly drawn to the relatively new science of oceanography and worked in the university’s laboratories during his free time under Dr John Murray on the examination and classification of specimens brought back from the Challenger expedition.”

I will write about Challenger in February when I will do another series on Scottish explorers.

Geddes, Thomson and Murray would remain his mentors but Bruce then gave up his studies to join the great Dundee Whaling Expedition of 1892-93 as its doctor, effectively, with a certain William Gordon Burn Murdoch as his assistant – the extraordinary Burn Murdoch will also feature in the explorers’ series.

The Whaling Expedition aimed to discover a source of Right Whales in the southern seas for commercial exploitation. It failed, and 5000 seals were slaughtered for their skins and blubber to try and recover the expedition’s costs.

Yet the experience had made Bruce “ravenous”, in his own word, for more travel and exploration. He spent a brief time at the Ben Nevis meteorological station learning how to use observation instruments before joining the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition on Franz Josef Land where he met and became friends with the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

Major Andrew Coats of the wealth family of that name then invited Bruce on another Arctic expedition aboard his private yacht Blencathra, and the scientific work Bruce then did got him a further invitation – Prince Albert I of Monaco was keen and skilled oceanographer, and he also took Bruce with him to the Arctic, their voyage based at Spitsbergen. In these Arctic voyages, Brue performed a stunning series of observations and pioneering experiments and demonstrated almost superhuman stamina, so that his reputation soared. Desperate to go south again, on his return to Edinburgh in 1899, Bruce applied to Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, who was coordinating the development of a British National Expedition to the Antarctic. He should have been an automatic choice as he was the most experienced Polar scientist in Britain at the time, but Markham sat on the application so Bruce duly set about organising a Scottish equivalent – that Markham was furious is to put it mildly.

FROM the outset the SNAE was a truly Scottish undertaking. Bruce and his colleagues received no funding from anywhere else, and certainly none from the Government. The Coats family paid for almost everything – the equivalent of nearly £4 million in today’s money. That included the conversion of a Norwegian whaling vessel to a proper Antarctic research ship which Bruce duly named Scotia – which is why the SNAE is often known as the Scotia Expedition.

He also found time in 1901 to get married, to a nurse called Jessie Mackenzie, and she bore his first child, a son called Eillium Alistair, in April 1902. The problem for the SNAE was that Bruce and co were directly up against serious “competition” in the form of Robert Falcon Scott and his Discovery Expedition, backed by both the Royal Society and the Royal Geographic Society. The SNAE was in fact quite different from, and indeed complementary to, the Discovery Expedition, and yes, the Discovery is the same vessel now resident in Dundee, the “City of Discovery” where she was built.

Carrying a crew of seven scientists and 25 sailors and officers – all of the latter were Scots while Thomas Robertson of Peterhead was made Captain – Scotia set sail on November 2, 1902, from Troon.

Bruce was determined that the voyage would concentrate on scientific research above all – he knew that Scott and Amundsen were engaged in a race to be the first to reach the South Pole, and Bruce just was not interested in the glory hunt.

The Scotsman reported: “The leader and all the scientific and nautical members of the expedition are Scots; the funds have been collected for the most part on this side of the Border; it is a product of voluntary effort, and unlike the expedition which will be simultaneously employed in the exploration of the Antarctic, it owes nothing to Government help.”

Scotia travelled via Ireland, Funchal in Madeira, and the Falklands before the SNAE’s experts began their research in the Weddell Sea. The Scotia would frequently be trapped in ice, but always managed to get free. Bruce and Robertson needed to find a winter anchorage so it was decided to land at Laurie Island in the South Orkneys where a base camp was created from which a massive array of scientific observations were made.

It has to be said that quite a few birds, mammals and fish species were “sampled” with a taxidermist among the Scotia’s crew. The stone building they erected was called Omond House after Robert Omond, director of Edinburgh Observatory and a great supporter of the SNAE. Though it has been rebuilt and extended, Omond House survives to this day as Orcadas Base, an Argentinian science station.

The Argentinian connection came about because the Scotia went to Buenos Aires for repairs late in 1903. Bruce negotiated with the Argentine government to have Omond House staffed by their scientists and then Scotia returned to the Antarctic where Bruce discovered an uncharted area of land to the east of the Weddell Sea. He named it Coats Land after the SNAE sponsors, and it is called that to this day.

The crew had many adventures which were chronicled in the ship’s log and there was also a meticulous record of the experiments and observations they made – some say Bruce was the first climate change scientist as his pioneering measurements were adopted by many meteorologists. You can actually see many photographs taken during the expedition on various websites – just google Voyage of the Scotia to see the remarkable record of what this Scottish expedition did. The Scotia had also collected hundreds of animal and marine specimens, and on his return to Scotland in July 1904, Bruce used these as the basis for the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory, officially opened by Prince Albert of Monaco in 1906. Bruce continued to work maintaining the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory, but after World War One, in which he was refused a commission because of his failing health, Bruce discontinued the Laboratory and many of his samples were given to the Royal Museum of Scotland. After a long illness, Bruce died in Edinburgh in 1921, and in 1923 his ashes were scattered off South Georgia in the Scotia Sea, in accordance with his wishes.

It rankles with to this day that neither Bruce nor any other participant in the Scotia expedition received a royal honour, though King Edward VII sent them a congratulatory telegram.

They should have had the Polar Medal, awarded by the sovereign, on the recommendation of the Royal Geographical Society.

Historians still dispute why Bruce and the SNAE did not receive royal recognition, but the widely held assertion that it was Sir Clements Markham who effectively prevented its award may have some truth in it, though equally it may just have been a royal cock-up.

IN their work William Speirs Bruce and the Polar Medal: Myth and Reality, authors JR Dudeney and J Sheail state: “Contemporary documentation indicates such royal denial of the medal to Bruce’s expedition arose not from doubts as to its scientific achievements, or from the malign influence of individuals, but paradoxically from its self-sufficiency in requiring neither government monies nor Admiralty rescue. King George V was not prepared, in 1910, eight years after the expedition, to overturn the decision of his father King Edward VII by honouring Bruce and thereby setting a precedent by widening the scope of the medal.” Nevertheless, all who took part were lauded across Scotland and in many other countries for their courage and scientific achievements. Scotland’s Royal Geographical Society gave him its gold medal, Aberdeen University made him an honorary doctor while the American Geographical Society awarded Bruce their prestigious Livingstone medal. It probably didn’t help his cause that Bruce was an ardent supporter of home rule for Scotland, and once wrote about his ship Scotia: “While Science was the talisman of the Expedition, Scotland was emblazoned on its flag; and it may be that, in endeavouring to serve humanity by adding another link to the golden chain of science, we have also shown that the nationality of Scotland is a power that must be reckoned with.”

Scotland’s Constitutional Secretary Mike Russell took up the case of Bruce’s failure to be honoured back in 2002. No such honour has been forthcoming.