William Speirs Bruce (August 1, 1867 – October 28, 1921) was a London-born Scottish naturalist, polar scientist and oceanographer who organized and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902–04). He also made many journeys to the Arctic regions, both for scientific and for commercial purposes.
Bruce had initially intended to study medicine, but his outlook changed after he attended extra-curricular courses in the natural sciences during the summer of 1887. After these courses he began to develop a wider range of scientific interests, and in 1892 he abandoned his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, to join the Dundee Whaling Expedition to Antarctica as a scientific assistant. This was followed by Arctic voyages to Novaya Zemlya, Spitsbergen and Franz Josef Land (where he met Fridtjof Nansen). In 1899 Bruce applied for a scientific post on the British National Antarctic Expedition (later known as the Discovery Expedition). Delays in confirming this appointment, and differences with Royal Geographical Society (RGS) president Sir Clements Markham, led him instead to organize his own expedition to the South Orkney Islands and the Weddell Sea—the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (SNAE). Bruce later founded the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in 1906, but his subsequent Antarctic plans—a proposed transcontinental march via the South Pole—were thwarted through lack of public and financial support. These plans were adopted by Sir Ernest Shackleton as the basis for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17.
Between 1907 and 1920 Bruce revisited the Arctic seven times, mostly in connection with mineral prospecting ventures in Spitsbergen which, however, failed to produce the anticipated commercial benefits. He received various awards for his polar work, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen, but neither he nor any of his SNAE colleagues were recommended by the Royal Geographical Society for the prestigious Polar Medal. This omission rankled with Bruce all his life.
Bruce's failure to mount any major exploration ventures after SNAE is usually attributed to his lack of public relations skills, his ability to make powerful enemies, and his fervent Scottish nationalism. By 1919 his health was failing, and he experienced several spells in hospital before his death in 1921, after which he was almost totally forgotten. In recent years, following the centenary of the Scottish Expedition, efforts have been made to give fuller recognition to his role in the history of scientific polar exploration.
In 1879, at the age of 12, William was sent to a progressive boarding school, Norfolk County School in the village of North Elmham, Norfolk. He remained there until 1885, and then spent two further years at University College School, Hampstead, preparing for the matriculation examination that would admit him to the medical school at University College, London (UCL). He succeeded at his third attempt, and was ready to start his medical studies in the autumn of 1887.
The Dundee Whaling Expedition, 1892–93, was an attempt to investigate the commercial possibilities of whaling in Antarctic waters by locating a source of right whales in the region. Scientific observations and oceanographic research would also be carried out in the four whaling ships: Balaena, Active, Diana and Polar Star. Bruce was recommended to the expedition by Hugh Robert Mill, an acquaintance from Granton who was now librarian to the Royal Geographical Society in London. Although it would curtail his medical studies, Bruce did not hesitate, and took up his duties on Balaena under Capt. Alexander Fairweather. The four ships sailed from Dundee on 6 September 1892.
The relatively short expedition—Bruce was back in Scotland in May 1893—failed in its main purpose, and gave only limited opportunities for scientific work. No right whales were found, and to cut the expedition’s losses a mass slaughter of seals was ordered, to secure skins, oil and blubber. Bruce found this distasteful, especially as he was expected to share in the killing. The scientific output from the voyage was, in Bruce’s words "a miserable show". In a letter to the Royal Geographical Society he wrote: "The general bearing of the master (Captain Fairweather) was far from being favourable to scientific work". Bruce was denied access to charts, so was unable to establish the accurate location of phenomena. He was required to work "in the boats" when he should have been making meteorological and other observations, and no facilities were allowed him for the preparation of specimens, many of which were lost through careless handling by the crew. Nevertheless, his letter to the RGS ends: "I have to thank the Society for assisting me in what has been, despite all drawbacks, an instructive and delightful experience." In a further letter to Mill he outlined his wishes to go South again, adding: "the taste I have had has made me ravenous".
Within months he was making proposals for a scientific expedition to South Georgia, but the RGS would not support his plans. In early 1896 he considered collaboration with the Norwegians Henryk Bull and Carsten Borchgrevink in an attempt to reach the South Magnetic Pole. This, too, failed to materialize.
Windward arrived at Cape Flora on 25 July where Bruce unexpectedly found, in addition to Jackson's expedition party, Fridtjof Nansen and his companion Hjalmar Johansen. The two Norwegians had been living on the ice for more than a year since leaving their ship Fram for a dash to the North Pole, and it was pure chance that had brought them to the one inhabited spot among thousands of square miles of Arctic wastes. Bruce mentions meeting Nansen in a letter to Mill, and his acquaintance with the celebrated Norwegian would be a future source of much advice and encouragement.
During his year at Cape Flora Bruce collected around 700 zoological specimens, in often very disagreeable conditions. According to Jackson: "It is no pleasant job to dabble in icy-cold water, with the thermometer some degrees below zero, or to plod in the summer through snow, slush and mud many miles in search of animal life, as I have known Mr Bruce frequently to do". Jackson named Cape Bruce after him, on the northern edge of Northbrook Island, at 80°55′N. Jackson was less pleased with Bruce's proprietorial attitude to his personal specimens, which he refused to entrust to the British Museum with the expedition's other finds. This "tendency towards scientific conceit", and lack of tact in inter-personal dealings, were early demonstrations of character flaws that in later life would be held against him.
On his return from Franz Josef Land, Bruce worked in Edinburgh as an assistant to his former mentor John Arthur Thomson, and resumed his duties at the Ben Nevis observatory. In March 1898 he received an offer to join Major Andrew Coats on a hunting voyage to the Arctic waters around Novaya Zemlya and Spitsbergen, in the private yacht Blencathra. This offer had originally been made to Mill, who was unable to obtain leave from the Royal Geographical Society, and once again suggested Bruce as a replacement. Andrew Coats was a member of the prosperous Coats family of thread manufacturers, who had founded the Coats Observatory at Paisley. Bruce joined Blencathra at Tromsø, Norway in May 1898, for a cruise which explored the Barents Sea, the dual islands of Novaya Zemlya, and the island of Kolguyev, before a retreat to Vardø in north-eastern Norway to re-provision for the voyage to Spitsbergen. In a letter to Mill, Bruce reported: "This is a pure yachting cruise and life is luxurious". But his scientific work was unabated: "I have been taking 4-hourly observations in meteorology and temperature of the sea surface […] have tested salinity with Buchanan’s hydrometer; my tow-nets […] have been going almost constantly".
Blencathra sailed for Spitsbergen, but was stopped by ice, so she returned to Trømsø. Here she encountered the research ship Princesse Alice, purpose-built for Prince Albert I of Monaco, a leading oceanographer. Bruce was delighted when the Prince invited him to join Princesse Alice on a hydrographic survey around Spitsbergen. The ship sailed up the west coast of the main island of the Spitsbergen group, and visited Adventfjorden and Smeerenburg in the north. During the latter stages of the voyage Bruce was placed in charge of the voyage's scientific observations.
In the following summer Bruce was invited to join Prince Albert on another oceanographic cruise to Spitsbergen. At Red Bay, latitude 80°N, Bruce ascended the highest peak in the area, which the Prince named "Ben Nevis" in his honour. When Princesse Alice ran aground on a submerged rock and appeared stranded, Prince Albert instructed Bruce to begin preparations for a winter camp, in the belief that it might be impossible for the ship to escape. Fortunately she floated free, and was able to return to Trømsø for repairs.
The Bruces settled in the coastal Edinburgh suburb of Portobello, in the first of a series of addresses in that area. A son, Eillium Alastair, was born in April 1902, and a daughter, Sheila Mackenzie, was born seven years later. During these years Bruce founded the Scottish Ski Club and became its first president. He was also a co-founder of Edinburgh Zoo.
Bruce's chosen life as an explorer, his unreliable sources of income and his frequent extended absences, all placed severe strains on the marriage, and the couple became estranged around 1916. However, they continued to live in the same house until Bruce’s death. Eillium became a Merchant Navy officer, eventually captaining a Fisheries Research Ship which, by chance, bore the name Scotia.
On 15 March 1899 Bruce wrote to Sir Clements Markham at the RGS, offering himself for the scientific staff of the National Antarctic Expedition, then in its early planning stages. Markham's reply was a non-committal one-line acknowledgement, after which Bruce heard nothing for a year. He was then told, indirectly, to apply for a scientific assistant’s post. On 21 March 1900 Bruce reminded Markham that he had applied a year earlier, and went on to reveal his current intentions: "I am not without hopes of being able to raise sufficient capital whereby I could take out a second British ship". He followed this up a few days later, and reported that the funding for a second ship was now assured, making his first explicit references to a "Scottish Expedition". This alarmed Markham, who replied with some anger: "Such a course will be most prejudicial to the Expedition […] A second ship is not in the least required […] I do not know why this mischievous rivalry should have been started". Bruce replied by return, denying rivalry, and asserting: "If my friends are prepared to give me money to carry out my plans I do not see why I should not accept it [...] there are several who maintain that a second ship is highly desirable". Unappeased, Markham wrote back: "As I was doing my best to get you appointed (to the National Antarctic Expedition) I had a right to think you would not take such a step […] without at least consulting me". He continued: "You will cripple the National Expedition […] in order to get up a scheme for yourself".
Bruce replied formally, saying that the funds he had raised in Scotland would not have been forthcoming for any other project. There was no further correspondence between the two, beyond a short conciliatory note from Markham, in February 1901, which read "I can now see things from your point of view, and wish you success—a sentiment apparently not reflected in Markham’s subsequent attitude towards the Scottish expedition.
With financial support from the Coats family, Bruce had acquired a Norwegian whaler, Hekla, which he transformed into a fully equipped Antarctic research ship, renamed Scotia. He then appointed an all-Scottish crew and scientific team. Scotia left Troon on 2 November 1902, and headed south towards Antarctica, where Bruce intended to set up winter quarters in the Weddell Sea quadrant, "as near to the South Pole as is practicable". On 22 February the ship reached 70°25′S, but could proceed no further because of heavy ice. She retreated to Laurie Island in the South Orkneys chain, and wintered there. A meteorological station, Omond House, was established as part of a full programme of scientific work.
In November 1903 Scotia retreated to Buenos Aires for repair and reprovisioning. While in Argentina, Bruce negotiated an agreement with the government whereby Omond House became a permanent weather station, under Argentinian control. Renamed Orcadas Base, the site has been continuously in operation since then. In January 1904 Scotia sailed south again, to explore the Weddell Sea. On 6 March, new land was sighted, part of the sea’s eastern boundary; Bruce named this Coats Land after the expedition’s chief backers. On 14 March, at 74°01′S and in danger of becoming icebound, Scotia turned north. The long voyage back to Scotland, via Cape Town, was completed on 21 July 1904.
This expedition assembled a large collection of animal, marine and plant specimens, and carried out extensive hydrographic, magnetic and meteorological observations. One hundred years later it was recognised that the expedition’s work had "laid the foundation of modern climate change studies",and that its experimental work had showed this part of the globe to be crucially important to the world’s climate. According to oceanographer Tony Rice, it fulfilled a more comprehensive programme than any other Antarctic expedition of its day. At the time, however, its reception in Britain was relatively muted; although its work was highly praised within sections of the scientific community, Bruce struggled to raise the funding to publish his scientific results, and blamed Markham for the lack of national recognition.
Bruce's collection of specimens, gathered from more than a decade of Arctic and Antarctic travel, required a permanent home. Bruce himself needed a base from which the detailed scientific reports of the Scotia voyage could be prepared for publication. He obtained premises in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, in which he established a laboratory and museum, naming it the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory, with the ultimate ambition that it should become the Scottish National Oceanographic Institute. It was officially opened by Prince Albert in 1906.
Within these premises Bruce housed his meteorological and oceanographic equipment, in preparation for future expeditions. He also met there with fellow-explorers, including Nansen, Shackleton, and Roald Amundsen. His main task, however, was masterminding the preparation of the SNAE scientific reports. These, at considerable cost and much delay, were published between 1907 and 1920, except one volume—Bruce’s own log—that remained unpublished until 1992, after its rediscovery. Bruce maintained a wide correspondence with experts, including Sir Joseph Hooker, who had travelled to the Antarctic with James Clark Ross in 1839–43, and to whom Bruce dedicated his short book Polar Exploration.
In 1914 discussions began toward finding more permanent homes, both for Bruce’s collection and, following the death that year of oceanographer Sir John Murray, for the specimens and library of the Challenger expedition. Bruce proposed that a new centre should be created as a memorial to Murray. There was unanimous agreement to proceed, but the project was curtailed by the outbreak of war, and not revived. The Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory continued until 1919, when Bruce, in poor health, was forced to close it, dispersing its contents to the Royal Scottish Museum, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), and the University of Edinburgh.
The RSGS supported these proposals, as did the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the University of Edinburgh, and other Scottish organisations. However, the timing was wrong; the Royal Geographical Society in London was fully occupied with Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, and showed no interest in Bruce’s plans. No rich private benefactors came forward, and persistent and intensive lobbying of the government for financial backing failed. Bruce, as usual, suspected that his efforts were being undermined by the aged but still influential Markham. Finally accepting that his venture would not take place, he gave generous support and advice to Ernest Shackleton, who in 1913 announced plans, similar to Bruce’s, for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton not only received £10,000 from the government, but raised large sums from private sources, including £24,000 from Scottish industrialist Sir James Caird of Dundee.
Shackleton’s expedition was an epic adventure, but failed completely in its main endeavour of a transcontinental crossing. Bruce was not consulted by the Shackleton relief committee about that expedition’s rescue, when the need arose in 1916. "Myself, I suppose," he wrote, "because of being north of the Tweed, they think dead".
During his Spitsbergen visits with Prince Albert in 1898 and 1899, Bruce had detected the presence of coal, gypsum and possibly oil. In the summers of 1906 and 1907 he again accompanied the Prince to the archipelago, with the primary purpose of surveying and mapping Prince Charles Foreland, an island unvisited during the earlier voyages. Here Bruce found further deposits of coal, and indications of iron. Based on these finds, Bruce set up a mineral prospecting company, the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, in July 1909.
At that time, in international law Spitsbergen was regarded as terra nullius—rights to mine and extract could be established simply by registering a claim. Bruce's syndicate registered claims on Prince Charles Foreland and on the islands of Barentsøya and Edgeøya, among other areas. A sum of £4,000 (out of a target of £6,000) was subscribed to finance the costs of a detailed prospecting expedition during the summer of 1909, in a chartered vessel with a full scientific team. The results, however were "disappointing", and the voyage absorbed almost all of the syndicate’s funds.
Bruce paid two further visits to Spitsbergen, in 1912 and 1914, but the outbreak of war prevented further immediate developments. However, early in 1919 the old syndicate was replaced by a larger and better-financed company. Bruce had now fixed his main hopes on the discovery of oil, but scientific expeditions in 1919 and 1920 failed to provide evidence of its presence, although substantial new deposits of coal and iron ore were discovered. Thereafter Bruce was too ill to continue with his involvement. The new company had expended most of its capital on these prospecting ventures, and although it continued to exist, under various ownerships, until 1952, there is no record of profitable extraction. Its assets and claims were finally acquired by a rival concern.
Bruce, and those close to him, blamed Markham for this omission. The matter was raised, repeatedly, with anyone thought to have influence. Robert Rudmose Brown, chronicler of the Scotia voyage and later Bruce's first biographer, wrote in a 1913 letter to the President of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society that this neglect was "a slight to Scotland and to Scottish endeavour". Bruce wrote in March 1915 to the President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who agreed in his reply that "Markham had much to answer for". After Markham’s death in 1916 Bruce sent a long letter to his Member of Parliament, Charles Price, detailing Sir Clements's malice towards him and the Scottish expedition, ending with a heartfelt cry on behalf of his old comrades: "Robertson is dying without his well won white ribbon! The Mate is dead!! The Chief Engineer is dead!!! Everyone as good men as have ever served on any Polar Expedition, yet they did not receive the white ribbon." No action followed this plea.
Nearly a century later the matter was raised in the Scottish Parliament. On 4 November 2002 MSP Michael Russell tabled a motion relating to the SNAE centenary, which concluded: "The Polar Medal Advisory Committee should recommend the posthumous award of the Polar Medal to Dr William Speirs Bruce, in recognition of his status as one of the key figures in early 20th century polar scientific exploration". Despite this effort, no award, as of June 2008, has been made.
Bruce continued to lobby for recognition, highlighting the distinctions between the treatment of SNAE and that of English expeditions. When the war finished he attempted to revive his various interests, but his health was failing, forcing him to close his laboratory. On the 1920 voyage to Spitsbergen he travelled in an advisory role, unable to participate in the detailed work. On return, he was confined in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and later in the Liberton Hospital, Edinburgh, where he died on 28 October 1921. In accordance with his wishes he was cremated, and the ashes taken to South Georgia to be scattered on the southern sea. Despite his irregular income and general lack of funds, his estate realised £7,000, worth at least £220,000 at 2008 values.
The early years of the 21st century, however, have seen a reassessment of Bruce's work. Contributory factors have been the SNAE centenary, and Scotland's renewed sense of national identity. A 2003 expedition, in a modern research ship "Scotia", used information collected by Bruce as a basis for examining climate change in South Georgia. This expedition predicted "dramatic conclusions" relating to global warming from its research, and saw this contribution as a "fitting tribute to Britain's forgotten polar hero, William Spiers Bruce". A new biographer, Peter Speak (2003), claims that the SNAE was "by far the most cost-effective and carefully planned scientific expedition of the Heroic Age".
The same author considers reasons why Bruce's efforts to capitalize on this success met with failure, and suggests a combination of his shy, solitary, uncharismatic nature and his "fervent" Scottish nationalism. Bruce seemingly lacked public relations skills and the ability promote his work, after the fashion of Scott and Shackleton; a life-long friend described him as being "as prickly as the Scottish thistle itself". On occasion he behaved tactlessly, as with Jackson over the question of the specimens brought back from Franz Josef Land, and on another occasion with the Royal Geographical Society, over the question of a minor expense claim. He made a powerful and enduring enemy of Sir Clements Markham, whose influence affected London attitudes towards Bruce for years after their original dispute.
As to his nationalism, he wished to see Scotland on an equal footing with England, in a federal Britain at the heart of the Empire. His national pride was intense; in a Preparatory Note to The Voyage of the Scotia he wrote: "While 'Science' was the talisman of the Expedition, 'Scotland' was emblazoned on its flag". This insistence on emphasising the Scottish character of his enterprises could be irksome to those who did not share his passion. However, he retained the respect and devotion of those whom he led, and of those who had known him longest. John Arthur Thomson, who had known Bruce since Granton, wrote of him when reviewing Rudmose Brown's 1923 biography: "We never heard him once grumble about himself, though he was neither to hold or bend when he thought some injustice was being done to, or slight cast on, his men, on his colleagues, on his laboratory, on his Scotland. Then one got glimpses of the volcano which his gentle spirit usually kept sleeping".