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Recognition for Scottish Antarctic explorer – William Speirs Bruce

Canadian ancestors of a polar explorer, who led the first and only Scottish National Antarctic Expedition between 1902 and 1904, have visited Scotland to learn of his legacy – in the same week he was recognised by the polar research community.

William Speirs Bruce is relatively unknown when compared with his contemporaries, such as Robert Falcon Scott, but was this week recognised by the naming of a laboratory at the British Antarctic Survey Research Station on Signy Island, in the South Orkney Islands.

Michael Russell MSP, who has long championed Bruce’s contribution to Arctic and Antarctic research, helped arrange a commemorative plaque to be erected at the Antarctic laboratory and delivered the news to the scientist’s Canadian great, great grandsons, Michael and Kyle Watson, during a meeting hosted by the Oban-based Scottish Association for Marine Science [SAMS] in its William Speirs Bruce lecture room.

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Also present at the meeting in SAMS, which lies within Mr Russell’s Argyll and Bute constituency, were the institute’s director Professor Nicholas Owens and Henry Burgess, Head of the UK Arctic office.

Michael Watson, from Ontario, said: ‘It is very heartening to see so many people interested in the work of our great, great grandfather. For us, his work has always just been a family story but we are delighted to learn that it is a story for Scotland, the UK and for science in general.’

William Speirs Bruce led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition from Troon on 2nd November 1902 and made two voyages to the Antarctic, returning in July 1904 to the Marine Station in Millport, where he was presented with the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal and a telegram of congratulation from King Edward VII.

The achievements of the expedition included the establishment of a manned meteorological station, the first in Antarctic territory, and the discovery of new land to the east of the Weddell Sea. It also led to the establishment of the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in 1906.

Michael Russell  said: ‘I am immensely grateful to the British Antarctic Survey, to Dr John Dudeney who made the initial approach to them regarding some form of recognition and to the Scottish Government for agreeing to fund the plaque.

‘William Speirs Bruce made a distinguished and long lasting contribution to Antarctic research but also to a number of branches of science including climatology and oceanography.

‘He was passionate about the Antarctic, about science and about Scotland. It is wonderful that he is increasingly recognised as the significant scientific figure he undoubtedly was. This honour will I hope create ever more interest in him and those who worked with him in such a successful way.’

Mr Burgess said: The UK has a great history of polar exploration and we have produced many of the pioneers of modern day Arctic and Antarctic research.

‘William Speirs Bruce is certainly among those, although he is perhaps less well known outside of scientific circles. I hope this recognition from BAS and the Scottish Government will go some way to addressing that.’

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Professor Owens, who has been to the Signy Island Base, said: ‘SAMS has always recognised the achievements of William Speirs Bruce and the significant contribution he made to our understanding of the polar seas. It was therefore our great pleasure to host his family and share our knowledge of the great man.’

The photographs above show:

  • Top: Pictured during their meeting in the William Speirs Bruce lecture room are, from left: SAMS Director Prof Nicholas Owens, Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell, William Speirs Bruce’s great, great grandsons Michael and Kyle Watson, Head of the UK Arctic Office Henry Burgess and Michael and Kyle’ mother Sheryl.
  • The commemorative plaque in the British Antarctic Survey Base on Signy Island. Pictured, from left, are : Harriet Clewlow (PhD candidate, penguin biologist); Dr Anne Jungblut (Natural History Museum, microbiologist) and Signy Station Leader Matt Jobson.
  • The British Antarctic Survey station on Signy Island.
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