YOU might have wondered what I’ve been up to for the past couple of weeks.
Well, I’ve just returned from the most incredible trip of a lifetime to Antarctica and South Georgia.
What struck me while I was there were the deep and enduring Scottish bonds with this remote and beautiful part of the world, especially those ties with my adopted city of Dundee.
We passed close to the imposing Dundee Island while travelling through the Antarctic Peninsula, named by a whaler for his home port back home.
We also sailed past the South Shetlands and South Orkney islands.
On South Georgia itself I was able to pay my respects to my hero, the inspirational polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton who is buried in the small cemetery near the former whaling station of Grytviken.
It’s obligatory to toast “The Boss” with a good dram and to remember the incredible way he saved his men after their ship, The Endurance, was crushed by the polar ice and sank.
He managed to get them all safely to Elephant Island, an uninhabited, inhospitable rock which I witnessed from the safety of our ships’ bridge as it was far too windy and dangerous to land.
Shackleton knew they couldn’t survive there for long, so he and five others, including the Scottish carpenter Harry “Chippy” McNish took their tiny lifeboat, the James Caird, on what should have been an impossible sailing to South Georgia to get help and rescue.
The Boss and two of his men who could still walk, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, somehow scrambled across the unmapped mountainous interior of the island. They stumbled into Stromness whaling station (named after the port in Orkney) and eventually Shackleton was able to get back to Elephant Island to pick up the 22 men who had been stranded there for four months,
I was fortunate enough to see Stromness for myself. The whaling station was closed in 1931 and converted into a ship repair yard, but the site was abandoned in 1961.
When we visited it was deserted apart from a giant elephant seal, some cheeky young fur seal pups and a couple of little Antarctic pipits.
Shackleton could not have gone on his ill-fated Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition without the help of a wealthy Scottish sponsor, Dundee jute baron and philanthropist Sir James Caird, who gave the city the Caird Hall and Caird Park and also donated £24,000 to Sir Ernest (the equivalent of more than one million pounds today) which is why that lifeboat bore Caird’s name.
Having just sailed that same 800 mile journey from Elephant Island in the comfort of a far bigger ship, and experienced the rough seas, I just cannot begin to imagine how Shackleton, navigator Worsley and the others accomplished such a feat of seamanship.
During our voyage we also sailed passed the port of Leith in South Georgia, again named for it’s equivalent in Edinburgh by seafarers far from home.
In Grytviken, there’s a beautiful church, a fantastic museum and a post office where you can send postcards which will arrive a couple of months after you get home, and there was another surprising connection with Dundee.
When we bought our souvenirs, the receipt showed the home address of the South Georgia Heritage Trust was the Verdant Works museum in Dundee, a fantastic asset that vividly tells the history of the jute industry.
Of course most of the links with Antarctica and South Georgia revolve around the whale and seal trade. Whales were decimated and fur seals almost completely wiped out in the 19th Century. It was a hard life for the men who worked in these remote stations in rough seas and extreme cold.
Thankfully, the seals are back and the whales are slowly making a recovery but they still need our vigilance and protection.
Scottish links with Antarctica actually go way back to the early 19th Century.
Later, in 1900, the Weddell Sea was named after seal hunter James Weddell.
The shamefully overlooked Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-04, under William Speirs Bruce, produced one of the quirkiest images of polar exploration showing a piper in full regalia serenading a bemused Emperor penguin.
Gilbert Kerr was the piper on the expedition and it was his job to boost morale and also to test out the effects of music on the birds.
You have to admire Kerr’s pluck, especially if he was a true Scotsman and wearing nothing under his kilt!
The penguins weren’t impressed. According to the crew “there was no excitement, no sign of approval or disapproval only sleepy indifference.”
The expedition was overshadowed by Scott’s Discovery expedition which of course has one of the most important links with the city of Dundee.
The ship was built in Dundee and when she was restored and returned in 1986, Dundee proudly became the City of Discovery.
She is a vessel steeped in history and Discovery Point museum is now my second favourite in all of the world. (I’m afraid the South Georgia museum in Grytviken just has the edge).
Shackleton relied on Scottish donations and Scottish crew members including chief scientific officer James Wordie from Glasgow and zoologist Robert Selbie Clark from Aberdeen as well as “Chippy” McNish from Port Glasgow.
Shackleton and McNish never saw eye to eye, especially when the carpenter’s pet cat “Mrs Chippy” (another Scot) had to be shot when the Endurance sank.
It is doubtful, however, that the great explorer would have been able to save all of his men without the skills of McNish who made the James Caird seaworthy.
The Scots have always punched above their weight when it comes to exploring and also exploiting Antarctica.
I feel very privileged to have witnessed these places and seen the fantastic wildlife and dramatic scenery.
It was simply unforgettable to see something that very few others have witnessed and to discover the stories behind so many of those familiar Scottish place names in such unfamiliar territory.
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