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Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 1902-04


  • An all Scottish expedition led by William Speirs Bruce, sailed from the Firth of Clyde on the Scotia.
  • Their aim was to map the South Orkney Islands and investigate the Weddell Sea.
  • The party wintered on Laurie Island, where a meteorological station was established. This is still run today by Argentina.
  • Alan Ramsey, the expeditions engineer died during the expedition and was the first to be buried on Laurie Island.
  • They recorded the eastern extent of the Weddell Sea and undertook deep-water recordings.
  • They also undertook experiments to see if penguins reacted to different types of bagpipe music!

View photographs from this expedition

This expedition consisted of men from Peterhead, Aberdeen, Lerwick, Dundee, and other Scottish towns led by William Speirs Bruce, who had turned down an offer to sail with Scott‘s 1901-4 expedition to lead his own. Their aims were to map the South Orkney Islands and investigate the Weddell Sea. The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition was mainly privately funded by the Coates brothers of Edinburgh. As they sailed on the Scotia into the Firth of Clyde on 2 November 1902 they were accompanied by the sound of Auld Lang Syne on the bagpipes.

They arrived in Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands on 6 January 1903, sailing on to the South Orkneys arriving on 4 February. They sailed onwards crossing the Antarctic Circle where suddenly the temperature dropped and the men fought the freezing Weddell Sea before turning northward, heading back towards the South Orkneys and dropping anchor. When a violent storm in April pushed pack ice into the bay, the ship was frozen in for winter.

They wintered on Laurie Island, South Orkney Islands where a meteorological observatory, Osmond House, was established on 1 April 1903. The expedition undertook the charting of Laurie Island and a comprehensive scientific program was carried out. In addition they also made cinematographic films and sound recordings. The chief engineer Alan Ramsey was unable to take part in the charting of the island due to heart disease, when he died on 6 August 1903 he was the first to be buried on the island.

By the end of November 1903 the pack ice was retreating and the ship was able to sail northward. Six men remained behind to continue meteorological observations until the Scotia’s return. When the Scotia reached Buenos Aires they offered the meteorological station Osmond House to the British. They refused due to its running costs, and the station was offered to the Argentineans who accepted. Three Argentineans travelled back on the Scotia to the meteorological station on Laurie Island where they and two of the crew wintered. The Argentine government continue to run the observatory to this day, making it the oldest continuously operational observatory in the region.

The expedition then undertook the first oceanographical exploration of the Weddell Sea. The Scotia made two journeys into the Weddell Sea, for sounding and dredging purposes. They did not reach very far south, but did record a depth of nearly three miles deep, south of 70°S. They also made the very important discovery of the eastern rim of the Weddell Sea, when checking the depth of the sea they unexpectedly found shallow water and could see land from the crow’s nest. This was an ice cliff that stretched from the northeast to southwest. A landing was not possible but they named the land Coasts Land in honour of James Coasts Jr. and Major Andrew Coats who had supported the expedition.

On 7 March they encountered a blizzard which turned the sea icy and the ice pack pressed against the ship’s sides, so much so there was concern the ship would be buried. Whilst trapped in the ice they spent time studying the effects of music on penguins! A piper leashed a penguin to his leg and played different styles of music to see if these affected the penguin, unsurprisingly they found no effect. On 12 March a crack in the ice opened and they were able to escape, reaching 74°01’S they raised the Scottish standard and the Union Jack.

The ship arrived in Northern Ireland on July 15 1904.

Further Information

Bruce W S (1992) ed Speak, P. The log of the Scotia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Speak, P. (2003) William Speirs Bruce: Scottish Nationalist and Polar Explorer.

R.N. Rubmose Bruce, R.C.Mossman, J.H.H. Pirie (1978) The Voyage of the “Scotia” Being the record of a voyage of exploration in the Antarctic Seas.  C.Hurst and Co. Ltd.

Headland, R.K (2009) A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration, A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Year, 2002-2009. Bernard Quaritch Ltd.