Written by Jo Woolf, our Writer-in-Residence and author of The Great Horizon.
Scott and Shackleton at the same table, exchanging mild insults over the brandy? It sounds like a scene from a fantasy dinner party, but it actually happened – and at an RSGS banquet, no less. As RSGS marks 10 years in Perth and Mike Robinson celebrates his 10th year as Chief Executive, we look back at another celebration – when RSGS was only 20 years old, and one of the greatest heroes of polar exploration was at the helm…
1904 was an extraordinary year in the history of Antarctic exploration. In July, excited crowds gathered at Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae to witness the return of the ‘Scotia’, the ship carrying William Speirs Bruce and the crew of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition home from the South Orkneys; and a few months later Robert Falcon Scott’s ship ‘Discovery’ was heading up the Solent, having spent two winters locked in the ice of the Southern Ocean. Maps of previously uncharted regions were being drawn, exciting scientific discoveries were shared, and audiences flocked to hear lectures by the returning heroes.
For the RSGS, the timing could not have been better. The Society was celebrating its twentieth year, and to have both Scott and Speirs Bruce as potential guests of honour at an anniversary banquet must have felt like a dream come true. How ironic, then, that the organisation of this banquet fell squarely on the shoulders of a man for whom the Antarctic was a vivid and painful memory, representing hopes as yet unfulfilled. As Secretary of the RSGS, Ernest Shackleton had an important role to play: he would have to book the rooms, finalise the menu, engage the musicians, issue the invitations, and generally ensure that the magnificent occasion unfolded as smoothly as possible. Behind a generous smile, he would have to conceal the fact that he would much rather be beating an excruciating path over the ice than listening to others talk about it.
Shackleton’s move to Edinburgh had come in January 1904, six months after he had been invalided home from the Antarctic, on Scott’s orders. As Third Lieutenant on the ‘Discovery’, he had joined Scott and the ship’s assistant surgeon, Edward Wilson, on a gruelling 950-mile sledge journey to reach a new ‘furthest south’ of 82º17’; but during their return Shackleton suffered a breakdown in health, and only made it back to the ship through sheer force of willpower. That was Scott’s story, anyway. Shackleton, vainly protesting his own fitness, soon found himself homeward bound on a relief ship, while most of his shipmates stayed on in the Antarctic for another winter. Arriving back in Britain under a cloud of humiliation, he applied for the post of Secretary to the RSGS, and was offered the job; maybe he was glad of the escape from London and the curiosity of his friends. Ten months later, the man who had cheerfully waved him off from McMurdo Sound was a worldwide celebrity, and was coming to Edinburgh to receive the Livingstone Medal. You can see how he must have felt.
First came the lecture. Scott’s address to the RSGS was given on Friday 11th November, the night before the banquet, and he delivered it in the Usher Hall. His visit, according to The Scotsman, “excited the keenest interest, and the hall was crowded to overflowing by a large and fashionable gathering of ladies and gentlemen.” Accompanying him on the platform were the Earl of Camperdown, Lord Playfair, Lord Trayner, and an array of other dignitaries including Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society in London. One of Scott’s staunchest and oldest supporters, Markham had first noticed Scott as an 18-year-old midshipman, and it was Markham who had proposed him as an ideal leader for the British National Antarctic Expedition. Some of Scott’s crew were present, and William Speirs Bruce had been expected, along with some of his companions from the ‘Scotia’; but Bruce had sent his apologies, pleading an attack of influenza.
Therein lay another story: Bruce and Markham were not on the friendliest of terms, to say the least. The very fact of Bruce setting up an independent Scottish expedition to the Antarctic was, to Markham, an offence, and a threat to his own carefully-planned campaign of putting Scott at the South Pole. Had he and Bruce met eye to eye, the atmosphere would undoubtedly have been even more frigid than the pack ice from which Bruce had just returned; for his part, Bruce could hardly be blamed for wanting to stay at home in front of a log fire.
Sir James Geikie, President of the RSGS, welcomed the assembled company and expressed his pride that the Society’s twentieth anniversary coincided with the return of two such distinguished Antarctic explorers. He remarked on Scott’s fine appearance, adding that he looked “so well and hearty that the Antarctic regions must be a kind of sanatorium.” The Livingstone Medal was duly presented, amid rapturous applause; in acknowledging the award, Scott revealed how honoured he felt, “not only because it expressed appreciation of what he had done, but because of the former recipients of the medal, and above all, because it bore the effigy of the greatest explorer of all times.”
And so the lecture began… the newspapers noted that although Scott was a comparative novice in public speaking, he had a fascinating story to tell, and he had brought along a set of magnificent photographs to display by limelight. It soon became apparent that his only difficulty was in condensing three years’ work into a lecture of reasonable length, and after two hours some listeners found themselves having to leave discreetly in order to catch their trains.
The story of the ‘furthest south’ record set by Scott, Shackleton and Wilson on their sledge journey in December 1902 was told with a hint of grit behind the dry humour. “For ninety-two nights the three of them slept in a small tent until they knew almost every stitch of it.” But on Christmas Day, as rations were running low and tempers were becoming frayed, Shackleton miraculously produced a plum pudding out of one his spare socks, complete with an artificial sprig of holly, which alleviated the mood considerably. Then came the account of their return journey:
“On the way back to the ship Mr Shackleton… became ill, but he pluckily refused to be conveyed on the sledge. Captain Scott was not quite sure that he and Dr Wilson could have pulled it if Mr Shackleton had yielded to their entreaties. But he did not. He walked every inch himself. But he was invalided home when the relief ship Morning came.” (‘The Scotsman’, 12th November 1904)
Shackleton’s dread of being seen as weak seems irrational to us now. But few of the listening public would have fully appreciated the extremity of the conditions; “the dash for the Pole” was a commonly used term, suggesting that it could be reached almost at a sprint, a feat achievable by any able-bodied man in the street, and certainly by naval officers who understood discipline. Scott had yet to write his book, ‘The Voyage of the Discovery’, which would cast Shackleton in a slightly different light, and provoke the Anglo-Irishman into desperate new plans to reach the Pole first.
The banquet was held the following evening, and the chosen venue was the North British Station Hotel, a newly-built flagship of Victorian architecture at the top of Edinburgh’s Princes Street. The artist William Gordon (‘W G’) Burn Murdoch, himself a veteran of the Antarctic from the Dundee Whaling Expedition of 1892, created the delightful if highly imaginative illustration for the menu and toast list: the twin figures of Scott and Speirs Bruce raising their glasses at the Pole, flanked by their respective ships and the draped flags of Britain and Scotland, and watched by groups of admiring seals and penguins. On the reverse were cameos of the guests of honour: Scott and Speirs Bruce, separated by the rather disapproving visage of Sir Clements Markham. Bruce himself, however, was again conspicuous by his absence, and his place was taken by the Captain of the ‘Scotia’, Thomas Robertson.
Around 150 guests sat down to enjoy a ten-course meal that featured polar-themed delicacies such as Filets de Sole à l’Antarctique, Consommé à la ‘Discovery’, and Glaces Polaires; an elegant musical accompaniment was provided by the Salon Orchestra of Messrs Paterson & Sons, with contributions from the piper of the ‘Scotia’ expedition, Gilbert Kerr. The dinner concluded, as usual, with speeches and toasts. Lord Camperdown stood up first, and paid tribute to the spirit of exploration. In these times, he said, there was no need to apologise for money spent on a scientific expedition:
“The time was not so long ago, and many present were old enough to remember it, when any proposal to set out on a scientific expedition would have caused the hair of the ordinary man in the street to stand on end unless they could show that there was money in it. Now that had gone past… The countries of the future, which were bound in the long run to be the leaders of civilisation, were those countries which favoured as far as they possibly could the advance of scientific studies.” (‘The Scotsman’, 14th November 1904)
This was a noble sentiment, and it showed the forward-thinking attitude of RSGS members and the country as a whole. It still has to be said that, while acknowledging the importance of science, both Scott and Shackleton yearned to achieve a simple ‘first’ through their own efforts of leadership and endurance.
On behalf of William Speirs Bruce, Captain Robertson responded. He praised the results of Scott’s expedition, saying that they must necessarily overshadow Bruce’s work because the former had “every privilege” in terms of naval officers and funding. The crew of the ‘Discovery’ must take the palm, but he added that his leader “was one who not only insisted upon his colleagues doing their work, but worked himself.” Robertson was being sincere rather than bitter, and when Scott got up to reply he lost no time in handing back the metaphorical palm. The two expeditions, he argued, had two different objectives, so how could they possibly compare the results? The naval expedition went out with the main object of discovering lands, while Bruce’s men were focused on exploring the seas. “It was,” he said, “as important to know how far the ocean extended as to know where the land began… So, speaking from experience he could say that Mr Bruce had done splendid work.”
Having righted that misconception, Scott then allowed himself a little gentle humour, to the delight of his listeners. Although the Scottish Antarctic Expedition took all the credit of being Scottish, he said, there was a good deal of Scotland about the naval expedition:
“The ‘Discovery’, for instance, was built in Scotland, of Scottish oak he believed – and a gentleman told him the previous evening that some of that oak was grown on his estate. He asked the gentleman if he could recognise it. Then they had men from Scotland – excellent men who did their work. There was Mr Shackleton, whose Scottish brogue was quite apparent. At any rate if he was not a Scotsman, he was rapidly becoming one.” (‘The Scotsman’, 14th November 1904)
Shackleton, who even at school had been teased about his Irish accent, may well have succumbed to the ridiculousness of the joke. Amid the general laughter, it’s good to think that the two men might have exchanged a flash of understanding. In many ways, they had so much in common; something was driving them in the same direction, but barriers of insecurity and suspicion kept them apart.
The evening was almost at a close. Scott thanked his hosts, and added that if Edinburgh audiences could be as appreciative as the one that listened to him the previous evening, there was every hope of a great future for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Shackleton had no part to play in the toasts, but like the honorary Scotsman he apparently was, he joined his friends and guests in the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
Scott was a hugely popular speaker, but Shackleton was developing his own talents in that field, and he also brought his personality to bear on the activities of the RSGS. One of his riskier methods of fundraising was the placing of advertisements in the Scottish Geographical Magazine, the Society’s academic journal. These included a full page devoted to ‘Tabard’ cigarettes – a brand in which, secretly, he had a personal investment.
It was the custom of the Society to offer Christmas lectures for children, and in December 1904 Shackleton, who was about to become a father himself, was one of the chosen speakers. To an enthusiastic young audience he gave a talk entitled ‘Adventures near the South Pole’; after an uproarious vote of thanks he was inspired to deliver a parting shot that might have had disastrous consequences:
“Now, you kids, I’ll put you up to a good thing. If you want to see what sledging is like, go home and harness the baby to the coal-scuttle and drive round the dining-room table… but don’t tell Mother I told you!” (‘The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton’ by H R Mill)
It’s tempting to wonder whether Shackleton’s departure from RSGS was propelled by complaints about damage to dining room furniture, but in fact he developed new ambitions: in the general election of January 1906 he stood for Parliament in the constituency of Dundee. (There’s more about this story in the Autumn edition of The Geographer.)
Remorselessly innovative, exhaustingly energetic, Shackleton swept away many cobwebs from the dustiest corners of the RSGS, and gave it new life and impetus. His tenure might have happened over a century ago, but his presence is still felt there in so many ways… in handwritten notes, in Council minutes, and in maps, photographs and books. In Lord John Murray House, the Society’s headquarters in Perth, the Shackleton Room is named in his honour, and all the meetings there are presided over by a bust of the man himself. Maybe he smiles occasionally at us all. We’d like to think so.
Since Shackleton’s time, the RSGS has continued to uphold its original intentions of celebrating geographical achievements, promoting our greater understanding of the planet, and sharing this awareness with adults and children of all ages and backgrounds. Mike Robinson, who oversaw the Society’s move to Perth and celebrates his 10th anniversary as Chief Executive this autumn, is the occupant of Shackleton’s former post. In the RSGS Visitor Centre, an exhibition and accompanying booklet was recently published which tells the story of the last 10 years of the Society – the events and people who have shaped it, and the visions and principles that are driving it into the future. Booklets are available from the RSGS offices and the exhibition will run again soon at some point in the future.
Quotes and reference: ‘Shackleton’ by Roland Huntford; ‘The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton’ by Hugh Robert Mill; ‘The Voyage of the Discovery’ by Robert Falcon Scott; ‘William Speirs Bruce’ by Peter Speak; ‘The Scotsman’, 12th and 14th November 1904; RSGS Council minutes and Scottish Geographical Magazine.