William Speirs Bruce papers

Scope and Content

These papers consist of a great variety of manuscript material, relating to William Speirs Bruce polar explorer, oceanographer and naturalist (1867 -1921) principally to the different expeditions in which Bruce took part:

  • 1892-1893 “Balaena” Dundee Antarctic Whaling Expedition
  • 1896-1897 Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition
  • 1898 "Blencathra"
  • 1898-1899 "Princess Alice"
  • 1902-1904 "Scotia" Scottish National Antarctic Expedition
  • 1906-1919 Spitsbergen and the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate

The papers contain log books and notes of scientific observations; drawings and paintings; sketch maps and surveying figures; and some correspondence relating to Spitsbergen.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Speirs Bruce, polar explorer, oceanographer and naturalist, was born in 1867 in London, of Scottish and Norse descent on his father's side. Bruce attended Edinburgh University to read medicine, but did not qualify. His earlier interest in natural history was further stimulated by contact with Professor Patrick Geddes, and John Murray at the Challenger office. His first Antarctic experience was as a surgeon on the Dundee Antarctic Whaling Expedition in the “Balaena” in 1892-93. Bruce tried, unsuccessfully, to raise funds to explore South Georgia, so in 1895 accepted a position in charge of the Ben Nevis high altitude meteorological observatory.

In 1896 he joined the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition as a biologist and worked in Franz Josef Land for a year. 1898 saw him on the “Blencathra" with the Coats Arctic Expedition, doing biological and oceanographical work.

In 1898 and 1899 he was invited to join the Prince of Monaco in trips to Spitsbergen to make hydrological and biological surveys.

Bruce is probably best known as leader of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition which spent two years (1902-04) with the "Scotia” doing a great deal of valuable and original scientific research, principally in Antarctic marine biology,oceanography and meteorology. On his return, Bruce set up the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory at Surgeon's Hall, Edinburgh, to house his specimens and act as a centre for publishing the "Scotia” scientific results. It was to prove a long-term battle to find funding for the enterprise.

Between 1906 and 1919, Bruce took part in several surveying expeditions to Spitsbergen, financed mainly by the Prince of Monaco. He became involved in the creation of the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, a prospecting and mining company, and in attempts to persuade the British Government to annexe the area.

Both Bruce and Shackleton hoped to make trans-Antarctic crossings, and the two men amicably discussed their plans. Shackleton succeeded in securing funds, however, whereas Bruce failed. Nevertheless, Bruce made considerable efforts to organise a relief party for the stranded members of the expedition in 1916.

Between 1915 and 1916, Bruce managed a whaling station in the Seychelles, set up by his friend from the "Balaena", W.G. Burn Murdoch.

Meanwhile, Bruce continued to work maintaining the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory, but he was finally forced to abandon the enterprise due to lack of funds and his own failing health. Bruce died in Edinburgh in 1921, and in 1923 his ashes were scattered off South Georgia in the Scotia Sea, in accordance with his wishes.

Access Information

Library open Monday to Friday 10:00 - 17:00. Please make an appointment with the library beforehand. Email mailto:library@nms.ac.uk

Other Finding Aids

A Finding List of the archive was created by Joy Pitman in 1982 available at http://www.nms.ac.uk/media/269700/bruce_papers_final.pdf

Custodial History

the W. S. Bruce papers were deposited with the Royal Scottish Museum when the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory was dispersed in 1921. They consist of a great variety of types of manuscript material, relating principally to the different expeditions in which Bruce took part.

The Natural Sciences department of the National Museums Scotland holds a very large number of Bruce's zoological specimens, including many of the type specimens, the deep sea deposits from the "Scotia ll, and geological specimens from many of Bruce's expeditions, including some type material. The Science and Technology Department holds some of Bruce's instruments and equipment. Specimens were also presented to Scottish museums at Aberdeen, Glasgow, Paisley, Perth and Dundee. According to R.N. Rudmose Brown's biography "the valuable library of polar books was presented to the University of Edinburgh ... the collections to the Royal Scottish Museum and the maps and charts to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society". The University collection includes seven volumes of photographs, and log books from some of Bruce's expeditions. Other manuscript material relevant to Bruce may be found in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Related Material

Diary of A. Forbes Mackay on his journey to the South Magnetic Pole in 1908-1909.

Geographical Names