Papers of William Speirs Bruce (1867-1921)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The Papers of William Speirs Bruce consist of a substantial number of manuscripts and ephemera including pamphlets; notes and notebooks; annotated typescripts; annotated offprints; picture postcards; photographs; examination papers; sketch maps; diaries; press cuttings; correspondence; lists of specimens; book catalogues; soundings; lecture engagements; lectures; and, maps. The Papers handle a wide variety of subjects including the 'Balaena', fish and fisheries, Franz Josef Land, the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition, meteorology, oceanography, Repulse Bay, the Seychelles, soundings, South Georgia, Spitzbergen, and whaling. In addition there are circa 1000 books with the shelfmark, Bruce Coll.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Speirs Bruce, explorer and geographer, was born on 1 August 1867 in London, the son of a doctor. His early education was conducted at home, but from the age of eleven he attended Norfolk County School at North Elmham. While at school he became interested in natural history and this was his main hobby. In 1883, Bruce went to University College School, London, and it was intended that in the autumn of 1884 he would commence medical studies at University College. In preparation for this, his father sent him to the vacation course in biology at the marine station in Granton, Edinburgh, which was held under the direction of Professor Patrick Geddes. This short period at Granton encouraged Bruce to study medicine at Edinburgh rather than London. Medicine alone failed to hold his attention however, and he developed a width of outlook and range of interests across the whole field of science - natural philosophy, anatomy, natural history. He also helped in the Challenger Office in the city, and often assisted in dredging in the Forth or in the Clyde and in laboratory work at the Office. Bruce studied at Edinburgh University between 1887 and 1892 but did not graduate. Before completing his course he sailed for Antarctica with the 'Balaena' expedition of Dundee whalers, signing on as a surgeon and naturalist. Meteorological observations taken during the expedition provided the first clear evidence in favour of an Antarctic anticyclone. The 'Balaena' expedition re-awakened interest in the region and paved the way for greater efforts there in the early years of the 20th century. In 1895, Bruce was working at the meteorological observatory on Ben Nevis in Scotland. Plans for a Repulse Bay Expedition in 1897 and an expedition to the Antarctic late in 1896 never materialised, but during 1896 and 1897 he was in Franz-Josef Land with the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition. His work there was mainly zoological but he took part in the survey of the western part of the archipelago. In 1898 he sailed to Novaya Zemlya and the Barents Sea with Major Andrew Coats, and in the same year accompanied the Prince of Monaco to Spitzbergen (Svalbard). Between 1899 and 1901 Bruce was a Lecturer in Geography at the then Heriot-Watt College in Edinburgh (now Heriot-Watt University) and at the Church of Scotland Training College in the city. In 1902, Bruce organised and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition to the Weddell Sea, returning home in 1904. This expedition took some of the earliest cine film of Antarctica and may also have pioneered sound recording there. Other expeditions to Spitzbergen occurred in 1906, 1907, 1909, 1912, 1914, and 1919. During the visits to Spitzbergen deep soundings were taken and the island was surveyed and explored. Bruce took a leading part in economic developments there, and brought back samples of coal for analysis before any claims to mining estates had been made by Norwegian and Russian interests. His plan for a second Scottish Antarctic Expedition was announced in 1910 but this was abandoned due to insufficient funds. Between 1914 and 1915, he was in the Seychelles in charge of a sperm-whaling venture. Bruce equipped and maintained the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory as a centre for Polar research and was Director of the Laboratory, but his failing health compelled him to disband it. His voyages added materially to knowledge about the mammal and bird life of the islands of the Arctic region, and about both the northern and southern Polar seas. Bruce died in Edinburgh on 28 October 1921.

Conditions Governing Access

Contact the repository for details

Acquisition Information

The library of the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory and the Bruce manuscript collection was donated in 1921.

Other Finding Aids

Handlist, H72. Another important finding aid is the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives. Additions to the typed slips in sheaf binders were made until 1987.

Related Material

The Index to Manuscripts shows, at various shelfmarks, references to various letters of and to William Speirs Bruce. There is a volume of newspaper cuttings relating to the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition at Gen.556. Separately there is a set of album material stamped Scottish National Antarctic Expedition at Gen. 1670-1696