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It’s Snowing Again: Diaries from Edwardian Antarctica

by Amanda Sisler

August 2019


It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey! Scotland gets pretty cold during the winter, but not as cold as the Antarctic. Imagine travelling by boat from Scotland to the Antarctic during the turn of the 20th century. What would your job be on the ship and more importantly how would you spend your time when not working?

The Scottish Maritime Museum holds a curious object in its archives, a pair of handwritten diaries written by able seaman John Stuart MacMurchie from the 1902-1904 Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (SNAE). These diaries provide a glimpse of life on board an Antarctic expedition. In between his scientific journaling, MacMurchie records a handful of moments of what life was really like among the ice. Paying particular attention to the everyday elements of the expedition, this post explores what life was like for a sailor outside of the daily scientific tasks and labour on board the ship.

Photo of the Scotia crew on Coats Land 1904. Source: Glasgow Digital Library, Voyage of the Scotia.

The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 1902-04       

On the 2nd of November 1902 the first all-Scottish Antarctic expedition left Troon for a two year voyage to research Antarctic geography, meteorology, biology, botany, and geology. The expedition was headed by William Speirs Bruce, a budding polar naturalist. Bruce’s curiosity about polar science was sparked during his time as an assistant at the Scottish Marine Station in Edinburgh and grew during his time on the Dundee Whaling Expedition 1892-93. After a few scientific voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic, Bruce sought to lead his own expedition to the Antarctic.[1]

The journey from Scotland to the Antarctic required a large amount of funds. After appealing to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and other societies, none were able to help fund the project. Bruce’s request for funding to the RGS angered its president, Sir Clement Markham, who argued that Bruce’s Scottish expedition would detract funding and interfere with the British National Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott, which created animosity between Bruce and Markham for years. However, Bruce’s expedition would differ from the British voyage by prioritising ‘methodical scientific research’ over reaching ‘Farthest South’.[2]

Portrait of William Speirs Bruce. Source: Glasgow Digital Library, Voyage of the Scotia

Bruce was determined to fund this expedition, so he turned to public contributions to fund the voyage.[3] In 1901, he purchased the Norwegian whaler Hekla as the expedition’s vessel with public donations.[4] It would have taken much longer to raise funds if it weren’t for the Coats family who donated £30,000 in 1902 to the expedition. The surge of funds enabled Bruce to make necessary modifications to the ship to make it suitable for polar weather, hire a crew, and purchase supplies for the journey.[5]

 John Stuart MacMurchie

One of the crewmen was a young John Stuart MacMurchie who kept diaries recounting the daily happenings on board the Scotia. Not much is known about him except that he was 28 years old and employed as an able seaman on board the Scotia from Dundee[6] and that he had a wife and a son who are both mentioned in the diaries but not named.[7] His diaries tell of the daily trawling and weather conditions in the Antarctic, but what did he do when he wasn’t working?

For not knowing much of anything about the man, you can sure get a sense of his personality in his diary entries. Even the routine parts of the day read as dully as if MacMurchie was not interested in his own work, but there are a few moments in between his tasks that reveal his character.

In the Focs’le: Music and Books

In a time before television and the Internet, especially in an isolated place such as the Antarctic, a sailor’s down time was occupied with playing music, singing, reading, and playing games with their fellow seamen in between work. It seems that, at least during this expedition, music and song was used to express both sorrow and joy and the type of music played during certain events reflect what was happening in the moment.

At the beginning of MacMurchie’s first diary, the songs ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ are played and sung as the Scotia set sail from Troon. These songs bid farewell and express the emotions of the crew and their families onshore through their sombre melodies, yet hopeful optimism for a successful expedition and safe return home.[8] Sorrowful music was also present at the funeral of the Chief Engineer, Alan Ramsay, when he passed away on board the ship. Mournful hymns were sung and the Piper played ‘Lochaber No More’, a song about not returning home, as the crew processed from the ship to the shore of Scotia Bay to bury him.[9]

Grave of Alan Ramsay, Chief Engineer, on Laurie Island Source: Glasgow Digital Library, Voyage of the Scotia.

On the other hand, singing along and listening to music were a part of the leisure time and added a sense of camaraderie among the men. There are a handful of occasions mentioned when a group of men would have a ‘sing-song’ and sang along to contemporary songs such as ‘Nancy Lee’, ‘Stars & Stripes’, and Dan Leno’s ‘Salvage Brigade’ and ‘A Hunting Scene’[10]; ‘O’er Bogie Awa’[11]; and Sankey & Moodey’s Hymns.[12]

When MacMurchie wanted to spend his down time by himself, he would read books, often before bed. He mentions a handful of titles that seem to revolve around three central themes: romance, exploration, and adventure.

The romantic novels—Mary Barton, My Danish Sweetheart, Clara Vaughan, and Lorna Doone—possibly reminded MacMurchie of his wife at home by reflecting his longing and yearning for his family. They would certainly be missing each other being separated by thousands of miles. These books may have helped to fill the void of the absence of his family during the expedition.


The adventure novels—The Prisoners of War: A Reminiscence of Rebellion, Dick Rodney/The Adventures of an Eton Boy, Rodman the Boatsteerer, Kronstadt, Social Sinner, A Daughter of the Sea, and The Golden Butterfly—were useful for when the expedition was particularly dull. Because he did not have a science background and some days would have been rather monotonous, these books added some level of excitement to otherwise boring days.

Selection of book title covers MacMurchie mentions in his diaries and read on board the Scotia. Sources: Lorna Doone, A Daughter of the Sea, and Heroes of Discovery.

The non-fiction books about exploration— Heroes of Discovery: Magellan, Cook, Park, Franklin and Livingstone and From Edinburgh to the Antarctic—mirrored at least some of the work being done on previous expeditions to the Antarctic, so the previous voyages can be compared with the ongoing one.


One of the most interesting interactions recorded in the diaries details the crew making, hanging, and burning an effigy. According to Brown et al, the reason for this effigy burning ceremony was due to a superstition among whalers. In the autumn of 1903, the crew were eager to leave the Antarctic having been stuck in the ice for months in Scotia Bay on Laurie Island to resupply in Buenos Aires and decided that the reason for being stuck in the ice is that there must be a jinker, a person who brought bad luck, on board. So to get rid of the bad luck, an effigy of the person was “sacrificed” to turn the luck around.[13]

The most significant instance of this ritual was between MacMurchie and the Chief Steward, Thomas Mackenzie, when MacMurchie and the crew created an effigy of the Steward and ceremoniously hung it and burned it. MacMurchie was appointed as the “minister” who lead the crew in chanting and burning the effigy. As might be expected, when seeing an effigy of himself being sacrificed Mackenzie was furious. Since MacMurchie appeared to be the ringleader of the event, Mackenzie took MacMurchie by the collar and likely would have hit him, if he hadn’t escaped his wrath.[14]

Another effigy incident occurred a few days later with the botanist, Robert Neal Rudmose Brown, as the jinker, but his reaction was completely different from the Steward’s.[15] These two instances of burning jinkers brought forth different reactions from the “sacrificed” individuals. The Chief Steward reacted violently, nearly taking his anger out on MacMurchie perhaps because he did not understand the ritual and was offended. On the other hand, Brown seems well aware of the meaning of the ritual and happily participated.

Mysterious Mr “Lazaro”

Aside from what activities the men did in between ship tasks and what antics they got into, there was a man named Lazaro who is mentioned several times throughout the diaries, but poses some identification difficulties. MacMurchie is almost always working with or spending some leisure time with this Lazaro person and seems reasonable to believe that the men were friends (It certainly wouldn’t be ideal to be stuck on a ship for months on end with people you hate). The name doesn’t sound particularly Scottish nor is there any record of him on the list of crewmen. The name “Lazaro” might be Portuguese/Spanish, so it may be possible that the SNAE crew picked up or recruited a deck hand from Portugal or South America, where the surname is quite common, when the ship docked there. Before the Scotia entered Antarctic waters, they anchored in Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, which may have been where Lazaro joined the crew[16], although, he is not mentioned until the second diary, let alone on the crew list.

Using the University of Glasgow Special Collections, there are no men in the pictures that obviously appear to be of Portuguese/Spanish descent. However, one image could potentially be Lazaro from the Scott Polar Research Institute collection. “Lazaro” could have been a nickname for one of the crew, but if so it isn’t derived from a crew member’s name.

It seems curious that there was a crewman with a Hispanic surname who is not listed on the Scotia crew roster, but is mentioned several times in MacMurchie’s second diary.

Abandoning the Scotia

In a series of letters written decades after the voyage, MacMurchie recounted what happened between him and the Skipper (either Captain Thomas Robertson or William Bruce) when the Scotia docked in Buenos Aires to restock supplies. These letters tell of when a member of the crew, Jim Smith, got into a predicament at a bar owing the owner £200, as well as a dispute about withheld wages between the Skipper and MacMurchie around the 28th of September 1903.

Stern view of the Scotia caught in ice. Source: Glasgow Digital Library, Voyage of the Scotia.

In this diary entry, MacMurchie was a part of a sledge team that travelled 16 miles through the snow and ice and refused to do any work the next day because their bodies were so sore from trudging through the snow. The Skipper threatened to dock their pay for this insurrection, but MacMurchie still refused to work. It is understandable why. Working on the ship was very physically demanding and the human body has its limits. Not resting inhibits the ability to work by preventing the body to recuperate.

The issue about the wages was addressed in the post-expedition letters when the ship was in Buenos Aires. The Skipper supposedly promised to pay the men from the above incident at the British Consul office, but when they arrived there they were again refused pay. After some arguing, MacMurchie (and Jim) refused to go back to the Scotia, essentially deserting the expedition. They stowed away on a ship to Antwerp then Leith and took the train back to Dundee. When they finally reached Dundee, Jim Smith was able to get the rest of their wages restored.


Map of Laurie Island by J G Bartholomew at the Edinburgh Geographical Institute and published in Volume 2 (1907) of the “Scientific Results of the Voyage of S Y Scotia 1902-1904” with topographical features named after crew members. Source: Glasgow Digital Library, Voyage of the Scotia.


These diaries record both sides of a sailor’s life on the Scotia, from entertainment sources to superstitions to friendships. So many interesting things happened aside from the routine trawling, sounding, and specimen collecting that gives us a more holistic view of what life was really like on a ship in the Antarctic.

Both of the diaries have been transcribed and digitized and are freely available through the Scottish Maritime Museum. This project also includes a map of the coordinates mentioned in the diary entries showing the route of the Scotia.


Images from this post can be found at the Glasgow Digital Library’s Voyage of the Scotia with more at the Scott Polar Research Institute.

[1] Williams, I. P. and Dudeney, J. 2018, William Speirs Bruce: Forgotten Polar Hero. Gloucestershire, Amberley Publishing.

[2] Williams and Dudeney 2018, 76

[3] Williams and Dudeney 2018, 63-74

[4] Brown, R. N. Rudmose, Pirie, J. H., and Mossman, R. C. 2002. The Voyage of the Scotia: The Story of Scotland’s Forgotten Polar Hero. Edinburgh, Mercat Press. 6-12.

[5] Williams and Dudeney 2018, 76

[6] CoolAntarctica. n. d. William Spiers Bruce – Scotia – 1902 – 1904 Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. CoolAntarctica. viewed 24/07/19. < https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/antarctic_whos_who_scotia.php>.

[7] MacMurchie, J. S. 1902-03, Volume 1: Diary from the SY ‘Scotia ‘Antarctic Expedition. [paper]. At: Irvine, Scottish Maritime Museum. 2013-6 (001).

[8] MacMurchie 2013-6 (001), 2 November 1902

[9] MacMurchie, J. S. 1902-03, Volume 2: Diary from the SY ‘Scotia ‘Antarctic Expedition. [paper]. At: Irvine, Scottish Maritime Museum. 2013-6 (002), 8 August 1903.

[10] MacMurchie 2013-6 (002), 25 July 1903

[11] MacMurchie 2013-6 (001), 21 October 1903

[12] MacMurchie 2013-6 (001), 22 November 1903

[13] Brown et al 2018, 72.

[14] MacMurchie 2013-6 (002), October 16 and 17, 1903

[15] MacMurchie 2013-6 (002), Oct 29, 1903

[16] MacMurchie 2013-6 (002), Jan 6 1903

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