William Spiers Bruce was a young Scot who had travelled to Antarctica for the first time as an expedition leader in 1892-93. The aim was to find right whales, after there had been only small stocks due to overfishing in the Arctic. Spiers-Bruce was also a member of the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition to Franz Josef Land in 1896-97 and 1898 in Spitsbergen in the Arctic. William Spiers-Bruce’s love of oceanography continued to grow, and his next chance for Antarctic research came in 1900, when Robert Scott asked him to participate in the upcoming “DISCOVERY EXPEDITION” as a naturalist . Spiers-Bruce rejected the offer not because of his enormous Scottish pride, but because of his lack of interest in expeditions, which were mainly about achieving something sensational like the South Pole. Spiers-Bruce also wanted to lead his own expedition.
The British Government did not want to participate in the financing of this scientific expedition. This made Spiers-Bruce more determined than ever to fund the whole programme through his own efforts in Scotland. Two Scottish brothers, James and Andrew Coats, made the first deposit of 11,000 pounds. In 1901, Spiers-Bruce was able to buy a Norwegian whaling vessel and convert it at a Scottish shipyard. It was renamed “SCOTIA” and placed under the command of his old friend Thomas Robertson. In total, the Coat brothers put 30,400 pounds into the expedition. Spiers-Bruce assembled an impressive group of scientists. He and the 25-strong team were joined by a zoologist, botanist, taxidermist, meteorologist, geologist, bacteriologist and a bagpiper who worked as a laboratory assistant. The main objective of the expedition was to carry out extensive hydrographic work in the Weddell Sea in the summer of 1903 and 1904, to survey the South Orkney Islands and study its wildlife.
The “SCOTIA” left Troon on November 2, 1902 and reached the Falkland Islands on January 6, 1903, where she stayed for three weeks. The “SCOTIA” sailed south and arrived in the South Orkneys on February 3. The next day, they landed on Saddle Island. They were the first after Dumont d’Urville in 1838. From here, progress was slow, and it was only in the South Thule Island area, in the South Sandwich Islands, that they could even think of the idea of venturing further south. By February 22, they had advanced to 70 ° 25’S, 17 ° 12’W. Unfortunately, the temperature suddenly dropped to minus 10 degrees Cel. and the “SCOTIA” got stuck in the ice. All plans to go further south were abandoned immediately. They worked their way back, but after six days they had travelled only half a latitude to the north. The progress was miserable and with it the consideration of finding open water for an escape route. They decided to search for a hibernation site and after several days at sea found a sheltered bay on the south side of Laurie Island in the South Orkneys.
A blanket of snow was built around the ship to protect it from the harsh weather. On land, a 3 meter long stone heap was built as a reference point for their surveying work. A large stone building called “Omond House” was built from local stones on land and covered with sails. Mattresses, ovens and hammocks were installed together with a wooden floor. This was considered quite comfortable. The intention was that this would be used by a group that would be left behind the next summer, when the Scotia sailed south again to the Weddell Sea. On the other side of the stone hut, a magnetic observatory made of wood was constructed. Although the men had a lot to do, they found time to relax by climbing a nearby glacier and skiing. Temperatures were sometimes bitterly cold, but from July, small groups were sent to the srrounding for a short time, where they carried out extensive botanical and meteorological studies as well as various surveying work.
In the spring of 1903, the ice still held the “SCOTIA” when a plethora of wild animals arrived. The much-needed food reserve was filled with fresh seal meat and penguin eggs. The snow surrounding the ship was cleared away and the men tried to blow a canal through the ice. The progress was modest, however, as the ice was 4 to 6 meters thick. Eventually, wind came from the northeast and helped break the ice so far that the ship was finally free again on November 22, 1903. A group of six men were left ashore when the SCOTIA headed north for negotiations with the Argentine government on 27 November. She stayed briefly in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands and arrived in Buenos Aires on Christmas Eve. The Scots negotiated with the Argentine government to take responsibility for the ongoing meteorological studies in their winter quarters called Omond House on Laurie Island. The “SCOTIA” had three Argentines on board when it sailed to Laurie Island.
Second attempt to reach the Weddell Sea
When the “SCOTIA” arrived, the three Argentines, together with the meteorologist RC Mossman and the cook, stayed behind in the “Omond House”, while the rest made their second attempt to reach the Weddell Sea.
The Arctic Circle was crossed at 32 ° W length. The pack ice did not turn out to be a problem until they sat at a latitude of 72 ° 18’S on the morning of March 3. So Thomas Robertson climbed to the crow’s nest and, to everyone’s surprise, reported land in the distance. They finally freed themselves and the “SCOTIA” slowly moved further south until it came across a huge ice shelf that stretched in a northeast/southwest direction. They followed it 150 miles in a southwesterly direction over the next ten days, carrying out exploratory work along the entire route, but never getting closer than 3 kilometers ashore. The records confirmed that they had discovered a piece of land that was previously unknown. He called it Coats Land in honour of the two Scottish brothers who were instrumental in financing the expedition. Luckily, on March 12, the wind came from the southwest and the ice began to break, giving the “SCOTIA” a free ride again.
Robertson headed home on the northeast course. On 15 July 1904, SCOTIA was moored in Kingstown Harbour, Northern Ireland. She was greeted by a cheering group of locals, as well as the press and the Coats brothers, who were present on their yacht to meet her. Salute shots were fired, fog horns rang and a congratulatory telegram from His Majesty, the king, arrived.
Argentina takes over the station
Back at the “Omond House”, the five winterers had set out to observe and collect specimens. “Omond House” was built on a low isthmus between two higher parts of Laurie Island with a bay on both sides, Scotia Bay and Uruguay Cove, with an intervening ridge. This provided good protection from the sea, unless the wind comes directly from the direction of the bay. On April 3, winds at a speed of 70 km/h flowed directly to the beach in front of the hut. Combined with a particularly high tide, the waves first destroyed a wave breaker that had been built on these occasions, and then reached “Omond House”.
The tents were taken to the highest point of the northern beach as a precaution, but could not be set up due to the strong wind. Fortunately, the storm subsided and there was no further damage. The group survived the long winter months until the Argentine ship URUGUAY arrived on December 31, 1904.
The “Omond House” was handed over to the Argentine scientists. A fresh Argentine crew was left behind to collect meteorological observations and abundant supplies over the coming winter. The base was renamed “Orcadas” and has been permanently occupied by Argentina ever since. It is the longest permanent base in Antarctica. On Orcadas, the first radio station in Antarctica was commissioned in 1927. The oldest buildings of the present station, the “Omond House” from 1903, the Argentine magnetic observatory “Moneta House” built in 1905 and an Argentine meteorological hut, are today, together with a cemetery with twelve graves, the oldest of which dates back to 1903, as a historical site HSM-42 under the protection of the Antarctic Treaty.
Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal