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Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers – The first Scot to reach the South Pole

south_pole_exploration_party

In early January 1912 Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers – to his delighted surprise – was chosen by Captain Robert Scott as a member of the five-man party which would attempt to reach the South Pole.

Birdie (born in Greenock, near Glasgow, in 1883) wrote home that he was proud to represent Scotland – England was represented by Scott and Dr Edward Wilson, Ireland by Captain Oates (through the Inniskilling regiment) and Wales by Edgar ‘Taff’ Evans. Birdie Bowers went on to be the first Scot to reach the South Pole and to join the ranks of his fellow-countrymen who had played their part in Antarctic exploration.  In 1822 the Jane, a Scottish-owned whaling and sealing ship captained by James Weddell, reached new ‘furthest south’ latitudes in the Antarctic Peninsula region. In the early 1840s Scot James Clark Ross arrived on the other side of the continent with two ships, the Erebus and Terror – the Ross Sea, island and ice-shelf bear his name, while the twin volcanoes on Ross Island were named after his ships, and McMurdo Sound after Archibald McMurdo, a young lieutenant on the expedition. In the 1870s Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist Charles Thomson was chief scientist on the Challenger expedition; after the expedition's return a young Scottish naturalist, William Speirs Bruce, worked on its records.

In the early 1890s Bruce travelled to Antarctica with the Dundee Antarctic expedition and by 1900 he was planning his own expedition. He found, however, that he was in competition for funding with a young English naval captain, Robert Scott. Bruce declined the suggestion that he should join forces with Scott and serve as the latter’s second-in-command; in 1902 he left Troon, Ayrshire, on the Scotia, heading for the Antarctic Peninsula, rather than the Ross Sea area, Scott’s planned base. On the Discovery, Scott’s second-in-command was another Scot, Albert Armitage - the ship itself had been custom-designed and built in Dundee. In 1904, after the Discovery had been hemmed in by ice, the Dundee-built whaler the Terra Nova came to his rescue. Although Scott’s name became more widely known than Bruce’s, photographic postcards of the Scottish expedition were widely circulated (one was sent to Bowers’ mother in 1911). The Scottish Oceanographic Laboratory in Edinburgh Bruce founded on his return from Antarctica was visited by both Ernest Shackleton and by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.  When Shackleton, a member of Scott’s Discovery expedition, needed funds for his 1907-9 Nimrod expedition, William Beardmore, a wealthy Glasgow ship-owner, became his greatest supporter – for whom Shackleton named the immense glacier which led to the Antarctic plateau. Shackleton failed to reach the South Pole itself and in 1910 Scott set out in the trusty Terra Nova (the Discovery was not available) and headed for New Zealand (which reminded Bowers of Scotland) and on to the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound. Meanwhile Amundsen – who had originally been heading for the Arctic in the Fram (designed by Scottish naval architect, Colin Archer) – changed course and sailed south.

In early 1912 Scott, Bowers and their three companions reached the South Pole, arriving a few weeks after Amundsen and his team, but died on their return journey. In 1914 Shackleton, still keen to make his Antarctic mark, set out in the Endurance with the ultimate aim of crossing the Antarctic continent. This time his main supporter was James Caird, a Dundee jute-importer; his carpenter was Henry ‘Chippy’ McNish from Port Glasgow, a man whose skills would make a major contribution to saving the lives of Shackleton and his crew after the Endurance was frozen in and crushed in the ice.

Birdie Bowers loved Scotland – particularly the Firth of Clyde and the highlands – and was rightly proud to be the first Scot to reach the South Pole and to join the ranks of Scots who played their part in British Antarctic history. 

The biography of Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, written by Anne Strathie, draws on Bowers’ letters, journals and previously neglected material, shedding new light on Bowers and tells the full story of the hardy naval officer who could always lift his companions’ spirits.

By Anne Strathie

Terra Nova returns to Cardiff (1913)

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