The 'Terra Nova'
Scott's last
ship, the
'Terra Nova'

Scott and the 'Discovery'

The first expedition in what came to be known as the 'Heroic Age' of Antarctic exploration was the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904) led by Robert Falcon Scott. Although Scott failed in his attempt to sledge to the South Pole, he did make a furthest south (82º 16') and a great deal of important scientific research was undertaken including the first comprehensive survey of the Ross Sea Area. Scott's account 'The voyage of the Discovery (Wordie.147-148; Wordie.290-291) has become a classic of Antarctic literature, while the 'South Polar Times' (S.52.a), a monthly journal compiled by members of the expedition, is an entertaining piece of polar ephemera. A pictorial record of the expedition is contained in the 'Album of photographs and sketches ...' (S.300.c)

Scots go south

Although denied support from the British Government, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-1904) led by William Speirs Bruce carried out a significant amount of scientific research and discovered a new area of coast which was named Coats Land after the two brothers who were the expedition's main sponsors. Omond House, the stone hut which was built as its research centre, has become the longest continuing operating base in Antarctica. (It was later handed over to the Argentine government). Among the publications relating to the expedition are a book of photographs 'Life in the Antarctic' (Wordie.382(1)), 'The voyage of the Scotia' (S.52.f; Wordie.235) and 'The log of the Scotia Expedition, 1902-1904' (Wordie.361).

The Pole within reach

Ernest Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition (1907-1909) had several notable achievements to its credit. A four-man party made a furthest south (88º 23') to within a hundred miles of the South Pole, while another party made a first ascent of Mt Erebus and reached the area of the South Magnetic Pole. The collections include a specially bound limited-edition of Shckleton's expedition account 'Heart of the Antarctic' (GB/B.962), as well as a copy (from a printing of fewer than 100 copies) of 'Aurora Australis' (GB/B.422). The latter is the first book to be written, illustrated, printed and bound (using the boards from the expedition's packing cases) in Antarctica.

At roughly the same time as Shackleton was failing narrowly to reach the Pole, the French explorer Jean Charcot was completing the second of his exploratory Antarctic voyages which surveyed a vast tract of coastline and amassed a wealth of scientific research. 'Le francais au Pole Sud' (Wordie.363/3), the narrative of his first voyage, and The voyage of the "Why Not?" in the Antarctic' (S.52.a), his account of the second, are both held.

Norwegian triumph, British tragedy

The quest for the South Pole was now turning into a race, and it was won by the Norwegian Expedition of 1910-1912 under the command of Roald Amundsen, who had completed the first transit of the Northwest Passage in 1905. The story of the expedition is told in 'Sydpolen' (H3.75.924) and 'The South Pole' (S.52.e; Wordie.260-261).

Barely a month after Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott led his party of five to the Pole. However, in one of the most famous episodes of polar history, they all perished on the return march. This is the best-known of all Antarctic expeditions and probably the most extensively documented.

Among the works in the collections are:

  • 'Scott's last expedition', the official expedition account (S.52.b; Wordie.285-286)
  • 'Antarctic adventure: Scott's Northern Party' by Raymond Priestley (Wordie.242)
  • 'Diary of the Terra Nova expedition' by Edward Wilson (NF.1288.e.5)
  • 'The worst journey in the world' by Aspley Cherry-Garrard (S.70.e; Wordie. 247-48)

In addition a number of ephemeral items connected with the expedition have been collected.

Epics of survival: Mawson and Shackleton

Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914) and Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Transantarctic Expedition (1914-1917) provided more epics of heroic endurance. Mawson himself performed an extraordinary survival feat after his two companions on a sledging trip had both perished, and his story somewhat overshadowed the expedition's important achievements in exploration and science. Among the expedition literature in the collection is 'Mawson's will: the greatest survival story ever written' by Lennard Bickel (GB/A.2297) and Mawson's own account 'The home of the blizzard' (Wordie.310-311).

Shackleton's expedition failed in its aim of crossing Antarctica via the Pole — indeed the main party on the 'Endurance' didn't even succeed in landing on the continent — but it survived an extraordinary series of adventures to provide one of the most famous of all Antarctic stories. There are numerous works relating to this expedition in the collections, including 'South', which is Shackleton's own account (S.70.b; Wordie.320), 'Endurance: Shackleton's incredible voyage' by Alfred Lansing (NE.102.d.18) and 'Shackleton's forgotten Argonauts' by Lennard Bickel (GB/A.2243). Of particular interest are four volumes of press cuttings (Wordie.346-349) dealing with Shackleton's planning and preparation for the expedition and the early stages of the expedition itself.

The 'Heroic Age' came to an end with Shackleton's expedition. The main focus of expeditionary work in Anatrctica was henceforth to be on scientific rather than geographic discovery. The National Library of Scotland has continued to collect materials relating to the scientific exploration of Antarctica, on the legal system that has evolved to regulate this activity and on the environmental issues resulting from the growing number of visitors to the continent.

Suggestions for further reading

  • 'Antarctica observed: who discovered the Antarctic continent?', by A G E Jones (Whitby: Caedmon, 1982) [GB/A.3474]
  • 'Antarctica: the extraordinary history of man's conquest of the frozen continent' 2nd edition (Sydney: Reader's Digest, 1990) [Library shelfmark: GB/B.1042]
  • 'Antarctic conquest: the great explorers in their own words', edited by Walker Chapman (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965) [GB/A.3302]
  • 'Before the heroes came: Antarctica in the 1890s', by T H Baughman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1994) [GB/A.2991]
  • 'A history of Antarctica', by Stephen Martin (Sydney: State Library of New South Wales, 1996) [GB/A.3259]
  • 'Let heroes speak: Antarctic explorers, 1771-1922', by Michael Rosov (Anapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) [GB/A.3576]
  • 'Siege of the Antarctic', by Hugh Mill (London: Alston Rivers, 1905) [S.52.e; Wordie.208]

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