Treasures displays

The life and collection of James Mann Wordie

A display commemorating Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 and celebrating the expedition's Scottish geologist. From 20 November to 18 January.


Books and papers of Sir James Mann Wordie form the core of our treasures display commemorating the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917.

Wordie was the young Scottish geologist on Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship 'Endurance' when it sailed to Antarctica 100 years ago.

The ship became stuck fast in the ice of the Weddell Sea, and the epic story of the crew's survival and subsequent heroic rescue by Shackleton have become the stuff of polar legend.

Glasgow-born Wordie went on to become one of the 20th century's most influential figures in polar exploration. His personal library and papers are in the polar collections at the National Library of Scotland.


Heroic courage in the Antarctic

'If this was written as fiction, most people would find it hard to believe,' Curator Paula Williams says of the expedition survival story.

Shackleton and his team set out in 1914 to cross the Antarctica from sea to sea, via the South Pole.

Ice trapped their ship 'Endurance' for much of 1915 and then crushed it, forcing the men to camp on ice floes for months. Eventually they sailed in three small boats to a rocky outpost called 'Elephant Island' — but were still 900 miles from safety.

In April 1916, James Mann Wordie and most of the men remained on Elephant Island, while Shackleton and five others set out for South Georgia across the raging southern ocean. The aim was to reach the whaling station there and raise the alarm.

After a difficult crossing, Shackleton and two men then had to endure an arduous climb across 36 miles of uncharted territory and high mountain peaks to reach the station on the opposite side of the island.

It was 30 August 1916 when Shackleton rescued Wordie and the others from Elephant Island — almost two years since the expedition had first assembled. Their survival over such a long period in hostile conditions makes it one of the most remarkable ever recorded.


Wordie's research and influence

Wordie used his time on the ice to gather as much information about the region and its inhabitants as the harsh conditions would allow.

Among his published research are his scientific studies on the Weddell Sea, some of which are featured in our display. This work added greatly to geographic understanding of the polar region.

The 'Geographical Journal' published Wordie's paper 'The drift of the Endurance' in April 1918 along with a map charting the drift. This too is on display.

After his Antarctic experience, Wordie made several trips to the Arctic, including an expedition to Spitzbergen in 1919 with William Spiers Bruce.

He also took up a series of influential appointments:

  • Chairman of the Scott Polar Research Institute
  • President of the Royal Geographic Society
  • Master of St John's College, Cambridge.

These allowed him to shape numerous expeditions, following a successful model of small, seasonal trips which has largely been followed to the present day.


Wordie collection on display

James Wordie was a keen book collector, and his personal collection of books and papers form the heart of polar collections at the National Library of Scotland. Among the material on show are:

Zum Ewigen Eise
'Zum Ewigen Eise', one
of Wordie's foreign
language books.
  • The programme for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917, produced in 1914, showing Shackleton's proposals for his ambitious crossing of the continent
  • A volume of newspaper cuttings covering 1909-1916 kept by a Shackleton admirer
  • A book about the expedition with photos taken by the official photographer on the expedition, Frank Hurley
  • Several of James Wordie's scientific papers from his time stranded on the ice-bound Weddell Sea
  • Wordie's account of the Scottish Sptizbergen Expedition in 1919
  • Wordie's account of the Arctic expedition to the Jan Mayen Island in 1921, when he was among those who made the first ascent of the island's main peak
  • Items that are evidence of Wordie's interest in mountains and geology from childhood and teenage years
  • A selection of some of the books that Wordie collected, including polar fiction and foreign publications.


Opening hours

The display in our George IV Bridge Building is open daily:

Monday to Friday: 10.00-20.00
Saturday: 10.00-17.00
Sunday: 14.00-17.00

See also festive opening hours

Admission free.



The treasures display in our George IV Bridge Building is a small sample of the millions of items in our collections. We change the display several times a year.

Past treasures displays



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