Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (26 March 2009)
Date of Auction: 26th March 2009
Sold for £2,700
Estimate: £2,500 - £3,000
An extremely rare and important Royal Scottish Geographical Society Medal for the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 1902-04, as awarded to Alastair Ross, the expedition’s taxidermist
The Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Medal, bronze, obverse, the Society’s crest and title, reverse, officially engraved, ‘Presented to Alastair Ross, Taxidermist, Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 1902-04’, 50mm. diameter, in its fitted Alexr. Kirkwood, Edinburgh leather case of issue, case hinge/spine damaged, otherwise extremely fine £2500-3000
FootnoteIn addition to the Gold Medal presented to the expedition’s leader, Dr. William Speirs Bruce, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society awarded Silver Medals to the expedition’s ship’s master and meteorologist, and Bronze Medals to the remaining five scientific staff.
Alastair Ross was born in Edinburgh in December 1881, the son of Andrew Ross, a solicitor in the Supreme Courts in Scotland, Ross Herald, and a well-known authority in matters heraldic, genealogical and military. Young Alastair was educated at the Royal High School and, it would appear, had decided upon a career in medicine prior to his decision to seek adventure in Antarctica.
With the financial backing of the Coats family, the wealthy Clydeside thread manufacturers, and under the leadership of Dr. William Speirs Bruce, a well travelled natural scientist and explorer, the S.N.A.E. was launched in the autumn of 1901 - Bruce had earlier offered a Scottish-backed vessel to join Captain Scott’s Antarctic Expedition, but his suggestion had been dismissed as ‘mischievous rivalry’ by Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society. Indeed it was this latter exchange that prompted Bruce to organise his own exclusively Scottish initiative, an enterprise in which he was successful, or certainly according to The Scotsman:
‘The leader and all the scientific and nautical staff members of the expedition are Scots; the funds have been collected for the most part this side of the Border; it is a product of voluntary effort, and unlike the expedition which will be simultaneously employed in the exploration of the Antarctic, it owes nothing to Government help.’
The expedition numbered 25 men in all, namely Bruce and six scientific staff, including Alastair Ross as taxidermist, and the remainder a hardy Scottish crew under Thomas Robertson, a veteran, like Bruce, of the Dundee Whaling Expedition of 1892-93 - their ship was the extensively refitted ex-Norwegian whaler Scotia, and their stated mission to undertake a full programme of exploration and scientific work in the Weddell Sea, to the west of Captain Scott’s intended area of operations, a mission in which they were undoubtedly successful. Among other achievements, the S.N.A.E. discovered new land to the east of the Sea and constructed the first ever meteorological station in Antarctic territory - a site that remains in operation to this day; so, too, collected hundreds of biological and geological specimens, many of them still in evidence in museum and university collections. In fact, in the words of Bruce’s biographer, Peter Speak, the S.N.A.E. was ‘by far the most cost-effective and carefully planned scientific expedition of the Heroic Age’.
The Scotia departed Troon on 2 November 1902 and, via Madeira and the Cape Verde islands, reached Port Stanley in the Falklands in January 1903. Having then re-provisioned for the Antarctic, she sailed through heavy pack ice to the Saddle Island in the South Orkney Islands, where she landed a scientific party before continuing South on 10 February - two weeks later she was deep in the Weddell Sea, but with the ever increasing threat of ice, she was compelled to turn around in search of winter quarters to the North. As it transpired, she was forced back to the South Orkney Islands, where, beset in ice a quarter of a mile from a sheltered bay on Laurie Island, Bruce determined to make his winter quarters. And it was here, aside from carrying out extensive botanical, biological and geological survey work, that the expedition constructed the Antarctic’s first purpose built meteorological laboratory, “Omond House” - which site remains in use to this day, a much enlarged facility renamed Orcadas Base and under the control of the Argentine government. Indeed Alastair Ross and five others remained at Omond House while Bruce sailed for Argentina at the end of 1903, in order to negotiate the future management of the facility, the interim witnessing an extensive programme of dog-sledge expeditions to neighbouring islands.
The Scotia returned to Omond House in February 1904, dropped off three Argentine scientists to man the new meteorological laboratory, and embarked Ross and three of his companions for a second foray into the Weddell Sea. Here, on 3 March, after the Scotia’s progress was blocked by an ice barrier, Bruce and his companions carried out a series of depth soundings, the results of which indicated the existence of land behind the barrier. He therefore tracked the barrier southwards and a few days later land was sighted - and duly named “Coats Land” in honour of his backers - a discovery that suggested the Weddell Sea was smaller than supposed. Having then reached her southernmost position on 9 March, Scotia was trapped in the ice for four days before breaking free and making her escape to the North - a valuable record of oceanography and marine life being taken on the return journey.
The Scotia’s homecoming to the Firth of Clyde in July 1904 was a memorable occasion, a special reception being held at the Marine Biological Station, Millport, at which a congratulatory telegram from King Edward VII was read out, and Bruce presented with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Gold Medal - in the fullness of time, Robertson, Scotia’s master, and Robert Mossman, the expedition’s meteorologist, received the Society’s Silver Medal, and the remainder of the scientific staff, including Alastair Ross, the Society’s Bronze Medal; a film of the Scotia’s crew disembarking at Millport survives in the collection of the Scottish Screen Archive of the National Library of Scotland.
However, with the return of Scott’s Expedition to the U.K. a month or two later, the achievements of the S.N.A.E. were largely undermined, Bruce’s earlier run-in with Sir Clements Markham of the R.G.S. no doubt fuelling London’s overall denigration of the Scottish enterprise - in fact Bruce and his colleagues received no recognition whatsoever from the British Government, not even the Polar Medal, another bone of contention that occupied Bruce over the coming years, but to no avail.
Of Alastair Ross, little more is known, although he appears to have settled in Canada around 1910 - so, too, his brother Andrew, a Rugby International who was destined to be killed in action on the Western Front with the Canadian Scottish in April 1916.
Sold with a quantity of related artefacts, all of which are believed to have been the property of Alastair Ross, and quite probably used by him during the 1902-04 expedition, comprising a pair of binoculars, a pocket compass in rolled-gold on brass, a pocket knife set in a leather purse, and a worn papier-mache snuff box with crudely etched panels, the lid bearing a horn, a scotsman and a thistle, the base ‘A. Ross’, and the side panels ‘AR’, ‘Good in a Pinch’, an anchor and hearts with a sword; together with related postcards (3), one unused, with photographic image of S.N.A.E. members outside “Omond House”, the others addressed to Ross’s sister Jessie in Edinburgh, the earliest with artwork depicting a ship trapped in ice and a flanking image of a downed lady skater, below which the recipient has written ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Who, Oh! She Bumps’, this dated 13 December 1902, with Madeira stamp, and the later example a photographic image of the Scotia in ice, this dated 2 February 1904, with Falklands Islands 1d. stamp.