William Gordon Burn Murdoch (1862-1939)

by Geoff Swinney, ARSGS FSAScot, National Museums Scotland

W.G. Burn Murdoch playing bagpipes in polar environment
W.G. Burn Murdoch playing bagpipes
in polar environment,

Adorning one wall of the Board Room of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) is a large portrait of Ralph Richardson WS, a past honorary secretary of the Society. The portrait is by William Gordon Burn Murdoch, whose associations with the Society, and with geography in general, are many and varied.

A man of diverse interests, William, or 'WG' as he was known to family and close friends, was not only an artist but an accomplished piper, explorer, fisherman, hunter, Scottish nationalist, whaler, and writer. His activities involved him in extensive travels: he described himself as having 'wandered quite far afield to the Arctic and Antarctic, and even to 'the back parts of Mull' and also the back parts of China'. Having travelled in different countries, and in a variety of different intellectual spaces in both arts and science, it is hardly surprising that WG has left a substantial and dispersed, body of work and a rich and equally dispersed archive.

His first book, From Edinburgh to the Antarctic (1894), recounted his experiences on the Dundee Antarctic Whaling Expedition of the southern summer of 1892-1893. As a result of the exhibition of paintings he produced of that expedition he was credited by one critic as having been the first artist in residence in the Antarctic regions; he was also one of the first people to play the bagpipes on that continent.

Modern whaling and bear hunting (1917) described his experiences as a commercial whaler, and his various hunts for polar bears; he presented a polar bear cub, which he named 'Starboard', to the Zoological Society of Scotland, another organisation with he was close involved.

Introducing the subject of bears and bagpipes in the North
"Introducing the subject of bears and bagpipes
in the North": cartoon drawn on glass

From Edinburgh to India and Burmah (1908) recounted his journey following the Prince and Princess of Wales on their historic visit to India in 1905-6.

WG's journey went on to include a voyage up the Irrawaddy to Bhamo and a brief foray by mule-train across the border into China. His books, and his many magazine articles, were written in an idiosyncratic style which often laid emphasised his pride in his native Scotland. His paintings and sketches are in numerous public and private collections, including the V&A, Dundee Art Galleries and Museums and National Museums Scotland, and were used as the basis for illustrating his own books and those of others, notably H.J. Bull's The cruise of the 'Antarctic' (1896).

His archives are similarly dispersed, although RSGS has particularly rich holdings: WG became a member in 1899, being elected a Fellow five years later, and served several terms as a member of the Society's Council.

These holdings include a portrait of Alexander Fairweather, the captain of the vessel on which Burn Murdoch sailed, together with his friend William Speirs Bruce, on the Dundee Antarctic expedition; Fairweather had not been very sympathetic to having an artist aboard.

Air... 'There's no place like home, home sweet home, W.G. Burn Murdoch cartoon on glass of polar bear chasing a piper
"Air... 'There's no place like home -
home sweet home"

In addition to such formal paintings the collection includes some hand-drawn lantern slides, probably used in lectures on his Antarctic and Arctic experiences.

A particularly interesting item is an unpublished and rather rambling typescript with the equally rambling title 'Spitsbergen reflections: going there & coming back, or Arctic reflections, or artists notes on the Arctic and Antarctic'.

Despite the inclusion of Antarctic in the title, this is mainly about WG's commercial interests in the archipelago of sub-Arctic islands now known as Svalbard, but in his day called Spitsbergen. WG was involved in the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, a mineral exploration company, and also collaborated with his life-long friend, the polar explorer W.S. Bruce, in attempts to develop tourism to the islands. WG worked on several enterprises with Bruce and was a major supporter of the Scottish National Antarctic (Scotia) Expedition, 1902-4.

The typescript is illustrated with numerous pen and ink sketches, including a rather fanciful depiction of James VI, in 1613, presenting Scottish merchants with a charter to explore and trade in Spitsbergen. This illustration typified WG's romanticised view of Scottish history. The typescript also contains a charming pen and wash study of polar bears, an image which the Society has used in the past on its Christmas cards.

Globe belonging to W.G. Burn Murdoch with South Pole uppermost
Globe belonging to W.G. Burn Murdoch
with South Pole uppermost

Another item in the RSGS archives is a large globe, the South Pole uppermost. This globe stood in WG's study, in his house, Arthur Lodge, Edinburgh. It was signed by those eminent polar explorers and scientists, including Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, whom WG entertained there.

It is impossible to do justice to the range of interests and the consequent diversity of contacts and engagements of Burn Murdoch. Suffice to say that his diverse interests, inspired and fostered by his friend, and sometime patron Patrick Geddes, and his spirit of multi-disciplinary exploration were of the sort which characterised the discipline of geography in the late 19th and early 20th century. Not that WG was typical, he was in many ways a one-off, one of the more colourful, larger than life, characters involved with the subject and with the Society. His published works, his paintings and his archival legacy together provide a fascinating glimpse of the man, of his world, and of geography as it was understood and practiced around the turn of the nineteenth century.


You can read more about the life and career of William Gordon Burn Murdoch in Geoff Swinney's paper, "From the Arctic and Antarctic to 'the back parts of Mull': The Life and Career of William Gordon Burn Murdoch (1862-1939)" published in 2003 in the Scottish Geographical Journal volume 119(2).