By Michael Durning

In 1911, two huge personalities raced to be the first to reach the South Pole. Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen bounded to the end of the Earth in two ships which, by a quirk of fate, could be viewed as the Great Tay Boat Race, a contest between Perth and Dundee. Perth won, and a new polar hero was found for the city in time for the 150th birthday of Amundsen in 2022!

Roald Amundsen 

I discovered an oddly-named Norwegian called Colin Archer, during my art project commemorating the centenary of the death of Scotland’s 'Forgotten Polar Explorer', RSGS’s own William Speirs Bruce. Mapping a trail that began at Paisley Art Institute’s Art Collection and circumnavigating polar history, I arrived in Perth.

Colin Archer

In building his Antarctic research ship Scotia, Bruce had consulted the Norwegian-Scottish émigré who had built one of the world’s most famous ships - a national hero in Norway but unknown to Scots! Colin Archer (1832-1921) built the ship Fram ('Forward'), which won Roald Amundsen’s race to the South Pole in 1911; an expedition that saw the death of Scott and his friends.

Amundsen and Fram 

The centenary of the deaths of Bruce and Colin Archer in 2021 coincided with COP26, leading to a meeting with Asle Toje, Deputy Leader of the Nobel Prize Committee of Norway. He said that “Colin Archer is a national hero! He is to Norway what Isambard Kingdom Brunel is to Britain! Scotland should be proud of its famous son!” If only Scots knew who Colin Archer was.

Michael Durning with Fram at the site of Archer family home

The Archer family built a home in Canal Street, when Perth’s city walls were demolished and the canal filled in. Generations of Archers attended the Incorporated Guild of Glovers at the famous Fair Maid's House, which was chosen by the RSGS in a poignant and portentous move in 2008 to locate its new HQ; the very DNA of Amundsen’s success was already in the fabric of the building!

Michael Durning with RSGS CEO Mike Robinson outside The Fair Maid's House

Colin’s parents emigrated from Perth to Norway in 1825. The young Colin became an innovative boat builder and committed himself to the fledgling Norwegian lifeboat organisation. Established along the coast of Norway, his new boats immediately changed the lives of Norway’s mariners. One ‘Rescue Boat’ alone saved 329 lives and assisted 102 ships. In recognition, Colin was made a Knight of the Order of St Olaf.

Nobel Prize-winning explorer Fridtjof Nansen asked Colin to design a polar ship. Fram’s success became the embodiment of Norwegian pride, the ship that sailed the furthest North and furthest South of any other in history, the strongest wooden ship ever built! Fram was a wonder of the ‘Heroic Age’. It defied the icepack with its retractable propeller and rudder. Its rotund hull meant that when ice crushed the Fram, it popped up above the ice! Beset, the ship’s crew were warm and comfortable with electricity generated by a wind turbine.

Dundee's Terra Nova find Fram disembarked

With hindsight, the quest to the South Pole was a Great Tay Boat Race, with Colin Archer of Perth’s Fram beating Scott’s Dundee-built Terra Nova! Amundsen and Nansen marked their visit to the RSGS in 1904, leaving their signatures next to Shackleton’s, Scott’s and Bruce's. Today, only the polar ships Fram and Dundee’s Discovery survive. They travelled to the ends of the Earth, but their histories are linked by the water of the silvery Tay, separated by a distance of only 22 miles.