On the night of 25th February 1904, in a packed lecture theatre at the Synod Hall in Edinburgh, the RSGS President, Professor James Geikie, stood up to speak.  Their lecturer that evening, he told the audience, was there in a double capacity.  First, he was of course their guest speaker, but he was also the Society’s newly-appointed Secretary.  Professor Geikie hoped that the Society would enjoy the same prosperity and success under its new Secretary as it had under the retiring post-holder, Colonel Bailey, who had fostered all its best interests with unwearied zeal.

Tonight’s speaker, continued Geikie, came to them with no mean experience as an explorer, having sailed to the Antarctic with Captain Scott on the Discovery, and having taken part in a great sledge journey towards the south.  During the course of this trek, which caused severe privations and hardships, he had suffered haemorrhage of the lungs and was invalided home, no doubt to his very great regret.  It was now Geikie’s pleasure to invite the speaker to the platform.  Amid warm applause, Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton got to his feet.

Ernest Shackleton

A lot had happened to Shackleton during the past 12 months or so.  Arriving back at the Discovery seriously ill and exhausted after a 950-mile sledge journey with Scott and Edward Wilson, he had been speedily despatched home on a relief ship, much to his annoyance.   But on his return to Britain, his sweetheart, Emily Dorman, had agreed to marry him.  He had cast about for a new profession and found himself a job as Secretary to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh.  He had started work in January 1904, and moved into his new home, a flat in South Learmonth Gardens, a couple of weeks later.  On 15th February he had celebrated his 30th birthday.

Faced with an expectant audience, and acutely aware of the importance of first impressions, Shackleton must have felt intense pressure to perform well.  It was not his first lecture to RSGS - he had spoken in Aberdeen three months before - but it was his first since being elected Secretary.  One of the ironies of being sent home early from the Antarctic, which he still saw as a source of shame, was that he was now in considerable demand for personal insights into an expedition that was still ongoing.  A row of lantern slides stood ready to be inserted into a limelight projector.  For many people, these would be the first pictures they had ever seen of the Antarctic. 


Shackleton at the wheel of the Discovery

 No doubt conscious of the geographical focus of his audience, Shackleton began by displaying some maps.  Having traced the course of the Discovery from New Zealand to the Antarctic, and through some 500 miles of pack ice to the Ice Barrier, he turned to one of the ‘firsts’ of the expedition which was a manned balloon flight.   He explained how a balloon made of cow gut was filled with hydrogen from cylinders, a difficult job with a bitter wind blowing. 

Scott, as commander of the expedition, was first to ascend in the balloon’s small basket, and Shackleton was second.  From a height of about 750 feet, tethered on a slender wire, Shackleton took the first aerial photographs of the Antarctic continent.  But after that, the balloon was swiftly packed away.  ’A balloon on a Polar expedition was a white elephant,’ said Shackleton.  (This may have had more to do with the discovery that the valve was faulty:  had anyone used it while it was in the air, the balloon could have plummeted back to the ground like a stone.)


Filling the balloon


Then came the wildlife.  King and emperor penguins were described and illustrated, along with the first penguins’ eggs ever collected in the south polar regions.  These were put to practical use:  ‘The men who found them,’ said Shackleton, ‘carried them sixty-three miles, in order that their comrades on the ship should have a fresh meal.’   The expedition’s naturalists were surprised to find jellyfish in the freezing ocean;  on land, spiders with five pairs of legs, and carrying their young on their back, were examined with great interest. 



Ferocious blizzards sometimes lasted for three days, and afterwards the men had to dig the ship out of snowdrifts.  Touching on the sensitive subject of the sledge journey, Shackleton kept mainly to the facts and figures:  they took with them 2,000 pounds of provisions and trekked 270 miles further south than any other human being had reached.  But he emphasised the care shown by his companions:  ‘If it had not been for the unremitting kindness of Captain Scott and Dr Wilson I should not have been here to tell the story tonight.’ 

When the relief ship, the Morning, arrived in the Antarctic, it brought news from the outside world that astonished them.  Shackleton explained:  ’We did not even know that the Coronation had been postponed, that the Boer War was ended, or that King Edward had been finally crowned.’  He paid tribute to the spirit of the comrades he had left behind, and was also careful to mention William Speirs Bruce, who was still in the Southern Ocean on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition.  Perhaps sensing the imminence of a tricky question, Shackleton added that ‘people sometimes asked him what was the use of such expeditions, and his reply was that anything that increased the total of human knowledge was of value.’


Shackleton in his cabin

A vote of thanks was in order.  Speaking on behalf of the Society, Mr William C Smith, an Edinburgh lawyer and former Honorary Librarian of RSGS, was wholehearted in his appreciation.  Shackleton, he said, ‘was now their new secretary, and the best thanks they could give him for that night’s lecture would be to vigorously support him in his efforts to increase the membership of the Society and to increase its usefulness.’

During the next year and a half Shackleton certainly fulfilled that promise, before moving on to other projects as another Antarctic venture took shape in his mind.  This February, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, we remember the extraordinary expeditions that he went on to lead, and try to imagine ourselves in the audience at one of his lectures.  His handwriting might be preserved in our Council Minute books, but his heart was most definitely in the Antarctic.  

Quotes & reference:

The Scotsman, 26th February 1904

Roland Huntford, Shackleton (1985)

Scottish Geographical Magazine and RSGS archives