I’ve been living in Dundee for nearly three years now, and I’ve had ties to the city for much longer than that (since birth, in fact), yet I still know very little about it.
I’ve picked up on the obvious stuff, naturally — the city’s historic tradition of jute, jam and journalism; the fact that it once was home to the longest bridge in the world (at least until it collapsed suddenly in 1879) — but I have never really taken the time to get to know it on any meaningful level.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to change that, and having passed RRS Discovery countless times without taking any real notice of it I decided to start there. I went with my mother on January 2nd, but the ticket office was still closed for the holidays, so I returned ten days later when normal services had safely resumed.
I have never been particularly interested in maritime history; in Aberdeen I worked for three years on Ship Row, a few doors up from the award-winning Aberdeen Maritime Museum, and never once felt inclined to pay it a visit. I can generally separate boats into three varieties: pirate ships, naval vessels and P&O Ferries — any more than that and I start to struggle.
Back at Discovery Point, the exhibition began with an educational video featuring a variety of talking heads. Among them was of course Robert Falcon Scott, captain of the expedition, who was also present in the room itself as a waxwork model. The video, shown from behind a dark mesh, was surprisingly effective, the netting lending the actors an almost 3D appearance.
The ship was built from ten varieties of wood to protect it from the pressures of polar pack ice, at a time when steel was increasing in popularity as a building material. Discovery was built in Dundee — by the Dundee Shipbuilding Company — because of the city’s long tradition of constructing whaling vessels, which would have needed to withstand similar conditions. It was the first purpose-built research vessel of its kind, and came fitted with a magnetic observatory complete with thirty-foot exclusion zone.
From there you move into the next room, which serves to illustrate the provisions necessary for the ship’s three year voyage. The Discovery’s itinerary makes for interesting reading: as it departed New Zealand the ship was carrying 45 live sheep, 27 gallons of whisky and a hot air balloon, to be used in what was then the first aerial survey of Antarctica. The lamb would have to be supplemented with other fresh meat, and the crew were to spend much of their time there eating penguin eggs and seals.
A soundtrack of chisel-work and hammering greets you as you enter the third room. This section of the exhibition deals with the completion of the boat itself, and lays out the timescale of its construction. Launched by Lady Markham on 21 March 1901, the Discovery was then trialed in the Firth of Tay for a couple of months before moving to London in June for provisioning. She then set sail for Antarctica in August, travelling via Isle Of White, Cape Town and New Zealand.
Discovery set sail with a crew of 47, in addition to a cat and a dog. Dr George Murray left the expedition at Cape Town, having used the journey to train the crew in the scientific method; the dog was left behind on New Zealand for some unexplained reason, shortly after which Charles Bonner fell to his death from the crow’s nest while waving off onlookers at Lyttelton Harbour. He was buried elsewhere on the island, at Port Chalmers. Scott, meanwhile, survived the mission, though he was less lucky on a subsequent visit to the region.
The final exhibit before visitors board the Discovery itself gives further insights into the identities of the crew. Cold, hungry and often sick with scurvy, the scientists on board nevertheless undertook research that would prove of vital importance, and is still of relevance today. Geologist Hartly T. Farrer, even in 1901, was finding evidence of global warming in receding glaciers, and predicted the great global consequences that we are only starting to experience today. They also found support for the theory of continental drift, by finding evidence of plant life that had no business being in the polar south.
From there you head out onto the boat itself, which — following its 1986 return to Dundee from London by way of floating dock — has been renovated to better represent how it might have looked back then. The boat has had many uses since the Antarctic Expedition, however, and there are some modifications that are still in evidence today. Nevertheless, you really do get a sense of what life must have been life for Scott’s crew. Half an hour wasn’t enough, but I certainly couldn’t have spent three years on or below deck.
While on board we got speaking to a member of staff, an elderly man who told us he had worked there for fourteen years. He was polishing the brass, and despite the cold weather and physically demanding nature of the work told us that it was the best job in the world. In a way I can totally understand the appeal: RSS Discovery is an award-winning museum and popular tourist attraction, but it is also a vessel of historic and scientific significance, and that man is now just as much a part of its history as Robert Falcon Scott.
So, there you have it, Dundee — subsequently subtitled The City Of Discovery (if not City Of Culture) — was once a place of scientific, exploratory and boat-building importance, and by all accounts still is. If you’re ever in Dundee, and are bemused by the penguins and boat sitting quietly on the riverside, you now know why. On that cold January evening it even went some way to explaining the weather.