Dundee may once have been known for its ‘Jute, Jam and Journalism’, but the self-declared ‘City of Discovery’ is home to one of the most important ships in the history of science…

The Royal Research Ship Discovery, now permanently berthed at Discovery Point on Dundee’s evolving waterfront, was the last traditional wooden three-masted ship built in Britain. Yet she also represents a signifiant new beginning. “She was the first purpose-built scientific research ship,” explains Alistair Gellatly, Education Officer with Dundee Heritage Trust. “The whole purpose of her going to Antarctica was for the pursuit of science.”

Now often referred to as the “Discovery Expedition”, the British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901 was organised jointly by the Royal Society and Royal Geographical Society. The latter’s president, former Royal Navy midshipman Sir Clements Markham, was the man who appointed young naval officer Robert Falcon Scott—later immortalised as “Scott of the Antarctic”—as the expedition’s commander.

There’s no doubting the groundbreaking nature of the Discovery Expedition; more than 500 new species were discovered, while hundreds of miles of coastline, mountain ranges and glaciers were mapped for the first time. Yet it also answered rather more fundamental questions.

“It was unknown at the time whether Antarctica was a series of islands, or like the Arctic—a floating mass of ice,” says Alistair. “The expedition was able to confirm, through soil and rock samples, that Antarctica was a continent. They were also able to show—through the samples that they found, recovered and brought back—that it had, with Australia and Africa, been part of a larger continent. And by finding coal, they also proved that it had once been a forested area with a more tropical climate.”

RRS Discovery was built in Dundee thanks to the city’s recognised expertise in constructing whaling ships that had successfully navigated through freezing Arctic waters. “She had sea trials up in Dundee, while she was being fitted out,” says Alistair, “but her maiden voyage was, if you like, to Antarctica. It was a real learning curve for everyone, and there were a few things had to be corrected and amended on the way.”

“She was designed so she wouldn’t easily be trapped in the ice, with a relatively steeply raked stem which would act as an ice-breaker,” he adds, “but that did mean that, sailing south through the roughest seas imaginable, she did roll a huge amount; 45 degrees wasn’t unheard of. Quite a few officers, in their diaries, recorded how uncomfortable that was; unlike the crewmen, who were in hammocks, the officers had bunks fitted to the hull. With bunks you were obviously rolling with the ship as opposed to hanging in the hammocks. It was more uncomfortable to be an officer at times than it was to be a crewman.”

Comfort was relative, of course; Scott and his 11 officers, including the expedition’s scientists, had small cabins, but the 36 crewmen on board didn’t even have a bed to call their own. “They operated a system called ‘hot bunking’,” Alistair explains. “When they rotated shifts, the person that had their relaxing time would get up to go on shift, and the person that had been working would use their hammock. On days such as Christmas Day— when they were all given leave—you would have some crew sleeping on benches, on the floor. Any space they could find.

“On top of that you had all the dogs, the equipment, and sheep. And although Discovery was primarily a sailing ship, she had an auxiliary steam engine. So you had lots of coal, not just in the coal bunkers but also up on the deck, in any spare nuke and cranny they could find.”

Despite the best intentions, RRS Discovery was nevertheless trapped by ice and had to be eventually rescued. “It wasn’t like Shackleton’s Endurance, which was trapped in the ice by a complete accident,” Alistair insists. “The plan was that Discovery would go into a bay at the end of the summer season; the following summer, when the sea ice melted, she would then go round the coastline and do some more work. But by a complete fluke they found themselves in one of the coldest summers on record; the sea ice didn’t melt that summer. By the time the rescue ships came, after the second winter, Discovery was 20 miles from open water!”