Step aboard RF Scott’s Antarctic ship, RRS Discovery, the iconic attraction of Dundee’s developing new waterfront

    RRS Discovery and visitor centre, part of the transforming Dundee waterfront. Image: Dundee Heritage Trust

    Vicky Sartain

    Built in Dundee to transport RF Scott to the Antarctic, the restored RRS Discovery welcomes visitors aboard to explore above and below deck, along with the story of the intrepid crew who sailed so bravely into the unknown…


    Visitors pass through the visitor centre before boarding the historic vessel of RF Scott. Image Dundee Heritage Trust
    Visitors pass through the visitor centre before boarding the historic vessel of RF Scott. Image Dundee Heritage Trust

    Led by Royal Geographical Society president Sir Clements Robert Markham, a project was launched in 1900 to build Royal Research Ship (RRS) Discovery. Dundee, a major whaling centre from the 18th century, was an obvious choice for the task; its shipyards were well used to constructing vessels for heavy duty and Arctic waters. Discovery was no ordinary whaler, of course. Equipped with the latest technology and comfort for the crew, the ship also needed to be more than robust enough to break through pack ice; her primary task was to enable readings and samples to be taken. A magnetic observatory was created on board for the purposes of surveys and mapping and special features were incorporated to support the wooden vessel in extreme conditions. Portholes, standard on a craft of this type, were replaced with brass vents which offered light and ventilation below deck without compromising the timber frame; the funnel was hinged so that it could be laid flat allowing a sail to be hoisted in its place; and the rudder adjusted to be lifted from the water to avoid damage in icy seas.


    The ship's galley, complete with cat! Image Dundee Heritage Trust
    The ship’s galley, complete with cat! Image Dundee Heritage Trust

    Markham appointed Robert Falcon Scott, a promising young naval officer, to the helm of the British National Antarctic Expedition. Keen to make a name for himself, Scott was ambitious, steadfast and had the right qualities to lead. He selected his crew carefully, choosing hardened sailors from both the royal and merchant navy. A young Ernest Shackleton was also aboard as third officer – his friendly rivalry with Scott in latter years well publicised. However, not even the hardiest seaman had been suitably tested for a prolonged Antarctic experience, while the contingent of scientists was as prepared as any landlubber. Among these brave pioneers were zoologist Edward Wilson, geologist Hartley Ferrar, physicist Louis Bernacchi, botanist Dr Reginald Koettlitz and biologist Thomas Hodgson. The mental and physical rigours that lay ahead could only be guessed at as they tried to prepare for the endurance test of great Southern Ocean storms and temperatures of -30ºC.


    Discovery Point visitor centre has a wealth of interactive exhibits...  Image: Dundee Heritage Trust
    Discovery Point visitor centre has a wealth of interactive exhibits… Image: Dundee Heritage Trust

    Launched on 21 March 1901 in Dundee, Discovery later sailed down to the Isle of Wight where she finally departed British shores with her 49-strong crew on 6 August 1901. Stores were planned to last a couple of years; the voyage alone would take five months. Essential supplies included 2,800 grams of tea, 800 gallons of rum, 3,000 lbs of chocolate and 8,000 lbs of beef. On reaching New Zealand the ship was restocked, picking up a few live sheep to provide mutton for the onward voyage, the animals doubtless petrified by the scent of the hungry sled dogs that were already aboard.

    Warm clothing, food, drink and survival supplies were accompanied by coal, tools, tents, sledges, First Aid supplies and a few luxury items donated by household brands comprising cocoa powder, alcohol and tobacco.


    Officers and scientists in the Wardroom dined in typical Edwardian style out on the high seas, observing the formal etiquette of a society event, complete with tablecloth and napkins, the saying of grace, polished silverware and bone china dinner service. Mess decks, where the rest of the crew spent their free time, were far less polished with eating space doubling as recreation area, laundry room and sleeping quarters. The atmosphere here was rank with stale tobacco and unwashed bodies.


    The ice-packed landscape was sighted at last in January 1902 but the real journey had yet to begin. Tracking by dog sled across the Great Ice Barrier (a solid ice shelf hundreds of miles in length that must be crossed to reach frozen land), Scott led the scientists on a 93-day journey to carry out their research. It was an arduous trip which took several casualties. The 19-strong canine pack dwindled in number as temperatures fell (despite Antarctica’s relatively mild summer season) and with provisions ever decreasing the men had to survive on a diet of penguin, eggs, seal and seabird. The meat rich, vegetable low diet saw Shackleton succumb to scurvy. Despite this, all made it back to Discovery on 3 February 1903, though Shackleton was forced to retire from the trip altogether for health reasons. The team of scientists had made several exciting finds, charting new territories and collecting new-found samples of marine life which would place the Royal Geographical Society in the global limelight.


    The entire expedition took three years, hindered slightly by the vessel being trapped for several weeks in ice. Discovery finally arrived back at Spithead in Hampshire on 10 September 1904 to a hero’s welcome, winning Scott international acclaim and the Polar medal.

    Discovery’s endurance merited two further trips to Antarctica and a spell of service during the First World War, before being retired in London where she was soon forgotten. Explains marketing officer Kim Adamson: “The Maritime Trust purchased the ship for £1 from the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in 1986. Dundee wanted her back home and with Heritage Lottery Funding we managed to restore her to her former layout, stripping away post-war modifications. The decking and masts are new but much of the interiors are original and maintenance is ongoing.” The ship is currently in dry dock (to be permanently refloated as the opening photograph depicts) and is a constant in a city undergoing major sea change as regeneration transforms the waterfront.


    Additional restoration plans have been modified thanks to laser scanning of the vessel, providing a 3D image that enables conservationists to closely analyse the framework. Gleaming from outside in, Discovery welcomes visitors aboard. Walk the gangplank onto the deck and up to the Bridge for views across the Tay, peeking into the Chart Room and descending to the noisy interior of the engine room where a furnace once needed constant stoking. Below deck, sounds and smells recall operational times; in Scott’s time this would have ranged from constant male chatter in daylight hours to the clattering cacophony of the galley’s pots and pans, where the cook was preparing yet another unappetising dish of roast penguin.


    “Visitors are quite taken aback when they step aboard and think about the incredible endurance of the crew who set out into the unknown, facing mental and physical hardships, all for the good of science,” says Kim.

    Licensed for weddings and host to corporate events, parties and special occasions, Discovery today serves an altogether new purpose. Although she will never sail again she rests in home waters of the Tay, educating new generations in the story of true courage, adventure, teamwork, science and maritime achievement. Her longevity is a credit to the city.


    Opened in 1993, the quayside Discovery Point Visitor Centre located adjacent the ship, brings the story of the Antarctic expedition to life. Further modernisation here will see the Centre updated in coming years, introducing a new gallery, education suite and waterfront café to complement the high standard of fellow attractions. “We’re not a typical Highland ‘tartan’ tourist attraction,” concludes Kim, “but we have a very unusual story to tell.”

    A permanent feature of the Centre is a documentary film which tells the story of the explorers. As the narrator says, they were men who were willing to risk everything for something they barely understood.



    Discovery Point, Riverside Drive, Dundee DD1 4XA. Tel: 01382 309 060;

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