People: An Antarctic explorer in Unst

Mark Wilson records a visit to the Baltasound Hotel this summer, a century after the arrival of a very famous relative.

We visited Unst again this year – our third year on this special island. Living in Pembrokeshire we could not be much further away in Britain if we tried, but the journey north is rewarded by the natural history of Shetland spread across its many islands, the history around each corner, and the welcoming people who live on this northern outpost of the UK.

We were introduced to Shetland by our son Alastair, who was appointed Reserve Officer of Hermaness and the Keen of Hamar in the summer of 2008. He has returned to the job – based in Burrafirth – for three summers.

This year though was his last, and on a sunny evening in June we booked a meal at the Baltasound Hotel and enjoyed toasting his time spent working in Unst. It was a beautiful evening and a wonderful setting for a hotel, a few yards up from the pier at Baltasound, which is so much quieter these days than in it’s heyday during the herring and whaling period of the island’s history.

By coincidence, exactly a hundred years ago, in June 1910, Edward Wilson landed at Baltasound pier from a whaler sheltering from the storm raging out at sea beyond Balta Isle. Ted, as he is known in the family, was in Shetland to look for a whaling gunner to go south with Captain Scott on the British Antarctic Expedition. This expedition was first and foremost a scientific one, and Captain Scott had assembled a team of scientists to go south to do further work on this new continent which was only slowly being explored. Ted had been with Scott on the Discovery expedition, and he was now chief of the scientific staff.

While sheltering from the storm he took some time out for a meal in the Baltasound hotel, which at that time “was kept by an old whaling skipper”. He visited the Post Office, which was also a general store, with its “crowd of all nations – Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, Shetlanders, and Britishers”. He had two excellent meals at the hotel and also commented that “It was still light enough, even at midnight, to read the paper.”

When Ted had arrived in Lerwick on the steamer from Aberdeen (the St Sunniva) he counted “over a hundred steam trawlers and drifters coming in with us under full steam and loaded with fish”.  He was taken by a man called Hunter to Olnafirth by cart, where he discovered that the gunners were highly paid and under contract for the whaling season, which did not end until mid-August. It looked as if the expedition would have to sail south without one.

That did not stop Ted from going out on a whaler to discover what information he could. He had his luggage left in his room at Mathesen’s house, where everything seems to have been Norwegian apart from “the whale steak which was grilled with onions, and the whale meat rissoles which were excellent.” He then went on board the Haldane, which sailed out to the North Sea until running into the storm that sent them back in to Baltasound.

They headed back out to sea early on the Sunday morning and successfully got three whales, which they towed back to the whaling station for processing, arriving back in port on Monday morning. The day was spent locally with lunch at the Mathesen’s house. Then after a night’s sleep Ted found the same driver, cart and horse had arrived to take him back to Lerwick in time to catch the St Giles for Aberdeen.
Ted then headed to Cardiff, where he joined the Terra Nova. And the rest, as they say, is history.

That expedition did not end with the bodies of three men found in a tent on their way back from reaching the South Pole, although the history books tend to leave it there. The scientific legacy of the trip lives on in their pioneering footsteps. Many countries now have research stations in the Antarctic, and it is in that direction that Alastair has now headed, to work for the British Antarctic Survey at King Edward Point on South Georgia. Alastair is the great, great nephew of Edward Wilson.

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Edward Wilson’s description of his few days in Shetland can be found in the Diary of the Terra Nova Expedition to the Antarctic 1910-1912, published by Blandford Press, copyright The Scott Polar Research Institute.


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