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STORY | Robert Falcon Scott – explorer | sailor | father

The Swing Bridge over the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal near Slimbridge in Gloucestershire
The Swing Bridge over the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal near Slimbridge in Gloucestershire

SYNOPSIS | Consider the man, Consider the father

On the 17th January 1912, the renowned Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott finally reached the South Pole for the first time. It should have been a moment of ecstasy; the fulfilment of a lifetime’s dreams. But – one can only imagine the disappointment, the fury, the envy when he discovered that a rival group of polar explorers led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen had reached the Pole some weeks earlier. Before him.

Then the tragedy – for all great stories have tragedy in them. Robert Falcon Scott died on his return journey from the South Pole. Out of supplies. Confusion in orders. Terrible, awful wintry conditions. His body and those of his comrades were found – taken by the cold and the sheer inhospitable conditions that Antarctica can offer.

His death somewhere around the 29th March 1912 was not immediately known. For news and journey travelled slow back then. It was not until the following year that the world, the exploring community and his family finally learned the horrible, horrible news.

His wife Kathleen Scott did not hear of her husband’s death immediately. She was on board a ship from California to New Zealand when the news broke. It was reported that they would try to let her know by cable in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But for the rest of the world, it was news tinged in shock, loss, grief, disappointment and pride. Pride for a man (men) who had died doing a thing which had never been done before; the ultimate exploration – to the ends of the earth. His name went down his folklore, particularly in Britain.

But Robert Scott was very much a hero of his time. His explorations and the nature of his death, just before the outbreak of the First World War, were examples of contemporary perceptions of the might and splendour of the British Empire. The Royal Geographic Society, when hearing of Scott’s death wrote “they could only now say farewell to a band of heroes, whose names would shine as examples of the highest courage. Captain Scott would live in memory as an ideal English sailor.”

Of course, Robert Scott’s legacy is not simply his heroic death. He represents all that is best in exploration. The self-sacrifice, dedication and relentless determination that is necessary to push back the limits to knowledge.

Robert Scott left behind a son, who became the renowned artist, naturalist, ornithologist and conservationist Peter Scott. Peter Scott was only two years old when his father died. Robert Scott, in a last letter to his wife, advised her to "make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games."

What was the influence of his hero father early death on the life of Peter Scott?

We can really never know what the factors in Peter Scott's childhood were, which influenced the development of his character. Conventional wisdom would have it that the absence of a father figure in childhood would have been a problem for the normal development of the affected child. Rather than consider what was missing from his childhood development let us focus more on what was present. Peter Scott's mother, Kathleen Scott was a gifted sculptress which may have the source of his artistic prowess. She remarried in 1922 to the politician, Edward Hilton Young. Peter may have been fortunate with his stepfather who was a decorated war hero and became a very influential politician and writer. Or maybe he found the necessary sources of inspiration and male role models in his education whilst boarding at Oundle School?

But we do know this – that both Robert and Peter Scott were multi-talented and demonstrated immense character. But the measure of the greatness of a man is not his many talents but how he uses them and the legacy he leaves behind as a result. By this measure both were great men who left an formidable and continuing legacy which still touches us today and the relevance of which still sustains.