Nostalgia - Lewisman’s incredible adventures in Antarctic

The Endurance frozen in ice on Shackleton expedition. (Picture: National Library /RGS-IBG)
The Endurance frozen in ice on Shackleton expedition. (Picture: National Library /RGS-IBG)

The Gazette was often the only source of information about natives who had left these shores to travel the world.

Early in 1935, the paper carried an interview from a Toronto newspaper with Thomas Macleod, originally from Stornoway, telling of his amazing adventures, including travelling into the Antarctic on Polar expeditions with Scott and Shackleton, and even erecting the cairn to the latter at South Georgia.

Here we carry the interview:

Gananoque, February 9, 1935 - If you care to stop on Highway No 2 and nine miles west of Gananoque and walk nearly a mile south to the shores of St Lawrence you will find a shack beside an abandoned quarry - and you will meet Thomas F. Macleod.

Thomas Macleod has travelled thrice into the Antarctic. He was with Capt. R.F. Scott on the Terra Nova in 1910-13; with Sir Ernest Shackleton on the Edurance in 1914-17; and again with Sir Ernest on the trip from which he did not return in 1921-22 on the Quest.

During his peregrinations in the polar regions, Macleod has visited three different parts of the Antarctic - Murdock Sound, the Weddell Sea and Biscoe Land.

Among his other experiences he has fought in the South African War and has sailed the seven seas in windjammers.

As we approached Thomas Macleod’s home we were greeted by two barking dogs, and a moment later by the gentleman himself. He bade us a hearty welcome and apparently noticing that as far as cold was concerned “we couldn’t take it”, he asked if we would like a cup of tea.

“But I haven’t any cups,” he apologised with a broad Scottish accent, and three large bowls were pressed into service. We started to thaw, and as we did, we talked.

Thomas Macleod today is penniless yet he is rich with the memories of a life filled with exciting experiences.

He was born at Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in 1872. At an early age he decided to become a sailor and has rounded the Horn and the Cape of Good Hope in windjammers. Later he had his Antarctic adventures. Truly the man has faced innumerable perils and hardships during his full life, yet today he is, by a cruel twist of fate, a sacrifice upon the altar of circumstance.

Unfortunate? We may think so but Macleod is not complaining. He has a job that nets him $5 a month. All he has to do is get up every morning at 4am and walk three miles to a country school and light the fire so that the place is warm when the pupils arrive. He has done this for several years, when at times the thermometer has been 34 below. Moreover, Macleod has walked the distance in rubber boots without socks. He never wear socks. He thinks nothing of walking barefoot from his shack to the St Lawrence, chopping a hole in the ice for water and returning to the shack.

And how does he spend his $5 a month?

“On Sunday I make soup,” he explains. “That lasts until Wednesday. Then as a variation I make porridge. There’s a pot of it here on the stove now. It provides for me and the dogs.

“And if I had a fortune tomorrow, I’d live the same as I’m living now as far as food is concerned. I’d have a better house and furniture but I’d still live in the country. I wouldn’t go to the city.”

His account of his experiences is not the scientific effort which would delight the heart of the learned professors. It is rather the simple, unassuming tale of an old salt who has been to the far corners of the earth and, as he tells it, restlessly pacing the floor of his shack, it smacks of high adventure.

“At the age of 14,” he says, “I got a berth on a windjammer from Glasgow to Melbourne and back to London. Our cargo was wood and tallow. We went round the Cape of Good Hope, taking about 100 days, and came back by way of Cape Horn, taking about 165 days.

“For years after that I was an able seaman on windjammers, and when Scott’s expedition to the South Pole was organised I made application for a berth.

“They wanted men who had had experience on sailing ships, and I was one of the six merchant seamen accepted. The rest of the men on the expedition were from the navy. We sailed from London in June 1910 and went to Murdock Sound.”

What did he remember most vividly about that trip?

“It was during a heavy storm after we had left New Zealand,” he recalled. “We were south of Campbell Island and we nearly lost the ship. She started leaking and we were on the pumps for 24 hours, day and night.

“We threw the deck cargo overboard to lighten the ship and enable the men to get down to clear the pumps. It was pretty exciting but we got fixed up after a while. The man who was on the pumps beside me at that time is now an admiral.

“To qualify for an Antarctic expedition the men were subjected to a strict medical examination and had to pass 100 per cent fit before they were taken. The teeth were an important item and I lost 12 before I was passed.”

We asked about the ship that was lost in the first Shackleton expedition.

“One day in August, which is the dead of winter in that region, the tremendous pressure of the ice lifted the ship up and turned her over on her side,” Macleod said.

“It happened at 2pm. Sir Ernest had us all out and ordered us to stand to. It was pretty exciting for a while but the ship righted again at 7pm and everything was already for the time being. A short time later the same thing happened again but we were not so fortunate, as the stern post was pulled out the ship and she sank.

“We were stranded on the ice, miles from land. We made our way to a spit, about 100 yards long, on Elephant Island, and Sir Ernest set out in an open boat for South Georgia for help.

“For two and a half months 20 of us lived under two turned boats on that spit. The time passed very slowly and when we were at last rescued by the Chilean steamer Yelcho, commanded by Capt Pardy, I’ll never forget how thrilled and happy we were.

“On the day were were taken off the spit we had for our dinner seaweed, limpets and the old carcasses of penguins which we had previously thrown away. The experience may be valuable if this depression keeps up.

“I’ll never forget the reception we were given when we were taken to Punta Arenas, Chile. I had the time of my life and I couldn’t pay for anything.

“We found out that the admiralty had sent the Discovery out to rescue us but without success.”

However, the most outstanding incident was the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

“We buried him at South Georgia, Cumberland Bay, 25 feet from the high water mark, and I laid the stones on his cairn,” Macleod said.

“It happened like this. Sir Ernest died on the way out and we left his body at South Georgia. While we were standing by for two days on the way back I suggested to Capt Frank Wilde, who was second-in-comand, that we build a cairn for the ‘boss’. He agreed and sent the men to quarry the stones.

“Some people say I am getting too old for adventures but I can’t believe that. I would go on another expedition right now.”

The fact that ‘Mac’ has not been on another Antarctic expedition is not for the lack of trying. He has several letters from Admiral Richard E. Byrd expressing regret that his applications for a berth came after the crew had been completed and saying that a man of his experience would be a valuable asset to the party.