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  • Writer's pictureAlastair Derrick

Dundee’s Lost Ships

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

Photograph of RRS Discovery
RRS Discovery

We in Dundee are rightly proud of our magnificent Royal Research Ship Discovery, situated at Discovery Point. Built in Dundee and launched in 1901, the ship has been made famous by its association with Captain Robert Falcon Scott and draws visitors from all over the world.

Should you join our tour, then your Guide, who has been a Volunteer onboard for several years, will explain the history of the ship, from launch to present day. During this time, you will have a chance to observe the vessel from the reflective pool on the quayside. This should provide a fine opportunity to take photographs - of the ship, not your guide.

Dundee had a history of building rugged wooden ships for the whaling industry, which had grown up over many years in the city. Discovery was built in the manner of a Dundee whaling vessel which goes a long way to explaining her survival to this day. However , many other fine ships associated with whaling and the city did not endure- at least forty were destroyed. What the ravages of storms, ice and shipwreck could not do, two world wars unfortunately did.

Photograph of SS Active
SS Active leaving a crowded Dundee harbour

The whaler Active, built in Peterhead but sold to the Dundee fleet, was said to be one of the finest of whalers. It sank, with all hands, off the Orkneys in 1915.

Originally a Norwegian vessel, Morning rescued the crew of the vessel Windward in 1907 off Greenland and , along with another famous Dundee ship Terra Nova, came to the rescue of Scott and Discovery when the ship was in real danger of abandonment in the ice on its famous maiden voyage. Morning sank off the Faroes in 1914 with only the Captain and his Second Mate surviving.

These ships were being used by the British Government to take supplies and munitions to Northern Russia. They were being used because of their strong structure and ability to handle rough seas and ice. Unfortunately, the government ordered the removal of some of the frames in their hold, to increase storage. This decision weakened the structure of the ships, which lead to leakage and is considered a major factor in the tragic losses.

The Terra Nova, apart from the rescue of Discovery, was used to take Captain Scott to Antarctica in 1910, for his fatal attempt at being the first to reach the South Pole. After these illustrious voyages, the ship settled into decades of routine work – as a sealing vessel and a transport ship. At the outbreak of World War Two, Terra Nova was chartered to take supplies to Allied bases in Greenland. During her final voyage the ship ran in to extreme difficulty following ice damage and with her engines and pumps failing. The crew having been rescued by the US Coast Guard, Terra Nova was sunk by gunfire to prevent it becoming a danger to other shipping; a sad end to such a wonderful ship. We are indeed lucky to have RRS Discovery back in Dundee, where it all started.

*As a postscript to this story, the wreck of the Terra Nova was located by the Schmidt Ocean Institute in 2012, off the coast of Greenland. Footage of the wreck can be viewed online.

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