Centenary celebration of the life of ‘Birdie’ Bowers

THE Bute connection to Captain Scott’s bid to win the ‘race to the South Pole’ was marked this week - on the centenary of the ill-fated Antarctic expedition.

A fascinated audience at Bute Museum heard Margaret Lamb tell the story of Henry Robertson ‘Birdie’ Bowers, part of the team who set off for the Pole on November 1, 1911, but who died - along with Lawrence Oates, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans and Robert Scott himself - while returning to their base the following March.

Bowers - nicknamed Birdie on account of his most unfortunate physical feature, a large, beaked nose - spent much of his early life on Bute, where his mother Emily had set up home in Ardbeg in 1904,  and visited the island both before and during his time as an officer in the Royal India Marine.

When granted eight months’ leave from the service in May 1908, Bowers chose to spend it all on Bute with his mother and sisters May and Edie, and became well known for his regular exercise routine, which featured a daily swim across Rothesay Bay from Ardbeg to Craigmore and back.

Chosen to join Scott’s Antarctic expedition - in which he had expressed a keen interest, but had never formally applied or been interviewed -  in 1910, Bowers failed at first to make a good impression on the captain, who remarked: “Well, we’re landed with him now, we must make the best of it.”

But Bowers’ skills in meteorology, navigation and observation proved to be of vital importance to Scott and his team, and though not originally part of the long trek from their Camp Evans base to the South Pole, he joined the final polar mission, at Scott’s request, on January 4, 1912.

A letter written by Scott to Emily Bowers, and found in the tent where the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson were discovered in November 1912, only 11 miles from their base camp, read: “I write when we are very near the end of our journey, and I am finishing it in company with two gallant, noble gentlemen.

“One of these is your son. He has come to be one of my closes and soundest friends, and I appreciate his wonderful upright nature, his ability and energy.

“As the troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter, and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable to the end.”

Also found in that same tent was Henry Bowers’ last letter to his mother, dated around March 22, 1912, in which he wrote: “Although the end will be painless enough for myself I should so like to come through for your dear sake...there will be no shame however and you will know that I have struggled to the end.

“Oh how I do feel for you...when you hear all, you will know for me the end was peaceful, as it is only sleep in the cold.”

Emily Bowers and her two daughters lived on Bute for the rest of their lives, and are all buried in the graveyard of the United Church of Bute; a memorial plaque celebrating Bowers’ life was placed in St Ninian’s Church in Port Bannatyne following his death, and now, following the sale of the church building, hangs in Bute Museum itself.

The centenary evening - which also featured a brief talk by George McKenzie on the work of the RNLI, and a screening of the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, starring John Mills as Captain Scott, Derek Bond as Captain Oates and Reginald Beckwith as Bowers - raised a total of £600, with the proceeds to be split equally between the RNLI and the museum.