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Brucebyen, William Speirs Bruce and the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate

Scottish mining attempts in Spitsbergen. History and photos.

Bruce­by­en is a small clus­ter of huts i Bill­efjord, near the lar­ge gla­cier Nor­dens­kiöld­breen oppo­si­te the for­mer Rus­si­an mining sett­le­ment of Pyra­mi­den. Boat trips from Lon­gye­ar­by­en to Pyra­mi­den usual­ly visit Nor­dens­kiöld­breen and pass by Bruce­by­en on their way the­re. Often, not much men­ti­on is made of it, which is a shame, becau­se it is qui­te an inte­res­ting place.

Pan­ora­ma – Bruce­by­en

Bruce­by­en: Natu­re and sce­ne­ry

The natu­ral sur­ron­dings are one aspect, and it would be an inte­res­ting and beau­ti­ful place well worth a visit even without the mining histo­ry. The sur­roun­dings of Bruce­by­en are a flat coas­tal plain with well-deve­lo­ped seri­es of old beach rid­ges and small ponds whe­re you can see red-throated divers (they are easi­ly dis­tur­bed, keep a good distance) and arc­tic terns (also easi­ly dis­tur­bed and qui­te aggres­si­ve, so … the same app­lies here). It is not uncom­mon to see a polar bear roa­ming around in the area, so keep your eyes open and be care­full as always when in the field in Spits­ber­gen.

Brucebyen

Bruce­by­en with the rim of Nor­dens­kiöld­breen in the back­ground (1997).

Wil­liam Speirs Bruce

But the litt­le “sett­le­ment” has some inte­res­ting histo­ry. The famous Scot­tish polar explo­rer Wil­liam Speirs Bruce was a key figu­re in it. Bruce’s first polar expe­di­ti­on was as ear­ly as 1892 with the wha­ling ship Balae­na in the Ant­arc­tic. In 1896-97, he spent a year with Jack­son and Harms­worth in Frans Josef Land whe­re he met Frit­jof Nan­sen and Hja­l­mar Johan­sen after their win­te­ring, which is ano­t­her sto­ry, one of the most famous ones in arc­tic explo­ra­ti­on. In 1898, Bruce joi­ned Andrew Coats on an expe­di­ti­on to Nova­ya Zem­lya and Kol­gu­jev in the Rus­si­an Arc­tic on the Blen­cathra. On the way back, he got some first glim­p­ses of Spits­ber­gen, name­ly Kong Karls Land and Hopen, but poor wea­ther con­di­ti­ons kept them from going ashore.

But he got his first chan­ce for some clo­ser views alrea­dy later in the same sum­mer. After retur­ning to Trom­sø, he met Duke Albert I. of Mona­co, who was just about to start an expe­di­ti­on to Spits­ber­gen with his yacht Princess Ali­ce. The Duke offe­red Bruce to join him and he glad­ly accep­ted the offer.

The Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te Ltd.

Bruce joi­ned the Duke on several fur­ther expe­di­ti­ons, inves­ti­ga­ting lar­ge parts of Spitsbergen’s west coast and some of the fjords on the north coast. This gave Bruce the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make hims­elf fami­li­ar with the regio­nal geo­lo­gy and he saw the poten­ti­al for mining in several loca­ti­ons. It was most­ly coal, but also other mine­rals such as iron ore (on Prins Karls For­land) that caught his atten­ti­on. Sam­ples taken in 1908 pro­ved inte­res­ting and Bruce and others foun­ded The Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te Ltd. (SSS) in Edin­burgh in July 1909. Foun­ding mem­bers inclu­ded peop­le like Charles H. Urm­s­ton and Burn Mur­doch, names that you can find on the map in Spits­ber­gen today, as well as tho­se of mem­bers of the syndicate’s expe­di­ti­ons inclu­ding Rud­mo­se Brown and John Mathie­son. Duke Albert I. was amongst the initi­al share­hol­ders.

Hut Gipsdalen

Hut in Gips­da­len, built by the Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te
to inves­ti­ga­te coal occur­ren­ces (pho­to taken in 2010).

Bruce saw mining poten­ti­al in several are­as, but main­ly in inner Isfjord: his atten­ti­on was attrac­ted by both gypsym occur­ren­ces in Tem­pel­fjord and coal in neigh­bou­ring Bün­sow Land (bet­ween Tem­pel­fjord and Bill­efjord). The syn­di­ca­te orga­nis­ed expe­di­ti­ons in 1910, 1912, 1914, 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1922 to explo­re the­se occur­ren­ces as well as other parts of the Spits­ber­gen archi­pe­la­go (the name Sval­bard was hard­ly used befo­re 1925).

In the end, Bruce and The Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te had clai­med the who­le island of Prins Karls For­land, the who­le island of Bar­entsøya, lar­ge parts of Edgeøya, the area bet­ween Isfjord and Storfjord and the west coast south of Bellsund!

Inves­ti­ga­ti­ons of coal seams in Bill­efjord: Bruce City

But back to the Bill­efjord area, whe­re the SSS inves­ti­ga­ted coal seams in various loca­ti­ons from 1919. For geo­lo­gi­cal rea­sons and becau­se of acces­si­bi­li­ty, an area on the south side of Adolf­buk­ta was cho­sen as the main loca­ti­on for inves­ti­ga­ti­ons. A coal seam in the steep river flank of Car­ro­nel­va loo­ked pro­mi­sing, and Bruce’s geo­lo­gists found it to have a thic­kness of about one met­re. Two huts were built near the shore (two more ones fol­lo­wed later). This base was soon known as Bruce City. Other groups of the 1919 expe­di­ti­on, which had the ships Phan­tom and Petu­nia at their dis­po­sal (also names found on the map in the Bill­efjord area now) inves­ti­ga­ted other are­as such as Tem­pel­fjord and Storfjord inclu­ding Bar­entsøya as well as Prins Karls For­land. Various claims were made alt­hough not much of com­mer­cial inte­rest had been found.

Brucebyen: railway track

Old rail­way track at Bruce­by­en.

The amount of coal south of Adolf­buk­ta, the area inves­ti­ga­ted from the base at Bruce City (today Bruce­by­en), was esti­ma­ted to be in the area of 2.5 mil­li­on tons based on data collec­ted in 1919, a figu­re well below initi­al expec­ta­ti­ons, but more data were nee­ded befo­re any explo­ita­ti­on could pos­si­b­ly be star­ted.

The 1920 expe­di­ti­on: Bruce City Coal­field, Gips­da­len and Storfjord

The expe­di­ti­on in 1920 had even one more ship at their dis­po­sal than in the pre­vious year, the Autumn, the Eas­to­ni­an and the Lady of Ave­n­el, with no less than 50 expe­di­ti­on mem­bers led by John Mathie­son. The Lady of Ave­n­el had engi­ne trou­bles on the way up and the trip took no less than 33 days for this sec­tion of the expe­di­ti­on. Once in Bill­efjord, it took gre­at effort to trans­port dril­ling equip­ment and other mate­ri­als across ice and snow to Bruce­by­en as the fjord was still fro­zen in that area. Final­ly, several dril­lings were made in the Car­ro­nel­va area as well as other geo­lo­gi­cal inves­ti­ga­ti­ons. Fur­ther work was done on the east coast of Spits­ber­gen (Agardhbuk­ta, Mohn­buk­ta) and on Edgeøya and Bar­entsøya. Most of the results were rather disap­poin­ting: the coal seams were most­ly of poor qua­li­ty, they had a thic­kness of well below one met­re and acces­si­bi­li­ty was dif­fi­cult. But the total amount of coal on the east side of Bill­efjord, in an area then known as the “Bruce City Coal­field”, was now esti­ma­ted at 90 mil­li­on tons, some­thing that jus­ti­fied fur­ther inves­ti­ga­ti­ons.

The 1921 expe­di­ti­on

The expe­di­ti­on in 1921 was smal­ler, with only 10 men who focus­sed on the nor­the­as­tern part of Bill­efjord. They used “Bruce City” as their main base again. Addi­tio­nal work was done in Gips­da­len whe­re they found a coal seam in a distance of 16 km from the shore. All in all, the results were found to be pro­mi­sing.

The 1922 expe­di­ti­on

Ano­t­her expe­di­ti­on was hence made in 1922, that time with 15 men, again led by John Mathie­son. They used a trac­tor to trans­port mate­ri­al 16 km up Gips­da­len for explo­ra­ti­ve dril­ling. It is most likely the trac­tor that is still stan­ding near the shore in Gips­vi­ka, next an old hut that also goes back to the times of the Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te. The trac­tor was weig­hing a ton and it was a bit of a chal­len­ge to get it ashore: a kind of raft was made with two life boats, which was towed into the river mouth of Gips­dal­sel­va in high tide and calm wea­ther.

Tractor Gipsdalen

The trac­tor of the Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te in Gips­vi­ka (in 2009).

Also the iron ore occur­rence on Prins Karls For­land was inves­ti­ga­ted again in 1922. Remains of the hut Ken­mo­re at Dawes­pyn­ten date back to the SSS’s acti­vi­ties the­re in tho­se years.

Inspec­tion trips 1923-1925

The­re were annu­al, but minor inspec­tion trips in the years from 1923 to 1925, but without fur­ther inves­ti­ga­ti­ons. The manage­ment of the Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te had by then con­clu­ded that the coal occur­ren­ces in Gips­da­len and the “Bruce City Coal­field” were worth explo­i­t­ing, but only in co-ope­ra­ti­on with a com­pa­ny that was alrea­dy acti­ve with mining in Spits­ber­gen. Nego­tia­ti­ons were taken up with the The Anglo Rus­si­an Grumant Co. that was mining coal in Grum­ant­by­en. But the talks didn’t lead to any results from the Scot­tish per­spec­ti­ve; ins­tead, Rus­si­an inte­rests took over the Grumant coal field.

The end of The Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te Ltd.

The SSS did not have any acti­vi­ties in Spits­ber­gen after 1925. In 1950, the Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te Ltd. was clo­sed and the pro­per­ties in Spits­ber­gen were sold to the Nor­we­gi­an government in 1952.

Brucebyen

Bruce­by­en in 1997, with the ori­gi­nal huts.

Bruce­by­en today

“Bruce City”, or in Nor­we­gi­an: Bruce­by­en, is the most important cul­tu­ral heri­ta­ge today from the Scot­tish acti­vi­ties in Spits­ber­gen from 1908 to 1925, next to some smal­ler sites inclu­ding two huts (one of them merely a ruin) and a trac­tor in Gips­da­len and some more ruins of huts on Prins Karls For­land. Unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly, one of the huts of Bruce­by­en burnt com­ple­te­ly down in 2010 after careless hand­ling of hot ashes by tou­rists. A recon­struc­tion of the hut was made on the same place by the Sys­sel­man­nen. One of the other huts is owned and mana­ged by the Sys­sel­man­nen for offi­cial pur­po­ses (inclu­ding pri­va­te use by the Sysselmannen’s employees) and ano­t­her one is dis­po­sed by the Red Cross sec­tion in Lon­gye­ar­by­en and used, for examp­le during crev­as­se res­cue exer­ci­ses on Nor­dens­kiöld­breen.

Brucebyen

Bruce­by­en in 2018. The recon­struc­ted hut is on the left hand side.

Gal­le­ry Bruce­by­en and Gips­da­len

To round it off, some impres­si­ons from the main working are­as of The Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te, Bruce City (= Bruce­by­en) and Gips­da­len.

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Source

Adolf Hoel (1967): Sval­bards his­to­rie 1596-1965, Band III. The­re: pages 1045-1084, The Scot­tish Spits­ber­gen Syn­di­ca­te.

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last modification: 2020-10-15 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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