An occasional series on eminent Scots ignored or forgotten
As true as I can tell it, this is the story of a Scotsman and an Englishman. The Scot was called Harry McNish. The Englishman was called Ernest Shackleton. As the years went by English, annoyed by constant demands for equality from Scots for a genuine partnership between their respective countries, picked on McNish’s nickname to call protesting Scots ‘chippy’, awarding McNish inverse fame.
McNish had a cat called Mrs Chippy who is part of this story. Mrs Chippy took no insult at the name, a generous toleration considering she was a he, Mr Chippy. He went everywhere with McNish, on the harbour while McNish fixed a trawler’s hull or mended a cabin, the cat knowing the hand that fed him, and without qualms near water for he had his sea legs too. That Mrs Chippy was gie adept at walking a yardarm, catching rats, or sleeping curled up atop a binnacle. The cat amazed the crew of the Endurance by being able to walk along the ship’s inch-wide guard rails, in even the roughest seas.
He, Harry, not the cat, was born in Port Glasgow in September 1874, and died 56 years later, all but forgotten in his native land. He proper name was Henry McNish. Life would have seen McNish a decent, competent local carpenter, but fate had a different role in mind.
McNish played a vital role in saving Earnest Shackleton’s hapless expedition to the South Pole only to see his ingenuity and perseverance denied both praise and a medal. Actually, Shackleton was Irish-born, but of an English family from Yorkshire. His family moved to London when he was ten. In the archives of England’s best universities that keep tally on their national heroes, McNish is described as ‘British’ not Scottish. New Zealand named a whole island after him just to remind Scotland how we are dominated by our neighbour to the point we leave it to the British cabinet and the BBC to decide who is fit for greatness and who is not.
They say all great men have a skeleton in their cupboard, sometimes with flesh on it, such as a mistress, sometimes a dark deed, sometimes a theft from which they benefited. Shackleton had a closet full of hubris. He is our second character in this story, a man who let bitterness cloud his judgement. As for McNish, finding a cupboard was very hard. The home he grew up in was so small the one cupboard held coal for the fire. McNish was the third of eleven children born to John and Mary Jane (née Wade) McNish. Finding a bed for each was often the drawer of a pine dresser.
It could be argued infancy in a wooden drawer imprinted McNish to the extent he choose carpentry as his trade. Not much is known of his youth other than he was a person who knew his own opinion and was quick to stand his ground in an argument. Living in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde, he was drawn to boats and ships, and like all Scots living in a land taken from him, he acquired the outward urge.
The penalty of the explorer
Our story takes place in the time of the British Empire, a time where successful men had man servants and ladies personal dressers, and the poor had food to find or lived off the land as labourers. A time too, when plucky Brits ventured forth to explore far off places no one had been to before, with plucky fortitude, and plucky courage, there to achieve greatness in the Empire’s gaze and of course, claim land for Queen Victoria.
McNish was 40 years of age, widowed twice, ten years in the Merchant Navy, a skilled shipwright in constant demand for repairs on small and large boats, when he applied to join Shackleton’s expedition aboard the Endurance set too sail to the Antarctic.
By then, McNish had acquired that Scottish trait of being judgemental on people and things, an age-old Presbyterian trait, and yet, because of his ability for hard graft, another Scots trait, and his carpentry skills, he was well liked and respected by the crew.
Accomplished and certain in his own actions, he was lauded for his ability to repair and fix parts of the Endurance that got worn or broken. McNish proved invaluable during the time that Endurance was caught in the ice. He built instrument cases for the scientists aboard, constructed a chest of drawers for Shackleton’s cabin, put together a windbreak for the helmsman, redesigned the crew’s sleeping quarters, and, after the ship was damaged by ice pressure, constructed a cofferdam in the stern to try and stop the leak from flooding the entire ship.
Curmudgeonly as he was, McNish was in every sense a team player. Though crew members soon found Mr Chippy too quick to point out the shortcomings of others, they liked his cat a lot, the gentle side of McNish, and made a cat-sized hammock for the feline creature to sleep in. Anyhow, I digress.
Like any tradesman employed today, McNish began his inspection of the damaged part by saying, “Who mended this last time? What a total mess. Amateurs”. At heart, McNish was a perfectionist. There was nothing more annoying than people who abused good workmanship, and in his mind, certain to abuse it a second time. One aspect of the ship he complained about was its ability to withstand sea ice if trapped for any length of time. In that he was to be proved profoundly correct.
In return, Shackleton expressed reservations about McNish in letters written from South Georgia in 1914 describing him as “the only man I am not dead certain of”.
He is “a very good workman and shipwright, but does nothing I can get hold of”, meaning, if you asked McNish to do something one way, he did it another, but got the job done to such a high specification no one could fault it.
McNish was the oldest on the expedition, an accomplished sailor, a life-long socialist and a devout member of the United Free Church of Scotland who abhorred the use of bad language. When he grumbled about the behaviour of a crew member it was never accompanied by profanity. However, you wouldn’t want to challenge McNish without feeling the weight of his personality bear down upon you to remind you of how much of a fool you were not to be suffered.
As school history books tell, Shackleton failed in his attempt to chart the South Pole, and instead watch the Endurance crushing to pulp and twisted metal in sea ice. Unlike the Scots, the English are proud of their heroic failures, making Shackleton, a man who cared genuinely for the safety of his crew, an instant hero fit for a statue.
The flash-point came in December 1915 when, ordered to abandon ship, McNish questioned Shackleton’s instruction to drag Endurance’s lifeboats across the pack ice after the destruction of the ship.
He argued that dragging the boats across such rough ice would damage them beyond repair and, besides, that after leaving the ship, he wasn’t legally obligated to follow any orders. The captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley, couldn’t manage to control McNish and sent for Shackleton.
Shackleton deployed both logic and force to counter the insurrection – reminding McNish with a brandished pistol that he had agreed to serve under him both on ship and ashore. Shackleton went further, denying McNish the right to salvage the timbers from Endurance to build a sloop to take the men home.
In the end, dragging the boats proved impossible and Shackleton and McNish right. Beaten by his obduracy, Shackleton ordered the men to turn back. In his diary, he wrote: “Everyone working well except the carpenter. I shall never forget him in this time of strain and stress” – effectively a logging for insubordination.
The better man
McNish’s skill and ingenuity in events which followed is still remembered. After 16 freezing months trapped on the ice, the men set sail in the three small boats for Elephant Island. Eight days after their arrival, one of the vessels, the 20ft whale boat James Caird – the boat named after the Dundee jute magnate who donated £10,000 to Shackleton’s exploration fund, was commandeered to strike out for South Georgia – a journey of 670 miles – with six men on board, including McNish. It was only possible because, during their time trapped on the ice, McNish worked tirelessly to ensure the seaworthiness of the escape craft.
In keeping with the ingenuity of a gifted mind, McNish devised his own mixture of flour, oil paint and seal blood to caulk the seams of the boats. He raised the gunwales to make them safer in the high seas and and fitted small decks fore and aft to the Caird. The crew with him remember his inventiveness and skill with gratitude.
Before Shackleton, and two others, set off for the final 36 hour traverse of South Georgia’s mountain ranges, McNish fashioned crampons out of the boat’s two inch brass screws. “We certainly could not have lived through the voyage without it”, Shackleton wrote later of his carpenter’s efforts.
Without going into detail, the sailors were picked up by the Norwegian steamer Samson and then sent back to England directly from South Georgia, joining the cargo ship Orwell, which arrived in Liverpool on 3 August 1916. But that isn’t the end of the story.
The final blow
When Shackleton returned in 1917 from his failed mission to conquer the Antarctic, it fell within his gift to recommend his men for the Polar Medal. Of the 27 who served beneath him during the attempt to cross the continent via the South Pole, all but four had their names put forward to King George V.
The decision to leave out three trawlermen – Vincent, Holness and Stephenson – was a regrettable omission, to say the least, but the omission of Harry “Chippy” McNish, has rankled with polar enthusiasts ever since and blemished the reputation of Shackleton. Oddly, McNish expected the sleight and was never heard to complain.
The final journey
Like Shackleton, McNish never recovered his health fully. The journey and the events that led to failure broke his strong constitution if not his spirit. He returned to the Merchant Navy but suffered severe pain brought on by the months stranded at the Pole.
After the expedition, McNish worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company, making five voyages to New Zealand. He moved there permanently in 1925 and was employed at the Wellington docks until rheumatism and a serious accident forced him to retire.
Destitute, he eventually was allowed to stay at the Ohiro Benevolent Home, until he died in a Wellington hospital in 1930. He was treated as a hero and given a funeral with full naval honours paid for by the New Zealand government. McNish Island, which lies at the east side of Cheapman Bay on the south side of South Georgia, was named in his honour.
McNish was buried at the Karori Cemetery. For many years he had an unmarked grave, but in 1959 the New Zealand Antarctic Society erected a headstone. Then, in 2004, a life-size bronze statue of Mrs Chippy was added to the grave.
And what happened to Mrs Chippy, the cat? Well you might ask. Shackleton shot Mrs Chippy for food, a callous act for which McNish never forgave him. Whatever else Shackleton has in his cupboard, it shares the space with a cat.
Others in the series include:
A.S. Neil, dominie; George Forrest, plant hunter; Jane Haining, martyr; Mary Somerville, astronomer; Patrick Matthew, discoverer of the species; Don Roberto, co-founder SNP; Adrienne Corrie, actress; David Douglas, aborist; Frederic Lindsay, novelist; Allan Pinkerton, detective; Dr John Rae, explorer; Ian Stewart, racing driver.