Chippy Harry McNish

An occasional series on eminent Scots ignored or forgotten

How a Scot was cruelly denied the Polar Medal | The National

‘Chippy’ Harry McNish

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, ill, knackered by his arduous adventures and without his teeth, 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 the Scottish habit of being judgemental of people and things, an age-old Presbyterian trait, and yet, because of his ability for hard graft, another Scots characteristic, that 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 the ship 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 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. This is where the phrase ‘chippy Scot’ was born. Anyhow, I digress.

Like any tradesman employed today, McNish began his inspection of the damaged part of the ship 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 inability to withstand sea ice if trapped for any length of time. In that he was to be proved profoundly correct.

In return, judging McNish harshly as a pain-in-the-arse, 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.


The Endurance, crushed by ice, destined to sink


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 following 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 the aid of 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” – his comments effectively a logging for insubordination.

Mrs Chippy (2)

Mrs Chippy, and admiring Endurance sailor, Perce Blackborow,

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 fitted small decks fore and aft to the Caird. The crew with him remember his inventiveness and skill with gratitude.

Up and to this point, Mrs Chippy the cat had been a comfort to the crew. They marvelled how the cat coped with the freezing conditions so well, healthy, catching the ship’s vermin until the last moment of leaving, and always ready to chase a ball of yarn for a play thing. Mrs Chippy was most definitely an honourable member of the crew.

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 grave of Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish, and his cat.

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, an unusual silence on his part.

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 skeleton 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.

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32 Responses to Chippy Harry McNish

  1. baronesssamedi says:

    I’m put in mind of Pte Fraser of Dad’s Army who was chippy and insubordinate but DID have a Polar Medal.

  2. epicyclo says:

    Shackleton was a hero of my boyhood and knowing full well how well Scots tolerate authoritarian posh gits, I always wondered about McNish.

  3. Thank you for bringing this genuine Scots legend to my attention. I actually read the wiki article first, McNish having been brought to my attention after receiving the email notification to your blog. The odd thing is, wiki articles read, on the whole, objectively and without too much thick-spread passion, but I gradually read the mindset of the twisted Shackleton and anticipated the outcome. We seem to receive insult as some sort of English ‘honour’, but it seems also that other nations see fit to address that insult with deserved recognition of our heroes. I only wish Scotland would recognise itself, in my lifetime.

    My second discovery of a Scots hero today, I was made aware of*, and read about, brilliant physicist James Clerk Maxwell through the Cairns cartoon on the Wings Over Scotland page.
    *Ta, Robert Louis.

    Thanks, Grouse

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    James Clerk Maxwell was a genius of sorts, too well known for my ‘ignored’ category, but not as well known as he should be, or venerated.

  5. …I meant to add my personal valediction on behalf of McNish in my previous comment, and to the tune of, ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain’, I’ll take that opportunity now;
    You can stick your Polar Medal up your arse.

  6. Hugh Wallace says:

    Thank you, as always.

  7. Grouse Beater says:

    My pleasure, Hugh. 🙂

  8. ndls61 says:

    Gareth, great piece as ever! I hope you are bearing up in these difficult times?

    I think the picture is of Ernest Shackleton not Harry McNish? There’s a cropped picture of McNish on his wikipedia entry.

  9. Grouse Beater says:

    What happened to McNish’ portrait? I put both up. Sheesh! Anyhow, fixed now.

  10. cluthab says:

    Excellent story. Ships carpenters known as chippies on ships I sailed on & usually thrawn. Could it be they were encouraged to be so during their apprenticeship.

  11. Grouse Beater says:

    I’ve not met many but the few I have are all self-confident of their skills.

  12. Alan Gordon says:

    I was aware of the hero worship towards Shackleton but nothing of his charachter. I have only ever met and known one Shackleton ancestor, that I know of. The Shackleton charachter flaws may well be hereditary.

  13. Another forgotten event of that age was the attitude of Robert F. Scott to his earlier Antarctic voyage when Dundee whaling ships broke through packed ice to rescue his vessel from crushing. Apparently he showed no gratitude whatsoever to them.Perhaps indicative of English class attitude of the time of “Empire”?

  14. Muscleguy says:

    As a kilted Kiwi it pleases me that NZ did more for him, in life and in death, than Britain did. That sort of thing is something I’ve always admired in the NZ character. Capable no nonsense men, and women, are always valued in NZ.

    I have a large coffee table type book of the photographs from the Shackleton expedition and it has long struck me that Shackleton was in a large part a swine.

  15. Grouse Beater says:

    They’ve certainly done well to beat the virus. On first reading of the polar expedition, like Scott in the opposite direction – I found Shackleton’s men and the photographer better skilled than the expedition leader.

  16. I am well versed in Shackleton and his remarkable failure, which, in itself is a remarkable story of loyalty to his crew, his leadership and his endurance, no mistake made in naming future ships for that region. McNish challenged leadership, endangered crew and fomented dissent. The encounter is used in leadership circles today, to enlighten the fact that loudest do not hold the best plans for team spirit. Shackleton made errors, not least of which was the coriolis effect, which no one knew about at the time. When his ship perished on forming ice, which cracked the ship structure, Shackleton set a course for land, not knowing that his course was true but the ice underneath him was spinning, due to the coriolis effect. This had the effect of him charting course, which systematically moved. Had he charted a course to the sea, he would have eventually reached land, or, had he charted for land he would reach sea. Realising this, post resurgence, he managed to change his plans to reach open sea. McNish was crucial in this. His carpentry skills saved the entire crew, but Shackleton too, was the biggest part of their saviour, as well as his error to cause the problem initially. Having reached Elephant Island, he embarked on the journey of a lifetime 600 miles, in the worst seas of the southern ocean, to South Georgia where help was to be found. Not only the sea journey but an uncharted summit and descent of a mountain after a sea landing onto a wild coast. He then spent three months raising awareness and eventually securing transit to Elephant Island, where all of his crew survived. Shackleton was guilty of many things, naivety was definitely one, unpreparedness and lack of knowledge could well be excused, since they were the pioneers in the area. McNish having endangered the expedition with dissent, also saved the whole crew. His Polar Medal should have been secure, but Shackleton must have felt that he could also have endangered all with his dissent. My view is that McNish earned his passage and Polar Medal. Who decides such matters but those who endure the hardships. I am also a fan of Frank Hurley’s remarkable photographs. A standard set for future expeditions. Another story entirely. I am not sure that nationality was the deciding factor, although that could be argued indefinitely. Steadfast loyalty was required but not forthcoming from McNish, Having made his bed, he had to sleep in it for eternity.

  17. gethinbermingham says:

    Has no one noticed the mistake? This is not a story about a Scotsman and an Englishman. It’s a story about a Scotsman and an Irishman. Shackleton was Irish, not English!

  18. Grouse Beater says:

    There is no error. The essay states he was born in Ireland but his parents were English returning to England before he was ten years of age. Ireland was still a British territory. Shackleton was as much a stalwart of the Victorian era as any explorer of his day.

  19. Alex Montrose says:

    I enjoyed that story, the lifeboat ” James Caird ” adapted by Chippy McNish, was named after the Dundee jute magnate who donated £10,000 to Shackleton’s exploration fund.

  20. Grouse Beater says:

    Thank you, Alex. I checked out your information and true, now duly added to the story! 🙂

  21. diabloandco says:

    I like these Grouse – more please!

  22. Grouse Beater says:

    Okay-doke. More in the pipeline. 🙂

  23. Alexander Wilkinson says:

    Harry was my Great Grand Uncle and so I’ve known this story for a long time. About the same time Chippy was fighting for his life alongside the crew of The Edurance, my Great Grandfather who, having joined Princess Patricia’s Canadian regiment, was losing his on receiving a lethal bullet to the head on his first day in the trenches of Sint Elooi in Belgium. I’ve visited his war grave in Voormezeel but haven’t managed to get to New Zealand yet. I look to both and wonder how their monuments will fair in the current monument desecrating, statue toppling fervour. Hopefully New Zealand and Belgium will escape and Mrs Chips doesn’t get his chips and the war graves survive. Scotland has disproportionately contributed to the advancement of humanity but also has a legacy in the plantations of South Eastern USA. Scotland’s independence movement may well become a side show in the face of the tsunami that threatens.

  24. Grouse Beater says:

    Bit of a muddled mixed message, there, Alexander. Scots were employed by their English overlords, pushed from their land, taking to new places, some prospered, most did not. As for independence, the movement won’t go away for the simple reason England wants its parliament back, is in full possession now, and any notion of an assembly of nations is dead.

  25. Hi Grouse. Mungo Armstrong Edinburgh taxi driver and serial lurker here. I’d like to thank you for your thoughts during this time. And say that when we get our independence back it will be because people like you did so much for the cause. The reason for this post is that I Just read your twitter post and I’d like to point you toward this video on YouTube. This is a serious man, a professional. I hope it might bring some comfort.

  26. Grouse Beater says:

    I appreciate the time and effort you have taken, Mungo, to make confederate contact, very generous, and who knows, I maybe have take a ride in your taxi once, or even twice. I shall take a look at the YouTube video you recommend. Most grateful. 🙂

  27. Kirsten Skye says:

    Shackleton was Irish and the animals were ordered shot not to eat them but to save rations in not feeding them they ate the animal feed themselves. Killing Mrs. Chippy a tom cat was terrible for morale and especially as McNish’s efforts were one of the key reason everybody survived. I didn’t know he didn’t get a Polar Medal. I assume the class divide was at work there. I’m sure they must have been awarded like WW1 long after the event by which time Shackleton had died.

  28. Grouse Beater says:

    The essay states Shackleton was Irish. Ireland was British territory back then, he more English than the English, as was Wellington..

  29. lastbus says:

    Nicely crafted. I have long believed that Shackleton and his crew would not have survived if it wasn’t for the modifications Harry McNish completed on the life boats. I will be visiting Harry McNish and Thomas Orde-Lees graves at Karori Cemetary, Wellington next week.

  30. annemcn100 says:

    Incredibly proud of my great uncle Harry McNish, the polar medal should have been awarded, nevertheless history records his contribution to this expedition and nothing can diminish that.

  31. Ronnie Mcneill says:

    GB, any chance you could do one on James Clerk Maxwell?

  32. Grouse Beater says:

    He’s on my list, but there’s a number of folk before him.

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