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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Gibson MSP

Harry 'Chippy' McNish - Scots Antarctic Hero


Born in 1874 in Port Glasgow, Harry McNish was the third of eleven children and – living among the bustling Clyde dockyards – became a skilled shipwright and carpenter. By all accounts McNish was a man who felt that respect was earned, suffered no fools and stood his ground in an argument. His nickname of ‘Chippy’ was as much linked to his trade as a woodworker as it was to his ‘difficult’ attitude.


In late 1913, Harry’s attention was drawn to this advert which appeared in The Times:


MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES. BITTER COLD. LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS. CONSTANT DANGER. SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. SIR ERNEST SHACKLETON 4 BURLINGTON STEET LONDON.


Harry was among the 5,000 who applied and – after Shackleton himself sifted them into piles labelled ‘mad’, ‘hopeless’ and ‘possible’ – was successfully selected as part of the 27-strong crew of the ship Endurance.


Before long, Harry was aboard Endurance on its voyage to the Antarctic, where the crew aimed to make the first ever land crossing of the Antarctic continent. On board with him was his beloved ‘Mrs Chippy’ – a cat who followed Harry everywhere and slept in a miniature hammock built by the adoring crew of Endurance.


Famously, Shackleton’s voyage on Endurance was a disaster. By 1915, the ship was completely stuck in pack ice and was slowly being crushed to destruction. Harry, with pipe in mouth and frown on forehead worked day and night to keep the ship afloat and liveable – building new features on nearly every deck. After a year of waiting, the ice failed to recede and Harry, when it was clear the ship was doomed, built accommodation and facilities on the ice – including ‘The Ritz’ for the freezing crew to have their meals.


The relationship between Shackleton and Harry was always frayed but broke down completely as the mission spiralled towards disaster. Shackleton shot Mrs Chippy for food; Harry claimed that now the ship was lost, he was no longer under orders and Shackleton brandished a pistol at him when he told him his plan to drag the lifeboats over the ice wouldn’t work – a point on which he was proved entirely correct.


Fighting just to survive, Harry modified the remaining boats – building up the sides and caulking the gaps with flour, paint and seal blood – to make them seaworthy and fit to take them men on a last-ditch effort to make it to safety. His ingenuity and skill allowed the men to make the perilous 1,000 mile journey across open ocean – first to Elephant Island and then on to South Georgia. Harry was part of a hand-picked crew of six who made the full journey with Shackleton, enabling those left behind to be rescued.


Of the 56 men on the expedition (the Endurance and a supporting vessel) all survived. All but four were awarded the Polar Medal for their achievements - Harry being one of the four.


In later life he jumped ship in New Zealand and lived in near destitution, working odd jobs and sleeping around the docks. When he died, aged only 56 in 1930 and his financial situation was realised, the New Zealand Government paid for him to be buried with full military honours and a party of 12 men from HMS Dunedin provided a rifle salute and carried his coffin.


No headstone was provided, but in 1959 the New Zealand Antarctic Society had one erected and in 2004, when the grave was reported as neglected and overgrown, they commissioned a life-size bronze sculpture of Mrs Chippy to sit on the grave.


The campaign to posthumously award Harry McNish the Polar Medal continues to this day.

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