Sea sagas, ancient and modern

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
The sea has played a crucial role in the history of Scotland, a fact reflected in two new but highly contrasting visitor attractions. Jonathan Croall reports

Captain Scott's epic journeys to Antarctica still have the capacity to excite both adults and children, and there is no disguising the thrill of being able to wander above and below deck on his famous research ship. The three-masted barque that first took him to "the unforgiving continent" is now permanently berthed on the quay side at Dundee.

Although the refurbishment work below deck is not yet complete, you can visit the boiler room, the galley, and the quarters of the 36-strong crew. There's also the wardroom, with its individual cabins for captain and officers, including Scott's. Its magnificent central mahogany table was in emergency used as a surgeon's operating table.

The provisions boxes stacked up in the store rooms and on the quay- side indicate the kind of diet required on Antarctic expeditions: mutton cutlets, dabs, duck and green peas, Quaker oats and cod roe were just some of the staple elements. Fresh penguin and seal meat, caught on the spot, were apparently the best deterrent against scurvy.

The ship, the first ever designed for scientific research and Antarctic exploration, was built in Dundee. Whalers from the city were already experienced in getting ice-bound ships free from Arctic waters, and Scott chose another Dundee ship, the "Terra Nova", for his final, fateful expedition.

Discovery Point, the museum recently built alongside the "Discovery" provides an excellent introduction to the whole story. Cleverly conceived and beautifully presented, with state-of-the-art audio-visual effects, it underlines the fact that the essential aim of Scott's initial expedition was to advance scientific knowledge.

So one room focuses on the different strands of scientific experiment and recording undertaken by Scott's experienced team, covering the fields of meteorology, geology, taxidermy, magnetism, and marine life, much of it pioneering work for today's environmental monitoring.

In the same room is a totally unexpected exhibit: a block of Antarctic ice enclosed in a refrigerated display case, reckoned to date from well before the Industrial Revolution. Such samples are now used as a standard to measure global pollution.

In another room, helped by the appropriate sounds and smells and a huge model ship, you can get a sense of "Discovery" under construction in the city's shipyard - it was made from wood rather than the usual steel. You can also stand among the crowds on the quayside on launch day in March 190l, and listen to the dignitaries' speeches.

The undoubted emotional highlight of the exhibition is the climax of the audio-visual offering "Locked in the Ice". Telling the story of Scott's first gruelling visit to Antarctica and his ship's eventual rescue by the "Terra Nova", it ends spectacularly with the ship actually bursting through the three screens as it gets free of the ice. Spine-tingling stuff.

"Discovery Point" has an educational suite, festooned with nautical artefacts, where children can try on Antarctic gear, learn sea-faring terms and sea-shanties, and meet individual characters in the "Discovery" story. There's also a resources pack, and even an education room aboard the ship itself, previously the port-side coal bunker.

Largs, a small resort on the north-west coast of Ayrshire, has an important place in the history of the Vikings in Scotland. The Battle of Largs in 1263, when the Scots finally subdued the Vikings, was decisive in bringing the invaders to the negotiating table.

The celebrated battle has been re-enacted each September at the Largs Viking Festival, when saga telling, rune reading and demonstrations of Viking arts and crafts are held in a recreated Viking village. Now the Viking story has been given a more permanent home in a new centre on the sea-front.

"Vikingar!" - whose name translates as "warfare at sea" - is a modest attempt to re-create the Viking way of life, and to provide some understanding of how this raiding, trading people penetrated deep into Scotland over a period of four centuries, leaving many permanent marks on its landscape, language and culture. Much of the experience is interactive. In the first room an actress, dressed in appropriate clothes, stands within a tableau of models depicting a Viking homestead, surrounded today by some questioning Glasgow primary schoolchildren. "You boys have to pay a bride price of 10 pieces of silver, " she explains. "I've got two 20ps," one boy pipes up hopefully.

Some of the children investigate a series of information boxes in the opposite wall: hidden under the flaps are the answers to questions about such matters as the Vikings' clothing, their food, how they lit fires, and what the women and children did while the men were away fighting.

Next the group moves into Valhalla - actually a wide corridor, with a screen at one end on which Odinj lord of the gods, appears. Here the children are told a legend by the actress - "Nothing is as it seems in a Viking story" - as they sit beneath wooden carvings of Freya, Thor and other Viking gods.

The children finish up in a room containing more conventionally presented material - panels and photos on the warfare between the Scots and the Vikings; the runic alphabet; the Vikings' rich trade in iron, timber, silver, spices, wool, furs and much else; and their continuing legacy in certain parts of Scotland, especially the Orkneys and Shetlands, which were not ceded to the Scots until 1469.

School visits begin with the now regulation multi-screen audio-visual presentation, which gets over the essence of the story while just about avoiding the Monty Python trap. Groups can extend the hour-long visit by making use of the materials on offer in the activity room: a costume box, a runic alphabet box, a textiles box, and a household items box.

Discovery Point, Discovery Quay, Dundee DDl 4XA. Tel: 01382 201245.

* Vikingar!, Barrfields, Greenock Road, Largs, Ayrshire KA30 8QL. Tel: 01475 689777

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