In 2017, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph ran an April Fool's Day news story joking that polar bears had been spotted in Scotland. The prank was bittersweet, playing as it did with the reality that rising Arctic temperatures are threatening the natural habitats of polar bears, forcing them to relocate. However, it also drew unwitting attention to the long relationship that polar bears do have with Scotland.


Adrift c.1905

John Macallan Swan (1847–1910)

Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

While polar bears (or their ancestors) haven't roamed free in the Scottish countryside for roughly 18 thousand years, captive polar bears have been a common sight from the nineteenth century onwards, in spaces such as menageries and zoos.  As this story will show, Scottish museum collections also own many objects related to polar bears, from skulls and taxidermy specimens to prints, drawings and paintings.

Winter, Polar Bears

Winter, Polar Bears

John Murray Thomson (1885–1974)

Dumfries and Galloway Council

To understand why Scotland has a long history of human-polar bear interactions and polar-bear-related objects, it helps to understand the connections between Scotland and a different mammal: the whale. It was largely down to the whaling industry – which reached its height during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – that Scottish traders, operating from ports such as Dundee, frequently found themselves in polar bear territory. They were mostly hunting for bowhead whales, but when whales became scarce, they turned to other Arctic animals. Polar bear skins could also make a good profit and, later in the nineteenth century, polar bears were captured for display in zoos.

The Whaler 'Morning'

The Whaler 'Morning' c.1911

David Simpson Foggie (1878–1948)

University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

For example, a bear known as 'Starboard' was seized by the Edinburgh-born William Burn Murdoch near the coast of Greenland in 1912. Murdoch was travelling aboard the St Ebba, a Norwegian whaling ship. Murdoch was a complex character, combining the roles of explorer, hunter, naturalist and artist. He painted and studied polar bears during his time in the Arctic – but he also killed and captured them.

After several attempts at escape, 'Starboard' reached Scotland in the summer of 1913 and was given to the newly founded Edinburgh Zoo. Murdoch was a member of the Scottish Zoological Society and had close ties with the first director of Edinburgh Zoo, T. H. Gillespie. He was one of several artists to be involved in the early days of the zoo; others included Charles Hodge Mackie and the animal painter William Walls.

The second of these two artists, William Walls, shared Burn Murdoch's interest in polar bears, as exemplified by a painting owned by Perth Art Gallery. In fact, as I discovered during the making of a recent short film, The Polar Bears of Perth, the city of Perth contains multiple objects related to polar bears. These include natural history specimens (such as taxidermy and bones) and artworks by indigenous Arctic peoples, including Inuit sculptors. Burn Murdoch's archives, meanwhile, are held at the home of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Perth.

The Bears' Courtship, Greenland

The Bears' Courtship, Greenland

William Walls (1860–1942)

Perth & Kinross Council

The object I have kept coming back to, however, is William Walls's painting, The Bears' Courtship, Greenland. Unlike Murdoch, Walls never travelled to the Arctic, but he maintained an interest in polar bears across his career. In the case of The Bears' Courtship, Greenland, the represented bears were not, as the title suggests, painted in Greenland, but in Amsterdam Zoo. Later in life, Walls would paint the bears in Edinburgh Zoo as well, including 'Starboard' himself. Interestingly, Walls always painted zoo animals as if they were in their natural habitat, never including the walls, ditches or bars that kept them captive.

Bears at Edinburgh Zoo

Bears at Edinburgh Zoo 1919

Joseph Denovan Adam (1879–1931)

The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum

It's impossible to imagine what it would have been like for a polar bear like 'Starboard' to be wrenched from his vast Arctic habitat and relocated to a foreign country. One of the founding principles of Edinburgh Zoo was that it would offer large, open enclosures, in line with the pioneering approach of the German entrepreneur and zoo founder Carl Hagenbeck. A glimpse of one of these enclosures is offered by Joseph Adam in his painting Bears at Edinburgh Zoo, which represents a trio of brown bears in their home on Corstorphine Hill, overlooking Edinburgh City Centre. The viewer is situated inside the bear enclosure, with no barrier in sight. However, these enclosures were still tiny compared to an animal's usual territory – and the polar bear enclosure was unable to provide either snow or ice.

A film from the 1920s, owned by the British Film Institute, offers a rather different view to that of Joseph Adams's painting. Towards the end of this film 'Starboard' the polar bear is visible in his rocky enclosure, surrounded by a moat and a large stone wall, behind which humans gawp in wonder.

This clip brings us a little closer to the sad reality of human-polar bear interactions. Long before they were seen as the poster animal for the environmental crisis, western audiences commonly saw polar bears as a novelty and a resource. More often than not, polar bears fulfilled certain tropes, symbolising the barren and sublime vistas of the Arctic, or the fearsome dangers of polar adventure. William Burn Murdoch relates in his 1917 book Modern Whale and Bear Hunting how he dreamed as a child, growing up in Edinburgh, of travelling to the Arctic and bringing back the skin of a white bear. This he later did – but not without misgivings. Later in life, Murdoch pondered whether the polar bear population was not, in fact, inexhaustible.

The Cold North

The Cold North

John Macallan Swan (1847–1910)

Fife Council

The objects included within this story represent just a small proportion of polar bear-related objects in UK collections. In 2006, the artists Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson surveyed all taxidermic polar bears in the UK for an exhibition in Bristol called nanoq: flat out and bluesome: A Cultural Life of Polar Bears. This included one of the oldest taxidermy bears in Britain, which can be found in Scotland, in the collection of Blair Castle in Perthshire.

My interests, however, both include and extend beyond taxidermy, considering the connections between the remains and the representations of bears. How are polar bears preserved and pictured?

The Polar Bears

The Polar Bears

E. Hartman

Dumfries and Galloway Council

The sources are almost endless. The Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, for example, has an extraordinary collection of Arctic art (including some brilliant bears) while there are famous polar bear paintings in the collections of Royal Holloway and the Tate. By concentrating on a small selection of objects from Scottish collections we can, however, tell more focussed stories, bringing to light the experiences of specific animals – and showing how the lives of polar bears intersected with historical institutions like the Scottish whaling trade.

Samuel Shaw, Lecturer in History of Art at the Open University, and co-founder of Art and Ecology, a project that brings together historic objects from collections across the UK to change public understanding of today's ecological crisis