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Arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh had new ship Eira built at the Peterhead yard.

Arctic explorer

Arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith Expeditions on board the Eira 1880, 1881-82

This gravestone in one of Peterhead local cemeteries hides a tale of Arctic exploration and adventure. The stone commemorates Alexander Robertson, formerly a crewman on the steamship Eira, which was built by the Arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith in Peterhead.

Benjamin Leigh Smith paid for Alexander’s headstone.

Leigh Smith was a wealthy man and travelled extensively to the Svalbard and Spitsbergen regions between 1871 and 1882. In 1880 he had the ship Eira (a screw barquentine) built at the Peterhead yard of Messrs Stephen and Forbes. The whaling family, the Grays, helped with the building, with David Gray assisting in the drawing up of specifications. Leigh Smith made his next voyage to the Arctic in 1880, departing Peterhead on board Eira on 22 May.

On this expedition he took William John Alexander (Johnny) Grant as the official photographer. Grant had established a reputation as a polar photographer, having been on many polar expeditions and exhibited his photographs at the Royal Photographic Society, as well as being a Fellow of the Society and of the Royal Geographic Society.

Leigh Smith and his crew of 24 (mainly Scots and Shetlanders as was common for Artic exploration at the time) aimed to explore Jan Mayen, but this was covered in mist. On 11 July, Eira met up with the Peterhead whalers Hope and Eclipse led by John and David Gray.

The crew of the sailing ship ‘Eira’ dismember a polar bear on the ice at the bows of the ‘Eira’ which is moored to the ice. A crew member stands on deck watching.

Arctic explorers
From left to right are: David Gray at the helm (Capt. Eclipse), Benjamin Leigh-Smith (Capt./owner Eira),  Arthur Conan Doyle (Surgeon Hope), John Gray (Capt. Hope), Dr.Walker and Dr.Neale, and William Lofley (ice master Eira) right at the stern. Pictures: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

They were finally rescued by the Dutch ship Willem Barentzs and transferred to the Peterhead whaler Hope for the journey home. It’s thought Alexander Robertson died of the privations his body had suffered on the ice.

Credit to Kenny Bruce

Arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh had new ship Eira built at the Peterhead yard.

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