William Gordon Burn Murdoch

William Gordon Burn Murdoch
Born (1862-01-22)22 January 1862
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died 19 July 1939(1939-07-19) (aged 77)
Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Painter
  • travel writer
  • explorer

William Gordon Burn Murdoch (22 January 1862 – 19 July 1939) was a Scottish painter, travel writer and explorer. Murdoch travelled widely including India and both the Arctic and the Antarctic. He is said to be the first person to have played the bagpipes in the Antarctic. He published several travel books as well as being an accomplished artist. A cape in the South Orkneys is named in his honour.


Burn Murdoch was born in Edinburgh to Jessie Cecilia (née Mack) and Dr. William Burn-Murdoch. His father was the first to take the name Burn-Murdoch, but the hyphen was not used by his son. His elder brother, John Burn-Murdoch, joined the military and became the commanding engineer of state railways in India.[1]

He attended a local school and then studied law at Edinburgh University. When he emerged, however, he went to study art in Antwerp and Paris.[2]

Dundee Antarctic Whaling Expedition 1892
"There's no place like home" by William Gordon Burn Murdoch

His first major expedition was in 1892 when he joined an investigative whaling expedition to the Antarctic. He served as an assistant to William Speirs Bruce, a medical student with an interest in oceanography. Burn Murdoch, who was known as "WG" to his friends, used this opportunity to create paintings of their journeys and he had a contract to create a book.[3] With these and his notes he wrote the book Edinburgh to the Antarctic which was published by Longmans in 1894.[4] It was said that he was the first "Artist in Residence" in the Antarctic.[5] Burn Murdoch had mixed feelings about the trip. The expedition had been to the Falkland Islands and Ross Island, and had discovered and named Dundee Island,[6] but the scientific role he was expected to help with was undervalued, and both he and Bruce had been obliged to help with killing 5,000 seals which was the expedition's only hope of commercial success as they had failed to find any commercial whales. Despite these setbacks and having his teeth loosened by scurvy he gained a love of polar exploration.[3]

He was very fond of his country, and his writing style incorporates frequent references to Scotland. There were plans to create a mural around Castlehill Water Reservoir, and in collaboration with Patrick Geddes he created a banner 1.4 metres long showing the people in Scottish history. The mural was never created but colour and monochrome versions of the ten lithographs making up his design were sold.[7]

Burn Murdoch continued his friendship with William Spiers Bruce, whom he had first met at university. He helped him by lending him money and later with organising a number of projects including the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition in 1902–04. During that expedition Bruce surveyed Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. Cape Burn Murdoch on that island is named in his honour.[8] The two of them were later involved with a company that intended to commercially exploit the island of Spitzbergen.[5]

In 1905 he travelled with the Prince and Princess of Wales on their visit to India, which he used as the basis for a book describing his travels in India and Burma.[9] In 1906 he was made a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and he remained an active member. The society own a collection of his work, including a large oil painting in its board room.[5]

After some commercial whaling he published "Modern whaling and bear hunting" in 1917, which he again illustrated and which described his interest in polar bears. The Royal Scottish Geographical Society has humorous cartoons he created featuring polar bears. One of his polar bear sketches was used as an RSGS Christmas card.[5] Burn Murdoch also captured polar bears, and gave a young polar bear to the Zoological Society of Scotland.[5]

Burn Murdoch died in 1939 in Edinburgh. He and his wife had lived at Arthur Lodge, where they entertained visitors, including Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Burn Murdoch was a keen musician as well as an artist, and he claimed to be the first person to have played the bagpipes in the Antarctic.[8]


He is noted for saying that he had been to "From the Arctic and Antarctic to 'the back parts of Mull'".[2] His writings and paintings are in a number of institutions including the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the Victoria and Albert, and the Perth & Kinross Council and Dundee Museum.[10]


  1. H. M. Vibart, 'Murdoch, John Burn- (1852–1909)', rev. James Lunt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2011 accessed 4 Dec 2013
  2. 1 2 Swinney, Geoffrey N. (January 2003). "From the Arctic and Antarctic to 'the back parts of Mull': The life and career of William Gordon Burn Murdoch (1862–1939)". Scottish Geographical Journal. 119 (2): 121–151. doi:10.1080/00369220318737167.
  3. 1 2 Voyage of the Balaena, Glasgow Digital Library, retrieved 3 December 2013
  4. Burn Murdoch, W. G. (2010) [1894]. From Edinburgh to the Antarctic: an artist's notes and sketches during the Dundee Antarctic Expedition of 1892–93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1-108-04824-2.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 William Gordon Burn Murdoch, Geoff Swinney, National Museums Scotland, retrieved 3 December 2013
  6. "Dundee Island". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  7. "Showing the Succession of Scottish Kings and the Principal Figures of their Reigns, from the Time of Duncan and Macbeth, in their Proper Arms and Costumes", W.G. Burn Murdoch, Arcadja.com, retrieved 3 December 2013
  8. 1 2 William Gordon Burn Mudoch, scottish-places.info, retrieved 3 December 2013
  9. Burn Murdoch, WG. From Edinburgh to India and Burmah. ISBN 1-166-06066-7.
  10. Paintings by William Gordon Burn-Murdoch at the Art UK site
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