Thomas Frank MacLeod was born on 3 April, 1873, in Glasgow and grew up in Stornoway, on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. By the age of fourteen McLeod was a man of the sea. He fought in the Boer War where he suffered a lasting wound on his hand.
McLeod was an Able Seaman aboard the Terra Nova, as part of Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. For his service to the expedition, Tom was awarded a silver Polar Medal by George V in July, 1913.
After a short while working with the British Museum of Natural History in London, McLeod was signed on to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Transcontinental Antarctic Expedition.
MacLeod showed signs of superstitious beliefs throughout the expedition. For example, at one point he refused to eat penguin as he said that the souls of dead fishermen lived in penguins. It is a well-told story that McLeod was the one who picked up the expedition’s Bible that Shackleton had discarded (save for a few pages) on the ice following the breakup of the Endurance—McLeod thought it unlucky to throw away the word of God in such circumstances.
Thomas Orde Lees wrote on MacLeod in his diary:
‘McLeod is an elderly Scotchman, a quaint old character.’ (12 October, 1915.)
By the beginning of April, 1916, the ice floe on which the men were camping was quite small and getting smaller. As MacLeod was standing on the edge of the floe on 4 April, flapping his arms to keep warm, a sea leopard leaped out of the water in front of him. They can be dangerous creatures so MacLeod turned to run and the sea leopard flopped after him. It must have looked mildly amusing to the others but Frank Wild went to retrieve the rifle and shot MacLeod’s pursuer. It provided the men with a needed supply of blubber for the next while.
McLeod was with Frank Worsley in the Dudley-Docker on the journey to Elephant Island. It seemed that McLeod and Cheetham went together in a pair as both were in the same boat and Worsley described them thus:
‘McLeod and Cheetham were two good sailors and oars, the former a typical old deep-sea salt and growler, the latter a pirate to his finger-tips.’
When Worsley woke up in the boat to find himself totally stiff and practically unable to move, it was, as Worsley wrote himself, ‘my old friend McLeod, who had kicked me to bring me to consciousness in the boat when we were approaching Elephant Island.’
McLeod was among the twenty-two men who were on Elephant Island whilst Shackleton and the other took the James Caird on its now famous voyage. During the time on the island, MacLeod made a wondrous discovery. Frank Hurley recalled it in Argonauts of the South:
‘One evening I was awakened from a doze by the familiar smell of an Australian bush fire. Rubbing my eyes I beheld McLeod, one of the sailors, contentedly puffing out volumes of heavy smoke. The day before he had borrowed all the pipes and boiled them in a tin to extract the nicotine juice. McLeod then discovered that, by steeping the grass lining of his padded footwear in the concoction and drying it before the fire, an aromatic “tobacco” of exceptional flavour resulted.’
MacLeod was in the thick of the dealing and trading that went on between the twenty-two men on the island. As Lees wrote:
‘Food is our only means of exchange and we barter freely with it…McLeod exchanged a cake of nut-food with Blackborow for seven half penguin steaks, payable at the rate of half a steak daily at breakfast time.’ (8 June, 1916.)
He seemed content enough to stay in his sleeping bag and keep himself to himself during their residence on Elephant Island. Again, as Lees wrote:
‘We remained in our bags all day and did not even go out for our customary hour’s exercise. Some of the sailors are very reluctant to go out at times. Old McLeod sticks up in his stuffy bag all day long in the dark, quite contented to be left alone smoking or chewing. The others read a good deal, but he is almost illiterate, I believe.’ (12 June, 1916.)
Following the expedition’s safe return to South America, McLeod stayed with the McLean family during his time in Punta Arenas. In thanks for their hospitality he presented them with the Bible that his had salvaged on the ice. He wrote his name and that of the expedition in the front of the Bible. This Bible eventually made its way to the Royal Geographical Society in London and it was recently on display in the Enduring Eye exhibition.
When it came time for the men of the expedition to go their separate ways at various time, William Bakewell wrote that ‘Old McLeod, one of the most hard-boiled sailors I ever ran across, started to blubber like a baby when I bade him goodbye.’
Tom McLeod was granted his second Polar Medal, a bronze, for his service during Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition. Following his return from the southern polar regions, McLeod served aboard minesweepers for remainder of the Great War.
McLeod was in Mauritius during December (at least), 1920, and agreed to head south again with Shackleton aboard the Quest. During the expedition, Frank Wild, who had assumed command following Shackleton’s death, had MacLeod working mainly as a stoker but he also worked hard to keep things on track.
Wild described him as ‘Old McLeod, veteran of many expeditions’. When they reached old familiar waters and the ice of the Antarctic, MacLeod said to Mcllroy: ‘Here we are home again! Doesn’t it do you good to get back.’
The building of the stone cairn on South Georgia in memory of Shackleton was apparently McLeod’s idea. Frank Wild wrote about a poignant moment for the old hands from the Endurance:
‘Our last act before leaving was to pay a visit to the Boss’s grave, for which purpose I gathered together all those who had served under him on the Endurance and had shared with him all the trials and vicissitudes that followed her loss in the ice. There were, in addition to myself, Worsley, Macklin, Mcllroy, Kerr, Green and McLeod.’
Following the Quest expedition, MacLeod emigrated to Canada on the invitation of a Quest crewmate, George Vibert Douglas. We had many employments—fisherman, school caretaker and night watchman—and lived in Kingston, Ontario. In 1947, MacLeod moved into Rideaucrest retirement home and then again to the House of Providence, Montreal Street, Kingston, a different retirement home. He died on 16 December, 1960. Thomas MacLeod is buried in Cataraqui Cemetery, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
In his book, Shackleton’s Boat Journey, Worsley paid tribute to MacLeod:
This fine old seaman is a product of the old–time sailing ships, a real sailor of a type only too rare today.
Michael Smith picked this up in his recent biography of Shackleton, describing MacLeod thus: ‘McLeod, a seaman at only 14, seemed to hail from a bygone age of seafaring. He served alongside Cheetham on Terra Nova and had a peculiar fondness for the old superstitions of the sea.’
The Times, 19 December, 1960.
Hurley, F. Argonauts of the South. London, New York: 1925.
Huntford, R. Shackleton. London, 2000.
Shackleton, Sir E. South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917. London, 1919.
Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.
Thomson, J. Elephant Island & Beyond: The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde Lees. Norwich, 2003.
Wild, W. Shackleton’s Last Voyage: the Story of the ‘Quest’. London, 1923.
Worsley, F. A. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure. London, 1931.