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Flying Antarctic tartan on Royal Research Ship Discovery

To celebrate the launch of the V&A Dundee’s fabulous Tartan exhibition, hailing one of Scotland’s most famous textiles, we were delighted to display an Antarctic Tartan flag on Royal Research Ship Discovery here at Discovery Point – thanks to the generosity of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT). Read through to see the majestic RRS Discovery proudly flying this stunning material.

It may come as a surprise that the Antarctic has its very own tartan; designed in the late 1990s, and produced by the British Antarctic Survey to raise funds for UKAHT, Antarctic tartan’s colour and pattern are inspired by all of the wonders of the continent, as well as touching on Captain R.F. Scott’s first Antarctic Expedition – aboard RRS Discovery – in 1901.

Detail of Antarctic Tartan from UKAHT

The tartan, which is made exclusively into scarves, blankets and more, by Lochcarron of Scotland – the world’s leading tartan manufacturers – is as distinguishable for its bright colours and grids, as its rich heritage.

Every colour and shade within the pattern has been carefully selected to represent an Antarctic feature; but what are they? In this blog, we’ll break it down and explore their connections to RRS Discovery.

Antarctic tartan colours


Perhaps the easiest to guess, the white of the tartan represents the vast swathes of ice in Antarctica.

This picture shows a bob of seals, resting on ice pancakes. Ice pancakes are a relatively rare phenomenon, seen when conditions are particularly cold.
Antarctic tartan colours


When associated with Antarctic exploration, grey conjures visions of round-bellied seals, sharp rocks and swooping birds.

There are many tales of encounters with such wildlife in the diaries of the men aboard the Discovery Expedition, including a particularly exciting one relating to Emperor penguins; read on to find out more!

Antarctic tartan colours

Orange and Yellow

As well as representing the bright summer sun, yellows and oranges hark back to the bills and plumages of Emperor and King Penguins: did you know that the 1901 Discovery Expedition was the first expedition to sight an Emperor penguin rookery and to collect an egg?

Writing in ‘The Voyage of the Discovery‘ in 1905, Captain Scott relays the story of the moment that the scientific team found the egg;

“It was on taking a last look at the spot where the Emperor Penguins had reared their young that Blissett called Royds’ attention to a rounded object almost buried in the snow, which on being dug out proved to be an egg – the first that had been found. The joy was great, and soon after, the party hastened back with their treasure.” 

You can see an Emperor penguin egg for yourself at Discovery Point!

antarctic tartan colours

Black and White

Combined, these shades depict the soft, fuzzy coats of penguins and the skins of whales.

antarctic tartan colours

Pale blue

Crevasses in the ice and shallow blue icy waters on the ice shelves, such as those featured in Dr. Edward Wilson’s renowned watercolour paintings made during Discovery’s 1901 Expedition, are represented by the pale blue weave in Antarctic tartan.

antarctic tartan colours

Dark blue

The deep Antarctic Ocean and the darkness of looming Antarctic winters – of which the men on board Discovery endured two, during the 1901-1904 Expedition – is rendered in a deep blue for the tartan.

And, by combining all of these, the Antarctic Tartan represents all of the wonders of the continent; a beautiful homage to the precious wildlife and landscape of one of the world’s most extreme environments, as well as the lives of the men who endured them for ground-breaking scientific research – that continues to be used as a benchmark for modern science to this day.

We’re very grateful to UK Antarctic Heritage Trust for allowing us to fly the stunning flag on our ship: adding another important moment to the 122 year-long history of RRS Discovery. Thank you also to Stitch in Time, the Dundee tailors who lovingly crafted the beautiful material into a flag worthy of being flown from a World Heritage Asset.

The United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust aims to connect people with the wonder of Antarctica and its stories of human endeavour to help promote a greater understanding of this phenomenal place and the role we all have in protecting it. They use remarkable stories to explore Antarctica and why it matters to us all, helping current and future generations discover, understand, value and protect this precious wilderness. They also conserve Antarctic heritage by looking after six designated Historic Sites and Monuments (HSMs) on the Antarctic Peninsula and by working with Antarctic policy makers on heritage and conservation.

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