The Real Terror: Shedding light on the Scots who perished in tragic quest for North West Passage

Television viewers have been gripped with fear over the past couple of weeks as the first series of historical thriller The Terror aired.

Saturday, 13th March 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 15th March 2021, 10:31 am

But while the show’s producers are keen to stress their account is inspired by a work of fiction, the premise of the story is loosely based on horrific real-life events of the Franklin Expedition and uses the names of real people, many of them with clear connections to Scotland.

The Terror, which premiered on BBC 2 earlier this month, recalls the lost 1845 expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, that endeavoured to find a navigable route through a section of the icy Arctic Ocean, known as the North West passage.

The crew of two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, veer wildly off course and find themselves hemmed in by deadly pack ice near King William Island at the northern tip of Canada.

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Within three years, the catastrophic event would not only result in the loss of both ships, but also of all 129 members of the expedition. The shocking scale of the tragedy would later be accompanied by grisly reports of cannibalism.

Since 1859, the skeletal remains of around 30 individuals have been discovered, with the majority given local burials on King William Island.

The body of Lieutenant John Irving, born in Edinburgh’s Princes Street in 1815, is one of just a few of the Franklin Expedition crew to have been brought back home.

Irving’s grave was stumbled upon in 1879, and his remains re-interred following a grand public funeral at Dean Cemetery in the Scottish capital.

All 129 members of crew perished in the real-life tragedy which has been fictionalised for television.

The inscription on his headstone records that Irving and his crew perished from cold and “want of food” on their ill-fated march into Canada.

Buried nearby John Irving is Robert Anstruther Goodsir (1814-1867), the brother of Fife-born Franklin Expedition surgeon Dr Harry Goodsir, whose remains were discovered in 1869 and later interred beneath the Franklin Memorial at Greenwich Old Royal Naval College.

Robert joined the search for his brother and crew on the Dundee whaling ship Advice in 1849 and returned the following year on board the HMS Lady Franklin, but to no avail as far as finding his sibling was concerned.

In The Terror television series, members of the crew are horror struck by visions of monsters, used in the show as a means of conveying the fragility of their mental faculties in the face of almost certain death.

The Terror recalls the tragic events of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition in the 1840s.

Michael Tracy, from Chicago, who is a descendant of Dr Harry Goodsir, says the TV adaptation of the events faced by his distant ancestor, who is played in the series by Bodyguard actor Paul Ready, captures well the bleak conditions and sheer madness of the Franklin Expedition.

Mr Tracy, who has spent several years researching the expedition, told The Scotsman: “The Terror gives the viewer a somewhat accurate historical account of the crews of the Erebus and Terror which it is hoped will spark a resurgence of interest in this programme depicting it.

“In my view, the fictional monster is a combination of starvation, disease, cannibalism, and the changing weather conditions on the island, the extreme cold and complete desolation. These are the real monsters of King William Island facing the crews of the Erebus and Terror in 1845-48.”

A message from the Editor:

The Terror is available to watch now on BBC 2 and iPlayer. Picture: AMC

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Lt John Irving's grave at Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh.
John Irving was born on February 8th, 1815 on Princes Street, in Edinburgh.
The relief on Lt Irving's gravestone depicts a scene from the Franklin Expedition.