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A Museum for Leith

The fine fellows from the SS Explorer Preservation Society tell us about the ship’s history and restoration and their plan to make it an attraction in Leith

The SS Explorer (our pride and joy!) was Scotland’s first purpose built marine research 

ship; the previous ships were converted from other prototypes. The Explorer’s design was based on the hull of a deep-sea side trawler but with thicker steel in order to work in arctic waters. Powered by a steam engine she is one of the last surviving examples of this type of hull and engine in the world. Registered in Leith, where she would visit between cruises for maintenance, she worked from Aberdeen loading research and fishing equipment and scientists who would be conducting the research.

In 1996 SS Explorer was listed on the National Historic Ships Register joining such famous ships as RRS Discovery, PS Waverley, HMS Belfast and our neighbour Royal Yacht Britannia.

We at the SS Explorer Preservation Society are working to preserve and restore this completely unique ship. Our vision is Explorer as a museum, showing the research carried out, life onboard, the engineering and ship building heritage, with some running machinery. Onshore there would be a visitor centre showcasing different aspects of the ship throughout the year. We hope the Explorer will become an attraction for tourists as well as 

an education resource and a local community space.

The History of the SS Explorer

In the 1950s there was a surge of investment in marine research, the Scottish Office built the Sir William Hardy to research fish as food, the Marine Lab in Aberdeen was expanded and FRS Explorer was built to conduct an array of marine research.


The keel of the FRS Explorer was laid on 9th of March 1954. Lady Rachel Stuart wife of the Secretary of State for Scotland launched her on the morning of 21st June 1955. Lady Stuart also opened the extension of the Marine Lab in the afternoon. The ‘FRS Explorer’ was the penultimate steam ship completed by the famous Aberdeen shipbuilding firm of Alexander Hall & Co. before being bought by Hall, Russell & Co.

The Sir William Hardy was the first diesel-electric trawler to be built in the UK, the project took from 1948 to 1955, and wasn’t operational until early 1956, perhaps this is why the Explorer used a proven engine instead of the newer technology. Sir William Hardy went on to become Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior – but not before Explorer rescued her in 1969, towing her to Scalloway after her propeller was fouled.

Explorer contained a mixture of traditional and modern technologies her main propulsion was provided by a triple-expansion steam engine and an oil-fired, Scotch boiler instead of a diesel engine, which was becoming the norm. The steam engine was much quieter which was just as well given the engine room was surrounded by sleeping cabins and mess rooms. The engine was also able to propel the ship at low speeds for long periods of times – ideal for the testing of trawling gear. 

It is important to note the hull and superstructure were riveted together during a time when welded ships were becoming the norm. Welding required less manpower than riveting. Ships could be made from a smaller number of large steel plates, welded together. Riveting, on the other hand, limited the size of the plates.

However in order to reduce weight because of the larger superstructure than normally found on a trawler of this size aluminium was used. Although not a new material in shipbuilding its use was still limited, the first aluminium superstructure being fitted only 15 years earlier. In 1948 the first list of approved quality checked aluminium suppliers was produced. In the 1950s various new aluminium alloys were being tested. 

Auxiliary systems such as seawater, fresh water and fuel pumps were electrically driven by DC generator rather than steam driven, as on traditional steam ships.  

The Explorer had several labs and these were used according to the research being conducted during that cruise. The data gathered was then sent to the Marine Laboratory when Explorer returned to Aberdeen. In 1969 the Explorer was fitted with a computer to enable the data to be processed during the voyage. The computer was an 

Elliot 920C Hydroplot. Although it used integrated circuits it also used paper tape for data output. The computer and its associated peripherals were also very large, taking up the entire space of a very large desk. 

The ship’s maiden voyage was in 1956, entering service with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, working under the Marine Laboratory. This cruise was to compare her capabilities to the vessel she was replacing which was also called (you guessed it) SS Explorer. The other ships in the area must have been quite confused by the two ships.

In place of the fish holds a trawler would have had below deck, the Explorer had cabins for officers and scientists. The cabins were all of a good size and the officer’s salon is an impressive sight, she was known as a comfortable and capable vessel. 

For 28 years the Explorer gathered data on fish numbers, stock and health, tested new fishing methods and equipment and gathered data on the environmental conditions of the waters and sea bed around the UK coast helping to further our understanding of the marine environment. Until 1984 when she was withdrawn from service and sold for scrap due to high running costs, design limitations and obsolete equipment. 

Aberdeen Maritime Museum purchased the Explorer and took her to a mooring in Cromarty Firth, while a berth could be established. She remained at this mooring for an incredible 10 years, various proposals for her future were put forward but none were successful. During that time she was vandalised, components were stolen and wildlife made homes onboard. In 1994 the Museum decided that the project was not viable, and sold the SS Explorer for scrap. 

Former crew, local people and enthusiasts were aware that this important ship was about to be destroyed and formed a group, the SS Explorer Preservation Society. They raised enough funds to purchase the vessel on the morning dismantling had commenced. She was towed back to the Cromarty Firth while new plans were made.

During 1995 members began cleaning, maintaining and repairing what they could. 

Things were progressing well, until a vessel ran into the Explorer wrecking one of the ship’s lifeboats, a section 

of her superstructure was stoved in, and some of the wooden decking was smashed, the scars remain to this day

The insurance pay out was used to tow the ship to Leith where a berth had been found. New members from Leith joined and over the next few years the management of the society passed to the Leith members. For the next 20 years volunteers did what they could with what they had. However the elements and corrosion continued to take their toll.

In the last 4 years the board of directors has expanded and significant progress has been made in developing the society into an organisation able to deal with planning and managing a task of the size required to realise the vision we have for the Explorer. 

We received a grant from the Heritage lottery fund to be used in developing the organisation which has been used for training and advertising, we also received a grant from Leith Benevolent Association to purchase safety equipment and, last but not least, a very generous donation from a recent new member.

Info: Donate at

With thanks to: National Archives Kew, National Records of Scotland, Aberdeen Council Archives, Lloyds Register Foundation and SS Explorer Preservation Society archives

The Explorer’s wheelhouse


In 1996 SS Explorer was listed on the National Historic Ships Register joining the likes of RRS Discovery, HMS Belfast and the Royal Yacht Britannia

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