Harry McNish (sometimes spelled McNeish) lived from 11 September 1874 to 24 September 1930. He was the carpenter on Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 to 1917. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Harry McNish was born in Port Glasgow on the south bank of the River Clyde, 16 miles downstream from Glasgow. He was the third of eleven children born to John McNish, a shoemaker, and Mary Wade. Harry McNish became a skilled shipwright and carpenter and a devout member of the United Free Church of Scotland. He married three times in twelve years: in 1895 to Jessie Smith, who died in February 1898; in 1898 to Ellen Timothy, who died in December 1904; and to Lizzie Littlejohn in 1907.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was Sir Ernest Shackleton's attempt to achieve the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, the continent's final remaining challenge once Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole in 1911. Harry McNish became involved after seeing an advert placed by Shackleton and was one of the oldest members of the expedition. When the Endurance became trapped in pack ice, it was McNish who constructed accommodation on the ice for the crew and who progressively altered the ship to delay its sinking as it was crushed by ice.
During the subsequent trek across the ice to open water, towing three of Endurance's lifeboats, McNish argued with Shackleton, whose tactics he disagreed with, believing it better to sit tight and wait for Spring to bring the open water to them. By some accounts Shackleton threatened to shoot McNish unless he obeyed orders, though this never made it into any of the written accounts of the expedition. McNish was proved right, but it did nothing to mend the rift between the two men. When they were finally free of the ice, McNish sailed in one of the lifeboats with Shackleton to Elephant Island, and then on to South Georgia after McNish modified one of the boats to face a long voyage in the South Atlantic. As a result of the voyage to South Georgia the members of the expedition were rescued.
In the aftermath, only four of the 56 men on the expedition were not awarded the Polar Medal, Harry McNish being one of them. This has long been seen as a poor reflection on Shackleton's character and there is an ongoing campaign to have McNish awarded the Polar Medal posthumously.
After the expedition, McNish joined the Merchant Navy. He and Lizzie Littlejohn were divorced in March 1918, and McNish married Agnes Martindale. In 1925 he jumped ship in Wellington in New Zealand and worked in the docks there. An injury left him destitute and he was found a place in the Ohiro Benevolent Home. He died in Wellington Hospital in 1930 and was buried in Karori Cemetery with full naval honours provided by the crew of HMS Dunedin. His grave remained unmarked until a headstone (naming him as McNeish) was erected by the New Zealand Antarctic Society in 1959. In 2004 the NZAS placed a life size bronze statue of McNish's cat, Mrs Chippy, on his grave. It was her shooting by Shackleton after the sinking of the Endurance that had first sparked the enmity between the two men.