Posts tagged ‘Dundee’

March 9, 2018

Bellowed for nearly an hour: fascists V communists in Aberdeen (and Dundee)

Black shirts in Aberdeen








It was the Reds doing the bellowing. The occasion was an attempt by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists to speak at Aberdeen’s Music Hall in September 1935.

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Raven Thomson front low left

“They may be croaking like old hens, but their bellowing and braying last night completely drowned out the voice of Fascism in the Ball Room of the Music Hall” reported a local newspaper. Such was the vocal opposition to the extreme rightwing Black Shirts, the report went on, the meeting ended almost the moment it opened. The would-be guest speaker that evening was to be A. Raven Thomson, the BUF’s Director of Policy but before he could utter a sound he and his fellow fascists were given the bum’s rush.

“Aberdeen is the toughest town we have ever struck,” Thomson told the paper’s reporter.

The public address was due to begin at 8pm but an hour before the hall was already packed with a couple of thousand more outside, unable to get in.

Protected by ten black-shirted stewards from Peterhead, Edinburgh and Manchester the Fascists took their seats to a wall of sound of booing and shouting from within the hall. Plain clothes police officer sat amongst the audience and they, too, were loudly booed.

The moment the speaker Raven Thomson got onto the stage and appealed for quiet he was drowned out by a huge roar and a sea of shaking fists. Someone stood up and waved a red flag which set off a rendering of the socialist anthem, the International followed by more noise and chants of  

“One, two, three, four, five,

We want Mosley, dead or alive.”

Thomson tried to press on but his words were totally drowned out with no break in the racket from the public in the hall. At 8 o’ clock the Chief Constable, McConnach, had a word with the Fascists then announced the meeting was cancelled. Wasting no time the Fascists hurried away to the delight of excited demonstrators roaring

“Three cheers for the defeat of Fascism.”

Outside a large force of uniformed and plain clothes police were gathered in anticipation of trouble but the protestors; Communists and Socialists as they were described by the press, were in no mood for violence but “swarmed down Union Street, marched to the Market Stance, singing the ‘Internationale‘ and other Communist songs on the way” and held their own meeting at the Castlegate.

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Raven Thomson

Raven Thomson issued a statement in which he said the Fascists had had several successful meetings on their tour of the country but – “It is very difficult to deal with a town like this where the people do not know our case” adding the reaction they had in Aberdeen was unusual and the city was “the toughest town they had ever struck.”

Edinburgh born Raven – Alexander Raven Thomson – was a theoretician of the British Union of Fascists and grandson of the architect Alexander (Greek) Thomson. One-time a member of the Communist Party he came to admire Nazi Germany and spent time in Germany learning the trade of silver paper manufacturing which later provided his living back in Britain. By 1933 he was a fascist and became the BUF’s Director of Policy and close associate of leading fascists Oswald Mosley and Neil Francis Hawkins. He was interned in Brixton jail for most of the Second World War and remained a fascist all his life. He married Lisbeth, daughter of the x-ray pioneer, Wilhelm Röntgen, and they lived in the East End of London where he died in 1955.  

Chief Constable McConnach was criticised by the anti-Socialist and anti-Communist Union for his handling of the Music Hall meeting. He responded saying the Fascist speakers had been given police protection and suffered no violence in Aberdeen but that he would not put up with speakers being obstructed in future. And he had advice for organisers of meetings, such as the Fascists, that any complaints against the police should be pursued through the courts. In the event the Fascists chose not to pursue their complaint as they didn’t want to appear in court in case what came out damaged their reputation it was said. They did, however, complain in one of their publications of “Mob Rule in Scotland” – indicating only at Aberdeen and Dundee had the British Union of Fascists suffered such disorderliness but they also mentioned they dared not hold meetings in Glasgow after dark.


The following week the Fascists’ tour of Britain found them in that other most disorderly city, the “Red city” of Dundee, where around 1,000 mostly Communists had already gathered for their own meeting knowing the BUF were due. Fascists G. Easterbrook and J. A. F. Nolan from London planned to speak but they and their fellow Blackshirts were forced into a hasty retreat chased by 500 Socialists. Some Fascists jumped onto a tramcar where Nolan was punched on the jaw, twice, and Easterbrook received a bloody nose before securing safe passage in a police van and driven away from the West Port area with shouts of “Down with the Blackshirts” and “Run them out of town” ringing in their ears – their planned 11 meetings during a week-long stay in Dundee cancelled.

At the time Nolan, insistent they were not Blackshirts but included Liberals and Conservatives, said their campaigns in Edinburgh, Ayr and Saltcoats got excellent hearings while in Aberdeen they’d encountered opposition though not as violent as in Dundee. Easterbrook was more blunt he condemned the reception in Dundee as “contemptible” and “un-British.”

It would be misleading to portray fascism as universally unpopular in Britain. Its ideology took root across Europe in the 1930s including in the United Kingdom. Indeed much of the British press were keen advocates of fascism: The Mirror and Sunday Pictorial were so tickled with fascism they proposed a prettiest woman fascist competition and published photographs of blackshirts having a sing-song around the piano. The Daily Mail’s owner Lord Rothermere welcomed Oswald Mosley’s moves to shake up Britain. On 8 January 1934 the Daily Mail editorial proclaimed –

“Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”



And Rothermere’s message to Britons was-

 “Britain’s survival as a Great Power will depend on the existence of a well-organised party of the Right, ready to take on responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed.”

And enthusiastic Daily Mail readers clamoured to join the fascist movement. At the Albert Hall in London that April 10,000 people crowded in to hear the movement’s leaders speak. Soon 100 branches of the fascist organisation had sprung up around the UK.

The British Fascist movement was led by the well-heeled Sir Oswald Mosley – an MP with wide interests – at times a Conservative, an Independent and member of the Labour Party he served in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour administration as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. After he resigned from Labour he was expelled and formed the New Party, a forerunner of the Union of Fascists.

Mosley favoured greater powers for the state in order to tackle unemployment and argued it should have more control over public assets. Unemployment was a huge problem in the UK in the thirties with levels of poverty and suffering hardly credible to us today. He wanted the UK to adopt the Italian type of fascism and become a corporate state of 24 bodies that would harbour no criticism, be governed by an elite elected through plebiscite every five years and replace local government with appointed representatives provided by the national government. In Aberdeen that man was to be William Keith Abercrombie Jopp Chambers-Hunter.

Despite the British Union of Fascists chiefly being London-based, in the East End in particular, its supporters endeavoured to create a UK-wide organisation. The biggest support outside of London was found in Liverpool and Manchester while efforts to spread their ideology into Scotland, intensified from 1936, were centred in Aberdeen. The simple reason for that was the presence of Chambers-Hunter, a fanatical fascist and his sister-in-law Agnes Evelyn Flora McDonald Botha – known as Mrs Botha (the last name might be familiar to you as she was a daughter-in-law of South Africa’s first Prime Minister, Louis Botha.) Chambers-Hunter was a laird at Tillery near Udny in Aberdeenshire who had been educated at public school in England, later spending time as a tea planter in Ceylon before returning to Scotland to live on the estate he inherited. His family’s fortune was made as plantation owners in South Carolina, the heart of slavery for around 200 years, in the 18th century. Chambers-Hunter, himself, was said to have come from a scion of the family born into less affluent circumstances, as the son of a grocer in Footdee (Fittie) and was formerly known as the more humble William Jopp. The family appear to have had a penchant for changing their names for his slave-owning grandfather was once Chalmers before adopting Chambers.

Chalmers-Hunter and Botha were determined fascists who didn’t allow adversity to come between them and their recruitment drive for the movement – and they had to be. Whenever and wherever they turned up Aberdeen’s anti-fascists quickly on hand to provide some opposition. That equal determination of the anti-fascists forced the local BUF from 1935 to stop publicising their appearances in advance instead they would turn up unannounced – most often at the Green, Craigie Street off George Street and Woodside where Chambers-Hunter would stick his head out of the sun roof speak briefly and perhaps sell copies of their newspapers Action and Blackshirt in the hope of getting away before being tracked down by the opposition – not easy for in the city an interesting network of anti-fascists emerged with eyes and ears open to their activities: bus and tram drivers and conductors; unemployed men and women on the streets and more organised groups of Communists and Socialists with bikes who got into the habit of cycling around the town searching out  Blackshirts in their usual haunts. As for the residents of Craigie Street it was said the women there were quite capable of sending the itinerant fascists packing whenever they turned up on their doorsteps.

Harassing fascists became a popular activity in Aberdeen. Many of you will know that nineteen Aberdonians felt so strongly that fascism had to be resisted they went to Spain as part of the International Brigades to fight it in the Spanish Civil War. Five were killed in Spain.

Aberdeen being a major port meant Aberdonians came into contact with seamen from around the world, including Germany, and from them they learnt about the rise and progress of fascism across Europe and the imprisonment and murder of Socialists, Communists, Trades Unionists, Jews and so many others. 

Communists used the town’s pavements to spread word of their meetings; writing time and place with bits of clay pipe – the habit of chalking messages on pavements lingered on among the city’s Socialists through to the 1960s CND, anti-Vietnam war movement.

The local press proved a lively medium for the exchange of political view. In March 1936 C. W. Edward of Sanquhar, Forres wrote in defence of fascism-

“Mr Chambers-Hunter’s excellent letter of February 28 voices the feelings of a vast number of people in Britain today.”

He went on to condemn the government’s treacherous attitude towards the USSR; its damage of trade through sanctions and risk of war so that “people of all political opinions are turning to Fascism as the only way out of the political morass in which we are floundering.”

His opinions were countered in the same paper by someone with the initials ACH who criticised Chambers-Hunter for his over-simplification of political situations –

“Russians are vermin (168 million people disposed of), Germany and Japan can squeeze them out of existence (No trouble!) Friendship with Russia means the ruin of the British Empire. (Shouldn’t it be the British Commonwealth of Nations?) …Fascism means the Union Jack —Nothing to do with the birch rod evidently…If a thinking man or woman refuses to accept any or all of these postulates, the shape of his or her nose may be taken as decisive evidence that he or she is wrong. – Drivelation. -A.C. H.”

Another correspondent sardonically ‘sided’ with the local fascist leader Chambers-Hunter and his opinions on the activities of Italy in Abyssinia.

“I was very interested in Mr Chambers-Hunter’s views on Italy’s great campaign, but I feel that he errs a trifle on the side of moderation.

It makes my blood boil when I think of the hindrances which have been placed on this great work of extermination, and I was only restrained by silly sentimentality from sending on my signet-ring to that saintly ascetic Il Duce to help him in his great work for civilisation.

The incredible bravery of the Italian airmen cannot be overpraised, considering the immense odds, but it is Marshal Badoglio who will live in history. His great feat of bringing about a series of glorious victories at a loss of a hundred thousand of the enemy to only a paltry thousand of his brave dare-devils marks him as one of the world’s greatest generals and mathematicians.

I remember when the Germans carried out an extermination campaign in their African colonies there was some talk, and the usual busybodies instituted a commission which allowed itself to be fooled by the usual lying stories…is not surprising therefore that misguided people even nowadays, no doubt influenced by lying “Red” propaganda, are squealing because some ****** women and kids happened to be slightly bleached by a harmless form of gas sent out to incapacitate the enemy camels from taking up supplies.”

It was signed  Hero Worshipper.

Asserting its empirical claims to a piece of Africa, Italy had been engaged in converting natives of Adowa to their caring regime through machine gun diplomacy, bombing and spraying poisonous gas from aircraft to kill individuals, poison land and water.

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Fascists and anti-fascists at Aberdeen’s Market Stance 1935

 One evening in July 1937 Chambers-Hunter and Botha and others turned up in a van with four loudspeakers at the Market Stance at the Castlegate. The four speakers were intended to drown out expected shouts and barracking from those against them. The inevitable scuffles broke out and when someone tried to remove the loudspeaker cables he was arrested, along with others. Chambers-Hunter continued to speak for around half an hour under a barrage of missiles of stones, tomatoes and anything else to hand but was scarcely audible over calls for Mosley “dead or alive.”

Once the Fascists had left the Castlegate the crowd turned its attention to the police and their arrested comrades. At police HQ in Lodge Walk the police were ready for them lined up with batons drawn and there was a stand-off with pleas to release the arrested men on bail at the same time the Chief Constable insisted there would be no bail until people moved away from the police station. They did. Back at the Market Stance a large crowd remained  and a collection was taken for bail money but the Chief Constable still refused to bail any of those detained.

Meanwhile a group of women arrived at Lodge Walk with food and drink for the men who they insisted all required special treatment. There were no files concealed in cakes but the men were allowed coffee, sandwiches and rolls provided by the women. One man used his sandwich bag to scribble a note which he hid in the dry lavatory in his cell. Next morning the note went to court along with the accused. As they were leaving the dock he threw the screwed up paper to the public benches but it was picked up by a detective.

Following their court appearance the men were taken to Craiginches prison where the governor tried to intimidate them, according to one of the arrested, Duncan Robertson.

“Stand to attention when you talk to me!” the governor demanded.

“Will I buggery!” came Robertson’s reply.

And he didn’t and the governor didn’t try that again.

A few days later the men were released from Lodge Walk on bail to cheers from a welcoming group waiting outside. One of the detained, Bob Cooney, was carried on shoulders from Lodge Walk to Castle Street where he addressed their supporters. Cooney had been assigned leader of the men by the police who always insisted there must be a leader. In their subsequent court appearance, Cooney was fined £10, being leader, and the others around £3 by Sheriff Laing. The average weekly wage for a skilled man at the time was around £3. Of the nine on trial, two were found not proven and others guilty of obstruction or assaulting the police. In all their fines amounted to £100, a great deal of money for working class heroes.

Following the Battle of Cable Street in London in October 1936 the Westminster government passed a Public Order Act on Jan 1, 1937 which handed greater powers to the police to control demonstrators and enable easier prosecution of hecklers who could be charged with disturbing the peace – a charge frequently employed in Aberdeen by fascists confronted by opposition so providing them with free rein to promote their propaganda unhindered and unchallenged for any who dared shout out could be pointed at and duly arrested with the prospect of being fined a whole week’s pay.

On 23rd October 1937 eight Aberdonians were before the sheriff on charges of acting in a disorderly manner at a meeting of fascists at Woodside. The public benches were filled with their cheering supporters who received a warning from the sheriff. Outside the court the fascists were booed and jeered and given police protection. 

And so the cat-and-mouse game between Left and Right continued with the Left always the ones sent to jail or fined.

Northeast fascists declared they had considerable support in Scotland – for example 200 members by 1933 in Motherwell. In order to boost their numbers Chambers-Hunter and Botha worked tirelessly taking their message to Inverness, Banchory, Kemnay, Inverurie, Forres, Peterhead, Turriff, Oldmeldrum and Stonehaven as well as Aberdeen.

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Scenes at the Market Stance where the BUF tried to speak 1937

In February 1937 the BUF were again at the Music Hall where the main speaker was their National Organiser in Scotland, Richard Plathen. Admission was by ticket only, sold by younger members. Local communists managed to buy a few before their ruse was discovered and a block placed on them obtaining more but the young fascists, not being over-burdened with sense, left the ticket box for a short time but long enough for the Communists to get to it and help themselves. The result was plenty Communist and Socialist comrades were able to find their way into the meeting despite a general warning from the police to the Left to stay away.

The evening began as it ended – in uproar. Around 80% of the audience were hostile to the fascists and they didn’t hold back from expressing their disapproval of the BUF; singing and chanting that familiar refrain -“One, two, three, four…” to which the fascists reacted by singing God Save the King – provoking in turn a hearty rendering of the Internationale accompanied by the waving of a red flag by Communist George Esson.

And so throughout the thirties clashes between Left and Right continued with no real violence other than pushing and shoving, a great deal of noise and forceful expression of opinion. But one Sunday in July 1937 around 50 Communists interrupted a BUF rally at the beach Links. During the ensuing rammy missiles and punches were thrown and a vehicle damaged. This resulted in several weel kent faces among the Communist fraternity being picked up later at home and instructed to appear at an identity parade at Lodge Walk the following day. One who wasn’t obliged to go was prominent anti-fascist campaigner Bob Cooney who later in the year was to head off to Spain to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. However on the day of the Links rammy he was in Glasgow but that did not prevent him insisting he take part in the line-up – muddling up the order of men arranged by the police. Being such a familiar face he was immediately recognised by one of the fascists there to identify the man who allegedly assaulted his brother at the Links. He pointed at Cooney and insisted he was the assailant. As this was patently untrue the others in the line-up were allowed to leave after receiving a warning from the police to refrain from hindering fascists in the future, again. Cooney claimed he was approached and asked why he changed the position of men in the line-up which made some suspect an arrangement had been made to get a particular man or men.

On the fifth anniversary of the founding of the British Union of Fascists Aberdeen was chosen as the venue for their Scottish conference. As their van with delegates from Perthshire, Fifeshire and Edinburgh made its way along Union Street towards the Market Stance the waiting crowd surged forward and succeeded in pushing the vehicle backwards for a short distance. The police were ordered to draw their batons and the van, its windows protected by wire, was able to complete its journey. A local paper described the crowd being “in a very noisy mood.” At the Market Stance Chambers-Hunter attempts to address the gathering were once again silenced despite his use of loudspeakers. The newspapers reported that little could be heard of his speech as it was drowned out by the ‘red rabble.’ Once again the fascists appealed to the police for protection before abandoning their pitch. As for the anti-fascists they met later on, in the Music Hall, at a high spirited meeting at which the principal speaker was the Communist Willie Gallacher.

The role of the police handling demonstrators was raised in the council chamber in October of 1937 with claims that they assaulted people in Aberdeen.

“The police seemed to run amok”

“The police concentrated on free speech for the fascists and threw overboard a score of other…rights of the public. Nothing mattered but to preserve the right of free speech for the fascists.”

(P&J 7 Oct 1937)

A complaint went to the Secretary of State for Scotland but was taken no further. In defence of police action it has to be said without their presence it is likely there would have been more injuries, to fascists at least, for tensions and tempers ran hot and wherever the fascists turned up their vehicles were set-upon and rocked, usually fairly gently. On one notable occasion, however, a fascist meeting had been arranged in Torry and people were again out in force with lots of yelling, fireworks and missiles. The police were also on hand but interestingly refrained from intervening until the crowd had toppled the fascists’ car was onto its side.

The worm had turned. Without police protection the fascists had to face up to the anger they provoked among Aberdonians. Unable to get to a public spot to speak from in Torry because of the crush of a crowd of around 6,000 the fascists slipped along Sinclair Road and stopped at a coal yard, misguidedly. Pieces of coal became missiles to be hurled their way. The coal yard was also private property and the owner complained to the police who ordered them off. A furious Chambers-Hunter turned on the police inspector -“You bastard!” which might have proved unwise. But Chambers-Hunter was nothing if not thrawn.

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Mosley visits Aberdeen

Oswald Mosley visited Aberdeen only once, on 22nd November 1937 where a luncheon was given in his honour in the Caledonian Hotel. The police blocked off the whole street to prevent demonstrators getting close to him. However, Aberdeen’s Communists were aye on the ba’.  Painted in huge letters across the road, in full visibility of guests at the hotel read the message FASCISTS OUT


 ran the Press & Journal headline


“Fine” the only comment Mosley is recorded as saying of his visit to Aberdeen.

The report claimed over 100 Aberdeen Fascists attended the luncheon. It is doubtful they all came from Aberdeen given the paltry numbers involved in their other activities but presumably were members who travelled near and far to touch the cloth of their leader.

The newspaper also reported the luncheon was disturbed by “continuous derisive shouts and the singing of the “Internationale” coming from Union Terrace, where a large crowd of anti-Fascists had assembled. Mosley’s address to the faithful centred on the wickedness of international Jewery and the fascist ambition to create a self-contained empire. At their lunch the fascists were subjected to catcalls which most ignored although one young woman did return the fascist salute.

Later, greater numbers gathered, having finished their work, to vent their feelings against the visiting fascists. When Mosley emerged from the Party’s base on Union Street he was faced by a “yelling and gesticulating crowd” and as he waited to for a flunky to open his car door he smiled towards those booing and gesticulating.  

In July 1938

Anti-Fascist crowd demonstrate

Police Escort for Witnesses

Five Sentenced at Trial

 “The trial on charges of breach of the peace and assault of five Aberdeen anti-Fascists, two of whom were sent to prison and the others fined, ended with a remarkable demonstration of anti-Fascist feeling at the door of the Aberdeen Sheriff Courthouse last night.”

The five told the court they had no religious beliefs and affirmed instead of taking the oath. They denied the charges, maintaining provocation by the Fascists who had shouted “One day Hitler and Franco would conquer the world, Hail Hitler, Join the Blackshirts, Keep Out Moscow and gave the Nazi salute.”

Lots of noise in the courtroom resulted in Sheriff Dallas warning that he would clear them from the court if they didn’t keep quiet. Witnesses came and went and the accused were found guilty.

Convicted were George Shepherd a salesman of Roslin Street and John Winton a sawyer of King’s Crescent both sent to jail for 30 days; Alexander Shepherd, son of George, also a salesman of College Bounds was fined £15 or 30 days in prison; Sydney Shepherd, labourer, of Bloomfield Road, another son of George Shepherd along with George Esson, labourer, of Chronicle Lane were each fined £3 each or 10 days in prison.

When their accusers William Keith Abercromby Jopp Chambers-Hunter and Agnes Evelyn Flora McDonald Botha of Tillery, Udny Station and Jane Imlah whose address was given at the headquarters of the BUF in Aberdeen on Union Street left the courthouse they were confronted by a large crowd, fists raised in the Communist salute shouting “Down with Fascism.” As the demonstrators surged forward the three fascists retreated into the building before being given police protection back to their car.  

An appeal against these sentences was made to the Secretary of State for Scotland but went nowhere.

In October 1938 Chambers-Hunter addressed Aberdeen Round Table Club.

“The doctrine of Fascism simply was, “‘United we stand, divided we fall'” and went on to condemn international finance for skewing economies explaining Hitler was hated by international finance run by Jews for trying to break free of the “net of borrowing and lending” in order to make his country self-sufficient.

“Twenty-four years ago, if the Kaiser had walked up Union Street on a Saturday afternoon he would probably have been lynched. If the poor old gentleman were to do so now, probably no one would recognise him, or if they would not worry about him.”

He told his audience he had fought during the war in the Cameroons and German Togoland and the natives there were treated as well as in Ceylon where he’d also lived as a planter and in fact the natives of Cameroons and Togoland were “devoted to their German masters.”

Which I suppose is why the Germans required an army to protect their interests there. To explain further – the extent of German popularity in East Africa can be illustrated by the Maji Maji War fought over resentment of enforced labour, heavy taxes and violent repression responsible for destroying the lives of so many and devastating the area’s social fabric. German imperialists adopted a scorched-earth policy of punishment and control along with horrendous brutality and cruelty – much like, it should be said, practised by other western  powers to their shame.  

Germany, along with other European states, undertook what was known as the Scramble for Africa – carving up the continent to stake their claims to areas they regarded ripe for exploitation, to appropriate and control their colony’s natural wealth and resources from precious metals to bananas, cacao, coffee and cotton.

And so for years the clashes between Left and Right were unrelenting. Then something happened – as atrocities carried out in the name of fascism across the world came to be taken more seriously mainly for the threat fascism posed to the UK so support for fascism began to lose its vigour. In 1939 Aberdeen’s own fascist Chambers-Hunter retired from politics presumably exhausted from the uphill struggles he encountered on each occasion he went public and in addition he had spent huge sums of his own money supporting the BUF. In June that year Chambers-Hunter’s country house at Udny burnt down.

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Driven out of his home by fire Chambers-Hunter, his wife and Mrs Botha

As for the Left there ranks were split by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Nazi-Soviet non-aggression Pact) signed between Germany and the USSR in August 1939. At the start of the Second World War Stalin argued it was not an anti-fascist struggle but an imperialist war but then came Operation Barbarossa when the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941 and dragged it into the conflict. At that point the Left forgot their differences to defeat the fascist states of Germany and Italy. Of course the Left had already been destroyed in Spain where a form of fascism survived until 1975 … at least.  

Sources: Aberdeen newspapers; Fascism in Aberdeen – Street Politics in the 1930s (Aberdeen People’s Press.)


April 1, 2017

News in Scotland 100 years ago today

Some of the stories making the news around Scotland on 1 April 1917 (outwith the Great War with over a year to run.)


Daughters of some of Dundee’s men at the Front

  • Aberdeen to get women police patrols.
  • Proposal to start a co-operative jute factory in Dundee.
  • Edinburgh grocers are in favour of a card system for sugar distribution.
  • Some Glasgow grocers are selling sugar in pennysworths.
  • Holidays in munition areas are to be deferred until after the end of July.
  • It is reported that 11,000 teachers in Scotland are getting less than £100 a year.
  • Protests in Lochgilphead against Sunday labour in the woods and fields.
  • Net profits of £270,432 reported by the Bank of Scotland for the past year.
  • There is a credit balance of £150 from the British Industries Fair recently held in Glasgow.
  • Crookston Combination Poorhouse is to be taken over for the reception of mentally afflicted soldiers.
  • A ban on the sale of spirits in parts of Argyllshire and Buteshire has come into force.
  • Some conscientious objectors from England are to be employed in forestry work at Ford in Argyllshire.
  • The Marchioness of Graham has undertaken to provide Lamlash with a convalescent home for the wounded.
  • The Dunoon and District Merchants’ Association have agreed to hold the Fast Days.
  • The fishing village of Whitehills near Banff has lost in one week four men who were on Admiralty service.
  • Tillycoultry Parish Council has decided to proceed with an extension of the cemetery at a cost of £2000.
October 18, 2015

Scotland’s First Oil Boom – the Greenland Whale

Greenland whaling

Scots seamen have been hunting down whales for goodness knows how long and commercially since the middle ages. Aberdeen’s association with whaling is chronicled from the 1750s but its activities are dwarfed by Scotland’s main whaling ports of Dundee and Peterhead. (Curiously and sadly our most significant whaling centres are not featured in the Great Tapestry of Scotland) .

In 1788 the brig Robert, under Captain Geary, sailed out of its home port of Peterhead heading north towards the inhospitable waters that flowed down from the Arctic and home to the great Greenland whales. The lure was precious whale oil and the great fortunes that might be made from it but Geary and his crew did not make their fortunes, not then, but when the good times did come, they came with interest. Their most lucrative year was 1799 when they returned to harbour laden down with 96 tons from 8 whales.

Peterhead Whaling Crew

Peterhead whaling crew

Notable northeast whalers were the Grays from Peterhead , Captain William Parker of the whaler Bon-Accord and Captain William Penny who skippered the first steam whaler out from Dundee (which did not endear him to his fellow traditional whalers who threatened to have him tarred and feathered). Penny was also ‘the first man to winter purposely in Davis Straits’. Greenlanders would normally sail early in spring and return late summer . Traditionally men leaving port would take a cut ribbon from their wives or sweethearts, both holding a half, and the men would knot them together and tie them to the mast where they would stay until the end of the trip.

Penny established a whaling station at Cumberland Sound, part of the Labrador Sea, an area rich in whales and seals. A native of Peterhead he was the son of a whale skipper and his life at sea began when he was 12 years old but despite his adventurous life Penny died in his own bed, at Springbank Terrace, Aberdeen. Many Greelanders were not so fortunate but Penny knew to quit while ahead, retiring as a relatively young man, to Aberdeen.

The Active leaving Dundee

In 1850 Penny led an expedition to find traces of the doomed Franklin expedition that had searched for the North West Passage. He found evidence of their winter quarters and three graves at Beechy Island but little else.

Captain Geary’s eventual successes encouraged other northeast seamen try their luck in the frozen seas off Greenland among them the crews of the Eliza Swan of Montrose and the Hercules and Layton from Aberdeen and the Jane.

On 11th August 1810 the Jane, under its Captain Jameson, scooped the largest cargo of whale oil ever landed in Aberdeen: 17 whales and 383 casks brim-full with oil. It emerged the Captain had captured so many whales he gave part of his catch away to another vessel.

The Jane’s success was commemorated in song:

We’ll gae into Jean MacKenzie’s,

And buy a pint o’ gin,

And drink it on the jetty

When the Jane comes in.

And in 1814, Peterhead whalers killed 163 whales which translated into a huge quantity of oil.

 Cutting up whale

Cutting up a whale onboard

The government paid bounties to the largest of the whaling vessels for it required the oil to lubricate the machinery in the manufactories that powered the Industrial Revolution. Whale oil was used also to light street lamps in an increasingly urbanised country, and later for soap and margarine. In addition to the valuable oil, whale baleen and the flesh were marketable too but for the government having relatively large numbers of men skilled in the toughest of conditions who could then be used to man the navy when required was an additional attraction of the industry. What better school than the treacherous seas around the Davis Straits?

Peterhead ship Hope was in receipt of bounties – a mighty £480 for every voyage she made on top of whatever else was taken for the oil and baleen sold. Baleen, the comb-like filter plates whales use for feeding on krill were eagerly sought-after for use in clothing, including corset ‘bones’ , for umbrella spokes and carriage springs and could fetch £2000 per ton.

Cutting up walruss tusks

Cutting up walruss tusks onboard

The rush for whale oil gave rise to a free-for-all with ships stalking whales and others stalking whaling vessels, to steal their catches. Many a Scottish whaler crew had to fend off privateers from France and Denmark in particular. The Elbe from Aberdeen was attacked on more than one occasion by pirates. The Latona, too, again from Aberdeen, found itself battling Danish pirates. On one occasion it took the intervention of a London whaler to drive off the determined privateer. Later the same year the ill-fated Latona was crushed on ice in the Davis Straits and sank within minutes.

Hope at Aberdeen 1873

Privateers, weather, ice, storms, icebergs, the perilous Arctic waters and the long months away from home made whaling a trying as well as a highly hazardous activity. Many lost their lives, their toes and fingers and their sanity while crewing these great wooden ships.

An average whaler had around 50 of a crew although some carried far more. Usually they were local men from whaling ports but northeast boats often dropped in by Orkney and Shetland on their northward journeys in hope of picking up some of these islands’ hardy and experienced boatmen, greatly valued for dealing with the hardships that lay ahead.

Eclipse of Peterhead

Whaling ships were notorious for their stench of oil and blood that could be smelled long before they returned to harbour and of course made them extremely slippery and dangerous for the crew. They were often painted black and white and had six or seven whaleboats suspended from the sides of the ship. When a whale was sighted the whaling boats were lowered and the lead harpoon man threw his harpoon with a rope attached at the whale. The barbs on the harpoon would attach to the whale’s body and grip tighter as the animal thrashed to free itself. Each boat would have men shoot harpoons at the whale until it was secured to several smaller boats. The danger for the men was if the whale dived below the surface and dragged them with it. Whales can swim at around 20 miles an hour so it was imperative not to be dragged away, too far away from the ship, especially in poor weather such as fog. Whales fought to free themselves but eventually, exhausted, the parties in the small boats would advance to pierce the mammal through its heart or lungs. This was a long process – maybe as long as 40 hours but a successful kill would end with the whale swimming around and around, like a dying fly spinning uncontrollably. This flurry was followed by the whale thrashing the water with its tail then with a final shudder it died and floated over onto its side. The captured dead whale was then towed back to the ship.(If the ship could be found again.)

By this time the small boats may have travelled a considerable distance and had to return to the ship towing the whale behind them. The whale was secured to the side of the ship while the crew flensed it – stripped off its blubber with knives and sharp spades. An average whale provided around 30tons of blubber. The blubber was cut into smaller chunks and stored in containers.

Harpoon gun

Harpoon Gun

In 1830, 19 out of the 91 British ships working the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay were sunk and 21 others returned home with nothing to show for risking their lives for half a year. Many that did make it back had suffered damage to their ships. Peterhead lost the Resolution and Hope that enjoyed so much success in previous years and all in all 1830 was a dismal year for Peterhead whalers.

In atrocious weather the Mazinthien was wrecked at South Bay, Peterhead on her way to the Davis Straits from Dundee in 1878. Its crew were only rescued by breeches buoy after many hours. The ship was eventually salvaged and returned to Dundee as a wreck.


Aberdeen’s whalers fared even worse, losing four from ten whalers: Alexander, Laetitia, Middleton and Princess of Wales while one came back with an empty hold the remainder took only 5 whales.

By the mid-1830s it was clear that whalers had largely destroyed their own industry through greed. In response Peterhead captains looked to sealing around Newfoundland and in that they created a lucrative industry out of one that was taken up to cover whaling losses. Sealskin was hugely popular especially the soft skins from very young cubs which were clubbed to death.

Dundee crews were said to be ‘fitba mad’ and made footballs from seal skins. Teams from different ships competed on the ice. On one occasion in 1875 a bunch of men from the Victor had gone well away from the ship so as not to disturb those who remained on board. In the middle of the game a polar bear emerged through the fog and was seen dribbling the ball. His human team-mates ran as fast as they were able across the ice and fought to climb the only ladder hanging down from the ship’s deck.

Such were the times the poor bear was shot dead.

Captain John Gray

Captain John Gray

Into the 19th century there was a shift away from wooden to iron vessels and by the late 1850s steam was beginning to supplant sail. This did not please Peterhead Captain Gray who blamed the noise of steam engines for driving whales north out of reach rather than accepting the whale hunters were themselves to blame for the wholesale slaughter of too many whales. Later he did change his mind but placed blame on earlier generations of whalers for massacring immature whales before they could reproduce.

Mangled harpoons taken from a whale

Mangled harpoon arrows taken from a whale

Meanwhile Dundee shipbuilders Stephen eschewed iron for timber, designing a wooden barque-rigged screw steamer that proved highly effective navigating ice-strewn waters. Others copied the design, including the world’s leading clipper shipbuilder Alexander Hall & Co. of Aberdeen who, in 1867, built the Eclipse for Peterhead’s whaling dynasty the Grays.

The whale jaw bones arch was a the Footdee (Fittie) home of Alexander Hall the Aberdeen shipbuilder. There were many such arches in Aberdeen and across Scotland.

A second whaler ship named Hope followed, again for a Gray, Captain John Gray, brother of the Eclipse’s captain. These two ships dominated Peterhead whaling and sealing during the 1870s and ’80s but were still no match for the whaling fleets of Dundee.

Doyle diary 2 (1)

From Conan Doyle’s diary

It was on the whaler Hope that the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle sailed as a 20 year old medical student for the ship’s 6-month voyage to Greenland waters, under Captain Gray in 1880. As the ship’s surgeon Doyle was paid £2 – 10shillings per month and 3shillings a ton oil bonus.

Doyle diary 2 (2)

Pages from Conan Doyle’s diary

The Eclipse, too, had a famous passenger. Walter Livingstone-Learmonth was an Australian born to Scottish parents with a reputation as a ‘keen hunter’. Others might describe him as a butcher. His lust for shooting birds and animals took him aboard the Eclipse, to get to species he had so far not been able to kill. He and Captain Gray did not get on. He also sailed on the Dundee ship Maud from which he shot 26 walruses and seals and 4 polar bears.

polar bear

A proud Livingstone-Learmonth

The Eclipse was sold to the Norwegians and then on to the Russian navy who changed her name to Lomonessoi. She was sunk in 1927, raised and went on to become a research vessel in Siberian waters after that before being finally sunk in 1941 by the German Luftwaffe.


Flensing a whale tied to the side of the ship

In 1901 the Hope was lost at Byron Island but the 194 on board were rescued. By this time the northeast whaling industry was all but finished although British whaling did not officially end until 1963.

The industry that had been battling decline found the Norwegians were predominant by the beginning of the 20th century. For the men from Aberdeen, Peterhead and Dundee the tide had turned on an occupation in which they risked their lives on a daily basis, sustained by the potential riches to be made from pursuit of the poor whale.

Where these men’s fathers and grandfathers had taken to treacherous waters in the frozen north to engage in a somewhat equal battle with the magnificent leviathan the whale hunters of the 20th century armed with explosive charges turned whale hunting into nothing short of slaughter.

 Tay Whale at John Woods yard 1884

Whale at John Woods yard, Dundee