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
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 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 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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Whale at John Woods yard, Dundee