Changing attitudes to whaling examined in exhibition

In November 1883, a humpback whale, following shoals of herring, swam up the Firth of Tay.

The whalers tried to catch the mammal - which later became known as the famous Tay Whale - watched by a curious crowd who gathered to look at “the monster” (as they called it) swimming on their doorstep.

Maia Sheridan, manuscripts archivist, from the Special Collections department at St Andrews University which organised the exhibition. Pic: George McLuskie

Maia Sheridan, manuscripts archivist, from the Special Collections department at St Andrews University which organised the exhibition. Pic: George McLuskie

On Hogmanay, the whale was harpooned after a great chase and although mortally wounded, it managed to escape to sea.

A week later it was found dead at Stonehaven and its body became a spectacle.

It was then displayed in Dundee for people eager to see the mammal up close before being famously dissected by John Struthers, regius professor of anatomy at the University of Aberdeen, stuffed and taken on tour around the UK. Its skeleton can be seen today at the McManus Gallery in Dundee.

This was the first time local people had seen the reality of whale hunting - until this incident such operations had taken place in the Arctic which was conveniently remote.

Some of the products made from whale oil including jute and soap

Some of the products made from whale oil including jute and soap

Dundonians had marvelled at the whale when it had first arrived and its death sparked a debate, over the ethics of exploiting these wild mammals, which continued well into the 20th century.

This debate is the focus of a new exhibition which is currently on display at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther.

‘Poles Apart: Changing attitudes to whaling in the 20th century’ examines the two polar whaling industries, in the Arctic and Antarctic - how they operated and how the tide of public opinion began to turn against whaling - eventually making the practice morally unacceptable.

The display - which runs until the end of this month - explores the changing views on whaling at both poles by: following the dwindling Arctic whaling industry in Dundee during the late 19th century and looking at the factory ship whaling industry in the Southern Ocean during the 20th century.

Records of whales captured in 1925-26.

Records of whales captured in 1925-26.

It features the archives of the Discovery Committee - the group which was set up to monitor whaling and whale stocks, and its scientists, who inadvertently became early conservationists.

And there is an opportunity to hear from the whalers themselves who provide an oral history account of what their work involved.

Visitors can also have a look at flensing knives, a blubber spade and harpoon from the 19th century as well as products made from whale oil including soap.

Maia Sheridan, manuscripts archivist from the Special Collections Division at the St Andrews University Library said: “The exhibition is based on a project at the St Andrew University Library which received a grant award from the National Cataloging Grants Programme to catalogue material relating to the whaling industry in Antarctica during the 20th century.

The fishermen at work during whaling operations

The fishermen at work during whaling operations

“Documents show the whalers could kill 20-30 whales at a time for their oil which was very valuable at the time and they were just a commodity to be exploited.

“Whale oil was used in the manufacture of jute - In Dundee for example, the jute industry relied on whale oil to lubricate the machinery and to soften the jute - as well as being used for lighting lamps. There was a lot of oil to be gained from one whale - which meant a huge amount of money could be made.”

Maia explained that the two polar whaling industries, Arctic and Antarctic, both hunted whales for their oil, but with different techniques.

In the Arctic, men on wooden whaling ships used hand-held harpoons. Whereas the whaling industry at the other Pole was much more intensive with explosive harpoons and huge metal factory ships which could process whales off shore.

Whales were also hunted for their baleen - the hard material arranged in large plates in the mouths of some species of whale.

These plates became known as ‘whale bone’ and were used for various purposes between the 18th and 20th centuries, including corsetry, hoops for skirts, spokes of umbrellas, the manufacturing of chairs, sofas and beds, glass frames, brush bristles, springs for typewriters and tennis racquet strings.

The fisherman at work during whaling operations

The fisherman at work during whaling operations

However, by the 20th century, public opinion started to change.

At its peak hundreds of whales a week were being killed in the Antarctic which started to affect the population - with many species of whale falling under threat of extinction.

There was a growing argument against whaling with the first attempts to regulate the industry in the 1920s; the International Whaling Commission was set up in 1946 to protect whale stocks but didn’t issue a moratorium on commercial whaling until 1982.

The exhibition is currently on display in the museum and is open: Monday - Saturday from 10.00 a.m until 5.30 p.m. and Sunday from 11.00 a.m to 5.00 p.m. Admission is included in the museum entry charge.

Dundee’s Arctic whaling

Between 1754 and 1914, Dundee was one of the main whaling ports in Britain, helped by easy access to Arctic waters from the River Tay, and its rich ship building history.

Overall there were more than 9000 Arctic voyages from 35 British ports. Many other nations also headed for the inhospitable seas of the Arctic, including France, Norway, Holland and Spain, and these were often joined by American ships, so there was huge competition for the prize of a whale catch.

From Dundee and elsewhere the wooden whaling ships would take the long, perilous journey to the ice-filled seas between Canada, Greenland and Spitzbergen. There they would hunt whales and seals from tiny wooden boats using harpoons thrown by hand. Whaling was at its peak around 1850-1860, hunting the slow moving bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), which floated when killed. Other faster species such as the blue and fin whales could easily out-swim the sailing ships.

Many men never came back, trapped in ice flows, crushed, shipwrecked or starved. But for those who made the journey home, it was immensely profitable. The oil and baleen from the whale catch would sell for handsome prices on the quays. Oil was essential for Dundee’s jute industry to soften the jute and lubricate machinery, and many other manufacturing processes used whale products.

Towards the end of the 19th century, whale stocks in the Arctic Ocean had become dangerously low and cheaper alternatives such as petroleum and gas were replacing whale oil. In Dundee, the jute industry was declining as the factories were moving to India where the raw jute was grown. By 1914, the whaling industry in Dundee was over. (Source: Special Collections Division at the St Andrews University Library)

Products from whales

Whales were hunted mostly for baleen and blubber.

Baleen is the hard material arranged in large plates in the mouths of some species of whale.

Baleen is a very flexible material, similar to plastic. It was used for huge variety of purposes between the 18th and 20th centuries, including corsetry, hoops for skirts, spokes of umbrellas, the manufacturing of chairs, sofas and beds, brush bristles, springs for typewriters and tennis racquet strings.

Blubber is the thick insulating fat under a whale’s skin. When a whale was caught, the blubber would be removed and then boiled to produce oil.

Before the 20th century, whale oil was used for lighting and in manufacturing. In Dundee for example, the jute industry relied on whale oil to lubricate the machinery and to soften the jute.

At the turn of the 20th century, the demand for whale products began to decline. Petroleum became a cheaper alternative for heat and lighting, and plastic was replacing baleen. The whaling industry, however, remained a profitable business and the whales “were there for the taking”. New uses were found for whale products including soap, cosmetics, margarine, animal feed, and even ice-cream. (Source: Special Collections Division at the St Andrews University Library)