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Greenland Whalers Folklore

When the Whaling Industry opened up the Arctic Circle some 2 centuries ago to begin searching for whale oil, only a handful of Scottish whalers took part in the early explorations . One was the 169-ton brig Robert, the first Peterhead whaler to be sent to Greenland.  By all accounts she should never have been there, for she was only half the size of a normal whaling ship. But the little Robert, steered her way into whaling history, blazed the trail for the huge armada of whale ships that turned the Arctic into a vast fishery during the 19th century.  Old whaling songs told of the danger and suffering faced by the men who sailed to Greenland in the hope that they would come home with ‘a ship that’s fu’ o’ oil, my lads, and money to our name’.

Early last century, Gavin Greig, the well-known song collector, warned that unless the whaling minstrelsy was recorded it was ‘likely to die out with the veteran army of Greenland heroes’. He set about collecting the old songs with the help of people who had been in touch with the whaling industry. His appeal was aimed ‘very specially to Peterhead’. Greig, who was sensitive to anything he considered too indelicate for publication, put a blue pencil through some of the cruder ditties. He deleted lines which ‘cut up’ ships, skippers and owners ‘in a somewhat wholesale way’. He said they were ‘rather too strong for print as yet’. The sort of cutting up he referred to was seen in a verse which took a swipe at the owners of the Columbia:

There’s some of their owners rather windy in their way
They were originally intended for Botany Bay,
But by some of the clever tricks of the hand
They escaped that though they ought to have been hanged.

Then there was a song that hit out at the crew of the Enterprise:

There’s Wady in the Enterprise is next to describe,
With their Windybags and Heather Jock and all their other tribe,
Low, mean in their ways and respected by none
By all decent people their company is shun.

Greig preferred lines like those in the Columbia song, which drew a picture of a kindly skipper and a contented crew:

The Columbia now she is brought to Peterhead,
She’s been a long time in the North-west trade;
With her bows pretty heavy, and her stem pretty bluff,
She may do for a whaler yet well enough!
She’s commanded by Birnie, a very nice man,
He does all for a voyage that he possibly can;
Keeps plenty at his table, and gives grog to his crew
And what more’s a good man expected to do?

The very nice man was Captain Robert Birnie, whose ship was making its first trip from the Buchan port. Birnie was thought to be the Eelie Bob of a whale song written by a Doctor on board the Mazanthien, which was also making its first trip from Peterhead.  The song warned the skipper of the Columbia to waken up, ‘or your sure to be done,’ because ‘the Mazanthien’s home with her 200 ton’. It turned out to be the highest catch of the year.

The SS Mazanthien’s luck ran out in 1883. Outward bound for the Arctic, the whaler struck the rocks off Peterhead. Her crew of 50 were saved by breeches buoy.  Greig also left out the names of skippers in his songs. Only the initials were given, as, for instance, ‘B-’ for Birnie. In another verse in the ‘Eelie Bob’ song ‘G-' of the Eclipse was mentioned.  Gray appeared as Captain David Gray in another whale song, The Eclipse, (Inset) which described the killing of a ‘noble whale-fish’ and the celebration that followed it. The lines of the song went:

For Captain David Gray was kind,
And gave his crew a treat;
It was why he caught this whale-fish,
Which measured full 60 feet.

This song was attributed to a Shetland man. Sent to Gavin Greig by a James Morrice of Peterhead, it obviously belonged to the year 1887.  One of the most popular whale songs was The Greenland Fishery, which Greig said was known from one end of Britain to the other. It appeared in a collection of songs published in Glasgow about 1820, and also had a wide circulation as a broadside ballad. It turned up among folk-songs in Somerset and in 2 English collections of traditional minstrelsy.  Greig thought that the 4th verse, with its talk of harpooners, spectioners and line-coilers, and ‘men to row and men to tow’, was too technical for most singers. He published a note from a Peterhead correspondent explaining these terms. A spectioner was ‘a kind of a 3rd Mate in a Whaler’, whose duties were principally to see that the oil tanks, etc, were all correctly stowed in the hold. There were 3 watches in a whaler – 8 hours each – and the spectioner had charge during one watch.

The Greenland Fishery was set in the Arctic of 1801, the year in which the whaleship Lion weighed anchor and ‘sailed away to that cold countrie where the frost and snow doth lie’. There, it would follow the whalewhere’er she goes, brave boys’:

The captain has gone to the topmast high,
With a spy-glass in his hand,
A whale, a whale, a whale, cries he,
And she blows at every span, brave boys,
And she blows at every span

Our mate stood on the quarter-deck,
And a quick little man was he
Overhaul, overhaul, let the boat-tackle fall,
And we launched them into the sea, brave boys
And we launched them into the sea.

The whale was struck and away she went,
With a flourish of her tail
Alas, alas! and we lost 4 men,
But we did not catch the whale, brave boys,
But we did not catch the whale

And when the news to the captain was brought,
He down his colours drew,
Crying, alas, alas, for my 4 pretty men,
The darlings of our crew, brave boys,
The darlings of our crew.

The Captain of the Lion swore that as long as the sea ebbed and flowed he would go no more to Greenland, but for most seafaring men the lure of ‘a ship fu’of oil’ and money to their name was too strong to resist. As one verse put it:

To Greenland’s frost we’ll drink a toast,
With them we hold most dear;
If all goes well, and ships do sail,
We’ll take a trip next year.

Although the title of one Aberdeen song, The Whalers Lamentation, sounded like another dirge, the whalers were actually lamenting the closing of the Aberdeen North Pier for repairs after the Harbour bar had been blocked by fallen stones from the head of the Pier. This meant that ships were unable to leave port, which brought a poetic cry of protest from the whale hunters:

Come rude Boreas, westering Railers,
Leave, oh, leave our pier alone;
Pity, pity us poor whalers
We’ll ne’er get o’er the bar for stone.

A peculiar feature of the song was that before each verse it carried the names of the Aberdeen Whaleships, probably to show how many vessels were being prevented from going to sea. There were 14 – St Andrew, Jane, Neptune, Middleton, Bon-accord, Elizabeth, Diamond, Hercules, Letitia, Elbe, Prince of Wales, Middleton, Dee and Don. Fate played strange – and sometimes cruel – tricks with these ships. The Jane sailed into Aberdeen with one of the biggest catches ever landed at the port, the Middleton was crushed in the ice in 1830, an Eskimo called Inuluapik was brought back to Scotland on the Neptune by Captain William Penny, the St Andrew was lost with all hands in 1861, and in 1837 the Dee was trapped in an impenetrable field of ice. 

The most feared stretch of water was in Melville Bay. It was known as the Breaking-Up Yard. Here, in 1830, 19 whaleships were crushed in the ice and 1,000 whalermen shipwrecked. They lived in tents and underneath whaleboats and raided the stricken vessels for liquor. It became known as the Baffin Fair.   Among Greig’s collection was a song called Farewell to Tarwathie. This was the story of a Buchan loon who left his farming job and went off to make his fortune in the northern wastes. It was written by George Scrogie, a miller at Fedderate, New Deer, in the early 1850s.

Farewell to Tarwathie, adieu Mormond Hill,
Dear land of my fathers, I bid you farewell;
I’m bound for Greenland, and ready to sail,
In hopes to find riches in hunting the whale!

Our ship is well rigged and she's ready to sail
The crew they are anxious to follow the whale
Where the icebergs do fall and the stormy winds blow
Where the land and the ocean is covered with snow

There is no habitation for a man to live there
And the king of that country is the fierce Greenland bear
And there'll be no temptation to tarry long there
With our ship bumper full we will homeward repair

The Tarwathie song - what had happened to the lad who went off to make his fortune and his ship had indeed come home ‘bumper full. There are 3 Tarwathies near Mormond Hill.

Nevertheless, that old whaling song is still sung to-day. A recording was made by the singer Judy Collins. It was a hauntingly beautiful song. The wailing of the whales could be heard against her voice of the singer, and for a moment you are transported back to that far-off time when men from Peterhead and Aberdeen and many other ports sailed away to the land ‘where the icebergs do fall and the stormy winds blow’.  by Robert Smith

"Captains and upper ranks would have worn caribou skins while ordinary seamen would have worn the less expensive seal skin clothes"


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Last modified: 01/09/2013