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Whaling Industry in Aberdeenshire

Whale-Fishing was 1st introduced into Aberdeen in the year 1753, and the success which attended the first attempts induced others to embark in the same trade, which, for a time, was very profitable. Accordingly, the number of ships from Aberdeen engaged in whale-fishing gradually increased, till, in 1820, there were 15, which, on an average, had about 50 hands each. The greatest tonnage of oil brought, home by these vessels in one season was in 1823, when 14 vessels brought 1841 tons. Of later years, however, from various causes, such as the withdrawing of the Government bounty, the reduction of the duty on foreign seeds from which oil is made, the diminished demand for oil, of late, in consequence of the introduction of gas as a means of obtaining light, and the want of success in the fishery, several vessels having repeatedly come home clean, the trade has been, in a great measure, given up, and there were only two vessels engaged in it from this port.

In the 18th Century the fishing industry in Aberdeen centred mainly on river and salmon fishing. By the 1820s, the focus had turned to Whaling, but again, Aberdeen’s Whaling industry was 2nd to that of Peterhead.

Aberdeen vessels sailed on whaling expeditions to the Arctic in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The Bowhead or Greenland Right Whale was hunted for its blubber which was boiled down to produce lamp oil. Whalebone was used in dressmaking. There was lots of money to be made but it was dangerous. Sometimes no whales were caught or ships were crushed by ice and their crews lost.  By the 1830s, overfishing had greatly reduced the number of whales.

In the 17th century whales were still to be seen lolling on the face of the deep without any sense of danger from hunters.  Consequently the number of whalers became so great that the whales, being pursued and killed in vast numbers, making a desert of their native seas. They were followed northward by their relentless pursuers, into the heart of the frozen fields, where fishing became so hazardous an undertaking that the number of ships rapidly began to decrease. In 1730, 25 British vessels went out, and returned with only 12 whales; in 1775, 105 were sent out, but met with ill success. Notwithstanding the Government Bounty, in 1781 the number fell to 39, and the lowest depression in this early industry was touched. From that date through the introduction of larger and more modern vessels and co-operative action, it again prospered and was on the ascendancy when Peterhead first entered the lists as a whaling port.

In 1802 the Robert was replaced by the Hope, a vessel of 240 tons, under the same commander.  The reasons for this change require a little explanation. In 1732 Great Britain attempted to encourage the whale fishery by a Bounty of 30s. a ton to every ship of 200 tons engaged in it, which was raised in 1749 to 40s., reduced to 30s. in 1777, and again raised to 40s. in 1781.  The object of the Bounty was not only to encourage the trade, but also to make it a nursery for seamen.  Ships, however, were sometimes fitted out rather for the Bounty than for the capture of whales, and so the bounty was again reduced, and finally altogether withdrawn in 1824.  The Robert, being under 200 tons, was ineligible for this bounty, but the Hope received it. It was guaranteed by Government, and amounted to £480 for every voyage it made - that is, at 40s. per ton - no mean relief, to say nothing of the vessel being larger and more suited to the industry.  This money from Government was a consideration, and those vessels which could not lay claim to it were heavily handicapped in their efforts. In 1801 the Active, 308 tons, under Captain J. Sutter, joined the pursuit of the whale from Peterhead, and in the following year, the Perseverance, 240 tons, under Captain D. Gray, was added to the little fleet. In 1804 the Enterprise, 290 tons, under Captain W. Volum, also joined up. In 1811, 122 whales were caught, yielding 752 tuns of oil, this being an average for the 4 vessels of 188 tuns. In 1813 the Resolution and the Union joined the Peterhead whaling fleet, and the following year the Dexterity.  The year 1814 is ever to be remembered in the annals of the Peterhead whale fishing.

Clifton House, situated in Clifton Road, Peterhead was the home of Captain John Gray Jnr of the whaling ships Queen, Mazinthien and Hope.  Peterhead sent out her first whaler, the Robert in 1788. In April 1893 Captain David Gray (III) came out of retirement and took the Windward north.  In August he returned with the blubber of just 1 whale - the Peterhead whaling industry was at an end. However, for a few decades in the middle of the 19th century Peterhead had been the premier whaling and sealing port in the British Isles and had enjoyed great prosperity.

Aberdeen used to be a big centre for whaling. Ships first sailed from here to the Arctic Ocean in 1752.  Whales have a lot of body fat, called blubber. Blubber was boiled to make lamp oil sometimes known as "train oil". In the past there was no electricity and people used oil lamps. In Aberdeen boiling was carried out at Footdee.  A Number of Boilers were sited in the Fishing Village Squares - 4 in North Square, 3 in South Square and none in Pilots Square. 

The blubber was boiled in copper vessels of up to 10 tons or more capacity. These were round in section and raised about 6 feet above a furnace. A pipe, fitted with a stopcock, led from the boiler to wooden coolers lined with lead or cement and each capable of holding 10 tons of oil. Oil was run from the coolers directly into casks.  By the time the ships arrived in port, much of the oil had separated from the firm, fatty blubber. The contents of the barrels were simply poured directly into the boilers, filling them almost to the top. The fire was then lit and the oil brought to the boil. Throughout the heating the contents were stirred with a wooden pole to prevent any solids sticking to the sides and burning. When the oil began to boil the fire was reduced allowing the boil to gently boil for 1-3 hours.  Usually 2 loads of blubber could be boiled every 24 hours, the Sabbath excepted. Once cooled, the oil was in a state ready for immediate use and was simply transferred from the coolers into wooden barrels ready for shipment throughout the land. "The smell of oil, during its extraction, is undoubtedly disagreeable; but perhaps no more so than the vapour arising from any other animal substance submitted to the action of heat when in a putrid state."

Whalebone, or Baleen, was also used in dressmaking. Baleen is not actually bone. It is made of a similar material to fingernails. Some types of whales have Baleen in their mouths instead of teeth.  When blubber was taken back to the home port for processing, as it was at Peterhead and Aberdeen, it was packed into barrels for the journey.  The holds were stacked with several layers of large and heavy barrels. Moving these around to allow them to be filled in the correct sequence must have been a complex trimming and 3-D problem, one to be solved in exceedingly unpleasant working conditions. The man with this heavy responsibility was the Skeeman, or Hold Officer.

After a whale was harpooned it would be killed using a lance. The lance is a long spear. The whale would then be brought next to the ship to be cut up.  In Stewart Park you will come across whale a jawbones arch - these were often set marking the entrance to a Boilyard. The Boilyards in Footdee are alas long gone.

The Jawbones contained oil as do all whale bones so they were often taken on board the ship and hung from the rigging.  Holes were drilled in the bone to allow the oil to seep out on the long voyage home. This oil was particularly pure and highly prized.  Back in port, the jaw bones were valued as gate-posts, and even used as supports for the roofs of sheds. Whaling captains and the civic dignitaries also erected them as symbols of the hunt and civic pride in the Whaling Industry.

The photograph shows the Footdee home of Alexander Hall one of the foremost Aberdeen Shipbuilders of the 19th century - a horse stands on the shoreland with 2 beached dingy's, another arch is seen in the next plot.  Footdee was for many years the home of the white fishing community, but the gardens of the Fittie Waterside contained relics of the earlier, whaling industry. In the early part of the 19th century a flourishing whale fishery operated from Aberdeen and whale jaw bones formed in arches, as 2 are evident in this shoreland gardens photograph (one on extreme right), they were at one time a common sight throughout the city. These arches have now all but disappeared, however, one such arch remains in Stewart Park as a reminder of times past.

Whaling was a very dangerous business. Sailors could lose their lives if a whale over-turned their boat. They could drown in the sea or freeze in the cold Arctic Ocean. When the crew came safely home to Aberdeen they would be very happy. They would want to thank the ship’s captain for bringing them back to their families and friends in Aberdeen. Often they would all help to pay for a gift for their Captain. Snuff boxes were often given to the Captain by the grateful crew.

Iron, Steam and Ice
By the 1860s the modern steam whalers of Dundee were threatening Peterhead’s pole position in the industry and owners in the North East were faced with the choice of fitting their ships for steam or retiring them to the Baltic timber trade. The "Innuit" was the first iron hulled steamer to operate from Peterhead. Two years after her introduction the Peterhead Sentinel announced "The Launch of an Iron Screw Whaler" on the 4th February, 1859. Built in Jarrow, the ship was named "Empress of India" and it was generally thought that heavy iron hulled vessels were the answer to many ice navigation problems.  But, as was soon to be proved, iron was not at all suited to the severe northern climate. The "Innuit" and the mighty "Empress of India" - on her maiden voyage - were lost in the Greenland Sea, 1859. Though no lives were lost it was a disaster for the Peterhead fleet. It was later concluded that the extreme temperatures had caused the iron hull plates to contract, so loosening the rivets and causing the inevitable break-up of the ships.

"Windward", built as a sailing whale ship at the Stephen and Forbes yard, Peterhead in 1860, was fitted with steam engines along with the "Mazinthien" in 1865. Many owners could not afford to have their ships converted and fleet numbers fell quickly. Aware of the success of John Gray's 'Mazinthien' the captain's brother, David Gray III, had the famous ship 'Eclipse' built to his own specifications in Aberdeen, the following year.

Steam Whaler Eclipse. It was built to the specifications of Captain David Gray III, in 1867 by the Alexander Hall Shipyard in Aberdeen and cost £12,000.

Launched from Hall's Yard on 3rd January 1867 it carried 8 whale boats and a crew of 55 men. After a famous career at Peterhead the ship was sold to Dundee in 1893 and later on to Norway. Renamed 'Lomonosov', the old ship ended her ocean going days as a research vessel under the Russian flag based in Murmansk

The 1st Aberdeen whalers sailed to the Arctic in 1752. By the early 19th century, 14 vessels went regularly to hunt the Greenland Right Whale. Its blubber provided lamp oil while whalebone, used in dressmaking, was also prized.  Her Captain David Gray, was one of most skilful of the 19th century whaling captains, who was widely known for his scientific knowledge. Sadly, it took almost a century for his home town, Peterhead, to honour him. In 1991 it named a street after him – Captain Gray Place.    The first Aberdeen whalers sailed to the Arctic in 1752. By the early 19th century, 14 vessels went regularly to hunt the Bowhead or Greenland Right Whale. Its blubber provided lamp oil while whalebone, used in dressmaking, was also prized. Whaling was a risky business: vessels were sometimes crushed by ice. Others returned clean, with no catch. By the 1830s, overfishing had seriously affected the industry and Aberdeen vessels gradually abandoned the trade. Eclipse went whaling from Peterhead for many years. It was finally sunk in 1941 during a German air raid on Archangel'sk, while working as a Russian oceanographic vessel. 

LATONA                              1813      ABERDEEN          Lost in Davis Straits
EARL OF FYFFE                  1816      BANFF                 Wrecked
ELBE                                   1818      ABERDEEN          Lost
DIAMOND                            1819      ABERDEEN          Wrecked
ELIZABETH                          1821      ABERDEEN
ALERT                                 1823      PETERHEAD        Wrecked
DON                                    1825      ABERDEEN
JEAN                                   1826      PETERHEAD         Wrecked. 46 crew transferred to the 'Dundee'
DEXTERITY                         1826      PETERHEAD        Crushed in ice, crew spread amongst fleet
ENTERPRISE                       1828      PETERHEAD        Crushed
JANE                                   1829      ABERDEEN           Wrecked. Crew rescued
LETITIA                               1830      ABERDEEN           Wrecked Davis Straits
RESOLUTION                      1830      ABERDEEN           Wrecked Davis Straits
ALEXANDER                        1830      ABERDEEN           Wrecked, Davis Straits
HOPE                                   1830      PETERHEAD        Wrecked, Davis Straits
RESOLUTION                       1830      PETERHEAD        Wrecked
JAMES                                 1831      PETERHEAD        Crushed in ice May 25th, Davis Straits
HENRIETTA                          1834      ABERDEEN          Wrecked
HECLA                                 1840      PETERHEAD        Lost in ice
RANGER                              1843      PETERHEAD        Wrecked
MARY                                  1849      ABERDEEN          Lost with all hands.  A sealer
SUPERIOR                           1849      PETERHEAD        Crushed
JOSEPH GREEN                  1852      PETERHEAD        Wrecked
GIPSY                                 1857      PETERHEAD
UNDAUNTED                        1857      PETERHEAD
ECLIPSE                              1858      PETERHEAD
TRAVELLER                         1858      PETERHEAD
INNUIT                                 1858      PETERHEAD        Broke-up on Maiden Voyage
EMPRESS OF INDIA            1858      PETERHEAD        Broke-up on Maiden Voyage
ST. ANDREW                       1861      ABERDEEN          Lost with all hands
COMMERCE                        1861      PETERHEAD        Wrecked
ARCTIC                                1862      ABERDEEN         Wrecked
RESOLUTION                       1862      PETERHEAD       Wrecked
PACIFIC                               1863      ABERDEEN         Lost 

The same place proved fatal in 1815 to the Caledonia and the Thames, which were both wrecked in one day, and the crews of both perished.

Arthur Conan Doyle made a trip as ship’s surgeon in the Hope in 1880

Whale Fishery 1885 - This season was been one of the most disastrous on record to the whaling vessels. Intelligence had already been received of the entire destruction of 4 of these, of which we merely notified the fact a fortnight ago: and rumour has it that others have shared a like fate.  These 4 are the Superior, 400 tons burthen, belonging to Peterhead : the Lady Jane, 300 tons, Captain Paterson, of Newcastle ; the Prince of Wales, 380 tons, of Hull; and a large American ship - the whole crushed to pieces by icebergs.  The particulars are thus described: on the 12th of June last 3 of the above named vessels were fishing in company with 8 other vessels, in Melville Bay, Davis' Straits.  For days previous the gales had been frequent and terrific, and the seas tempestuous in the extreme.  About 11 o'clock in the forenoon an alarm was raised of the floating ice setting in upon them.  So suddenly did it bear down, and with such force and immense masses, that the Superior the Lady Jane, and the American ship McLellam, of New London, had not the slightest chance of escaping it, and were speedily cut in pieces.  The 1st vessel destroyed was the Superior, and immediately afterwards the Lady Jane was literally cut in 2, the masts at the same time falling overboard, and in less than 2 hours not a vestige of the ship was to be seen, so completely had the ice covered her.  From the time the Lady Jane was struck to the moment she disappeared, the crew, consisting of 50 souls, succeeded in securing the 7 boats belonging to the ship, together with some clothing and provisions. As to the American vessel, although dreadfully shattered. the crew, aided by those belonging to the Superior and Lady Jane, made an effort to keep her afloat.  After remaining in the ice till he 16th, and finding all attempts to save the vessel abortive, the provisions were divided, and the crews got the boats ready and launched them, and at 7pm. with the wind north-east, and clear weather, they sailed southward along the edge of the ice, sometimes having to encounter large fields of ice, which caused them to drag the boats over it to gain the open sea.  Captain Paterson's party made land on the 19th, though the weather was thick and foggy, and after each boat's crew had obtained refreshments they set sail again and made for the nearest Danish settlement, keeping the land in view as they proceeded. Thus exposed to the weather, some times rowing and sometimes sailing, and contending with heavy falls of snow and gales of wind, they succeeded in gaining Opernawick in Greenland.

Leaving 2 boats with their crews, Captain Paterson proceeded with the other 5 boats, all of whom reached Lively, another settlement of the Danes, 500 miles from Melville Bay, on the 29th of June, where they were kindly received and every hospitality shown them, as far as the means in possession of the natives could afford. The unfortunate crews of the other vessels were, we are happy to say, equally successful; not a life was lost, and they eventually gained the latter named settlement in safety, whence they were forwarded to Orkney Islands by the 1st vessel that touched at the settlement. The Prince of Wales whaler was wrecked in another part of Davis' Straits under precisely similar circumstances. She was caught by huge masses of ice, cutting her up in a very short time, the crew barely having time to save their boats.  They gained the Orkney Islands in safety, and have here now, we trust, reached their respective homes. It is worthy of remark that 1 of the above vessels was the oldest whaler in the Greenland service – the Lady Jane ; she had been employed in the fisheries nearly 70 years. The destruction of the 4 ships is computed at a loss of nearly £50,000. - John O'Groat's Journal. 9 Feb 1850

Their Quarry

The Bowhead Whale is one of the largest whales on Earth,  it can grow up to 20 Metres (66 ft) in length and 136 tons in weight. Up to one third of it’s body can be made up of it’s head and the Bowhead Whale’s huge mouth resembles an archer’s bow, thus giving the whale it’s name. Like other baleen whales, they swim with their mouth open, filtering the water and feeding on plankton and crustaceans  These whales inhabit only the Arctic and subarctic waters, unlike other whales that migrate to feed or reproduce. The Bowhead Whales are usually black with a white area on their massive head. They use their bony skulls to break through the ice to breathe, in turns with diving periods of about 4 - 15 minutes.  The Bowhead Whale consumes about 2 tons of planktonic animals. Just like other baleen whales, they filter water through the baleen plates. hanging from their upper jaw. These plates are made of keratin, much like the nails of humans, that fray out into hair at their end. Small sea creatures are trapped inside the whale’s mouth and are then swallowed.  The Bowhead Whales usually live in pods that vary in size and have a tendency to merge together, forming larger pods nearing the fall, reaching the number of 50 individuals per pod. Mating takes place in spring, the gestation period lasts for a bit longer than a year and one calf is born, weighing about  1 ton.

Bowheads Feeding

The calves are nursed for another year and they reach sexual maturity at the age of 14-15 years. Females produce a calf once every 3 to 5 years and they are even believed to go through a menopause, due to their long lifespans. Amazingly, some whales with more than 120 year old harpoons in their body have been discovered, suggesting that these whales can live to be as old as 200 years.  The only natural threat is the Orca that attack smaller pods of Bowhead Whales or prey upon their calves. The population of Bowhead Whales has suffered greatly during the whaling years;. These massive sea creatures were widely used by the Eskimos, using the whales’ meat in their diet, constructing homes of the bones and using the oil produced by the whales as combustible.  During the whaling years, the number of Bowhead Whales plummeted from about 50,000 to about 20,000. Currently, these whales are considered an endangered species and there are an estimated 12-15,000 Bowhead Whales world-wide.

Alaskan Bowheads

The carcass of a Bowhead whale stranded in the Estuary of the River Tay was taken to Aberdeen to be exhibited in an enclosure on the Inches near the Goods Station. The arrival of this monster came to the attention of John Struther, Chair of Anatomy at Aberdeen University, who took the whale back to Marischal College to skin and eventually put together an articulated skeleton which now reposes in Dundee Museum.

Greenland Right Whale was so called because it was, in commercial terms, the ‘right’ whale to catch. It was a slow docile creature, and it carried a good supply of blubber. It also floated when dead - a most important point. One 3rd of the Right’s body was its head, and this meant a good yield of highly priced whalebone, a tough yet supple material found in the animal’s mouth which acted as a plankton sieve. It sold in later days of trading at little less than £2000 a ton. Though whalebone had many uses, from carriage springs to umbrella spokes, market prices were governed by the major fashion houses’ demand for bone stays.

When a whale was sighted by the mast-head watchman he would signal the duty watch below. Two boats, each with 4 oarsmen, a steersman and a harpooner, were then launched and rowed hard towards the whale.  The harpoon, bound to several 100 fathoms of line, was shot into the whale from close quarters, the object being not to kill the beast but to let it swim or dive while fast to the boat until, after several hours, it would lie on the surface exhausted.  The whale was then lanced to death and towed back to the ship.  By this time the boat crews were often many miles from ship and the journey back could take more than a day.  The whale was chained to the side of the ship and its blubber cut away in strips and taken aboard. The last task was to get the head on deck and cut out the whalebone. The scrap flesh or "krang", was cast adrift and the men made ready for another chase.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013