The Dundee Whaling Industry 1756 to 1920.

1903 Antarctic Expedition Launch of the RSS Discovery The Story of the Voyage by Capt Robertson 1905 Ships Built by Stephens Whaling Statistics Whaling Ships Lost

The Story of Dundee Whaling


Today, whaling is considered socially, morally and ethically unacceptable, and it is an emotionally charged subject raising great debate among conservationists, scientists, biologists and governments. Because of what happened from the late 18th to early 20th Centuries some whale populations still remain small and fragile.However, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, whale and seal hunting was viewed as a strategically important industry, involving hundreds of ships, thousands of men and numerous jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is part of Dundee’s history, covering a period of approx 130 years from about 1753 to 1914. To look at this important part of that history we need to look at it, not from a 21st century perspective, but take ourselves back to the situation prevailing in those days and not to judge the standards and practices of the 19th Century with those of the modern 21st century.

The Dundee Whaling fleet participated in the Arctic Whale and seal hunting for longer than many other countries, Dundee had a presence in the Whaling industry from 1753 starting with the ship ‘Dundee’ to just before the start of the Great War. The last custom built steam ship from Alexander Stephen’s yard in Dundee was the famous ‘Terra Nova’, which gained fame with the relief mission to the ‘Discovery’ and was also used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott on his second, doomed expedition to the South Pole. The Discovery itself was not a working whaling ship although it was built on the lines of a whaler it was primarily for the Scott expedition to the South Pole and as a research vessel.
Dundee built more exploration ships than any other port.

Another great Polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, chose Dundee built ships the ‘Nimrod’ and the ‘Aurora for his expeditions to the Antarctic.Dundee Whaling Captains contributed significantly to the surveying of remote regions in the Arctic and Antarctic. They sailed to uncharted seas, mapped coastlines, sounded harbours, observed weather systems and the changing topography, wrote reports for eminent geographical societies, and offered the world the first glimpse of regions hitherto unknown or unexplored.

Moreover, the Dundee whaling fleet expanded our knowledge of the Arctic's inhabitants. They met, befriended and bartered with remote and nomadic communities of Inuit Eskimos who had no previous experience of Europeans - including those who tried to wipe the 'white' off the Dundee men's skins. As time passed, and ships began to over-winter in the area, the native Greenlanders brought their own expertise to the whaling ships by providing guides and hunters - and joined in football games with the Scots in temperatures of minus 40°C. Eventually Eskimos visited Scotland aboard whale ships and became familiar sights in fur skins in the unlikely setting of Dundee.

A Tough life

Whaling was a very important industry to Dundee, for jobs, for trade, for the manufacture of Jute products, the shipbuilding industry, for Polar exploration and many other aspects of Dundee life.It was a tough and demanding life, it needed rugged hard-muscled men.

The ever present danger of the seas, men in small whaleboats, overturned by a harpooned whale, drowning in seconds in the freezing water, being stranded on ice flows as the ship was carried away by pack ice and men frozen to death on ice flows, also those who lost limbs from frostbite or met death from ‘scurvy’.In 1892 James McIntosh of the schooner ‘Chieftain’ watched 4 comrades drinking seawater in their stranded open boat and die, one by one, insane, he, left alone ate his own hat and survived, but had both frostbitten legs removed on his return to Dundee.  Journals written by the frostbitten fingers of survivors tell of the men, taking off the clothes of those who dropped dead in front of them just to use them to keep warm. After one Newfoundland disaster 25 bodies lay in a frozen mass and had to be cut apart and thawed before being placed in coffins. One Dundee whaler, the Advice, was wrecked and lost 59 men out of 69 in 1837.

But the Advice made another 22 trips to the Arctic before being lost after 74 years’ service. Her story is typical of the fortitude and depths of courage shown by the whale men of Dundee.The wrecks of 40 Dundee whalers lie beneath the ice of the Arctic whaling grounds. Almost without exception they are the stout, wooden-hulled sailing ships that met their fate crushed by converging floes, swelling the number of vessels that had ‘left their bones in the battlefield of Melville Bay’. Ships like the Rodney, Achilles, Three Brothers, Middleton, Advice, Nova Zemba, Alert and Windward.

Melville Bay

A dangerous area in those days with a strong southern drift of the polar current, large ice bergs and heavy field ice. The ships had to get through this to get to the comparative open water of Smith Sound in the north of Baffin Bay and the fishing grounds. The Greenland coast was lined with stranded ice bergs of massive size and fantastic shapes. The blue transparent sea, the drifting ice flows. Ships stopped by massive ice jams, two feet ice floes piled layer upon layer, ships getting trapped, using explosives to clear a channel, rolling the ship to get free, ships being ‘nipped’ by the ice flows, ice piling up round the ships, overlapping the decks, crushing and grinding, some ships reported that hatches in the ships were squeezed to diamond shapes. Catching salmon, cod and other fish, plus Eider Ducks and their eggs were harvested for food, the area teemed with life.

Melville Bay accounted for the loss of 14 ships in 1819 and 19 ships in 1830, all sailing vessels, the later steam ships managed to ram the floes and break through the ice.   

Stories from whaling days

1877 – The Victor, Captain John Nicoll sailed from Camperdown dock on the 20th Feb 1877. First mate was James Fairweather. There was a crew member, Alex Donaldson called the ‘Spectioneer’, a sort of 3rd mate, who had charge of all the fishing guns, lines, harpoons, flensing and other gear. Another crewmember was called the ‘schieman’, These names ‘spectioneer’, ‘harpooner’ and ‘schieman’ were names adopted from the early ‘Dutch’ whalers. There were 2 engineers, 2 firemen, boatswain and his mate, the Carpenter and his mate, a blacksmith, a cooper and a sailmaker, all having their respective ‘mates’ these mates were picked after sailing. Five line managers, who pulled stroke oar and looked after the boats gear, 4 harpooners, mates and ‘spectioneer were also harpooners, also there were six boat stearers.

The early sailing ships had 6 whale boats in davits and a dingy on the stern, also 2 boats on skids, the later bigger steam ships had 8 whale boats. The crew numbered 45 and about 15 more joined at Lerwick a total of about 60. There was also a doctor and a ship keeper (old veteran who did odd jobs on the ship and being in charge of ‘ah thing everybody else forgot) he could also do any other job the officers needed done. When steam ships came in the fleet sailed to Newfoundland and St. John’s, taking on hundreds of extra hands to help with the sealing and whaling.Everyone had a good ‘kit’ consisting of woollen mitts, scarves, guernseys, caps etc, the sailors would usually get an advance of pay to buy these items before the trip.

A months stores were handed out - sugar, butter, tea, lime juice, tobacco, dried fruit, and coffee. All hands had to cook there own breakfast and supper and supply their own kettles and pans etc. The cook and his mate cooked the dinner and supplied hot water. They had tinned meat and plum duff twice a week. Suet pudding and salt beef or salt pork five days a week and two days rice, or pea soup and beef, pork, seal’s flippers, white bears hams and often salmon, caught in the nets while on board, and wild ducks’ eggs. The captain at times sent tinned milk, cheese or a tot of rum on Saturdays as a special favour.The galley range was in the crew’s living place and was kept going all night. The quarters were warm and comfortable. Three men, one in each watch – slept in one bunk, and before retiring, clothing was rolled carefully and hung up with a small rope bucket so that if the crew were called to man boats they could take their bundle, get into a boat, and so take turns dressing while those in the boats rowed away from the ship.Captains and crews took themselves to these limits of human endurance in order to reap the enormous profits of the catch.

Arctic whaling was a means to acquire wealth, and for the participants it was often as profitable as it was dangerous, a journey of exhilaration, a life of adventure and of hard-earned success.Yet catching whales and escaping ice remained a hazardous and dangerous enterprise, a risky business both for its financial backers and for the masters and crews who annually faced severe Arctic conditions. Losses reached a peak in 1830 when, of the 91 British ships in Davis Strait, 19 were lost and 21 returned to port ‘clean’. Then, in the saddest episode in Dundee's whaling history, over 70 men were lost from two vessels in 1836, leaving ‘one hundred fatherless children’ in the town. The toll of such losses and the lack of whales acted as a turning-point in British Arctic whaling.

From a peak of over 160 vessels in 1815, barely 30 sailed in 1830. Yields dropped, companies failed, boiling yards closed and men were paid off. London abandoned whaling in 1835 and Leith in 1840. The once large Aberdeen fleet was cut to three vessels by 1839. Dundee was not immune from the recession. Three whaling companies were put up for sale and their ships placed on the market.Whaling anticipated the wealth of the North Sea era of oil and gas and of industrial plastics. Whale oil lit up British cities and rural lamps, lubricated the Industrial Revolution, provided the soap to wash off factory grime and eventually smoothed the process of jute production in Dundee.

At the Dundee quayside whalebone changed hands for up to £3000 a ton as the expanding Victorian middle classes demanded waist-tightening undergarments. So the men who signed articles in the whale company offices around Dundee's docks could earn more in an Arctic season than in years of work in the jute mills. Everyone from the captain to the ship's apprentice received a share of the catch. Owners and crew were ever willing to speculate to accumulate.

The Ships

The East coast ports of Scotland and England were the home of almost all the Artic whalers, with the exception of Liverpool and Greenock on the west. England had 15 ports to start with - London, Whitby, Hull, Grimsby, Newcastle, Yarmouth, Sunderland & Shields etc. Along the Scottish east coast, Dundee, along with Peterhead and Aberdeen took the lead but other smaller ports also had vessels, like Montrose, Leith, Berwick & Kirkcaldy. By 1857 Hull was the only English port still in the Whaling trade and by 1890 Dundee became the only UK Whaling port.

Ships bought and fitted out for whaling represented a considerable investment to the partnerships of merchants, bankers, shipowners, physicians, lawyers and gentry who usually made up their share­holders. An average whaler was said to cost as much as New Lanark mills in 1786. A second-hand Colonial-built ship cost £3000 in 1810, and almost the same again to convert and equip for whaling. By 1860 the average cost for a new Dundee-built steam whaler was £12,000. The Whaling ships themselves did not catch whales, but acted as transporters to get the men to the fishery and to return the catch. The whales were caught by men in open boats chasing and harpooning the whales.The seamen also came under threat from Royal Navy press-gangs and from enemy privateers. Journals report crews fleeing ashore to avoid conscription, and whaling companies applied to Government for protection passes for 'essential' crew, such as harpooners and boat-steerers, but men were seized regardless. Heavily armed privateers viewed whale ships as easy prey and more than one Dundee whaler sailed with her crew armed to the teethWhaling vessels were usually around 120 feet long (just about twice as long as a big whale that they hoped to catch).

Prior to 1857 only sailing ships were used and manned by a crew of around 50. This was far more than were actually required to sail the vessel, but extra hands were needed while hunting the whales. Living condition for the ordinary seaman were extremely overcrowded.Dundee Whaling ships were made of wood. This allowed them to withstand the huge pressures of the ice when steaming through or when trapped fast in the freezing ice. It is recorded that one ship from Dundee was so severely squeezed in the ice that her hatches were diamond shaped instead of square when she was eventually returned to port.In 1857, steam power was introduced to whalers as a trial. This was so successful that by the 1859 season the first custom-built steam whaler was in use by the Dundee fleet.

This was Captain James Fairweather’s ship, the ‘Tay I’ built by Alexander Stephen and Sons. She was the first of a series of the new breed of artic whaling ships to be launched by the yard and many more were under construction. The old sails & rigging were still in place and ships looked much the same, only the funnel was conspicuous.Alex Stephen also built the ‘NARWHALE’ the first custom built auxiliary steam whaler but constructed of timber, the wooden vessels fared better than the ‘iron ships’, wood was considered best for ice ships for many years to come, these had the ability to pass through the ice, which would have stopped a sailing ship. The steamships had the advantage over competitors and Dundee leapt into prominence as a whaling port and became supreme right up until the cessation of the industry after the Great War.

In 1861 Dundee had 8 steam ships, by 1867 there were 12, over the whole period of whaling, Dundee had over 100 ships involved in the industry.Ships of the Dundee fleet mostly undertook two voyages per year. 9 out of 10 voyages of the ‘ACTIVE’ & the ‘VICTOR’ consisted of this. The first trip was to the Greenland Sea in the vicinity of Jan Mayen Island due north of the Orkneys for the ‘sealing’. The ships left Dundee in late Feb or early March, sailed via Lerwick in the Shetlands or from Stromness in the Orkneys returning to Dundee in April/ early May.There are reports of some very successful journeys with ships laden with seal skins & blubber with hardly any room for the crew to bunk down. After unloading the ship they again set sail on the second trip of the season – to the Davis Straits for the whaling returning to Dundee in late autumn.

When the whaling fleet left for the Davis Straits in April the departure often coincided with a local holiday and the harbour thronged with sightseers watching the fleet put to sea. Emotional farewells were said, the ships’ horns sounded and the crews lined stern rails to give three final cheers as the fleet nosed out of Victoria Dock and masters set their compasses northwards This was a festive occasion, the ships bedecked with flags & bunting the cheers of vast crowds speeding them on their way with good luck tokens of oranges, red herrings and pennies thrown from shore to ship for luck by well-wishers as the passed out the lock gates. With them, inevitably, went boy stowaways hoping to avoid life as 'half-timers' in the city's jute mills.

The crew were usually so drunk that the ships had to anchor in the river until the men sobered up enough to put to sea.This was the last time the wives and families would see their menfolk until the fleet returned, it was an uncertain life for both the sailors and their families, from the time the fleet sailed out of the Tay in the spring, nothing was heard of it until they reappeared in the late summer or early autumn. The wives did not know if they would have a husband coming back and some were left destitute with large families to feed and clothe.  The advent of steam driven ships enabled the Dundee owners to take advantage of the seal rich fishing grounds of the Newfoundland seas. Seals had been taken in increasing numbers since 1805, but much later in the century, Dundee ships established a new pattern. The western ocean passage could be made earlier in the year and the sealing grounds taken en-route to the whaling. It became necessary to arrange with agents at St. John’s or to build yards where the cargo of seals could be processed, this left the ship free to continue north to the Davis straits.In 1876 the ‘ARCTIC’ (Capt Adam’s) made its first voyage to Newfoundland. In 1877 the ‘ARCTIC’ and the ‘AURORA’ both sailed to Newfoundland. In 1878 the ‘ARCTIC’, ‘AURORA’, ‘ESQUIMAX’ and ‘NORWHALE’ sailed to Newfoundland

The whales

The whale that they really wanted to catch was known as the Greenland Right Whale (The Bowhead Whale (Balaena mystecus). 65 feet long, weighed 100 tons, the tail alone was 30 feet across and the tongue weighed over a ton.

In the cold arctic waters it swam slowly on the surface with its great mouth open and its food caught in the large slabs of its whalebone, this was not a real bone but a soft springy tooth substitute called ‘baleen’ that hung down from its upper jaw in overlapping plates and acted as a filter for the intake of krill from the large mouthfuls of water taken in and then expelled.This docile giant possessed a fortune in its cavernous upper jaw - overlapping plates of springy, tough baleen, which was valued like a currency as demand grew for corsets and other flexible products.

No other whale had such a mass of Bone making the Right whale a prime commercial target. Its heavy layer of fat, or blubber, was another valuable commodity when boiled to oil. Called the ‘Right’ whale to distinguish it from the wrong one to catch. It was 'right' in that it was slow-moving, easy to hunt and floated when it was dead.Right whales, however, could be found only on their migratory routes in largely uncharted Arctic waters. Ocean currents and polar winds meant masters needed navigational expertise, seamanship and leadership qualities to get them beyond mountainous seas to the whaling grounds, and once there, with lances sharpened in antici­pation, to penetrate the pounding pack ice in pursuit of their brutal calling. Ships failed to return almost every year. Many were helplessly imprisoned.

The Right Whale was a prime commercial target its cavernous mouth could yield a ton of this valuable bone for women’s clothes. As the years passed and fashions changed and whales grew scarce whalebone rose in price to £3000 per ton at Dundee’s wharf. The whale’s skin was not used but its heavy layer of fat, or blubber and had the thickest of all the whales at between 12 to 8 inches thick was another valuable commodity and could produce as much as 7000 gallons of marketable oil after it was boiled.

The oil was initially used for lighting but this was superseded when town gas became available, however the whale oil was needed for the jute industry as an agent for batching, softening the raw jute. By 1913 mineral oil started to take its place and was considerably cheaper. Another factor in the decline of the whaling industry.
Many Dundee ships also caught the bottle nosed whale, 13-16 feet in length and mainly found in the North Atlantic.

The white whale,

the Beluga was killed in large numbers by Dundee ships, adults were usually 6 feet in length.

The Seals 

The seals hunted by Dundee crews were known as hair seals, and comprised the Harp or Saddleback Seal, the Hooded Seal, and the Bearded Seal (Ogjucks in Eskimo parlance). All three species were to be found in the North Atlantic.The Harp Seals or Saddleback are to be found breeding in huge numbers on the pack ice, the male seal takes no part in family life but the female seal never leaves her cub. On the Dundee market seal skins were bought for 4/6 each and the estimated catch for a ship with both whales and seals was around £30,600, oil at £40 per ton and whalebone at £540 per ton.
A catch valued at £87,500 minus expenses and the fitting out of the ships.

It was these animals which were slaughtered in their thousands within a 20 mile radius off Newfoundland during the first annual sealing voyage from St John's.The young when born are covered in stiff white wool, which falls off in two to three weeks when hair takes its place. This white coat was in great demand also the oil obtained from the young seal is of the finest quality. "Young seals are born on the Newfoundland ice, February 15th to 25th and are in perfect condition for the market by March the 20th." A young seal puts on fat very fast and ships waited until they are in prime condition, often weighing the cubs to see if they are ready.The slaughter by clubbing would commence before the pups took to the water. The second voyage was a much smaller affair when older seals and young who had taken to the water were shot, as there was now no necessity for silence.

The Hooded seals of Newfoundland are also known as Bladder nosed seals (on account of the large bag of loose skin on the top part of its head. When the seal is angry this can swell to the size of a football and is very thick. The male seal can be very aggressive and protect its family by snapping savagely at the attacker. The hooded seal was hunted for its high value pelts, especially the young seals and for the oil.The Bearded Seal was hunted primarily for its pelt, which was processed into industrial leather, also for food and oil. The skins and blubber had native subsistence use',The gear used for sealing was – a pick, six inches long on a five feet shaft, a heavy skinning knife in a large wooden sheath, a one inch rope, ten feet long, called a ‘lowery tow’ which was used to lace up and drag the seal skins to the ship.

The end of the industry

When whaling was in decline, sealing became the more economically important activity.
After the mid 1880's Dundee was the only remaining whaling port in the UK. By the 1890's lost ships were not being replaced, the last whaler to be built being the Terra Nova in 1884 and then the Discovery itself.Arctic whaling came to a close in Scotland just before the Great War in 1914. Of the vessels that remained, two the Active and Morning were lost during a storm on the way to Archangel in Russia during the First World War. Another the Balaena was sold as a hulk early in the 1920s. The Eclipse was last seen in the White Sea being used for ice survey work for the Russian Government and the Terra Nova, the last purpose built whaler to be built in Dundee, was the last to be lost, being sunk by a German U-boat in 1943.It is a difficult industry to reconcile with our 21st century standards with the great slaughter of whales to near extinction and thousands of seals, especially cute young white ones being slaughtered.

But it was part of the history of Dundee, it provided the impetus and needs for the important jute industry and gave Dundee shipbuilders a great lead in a type of ship that was vital for polar exploration and also the expert Captains and seamen who knew the areas and understood the great dangers and seas of the Arctic and Antarctic.

So the Dundee whaling industry faded away, replaced by the Norwegian fleets of ships and factory ship. But it was part of the proud History of Dundee.