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Scotland’s whaling history brought to life after former student’s hand-written notes from 1977 are translated

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For over 130 years, ‘Arctic cowboys’ sailed uncharted seas and risked their lives to hunt whales and seals.

Whalers travelled to places barely on the map in the Arctic and brought back huge catches which oiled the wheels of industry.
Whale oil for a period of time was indispensable and was used for lighting and heating, soap, and also for softening the raw jute fibres that Dundee made into sacking in the city’s mills.
The whale bone could change hands for up to £3,000 a ton and had scores of uses, from whips to chair backs to the bristles of brushes, but its main use was corsets in the female fashion industry.
In the whaling heyday, almost 20 whaling ships sailed from Dundee, and the townsfolk abandoned desk, bench and loom to wave them farewell, throwing oranges and pennies on to the decks for luck as the boats left the quays.
By the late-1830s, overfishing had seriously affected the industry and Aberdeen vessels gradually abandoned the trade.
After the mid-1880s Dundee was the only remaining whaling port in the UK and by the 1890s lost ships were not being replaced.
Vegetative and mineral oils, which were a great deal cheaper, had started to take whale oil’s place and this was a factor in the decline of the whaling industry which came to a close in Dundee just before the First World War in 1914.
One student who grew up in Newfoundland in Canada where life was geared to the rhythms of the sea made the journey to Scotland in 1977 to spend a sabbatical in Dundee.
The work he carried out during his stay 43 years ago included spending several months looking through old copies of newspapers in Dundee, Aberdeen and Peterhead.
The research conducted will now give people the chance to find out more about the roles their ancestors played in the development of Scottish and global whaling.
Chesley W. Sanger, Professor emeritus, department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, said: “It was perhaps natural that as a geography graduate student at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in the 1960s, my focus would become the major changes that occurred in the local seal fishery after 1862,” he said.
“That year two Dundee whaling steamers, Polynia and Camperdown, joined the local sealing fleet at the ice fields for the first time.
“Their superior ice-navigation capabilities were such that within less than a decade the local industry was transformed from sail to steam.
“While my research revealed ‘how’ the Scots had triggered significant changes in the Newfoundland and Labrador seal fishery, it did not examine in any detail ‘why’ they turned up when they did.
“Given an opportunity to pursue advanced studies in 1977-78 while on sabbatical leave, I decided to make this the focus of my PhD studies at the University of Dundee.
“To my surprise, however, I discovered that very little research had been conducted on Scotland’s century-and-a-half involvement in Arctic whaling.
“I consequently changed my original plan and set out to fill this gap.”
The statistical profile compiled became the base of a doctoral thesis in historical geography at Dundee University, 16 academic journal articles and a summary book, Scottish Arctic Whaling, published in 2016.
These publications, especially the book, attracted considerable interest.
The materials he collected were deposited at Memorial University’s history archive in St John’s which made them difficult to access.
“Given the growing attention in this little known but important Scottish industry, I decided to digitise the data to make it more easily accessible,” he said.
“The full details of the 3,641 whaling voyages which cleared variously from 16 Scottish ports between 1750 to World War One are now available on the web at”
Professor Sanger, 79, added: “In an interesting way it’s a little like coming full circle 43 years on.
“Translating the pencil and paper info into a more easily usable and accessible web dataset has been an end-of-career project – a last hurrah, so to speak.
“Everyone I met up and down the north-east coast were unbelievably welcoming and supportive, especially when they came to understand the time constraints I was working under.
“The Peterhead museum for example, provided unsupervised, early morning entry with cleaning staff, offered tea and coffee AM and PM and on two bank holidays let me cart off bound volumes of 100 year-plus newspapers in my rusty VW rather than have me ‘miss a day’.”

In total, Scots brought back the blubber of more than 20,000 whales and four million seals to their home ports for rendering into oil.
And they did so under demanding and hazardous environmental conditions.
More than 100 ships were lost, for example, while the return of others was delayed when they became entrapped in ice, causing whalemen to suffer starvation, disease, scurvy, frostbite and death.
In 1836, alone, more than 100 men on the Advice and Thomas, Dundee, and Dee of Aberdeen perished at Davis Strait.
Inuit fishermen had long plied the shallow waters of the strait for Arctic char or marine mammals, and American and European whalers hunted the highly sought bowhead whale there into the 19th century.
When one ship, Victor, was moored to land-ice in the Davis Straits in 1875, some of the hands went out onto the ice for a game of football.
One of the sailors was sent off to retrieve a far-kicked ball only to come sprinting back yelling: ‘A bear! A bear!’
They scrambled back aboard and the game was abandoned.
In another documented case, the whaler Advice limped back into Sligo, Ireland, in 1837 having been trapped in the ice for months.
The dreaded disease scurvy had struck the crew and of the 49 men who had set sail on this particular expedition, only seven survived.
In 1908 the Dundee whaler Snowdrop was wrecked in Frobisher Strait, Baffin Island.
The crew got ashore safely and lived among Eskimos for a year-while news of the stranded men did not reach Dundee until September 1909.

Of more than 200 stricken whaling UK vessels, one of the few wreckages to have ever been found was from the Nova Zembla.
Two researchers, Matthew Ayre and Michael Moloney, from the University of Calgary, found wood from the Dundee whaling ship’s mast across a beach in 2018.
Nova Zembla was destroyed after a collision off Baffin Bay on September 18 1902.
Fellow whalers on the Dundee ships, the Diana and the Eclipse, were able to rescue the terrified crew.
Shipping records suggest she was built in 1873 and that she was put to work two years later.
But just three years later she was nearly scrapped after she struck rocks while on the home leg of a successful excursion.
The steamer had been carrying 5,000 seals when she was stranded just a few miles from Lerwick in Shetland.
Attempts were made to recover her and she was eventually towed to Dundee and in March 1879 she rejoined the whaling fleet.
The Nova Zembla was largely successful, returning from the Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada with thousands of seals and a number of whales over the years.
But on March 31 1902, she set off on an expedition destined to be her last under new captain John Cooney, who was previously the ship’s mate for nine years.
On November 3 1902, The Courier reported the crew and cargo of the Nova Zembla had been rescued by other ships after striking a reef during a storm in the Davis Straits.
The report read: “Great storms have raged in the far north and as a result of one of these the Nova Zembla – one of the five vessels which formed the Dundee Whaling Fleet – ran aground on the evening of September 18 and became a total wreck.
“This occurred about a mile to the south of Dexterity fjord, which is on the west side of the Davis straits.
“Fortunately no lives were lost, but many of the crew had narrow escapes, and their adventures read like a romance.
“In fact, had it not been for the assistance obtained by the Diana and the Eclipse, who were only about six miles from the scene of the wreck, every man on board the ill-fated Nova Zembla must have perished.”
A report the following day updated the city, which said: “A boat was sent once to the ill-fated ship (the Nova Zembla).
“It was thought at first that she had been abandoned but, boarding the vessel, the captain, mate and chief engineer were still standing by.
“The crew had got ashore in the boats, but had been unable to return”.
The boat sunk fast but the valuable whale bone was rescued and transferred to the Diana.
Captain Cooney moved on – losing two more ships in five years – but the Nova Zembla was left to rot and disappear from memory.

Dundee whaling ships lost
Achilles Lost Davis Straits, 1830
Active Lost off Orkneys, 1915
Advice Lost Davis Straits, 1859
Alexander I Crushed Melville Bay, 1862
Alexander II Lost Davis Straits, 1869
Arctic I Lost Prince Regent’s inlet, 1874
Arctic II Lost Cumberland Gulf, 1887
Calypso Lost Melville Bay, 1822
Camperdown Abandoned Davis Straits, 1878
Chieftain Abandoned Coutts Inlet, 1892
Dorothy Abandoned Atlantic, 1840
Dundee I Lost Greenland, 1782
Dundee III Lost in ice, 1863
Easonian Lost by Fire, Kekertin, 1922
Estridge Lost Melville Bay, 1825
Horn Lost off St Andrews, 1852
Intrepid Foundered Greenland, 1885
Jan Mayen I Abandoned Greenland, 1882
Jan Mayen II Lost Cape Atholl, 1886
Jane Wrecked Tay Banks, 1809
Mary Ann Lost in ice, 1819. Crushed by ice
Maud Wrecked Davis Straits, 1892
Mazinthien Wrecked Peterhead, 1883
Morning Wrecked Orkneys, 1914
Narwhale Lost Cape Searle, 1884
Nova Zembla Wrecked Dexterity Fjord, 1902
Our Queen Nipped, Admiralty Inlet, 1879
Polar Star Lost in Cumberland Gulf, 1899
Polynia Lost Lancaster Sound, 1891
Princess Charlotte Lost Melville Bay, 1856
Ravenscraig Wrecked Davis Straits, 1879
Resolute Lost off Labrador, 1886
River Tay Lost Davis Straits, 1868
Rodney Lost Greenland, 1810
Snowdrop Lost Labrador, 1908
Tay I Captured by Privateer, 1799
Tay II Lost Davis Straits, 1819. Crushed by ice
Tay III Lost Melville Bay, 1874
Thomas Lost Davis Straits, 1836
Three Brothers Lost Melville Bay, 1830
Victor Crushed Davis Straits, 1881