NEFA - The North East Folklore Archive

The Sea

Peterhead and the Arctic Whale Fishery,
Dr. Alexander Milne
From the Book of Buchan, Jubilee Edition, 1943.

It is just about a hundred years ago since Peterhead came to be recognised as the headquarters in this country of the Arctic Whale Fishery. It will not be out of place in the Book of Buchan to have something of the story told of how the town rose to this proud and, for a town of its size, unique position and attained a name prominent and enduring in the commercial world. The pursuit of the great Arctic whale was engaged in from very early times, but by the middle of the eighteenth century it had come to be mainly in the hands of the Dutch. The English seemed to have participated in rather a sluggish manner, even although encouraged and assisted by bonuses granted by the Government, which were really given with a view to promote the training of men for the Royal Navy. It has been said that the bonus became the main incentive rather than the catch - a way sometimes with bonuses and such like bribes. With the outbreak of the French Revolution and the subsequent blockade of European ports by the English fleet, the English had the field to themselves and, as the oil at that time was in use the world over in lamps and as a lubricant, the demand for it here grew apace since the Dutch were no longer in a position to meet it. Gas and paraffin oil lighting were still things of the future. The Balaena too, the whalebone of commerce, came to be much used for a variety of purposes and commanded an ever-increasing price.

Previous to the opening of the nineteenth century, Peterhead had for some ten years but one small boat making the venture, and with but meagre success. Then, doubtless owing to the Dutch being off the seas, two Peterhead men of substance (Arbuthnot and Richardson [Hutchison]) seemed to have realised that in the prosecution of this industry a profitable field was open to them for investment, and the problem was attacked with vigour and understanding. Larger vessels more suited for the purpose were built and equipped, and crews of the best type of men were ready at hand from amongst the local fishermen, expert boatmen already. Each ship would have a complement of some four smart boats which, when a whale would be sighted, were sent in pursuit. And so year after year, as the success seemed to warrant it, the whaling fleet increased in numbers until as many as forty [33] vessels were registered from the port. It would be interesting to know how this rapidly increasing industry was financed. It may be conjectured that the time-honoured system of inviting subscriptions from any and all of the people of the town and neighbourhood was adopted. The days of the limited liability company had not quite arrived and shipping shares were of the denomination of sixty-fourths. The decimal system was not yet appreciated, and a sixty-fourth share seemed to be the irreducible vulgar fraction, and any frugal body, man or woman, may have been prevailed on to show his or her sympathy with a local enterprise, even to the limited extent of subscribing for a sixty-fourth share in a ship - an amount of money perhaps not exceeding fifty pounds. The whole crew from the skipper downwards worked on a profit-sharing basis too, so that one can understand how the industry would have been of absorbing interest to the whole population. And one can picture the crowded piers and the fond farewells and what it meant to Peterhead when the fleet made off to the whaling ground. They tell yet of the schools being closed on the great day, so that all, old and young alike, might be present to wish the crews God-speed on their way. And then the eager looks to seaward as the time of the fleet's expected return drew near, the hopes and fears of success or the opposite: and, as not infrequently happened, the sad forebodings when an incoming ship would show a flag half-masted. A full ship might mean as much as £10,000 - enough to yield a very handsome return to the shareholders, generously reward the crew and meet in full all expenses of upkeep. And the prosperity would well over to the benefit of the town generally. Shipyards, ship chandlers, shopkeepers, all would participate in this bountiful harvest of the sea. But from its very nature the prosperity of the whaling industry was bound, in the course of but a comparatively few years, to reach its peak, and then a decline could not fail to set in.

The slaughter of the whales took place indiscriminately. It is a melancholy truth that to first kill the calf ensured that the mother whale became an easy victim. As the hunt became more intense with the passing of the years, other ports, like Aberdeen and Dundee, sent their quota of whalers. The prey became more elusive and the voyages to the great Arctic expanses between Greenland and Spitzbergen became almost barren of results. Attention was then directed to Baffin's Strait to the west of Greenland. The many exploration parties of the period directed towards the Pole or in the vain search of a North-West passage had discovered much new ground. But in this area success was not so marked, and the fields of heavy ice moving in narrow waters brought disaster to many of the fleet. It is to this region that the tales belong of ships crushed in the ice or icebound for the winter and the awful sufferings the crews sometimes underwent, when their ship was lost, in making their way to safety in open boats or, if the ship was beset in the ice, having to exist on board as best they could the winter through on woefully short commons with the dread of scurvy ever present, the curse of shipping in those days when salted meat was the staple food. Old skippers would tell tales of what they were pleased to call the finest sport in the world, but were less prone to dwell on the hazards and privations they had to undergo in the pursuit of their calling. Yet the fate of many ships was literally that of the pitcher carried once too often to the well, shattered and crushed in the ice-bound seas.

The seal hunt came to the rescue for some years but, by this time, the New Englanders from New Bedford, with the advantage of being so much nearer to the hunting ground, became keen rivals. Of later years the seal hunt of itself has come to be something of a perquisite to the Newfoundlanders, who find the game practically at their doors. Strangely enough, the final coup de grace to whale hunting from Peterhead may be said to have been administered by a native of Peterhead itself. Steam-power had come into its own, and nowhere was its advantage more marked than in forcing a passage in the ice. Captain David Gray (1827-1896), the doyen of the Peterhead fleet, had the courage and foresight to have built a powerful vessel equipped with steam-power as well as sail. It was built in Aberdeen. This vessel, the Eclipse, was followed by the Hope (Captain Gray's brother's ship), and these two steamers, with the Esquimaux, Windward, Erik and one or two others, may be said to have pretty well put an end to whaling as practised from this country. Dundee became the home port of these vessels, which perhaps best suited their needs for docking and repair facilities. [The town's jute industry used whale oil in jute processing]. The Great Whale had practically disappeared from the Eastern Arctic. The fleet of Peterhead sailing vessels had received no additions for many years and those still seaworthy became merged in the great fleets of small craft which, before the advent of steam and when railway transport was still in its infancy, were kept busy with coastal and North Sea freighting, and freighting farther afield. Few, if any, of the old school of skippers still survive to tell, as was their wont, of the forests of masts which filled the many small North-East coastal harbours, in most of which but a solitary steamer may now be seen.

It is appropriate to mention here that the men and ships of the Peterhead whaling fleet shared in several of the expeditions engaged in the exploration of the Arctic, the prolonged quest of a North-West passage and in the ever memorable epic of the North - the Franklin search. The Arctic maps will bear, for all time, place names associated with Peterhead - Gray Strait, Eclipse Harbour, Penny Land, Milne Land and many others. The Eclipse, it is worthy of note, came into the hands of the Russians, and recently was still doing duty buffeting the ice in Russia's northern waters. The Hope, after an interesting and successful career, was caught in the ice and lost. The Windward's name recurs at a later date as the relief ship, under Captain Brown of Peterhead, which rescued and brought home the intrepid explorer Dr. Nansen from his famous trans-polar expedition. And, amongst the last survivors, the Erik did service for the Hudson's Bay Company for several years as supply ship to their more remote stations on the Labrador coast and Hudson's Bay under Captain Alexander Gray. The unfailing regularity of the Erik's calls and the kindly helpfulness of her Captain brought such happiness and relief to the Hudson's Bay Posts as will long be held in grateful remembrance. The Erik's coming and going always excited much interest in the Thames Estuary as a survival of an almost forgotten past, with her wooden walls, bluff bows and square rigging. The story is told of one river boatman calling the attention of his mate to her in the words, " Hey, Bill, here is Noah's Ark coming up the river." And Bill's answer, as the cook a bearded veteran, looked over the side, "Yes, and there is Noah himself." The Erik fell a victim to a German submarine in the last war. [World War I].

The record of a peak year of the whale fishing fleet of Peterhead with the names of the Captains is given in a list compiled by the late Alexander Robertson, Town Clerk, Peterhead, and is now in the Peterhead Public Library. A summary from this list is given in the following table:-

Whales and Seals: Summary of Peterhead results in periods of twenty years from 1788.

Grand Total


It will be noted that from 1828 to 1867 the number of whales caught decreased while the number of seals caught increased. Further particulars about the whale fishing industry are given by Dr. R. W. Gray (son of the late Captain David Gray) in the Transactions of the Buchan Club. His contribution is sure to be of interest to people on the North-East coast, including descendants of those who took part in whale fishing in the Arctic Seas. I may be allowed to say in conclusion that it is regrettable that no provision was made by those in power to prevent the wholesale destruction of young whales. If a sufficient number of young whales had been left in the Arctic Seas whaling would still have been practised by the expert fishermen of the North-East. The whaling industry is now practically confined to South Georgia, an island eight hundred miles Eat-South-East of the Falkland group. The permanent population engaged in the industry is at Grytviken Harbour. In the year 1932-1933 the total catch was equal to six-sevenths of the total world catch. During 1938-1939 the whales caught numbered 1,675. The oil was valued at £205,978. The marking of whales for identification purposes has been practised for some time. Of the three main species to be marked - the Blue, the Fin and the Humpback - there were 187 returns out of 1,513 which were marked.

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First Voyage from PD Ship's Name Tons Best known Master Remarks
1788 Robert 169 Alexander Geary Brig, sold 1801
1802 Hope (I) 240 Alexander Geary Wrecked 1830
1804 Enterprise 290 William Volum Wrecked Davis Strait, 1828
1810 Active (I) 341 John Suttar Wrecked 1828
1811 Perseverance   David Gray I Wrecked Greenland Sea, 1840
1813 Resolution 400 John Suttar Wrecked 1830
1813 Union   William Hutchison Abandoned 1854
1814 Dexterity 321 George Sangster Wrecked Davis Strait, 1826
1815 Superior 400 D. Manson Wrecked 1849
1817 Alert   William Penny Snr.  
1817 Gleaner   J. Shand  
1818 Alpheus   A. Duncan Wrecked 1828
1818 Jean 235 R. Bruce Wrecked 1826
1819 Hannibal   W. Robertson Wrecked, Norway, 1848
1819 Invincible 306 James Hogg Wrecked Davis Strait, 1822
1820 Eclipse (I)   John Gray Snr. Wrecked Davis Strait, 1858
1820 Mary   A. Thom  
1821 Traveller   George Simpson Wrecked 1858
1828 Commerce   A. Stewart Wrecked 1861
1829 James 346 James Hogg Wrecked Davis Strait, 1831
1832 Joseph Green   J. Volum Wrecked 1852
1838 Ranger 180 A. Ogston Wrecked 1843
1842 Jane   R. Robertson  
1845 Enterprise (2)   R. Martin  
1846 Hamilton Ross   P. Burnett  
1846 Dublin   W. Mackie Lost by fire, Davis Strait 1866
1846 North of Scotland   D. Gray III  
1848 Victor 278 R. Martin II Barque
1851 Fairy   R. Robertson Wrecked Greenland Sea, 1860
1851 Columbia   R. Birnie  
1851 Mazinthien   P. Burnett Canadian Merchantmen
Sold to Dundee, lost PD Bay, 1883
1851 Pomona   J. Robertson  
1852 Intrepid 326 Robert Martin I  
1852 Xanthus   John Reid Sealer
1852 Agostina   George Sellar  
1852 Gem   John Sellar  
1852 M. A. Henderson   David Ewan  
1852 Spitzbergen   David Cowan Wrecked Maiden Voyage
Greenland Sea
1852 Queen   John Gray II  
1853 Ranger (2)   William Cardno  
1853 Kate 239 J. Scott Barque Albert H. Watson
1853 Eliza   George Abernethy  
1853 Brilliant   Joseph Joss  
1853 Active (2) 380 David Gray III Engined 1871, Sold to Dundee
1854 Undaunted   A. Walker Wrecked 1857
1854 Gipsy   Freeman Henry Wrecked 1857
1855 Clara   John Suttar II  
1856 Arctic 203 J. Reid  
1856 Sir Colin Campbell 381 Robert Birnie  
1856 Elena   William Sellar  
1857 Polar Star 216 David Ewan Sold to Dundee
1857 Innuit   John Suttar II ss, iron hull, wrecked 1859
1859 Empress of India   Robert Martin II ss, iron hull
Wrecked Maiden Voyage
1860 Jan Mayen 337 Thomas Mackie Sold to Dundee, sank 1884
1860 Windward 356 David Ewan Last whaler from Peterhead, 1893, (Under D. Gray III)
1867 Eclipse (2) 555 David Gray III Auxiliary, sold to Dundee
1873 Hope (2) 575 John Gray II Auxiliary
1883 Erik 583 Alexander Gray Auxiliary, sold to Hudson Bay Co.
Sunk by U Boat, WWI


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