Modern history

Chapter 12

Northward Ho! Take 2

The Dolphin is an animal without malice, living to be a hundred years old, loving music and friendly to man.

Konrad of Megenberg

Das Buch der Natur, 1475

Dolphins have a great capacity for altruistic activity.

Anton van Helden, dolphin expert,

in news report of a dolphin that rescued

a beached whale, New Zealand, 2008

I have in my mind’s eye nature’s plan for the Tay Whale when its foray in the estuary was done, an alternative itinerary for the journey to Aberdeen and beyond once she had prompted the whale into belated recognition of its predicament. Men in boats armed with harpoons formed no part of nature’s assessment of that predicament; such things were not predictable and moved outwith and independently of nature’s sphere of influence in those matters. Rather, those forces that shaped the whale’s awareness of its actions and its surroundings homed in on the shallowness of the estuary compared to the open ocean, the speed and impact of the ebb that conspired with a treachery of midstream and offshore sandbanks to constrict a safe channel downstream for a swimming whale. Of course the whale had negotiated many such journeys already under its own steam and without any prompting, but each time it had turned again with the flowing tide, back up the estuary. It seemed that the longer the whale lingered so far up the estuary in pursuit of such an abundant and constantly renewing food source, the more its awareness dulled. Nature’s plan was to stimulate the whale to encourage it back to the open sea, and from there to the northern ocean, and from there to the endlessly deepening waters of all the world’s oceans as only the whales know them, the singing homeland of the humpback.

The whale lies for an idle hour between the Middle Bank and Pluck the Crow Point, a quarter of a mile off the Fife shore, slack water, the tide full. The whale barely moves, it matches the river’s mood, whale and river at rest. Some quality in the late afternoon midwinter light puts violet and navy blue tones in the gleaming curve of its back. A hundred people are gathered here and there along the shore, pointing, gesturing, pronouncing and swapping theories, arguing, or just watching, just marvelling at the monster in their midst. Some have been coming every day for six weeks, making notes, sketches, legends. None is indifferent to the whale. Some wish it dead, some wish it God speed.

The moment is subdued, but the south-west sky has the same dark whale shades in it and begins to advance so that the low hills of north Fife shrink and blur and shrivel beneath its widening, darkening mass.

The river stirs, it crinkles and ripples. A small wave slaps a shoreline rock. The river shakes itself, stretches like a wolf awakening from a doze, and prepares to go to work. The whale is unmoved. It feels the river stir and knows its meaning. It feels the growing tug of the ebb but it stays. The small crowd on the bank is well enough versed in the ways of the estuary’s tides, for they affect almost every aspect of life. They know tides, they know boats, they know the comings and goings of seabirds. They do not know whales, not at first hand. They’ve all heard the whalers’ stories, of course, the second-hand exploits of the spring and summer whales in Arctic waters, but this is the winter whale, in their home waters, and they watch and wonder and wager, and not for the first time, it baffles them. An hour after the tide has turned, nothing has changed, except that the Middle Bank has begun to uncover, and to look not unlike a slumbering whaleback itself.

Some of the watchers on the south shore begin to voice concern. Is the whale stuck? Has it grounded? Is it ill? Is it dead? Surely such a stillness is unnatural, especially when the tide is an hour into the ebb? Then quite suddenly it sinks. A 40-foot-long whale vanishes before disbelieving eyes in five seconds. Almost at once it resurfaces and blows, but it has travelled 50 yards upstream. The watchers mutter among themselves: surely upstream is wrong? Day after day for weeks (apart from its mysterious ten-day disappearance) the whale has fished the river and turned with the tide, heading for the open sea. The lighthouse keepers out at the Bell Rock look out for it an hour or two after the tide turns. As often as not they confirm its appearance to the harbour authorities in Dundee, and first the newspapers and then (when the newspapers began to weary of such monotonously recurring detail) the grapevine that flows through such places regular as tides brings the news.

But today the whale is drowsy with herring and the ease of its situation, and it edges upstream against the suck of the river. Then it sinks again. Then one of the watchers sees the dorsal fin, points. The humpback dorsal fin is small and low-slung and inconspicuous, but this dorsal fin is none of these. A second watcher thinks its shape has changed, and besides it cuts through the water much too quickly.

‘That’s not . . .’ begins the second watcher, and at that the water opens to permit the airborne shape of a bottlenose dolphin ‘. . . a whale!’ he finishes amid much laughter. If only we lived as long as a humpback whale does, he and his delighted friends would still be talking today about what happens next.

The whale is stationary on the surface again. The dolphin is 100 yards away and apparently closing in on the whale. It leaps again in a black and gleaming curve, the whale blows, the river ebbs flat out, the crowd of watchers thrills and feels its throat tighten. Then its ears hear the exuberant voice as the dolphin flies a yard above the waves, as though a child cries for the sheer joy of living. At that moment the whale turns towards the sound. The whale has heard it too, spins in its own length and blows a plumed greeting a dozen feet in the air, a fine white spray that shreds eastwards on the breeze.

The dolphin rolls across the bow of the whale and dives, resurfaces a few yards upstream. The whale lies on the surface, motionless again but now facing north across the tidal pull, its tail to the crowd on the shore. One eye watches the dolphin. Again the watchers hear the dolphin’s voice. Some of them try calling back:

‘Oo wee yow ee . . .’

Laughter drowns the mimicry. The dolphin has put a high good humour on their vigil. But if it sees and hears them – and it must – it pays them no attention. They see the whale wheel. It turns to face upstream again, but the dolphin zig-zags a few feet in front of it, apparently trying to block its path – the 10-foot dolphin, the 40-foot, 26-ton whale, the whale that could toss the dolphin 20 feet in the air or swipe it 20 feet sideways across the waves. But it is the dolphin that makes physical contact. It charges the whale (all the watchers agree – it charges!) and butts at speed into the upper jaw with its snout. The watchers are unaware that the dolphin uses this technique to drive off sharks, but the whale is unmoved. So the dolphin swims alongside it, swims past its eye, puts its snout against the whale’s flank and pushes. The watchers, entranced and (at least here and there among them) mindful of the wonder of what they watch, suddenly realise what is going on. The dolphin is trying to turn the whale! Nature has decided to try and persuade the whale to head downstream and towards the open sea, and she has sent a dolphin, for such rescue and path-finding skills are in the nature of dolphins and are made readily available to seafarers in trouble, whether whale or whaler.

So the dolphin leans its snout into the massive amidships of the whale, and shoves; the whale permits the manoeuvre and begins to rotate in its own length until it faces downstream; the dolphin leaps forward beyond the snout of the whale and swims away east.


A hundred yards downstream the dolphin stops, turns to see the whale still anchored in the same place, swims back upstream and repeats every detail of the process, the upstream zig-zags, the charge, the headbutt, the snout-amidships shove, the follow-me swim down the firth. This time, the whale sinks as it waves (as the now entranced watchers choose to interpret it) a slow farewell. When it resurfaces it is right on the tail of the dolphin, east-making.

The tide is a big one, one which will ebb to an exceptional low-water mark. There is a channel deep enough to accommodate the swimming whale, and the dolphin navigates it at speed. The whale feels the wisdom of its summons. The whale is suddenly uneasy in the face of that conspiracy of current and ebb tide and sand. The whale does not belong between the walls of the firth. The whale suddenly craves the landless ocean depths, the curving ocean horizon, the vast and curving sky. The whale hears the dolphin’s voice chattering back through the water, sound waves that slice a path westward through the salt estuary waves against their eastward march. The meaning of the chatter, crudely translated, is this:


The river has treated you well.

Now you must leave.

Otherwise the wildness and wisdom of whales will desert you.

The easy living is a deception.

Follow this dolphin’s wake.

Follow until you can hear the song of your own kind again.

The dolphin turns briefly north to pass the grey rocks of the Sea Craig and the Craig Head, then east again round Greenside Scalp, Larick Scalp and past the Pile Lighthouse off Tayport, where the shores of the estuary lean closest, a little less than a mile between the harbours of Tayport and Broughty Ferry. There are, inevitably, more watchers around Broughty Ferry Castle. It has always been the landlubber classes’ favourite viewing platform throughout the whale’s stay, simply because the river is so narrow here, and at times the whale put on a show for them not 200 yards offshore. The regulars at the castle have their favourite stances which they defend vigorously against occasional or first-time visitors. They also take a proprietorial interest in their whale’s comings and goings, its adventures and misadventures. Now their interest is stirred again. What’s this? There, just ahead of the whale, fussing over it like a collie with a not wholly compliant ewe – it’s a dolphin!

They have heard the whalers’ dolphin stories, of course. There was the dolphin that piloted the fog-blind whaling ship through pack-ice channels and a moving maze of ice floes to open water and known landmarks. There was the dolphin that saved floundering whalers (traditionally, whalers never learned to swim, a perverse superstition) when their boat capsized close to an ice floe; each whaler was buoyed up and shoved onto the ice one at a time, and deposited face-down and in a heap, not fully understanding why they were still alive. Fellow crewmen on the mother ship who rescued them and who had seen the whole thing unfold told them what had happened.

And now, here is their whale, heading seawards once more on the ebb as it has done so often before, but this time it appears that a dolphin is leading it. Even as they watch, the whale sinks (there is the slow last flourish of the tail, like a grave salutation for the benefit of all who watch), then . . .

‘It’s coming up . . .’

. . . The heart-stopping showpiece, the whale lunges for the airspace above its known world, throws one flipper high in the air, twists and crash-lands on its back, then a few seconds later the sound of the splashdown reaches them and they all cheer in spite of themselves, for this is what has underpinned their affection for what they still call ‘the monster’. Then again . . . then again . . . four times . . . five, six, seven . . .

And as their own excitement subsides, one in the crowd says quietly, ‘It’s taking a bow. It’s leaving. That’s why the dolphin . . .’

His voice trails away, then another voice, much louder this time, ‘Three cheers for the whale, hip hip . . .’

And the chorused hoorays are cries of joy, but there is a lacing of threnody in the raised voices too, a keening edge. Then a silence, and every eye strains to see the whale diminish among the waves until finally there is the far-off raised tail and the final dive.

Dolphin and whale pass Lucky Scalp and Green Scalp. (Scalp – ‘scaup’ as the Fifers might have it – is a sand bank where you find shellfish between high- and low-water marks; this coast was named by the old and practically inclined Scots tongue.) Almost at once, the estuary doubles in breadth, but almost at once the shores also thrust wide plains of sand far into the estuary. So at low tide, south-eastward-and-seaward-looking, the view from, say, the Lady Bank off Barnhill on the north shore is more sand and mud than deep water, for the Abertay Sands are also laid bare and these are miles-long and seal-encrusted, forming an arm, wrist and hand that points to the Bell Rock and Holland, no matter that the pointing hand is called the Elbow; and the sky has grown, and you begin to get the gist of the scope of the sea that lies beyond it all.

The Abertay Lightship sits beyond the Elbow – there is nothing here in this land-and-seascape substantial enough to build a lighthouse on, no fragment of land that stays in one place long enough. Dolphin and whale pass the lightship to the north, and on the north shore Buddon Ness and its two lighthouses are already behind them, and these are the frontier posts of the estuary. They have made the open sea, and nature has reclaimed the humpback from the domain of men.

The coast slews away north, then north-east. South, there is no longer a coast. But the dolphin holds an easterly course. The whale follows, heeding nature’s command at last, and there grows in its mind a longing for the sound of whale song, a thirst for the ocean and an awareness of what it will take to slake that thirst.

Darkness does not halt their progress. The low star of the Bell Rock has glittered since dusk, but now its brightening beam begins its night-long prowl of the waves. The whale knows it for a friend and responds to its beckoning light. But the dolphin is suddenly alongside the whale’s snout, leaning against it while they swim. It darts away, turns and crosses the whale’s bows in a low, leaping arc from south to north. The whale still leans towards the light. The dolphin dives beneath the whale, and appears a few yards in front of it, and begins to zig-zag again, blocking its path to the light, and as it lines up to launch the kind of charge that turned the whale 20 miles back, between the Middle Bank and Pluck the Crow Point, the whale finally breaks free of the spell of the estuary and its teeming fish shoals and its landmark lighthouse, and turns its back on them all. The dolphin leads the whale slowly north.

The full moon rises, the sea glitters and grows calm. The whale floats on the surface. The sounds are these: two miles to the west, the surf breaks around three red sandstone rock stacks – the Brithers – that mark the entrance to the small natural harbour of East Haven; a skein of whooper swans, Icelanders restlessly wintering between Orkney and the Tay, calls in 20 voices, soft syllables of muted brass, flying above the coast and under the moon, following the ragged white furrow of the surf; a raft of scoters 100-strong, night-black seabirds, riding the sea, diving to feed, serenades the moonlight with croons and soft growls. The sea slaps softly against the whale, which sleeps, and snores hugely.

In the grey North Sea dawn, the whale has been swimming north for an hour. The dolphin has gone, though it still swims in the memory of the whale, and its urging still determines the whale’s course. The harbour of Arbroath and its fishing fleet is unroused. The landmarks of the coast slip by – Whiting Ness, the Needle E’e, the Deil’s Heid, Maiden Castle, Lud Castle, Meg’s Craig, Maiden Stane, Maw Skelly (not named for a woman but a thrust of rock favoured by gulls – maws or maas), Prail Castle, the unblemished sands of Lunan Bay, Bodding Point, Black Craig, Long Craig, Rashick Knap, Sillo Craig, Scurdie Ness, where the whale sees the lighthouse smoor its lamp for the daylight hours. A fishing boat thrusts a small bow-wave into the sunrise at Montrose; others follow behind, ranged line astern up the narrow estuary of the South Esk. A steam tug, the Storm King, is moored and unsummoned in the harbour.

A small fishing boat plies the waters ten miles south-east of Gourdon under a smother of gulls. No one remembers her name. With her stern drift net raised, four oarsmen edge her into sun. By the time they sight the whale, the whale has been watching them for half an hour, has responded to an implanted notion to give her a wide eastward berth. The whale remembers the dolphin again, so strong was the sense of a command to lean to the east.

The skipper sees the whale blow.

‘Whale lads, starboard bow!’

They follow the line of his telescope.

‘Shall we catch her for supper, skipper?’

‘Aye, we can drape a rope round her bottom jaw and tow her home. She’ll be gentle as a milk cow.’

And they smirk and then they put their backs to the job in hand, for they have smaller fish to fry this morning.

Away north, the whale sees the long lines of red cliffs in the west, and the villages, each with a harbour, each sustained by the sea alone – Gourdon itself, hard under its own cliff; Catterline’s string of clifftop houses. Then Dunnottar Castle high on its sea-girt plinth, a forge of more than its fair share of Scottish history – and English history for that matter, for the castle changed hands endlessly. The Dunnottar that Wallace took from the English in 1296 was not this one (which is an all-but-700-years-old upstart), but its immediate predecessor, and God alone knows how old that was, though perhaps there was a passing whale who saw it rise and fall within its own lifetime. Then, Stonehaven, its beach loud with seabirds where a fish merchant is discarding a too-long-dead fish carcase he knows he will never be able to sell.

The whale wavers once, at the sight of Aberdeen crouched round its harbour. It feels the surge of fresh water out into the sea from the Dee estuary, bounds forward towards the source in a series of 20 crashing breaches, a headlong procession that takes it to within a mile of the sea wall. Long before that, its antics have been spotted from the harbour, and a small crowd of watchers gathers to point and exclaim and stand and stare and wonder. An old hauled-out mariner with his share of whaling years behind him gives the 50 or so watchers the benefit of his wisdom:

‘Watch and remember this! Nothing but a humpback puts on a show like this. She’s a long way from home, though, shouldn’t be any nearer to these waters than the west coast of Norway, and west of Greenland suits her better these days. Word has it there’s been one in the Tay at Dundee these last few weeks, and maybe this is she, and she’s come to her senses before they run her through with a harpoon just for the hell of it. Not that she’s worth the killing, but you know what they’re like in Dundee, eh?’

There are few things they enjoy more in Aberdeen and Dundee than making jokes at each other’s expense. A voice in the crowd asks:

‘So you wouldn’t harpoon her then, Skipper?’

‘She’s not worth getting wet for! Not enough blubber to light my kitchen for a fortnight and she sinks when she dies. Greenland right whales, now, they’re the ones to kill; you can put your arm through the blubber right up to your shoulder and your hand still hasn’t come out the other side. And kill her and she sits on the surface and waits for you.

‘No, no . . . you wouldn’t kill a humpback. And just look at her! Did you ever see anything more agreeable in all nature than that? Look, she’s even waving at you. Why would you want to kill such a beast?’

And he waves back with a far-off look in his eyes, and the rest of the crowd find they are waving too, despite themselves. The Skipper speaks again, this time sounding as if he’s talking to himself:

‘She sings too, you know.’

The whale lies on the surface and blows. The sound reaches the ears of the watchers. The whale, whose mind has been full these last few minutes of a memory of herring shoals trapped in shallow water and fast ebbs and a low star in the sky that blinked to a known rhythm, suddenly recognises a face in the water a few feet ahead, a zig-zagging face. Then it charges and rams the whale amidships. The whale acknowledges the thrust and turns to the north-east, and the red cliffs of the east coast of Scotland sink down into the sea forever. A hundred yards ahead of him, beckoning like a low star in the sky, the arched back and dorsal fin of the dolphin head for the ocean west of Norway.

Back at the sea wall in Aberdeen, the skipper has begun a long story about how a dolphin once led his ship to safety through a conspiracy of fog and pack ice and ice floes to open water and known landmarks.

The next day, news reaches Professor Struthers of Aberdeen University about the visit of the whale to Aberdeen’s home waters. He is characteristically dismissive:

‘Didn’t you kill it? A living whale’s no damned good to me. Get me a dead one I can work on, and I’ll get excited.’

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