Modern history

Chapter 14

The First Whale

People simply don’t forget the first time in their lives that they saw a whale. They never say to you, ‘Well, I just can’t remember whether I’ve seen a whale or not.’ (Or if they do, you know they haven’t seen one.)

Roger Payne

Among Whales

My first whale? Killer.

Mid June 1988, 4 a.m., en route from St Kilda to Tobermory on Mull, eight hours out of St Kilda, three hours out from Tobermory, the Skye Cuillin looking strangely misplaced in the north-east, Coll and Tiree low-slung blue hulls in the south-east and more or less dead ahead.

I had been camping on St Kilda for two weeks, researching what would become my first book. Transport arrangements for the return journey to far-off Scotland and the known world were sketchy, so when it was suggested to me by the island’s warden that I might hitch a lift on the handsome two-masted schooner Jean de la Lune, a seasoned St Kilda voyager, I accepted his advice. I had had a charmed stay on St Kilda, I had filled notebooks, piled typewritten pages in a corner of the tent (and some had been nibbled by St Kilda’s famous field mouse, as had four Bounty bars, three apples, a packet of soup, two holes in the tent and one in a rucksack; little wonder the wee bugger’s an endangered species), taken a hundred photographs, scribbled a dozen sketches, walked and walked and walked, and I had more or less decided it was time to take what I had home and make sense of it. I struck camp quickly and headed down to the shore, where I met the skipper. I remember his affable greeting:

‘Got any Stugeron?’

‘Yes. In my pack.’

‘Well start poppin’ ’em.’

He had just heard the weather forecast and it promised boisterousness. I thought wistfully of my crossing from South Uist in the big Army flat-bottomed landing-craft, a brute with a fearsome reputation among St Kilda veterans. ‘It wallows like a drunken pig’, I was assured. I had never seen a drunken pig, but it was obviously an image calculated to terrify. Its explicit message was, ‘You are going to suffer.’ I didn’t. I had got chatting to a stranger in the Dark Island Hotel, famed Lochboisdale watering hole among St Kilda travellers, and he turned out to be something senior at the missile tracking station on St Kilda. He insisted I spend the crossing with him in the officer’s mess, and I was wined and dined in mid ocean. Better still, I had the nearest thing anyone will ever experience on that crossing to a flat calm. I was roused at 5 a.m. by a crewman shouting:

‘Anyone want to see St Kilda? It’s worth a look.’

So I went out on deck, rubbing sleep from my eyes, and St Kilda’s cut-out island shapes stood unforgettably erect from a pink sea like an improbable stage set, and it was purple, and it was worth a look.

The Jean de la Lune had been chartered by a party of divers when I boarded for the journey home, so I had no berth, but then hitch-hikers don’t expect berths. Instead, I stood in the stern watching St Kilda diminish and slip below the horizon over several enchanted hours, and my leave-taking was escorted by wave-top skeins of gannets and thousands and thousands of ticker-tape puffins. The notebook in my hand was supposed to accommodate my impressions of the leave-taking. Instead, I thought about the last St Kildans in 1930 as they evacuated what had been their island home for the previous 4,000years. They were the guardians of a unique species of island-ness, an oceanic isolation 40 miles west of the Western Isles, and whatever might befall St Kilda in the future, something remarkable was instantly and irretrievably lost. A poem stuttered down the page in my hand:

The Old Song

To have lived here,

a hovel on Hirta

for your only hearth

(not nomads of science or soldiery

nor passing prowlers with pens

like me or Dr Johnson),

to bide all your times here

knowing no other’s march

was to look wilderness in the eye

and dare it to deny

your daily bread.

To have lived here,

content with all the world

in your embrace, at ease

with all its ways,

then hear compatriots whisper

‘evacuate!’, was to feel

the soul’s anchor drag,

to know that whatever the voyage,

wherever the final haven,

the journey was done,

the old song sung.

I had never tasted that kind of ocean place before, never felt loneliness as a benevolent force before, and I thought then I would never try and go back because I had been accorded an extraordinary glimpse under the skin of the place and felt dangerously close to it, and now that I too had made my small evacuation, it would be ungracious to ask for it all again. Eventually, about 1 a.m., I dozed off stretched out on a bench in the galley. Then at 4 a.m., the mate’s voice from the wheelhouse:

‘You still there, Jim?’


‘Come up and see this.’

So I joined him in time to see something shaped like a small Matterhorn crossing the bows about 50 yards away. It was quite black and looked about six feet tall. I said:

‘What is it?’


No other part of the whale showed; no hint of head or back or belly or tail, no suggestion of its brute mass, its tonnage. I thought of a nuclear submarine I once saw steaming south between Skye and the Scottish mainland, only the conning tower above the water, the unnerving silence of it as it steamed through the narrows. It was an ill-fitting and wretchedly inadequate image, but I had been quite unprepared for my first whale, and it was four in the morning after three hours’ sleep. But perhaps nothing ever can prepare you for your first whale. There was a half-formed feeling that there should have been more – perhaps a vast streamlining beneath the boat with adrenalin-pumping closeness (the submarine again); or the all-guns-blazing whoosh of a breaching humpback straight off an Alaskan travel brochure; but certainly more whale, more than that eerie, silent, travelling black cone with no visible means of support or propulsion. Then it was lost among a glittering endlessness of waves, and it was a morning of breathtaking blue beauty, and briefly I had shared it with a piece of a whale.

‘People simply don’t forget the first time in their lives that they saw a whale. They never say to you: “Well, I can’t remember whether I’ve seen a whale or not.” ’

No. You never forget your first whale. You never forget the sense of something other. You never forget the feeling of knowing but not seeing that which is hidden, the bulk of what is unrevealed by that glimpse of a dorsal fin, nor the awareness of distance being devoured, nor the notion of a world traveller on the march from ocean to ocean to ocean.

The thing unsettled me. To this day, I remain unsettled by it.

I stayed up on deck after that, helped the mate with the sails while the divers slept through it, slept off their huge last-night meal and last-morning-after hangovers. We nosed into the Sound of Mull, and suddenly the ocean was elsewhere, behind and beyond, and the whale was with it, betrothed to it, wave-cleaving, and the entire worldful of waves lay in wait and at its effortless disposal.

We tied up in Tobermory at 7 a.m. and the sun was already high and warm. I said my goodbyes and thank yous and stepped ashore, and the quayside still moved beneath my feet to the ocean’s rhythm. I had two hours to wait for a bus to Craignure and the ferry to Oban. I walked along the coast away from the harbour until I found a rock to sit on where I could stare at the sea. Strange, I thought, this side of the island it’s ‘the sea’, the other side it’s ‘the ocean’. It’s the same water, but it isn’t. The thing about St Kilda was that it was all ‘the ocean’ regardless of which side of the island you walked.

I daydreamed among the flotsam of the last two weeks. I remembered standing on Connachair, the summit of all St Kilda at 1,234 feet, looking out and turning through 360 degrees and seeing no other land at all. There were the jagged thrusts of the St Kilda archipelago, a sparse cluster of bird-tormented rocks, and then, in every direction, only the hypnotic oceanic nothing, which was only a nothing because its scope was incomprehensible, its depths unplumbable in my head. I had chatted the night before with one of the divers, listened to his vivid account of the undersea St Kilda, its colours, creatures, of swimming among hunting puffins, of the rock faces of the familiar overworld shapes that went on down and down into the murk. I briefly envied him that glimpse, but now I know this: that if a blue whale, the world’s biggest creature, were to up-end with the tip of its tail on the surface and its head vertically below its tail, its snout would already be at a depth greater than most scuba divers will ever go. And its dive is yet to begin. And if it so chooses, it can dive down to where the island shapes we know are anchored to the raw stuff of the rest of the planet. When all is said and done the ocean is the whale’s place, and we scratch its surface and grow sea-sick.

One glimpse of a whale at 50 yards made me reassess my ideas about it, gave it shape, gave it landscape, direction, trade routes, migrations, populations, infinite possibilities; one 30-second glimpse of a whale at 50 yards did that. I can close my eyes and see it now.

‘What is it?’


It is an awful name. Not even ‘killer whale’, just ‘killer’. Even in a good field-guide index you don’t find it among the ‘w’s for ‘whale, killer’. You find it among the ‘k’s, for killer. Of course it kills, they all kill something; and anyway, who are we to talk? Some old hauled-out mariners with the Newfoundland whaling grounds on their CV would have told you the killers used to drive the humpbacks towards the whaleboats making them easier for the whalers to kill, and the killers in the boats and the killers in the waves would share the spoils. But some old hauled-out mariners talked a lot of rot too.

It was named, I suppose, because men – whalers – saw it kill other whales, seals, walruses, penguins, whatever. And if the irony ever occurred to them that their choice of name for it was the worst case of the pot calling the kettle black in the whole vexed history of our relationship with the natural world, they never let it show. And twenty-first-century wildlife documentaries love to show a killer shredding seals in the surf, so we swallow the propaganda whole. Even Gavin Maxwell, a writer of rare genius, whose work was as responsible as anything else for the path my own life would eventually take as a nature writer, was fooled by it. He wrote in Ring of Bright Water, ‘A killer or two comes every years to Camusfearna, but they do not linger, and if they did I would compass their deaths by any means that I could, for they banish other sea life from my surroundings; also I do not care to be among them in a small boat . . .’ This from a man who had killed basking sharks for a living. Herman Melville wrote in the most famous whale book of them all, Moby Dick, that ‘exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the grounds of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and sharks included’.

There are two aspects to the memory of that first whale 20 years ago that strike me now as significant. One is that I didn’t make much of it at the time. It made no appearance in that first book, not so much as an afterthought: oh, by the way, I saw a whale on the way home. But it was the last sensational event of a sensation-crammed adventure, and I suppose it suffered as a result. Perhaps if it had turned up on the outward journey it might have set a different tone for the adventure, given the book more of an ocean-going aspect, whereas the book I wrote remained within the known realm of islands.

Yet the whale’s significance to my nature-writing life, and to my constantly evolving relationship with the natural world, cannot easily be overstated. I hoarded it for a year or two, but then as the islands of Scotland’s west and north coasts encroached more and more on the mainstream of my work, it acquired a talismanic significance and became the most durable image of the St Kilda voyage. In the greater scheme of things, the story of the St Kildan people (extraordinary as it was) is a trifling episode in the natural history of the place – 4,000 years, and they have been out-lived by mice.

The curious thing about St Kilda is that it is such an introverting place, and not just for visitors; it turned the native people inward, even to the extent that they were notoriously poor sailors (they rowed 50 miles to Skye to pay their rents to the MacLeod at Dunvegan, then 50 miles back again), more or less ignored the possibilities of fishing the ocean, and lived largely on seabirds and their eggs. Yet that glimpse of the whale, now that all these things have had time to settle in my mind and assume relative importance and unimportance, was a kind of signpost alerting me to the possibilities of oceans rather than the limitations of islands. They got it wrong, the whale was saying, they should have learned to live on the ocean.

The second aspect of the whale encounter is this: never at any point did I make even the loosest connection between what I had seen out there in the Atlantic somewhere between St Kilda and Tiree and that wretched skeleton suspended from the ceiling of a Dundee museum that was the sum total of my very first exposure to the world of whales. In my young life, the word ‘whale’ was incomplete without the word ‘Tay’ in front of it, and it meant a museum piece, static and strung-up and defeated, something you might have made from an Airfix construction kit like a Lancaster bomber, a relic. All you would have needed was an instruction leaflet and enough glue. It occurs to me now that the whole thing was so distasteful in my young mind that it actually set my mind against whales. The museum curators thought they were creating a monument to a way of life, and perhaps it can be argued that they did that well enough. But a child with a love of nature deep inside him from the moment he was able to walk outside alone was repulsed by it, and for 40 years of his life he was denied the possibilities of oceans. I can hardly blame the Victorian curators, of course, or even their heirs who inherited the whale in my own lifetime. They could hardly have foreseen the effects of their curating policies on one child whose life was always going to be more susceptible to the forces of nature than to the example of those dead industrialists who built the city I was born into.

And of course, they weren’t to know that I wouldn’t meet a living whale on its own terms until I was 41. Life might have dealt me a different hand altogether and our paths might have crossed when I was 21. But as it turned it out, the timing couldn’t have been better. I was a newspaper journalist for 24 years, and in the late spring of 1988 I had decided to take the plunge, to try and write what I wanted to write, and when I went to St Kilda with my first publishing contract in my pocket, I was also working my notice. I would leave my last newspaper staff job on 21 October, and St Kilda would be published the following day. So it was a heady moment when I set sail for St Kilda and two weeks that effectively changed the course of my life. And with those two astonishing weeks behind me, and a lucky meeting with the warden who suggested that the Jean de la Lune might give me a lift home, I set off on another course and crossed the path of a talisman.

‘You still there, Jim?’


‘Come up and see this.’

‘What is it?’


So I began to wonder about whales then, and to read up on them, from the most basic whales-of-the-world picture book to good non-fiction and fiction and poetry. One ingredient characterised them all, the one that has always been precious to me as a nature writer – mystery.

‘I suspect that the brains of cetaceans have evolved for some very important reason,’ wrote Roger Payne, ‘about which we haven’t a clue, and that dolphins must do some crucially important thing with them, though heaven knows what it is.’

There was so much that people did not know, so much that was wonderfully elusive, and I found that reassuring. I am always reassured when I rub up against some tribe of nature that baffles science. When a scientist like Roger Payne holds up his hands and says ‘I haven’t a clue’, I applaud.

Then I landed a publishing contract with Jonathan Cape in London. It had nothing to do with whales – it was for a book called A High and Lonely Place and it was about the Cairngorms, a mountain range as comprehensively landlocked as any in Scotland – but during my first meeting with my editor at Cape he told me about another nature book he was handling, a long poem by Heathcote Williams with a supplementary anthology of short extracts from the copious literature of whales and whaling. This was my introduction to Whale Nation. Its impact was substantial. It was incendiary, heaping fuel on the polarised debate surrounding international whaling and fanning the flames of the pro-whale lobby’s ardour. The next time I met my editor he handed me a copy of it. Once I had read it, once I had imbibed its potent mix of beauty and anger and its explicit and implicit images, and its mystery, I became an involuntary recruit into the world-wide cause of whales.

When people who do not write for a living meet people who do, they invariably ask about inspiration. The only inspiration I believe in is the example of others. Williams’s poem was inspirational. A sample:

With glowing tracks behind them in the water, large as ships’,

The humpbacks use the rotational forces of the planet,

The azimuth of the sun,

The taste and temperature of the tides,

The contours of the sea-bed:

Canyons, plains, vaults;

The mountainous summits of the mid-Atlantic ridge, twice the width of the Andes,

Which stretches for ten thousand miles, from Iceland to Patagonia;

Guided by hydrothermal vents in the earth’s crust,

The topography of coral reefs,

The position of the moon, and its tidal pull;

Navigating with a lodestone disc made of polarised magnetite,

A compass in the brain,

Sensitive to the geomagnetic flow of force-fields

Under phosphorescent seas,

They find their way to the mating grounds.

What nature writer would not want to make the acquaintance of such a beast?

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