Modern history

Chapter 16


Go to the lee of the berg, wounded whale!

He welters in blood.

The eye dims, and the foundry heart is still.

George Mackay Brown

from ‘Whale’, 1986

I met the skeleton of the Tay Whale when I was about five. I saw it sporadically through childhood, and I have not seen it since, even though it is still there. Bits of dead animals do nothing for me, even the intact skeleton of a whale, which is arguably as impressive as bits of dead animals get. Its impact on my childhood imagination was wholly negative. I found it repulsive. It infiltrated my dreams, which did nothing to endear it to me, for I had many childhood dreams about wild animals that lived and treated me well, and taught me not to fear. The skeleton of the Tay Whale was a grotesque counterweight to such dreams. It did nothing at all for the cause of whales in my mind. I never learned, and never asked, how the whale came to be there, nor what kind of whale it was. As a young observer of a museum exhibit I failed completely, or the exhibit failed me completely.

I became aware of McGonagall as a teenager, and because of his particular place in the affections of the city of my birth, I have been aware of him ever since, and I have read him haphazardly ever since, so I knew the poem. But it was a poem, not a historical document, and it was a McGonagall poem, so not to be taken seriously. It had nothing whatever to do with the wild world of whales. That began for me in the early summer of 1988, at the age of 40.

‘You still there, Jim?’


‘Come up and see this.’

‘What is it?’


That was the bait.

In the late summer of 1998 I met the humpbacks. That was the hook, line and sinker.

By then, of course, the politics of whaling and the conservation of whales were on the political agenda of every seafaring nation in the world, Greenpeace had been born and quickly evolved from a kind of provisional wing of whale conservation into mainstream thinking on the subject, whale-watching replaced whale-killing in the traditional whaling grounds of the world’s oceans. And whenever, wherever in the world, the few remaining whaling nations went to work, the world’s media followed and grew angry. The world’s media couldn’t get enough of whales, and it still can’t. In that transformed climate, in 2006 a whale swam up the Thames as far as Tower Bridge and made the national news for days on end as rescuers tried to turn it back. Huge crowds gathered daily. Early in 2007 a small pod of killers swam up the Forth as far as the railway bridge and began to prey on a colony of grey seal pups. More headlines, newsreels, crowds and crowds, high on the allure of whales. Then, it got personal.

In the late summer of 2007, I was in the McManus Galleries and Museum in Dundee looking at paintings, and stumbled across a leaflet in the foyer. It simply said ‘The Tay Whale’ on the front, and there was a photograph of that skeleton. I flipped through it and put it in my pocket. I found it days later, and between the jacket pocket where I found it and the wastepaper basket where I intended to dump it, I read a few lines . . . ‘In early December 1883, while Britain’s largest whaling fleet wintered at home in Dundee, an unusual visitor swam along the shores of the Tay. The visitor was a male Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaengliae, a slow swimmer and an easy target for whalers . . .’

A humpback?

The Tay Whale was a humpback?

Two days later I was in the local history section of Dundee Central Library, where I asked what there might be in print about the Tay Whale. The answer, after a painstaking search, was nothing. Instead, they dug out a sheaf of photocopied newspaper reports from that winter of 1883–84, which I imagine I read with my mouth open and my head shaking in a state of mind-numbing disbelief. For I was reading, not about a museum exhibit, not about a strung-up assemblage of old bones, not about a creature that had been dead for 125 years, but about the most thrilling life-force my life has ever encountered. For by now humpback whales had ‘propagated into the core of my very being’ in Roger Payne’s phrase; they had revealed themselves to me as ‘the most gamesome and light-hearted of all whales’, in Herman Melville’s phrase; one had swum so close to me ‘you could have spit baccy down his vent’ in Uncle Art’s phrase; and that same whale had looked so blatantly, so directly into my eyes that I felt sought out, chosen, the subject of a predestined moment. Suddenly the Tay Whale was a cause. I went looking for back-up and I found Among Whales, and in the writing of Roger Payne an ally of uncommon distinction.

An unhealthy cocktail of outrage and shame troubled that early research; the city and the river to which I belong had hosted a whale hunt and the citizens cheered the hunt to the echo. At every stage of the humiliation of the Tay Whale, they turned up in their thousands, this despite the fact that they saw what I saw in Glacier Bay, only more of it, and over six weeks. Why didn’t the whale propagate into the very core of their being? Why didn’t they become an infuriated mob, scupper the boats and tie up the whalers and howl down the hunt?

It is too easy to say that their attitude was a product of their time, that the city’s prosperity was uniquely linked to the business of killing whales, that crowds routinely turned out every time the whalers left for the Arctic and every time they returned, cheering them off and cheering them home. There are two things wrong with that excuse. The first is that until the Tay Whale turned up, no one in the crowds other than the professional whalers themselves had seen a wild whale before, yet not even the humpback’s characteristic demonstration of what a wild whale amounts to could change them. Oh, they gasped at every blow, and they clapped and cheered at every breaching, and they held their breath at every flourish of that room-sized tail, but then they cheered the coal sack on the flagpole that signified the first harpoon had struck home, and when Greasy Johnny got to work on the carcase they paid money to gawp at its wretchedness. And so, of course, in the climate of the times, did the people of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool. The second flaw in that old excuse was that this was not a business transaction, this was a lynching.

Greasy Johnny made a circus freak show of a humpback whale and once I knew that the Tay Whale was a humpback, once I had discovered it could still have been cruising the oceans of the world, singing, I decided I would try and set the record straight. Because I have heard the humpback sing.

I imagine it’s too late to apologise. American writer Barry Lopez tells in his short essay ‘Apologia’ of a man who challenged him for lifting road kills from the tarmac and giving them a softer last resting place in roadside grasses and woods. ‘Once a man asked, Why do you bother? You never know, I said. The ones you give some semblance of burial, to whom you offer an apology, may have been like seers in a parallel culture. It is an act of respect, a technique of awareness.’

I like the notion, even if I am unpersuaded about the possibilities of a parallel culture. It may be, however, that if I had known all that I know now when I was in the company of the Glacier Bay humpbacks, when the four-inch eyeball glided past the hull of the boat directly below where I leaned out, and if I hadn’t been in a boat that gasped aloud at every whale’s every gesture, and if I hadn’t been trying to make a radio programme at the time, and if . . . and if . . . and if . . . and if I had met that whale alone on a tranquil and empty sea, I would have tried to send him what I could. Perhaps I could have sung him something. Perhaps some wandering humpback will swim this way again, singing, and I will greet him from an empty shoreline stance, waving, and make my peace.

But what would I send him? After all, my home city is still rather proud of the Tay Whale, and even with the international pro-whale sensibility that prevails through much of the twenty-first-century world, the McGonagall connection still confers on its story something of the air of a merry jape. And anyway, my city is still inclined to ask as much of the world as cares to listen, who else has got a humpback whale skeleton in its cupboard and did you know it takes six men just to lift the skull? Dundee is no less proud of its whaling heritage, and that coupling of words provokes no embarrassment among those who brandish it as a badge of our achievements. I have a fundamental difficulty with the notion of whaling as heritage and I wince at the sight of the two words on the same page, never mind cheek-by-jowl in the same line of the same sentence. It was – it still is (and as I write this the Australians are haranguing the Japanese for their proposal to kill 1,000 humpbacks ‘for scientific purposes’) – the least forgivable of slaughters, sustained over centuries, achieving species extinctions and dooming other whale tribes to unsustainable population levels. And yes, I know that every nation that ever went whaling has its Dundee, and that most, like Dundee, have turned their backs on all that, and if a whale swam into the Tay today it would be marvelled at, admired and ushered back to the safety of the sea with heartfelt warmth. My birthplace has reinvented itself more than once, and has become a twenty-first-century city that operates at the cutting edge of medical science, notably in ground-breaking cancer research; that punches far above its weight in every endeavour of the arts. Yet it remains a place that cannot resist looking over its shoulder with a kind of nostalgic smirk to those days when its name was on the lips of the world. And when it was all over, the men and the ships and the shipbuilders effortlessly converted their unique accumulation of knowledge into the new and insatiable thirst for polar exploration, and Dundee became a worldwide by-word in that endeavour too.

Yet even if you allow all that, even if you are prepared to write it off as a product of its time (which is, I acknowledge, a mighty ‘if’), or if not that at least allow that Dundee was no more culpable than anywhere else that sent ships to the whaling grounds, none of that excuses the killing of the Tay Whale. Nothing does.

I had a strange notion in Dundee one day. I was walking along the shore at Broughty Ferry, just because I love the place and it has been central to my life forever, and I thought it would assist the cause of this book if I went to see the skeleton again, armed with all the knowledge I had acquired in the 50 years that had elapsed since I last saw it. And if I went in a suitable frame of mind (although I was uncertain at that moment what ‘suitable’ might mean), perhaps something insightful would rub off in its presence. You never know. Perhaps it is still a seer in a parallel culture . . .

It didn’t happen, because the museum was closed for major refurbishment and when I inquired about the possibility, I was told the skeleton was being stored in several pieces in several different local authority premises around the city. Did I know it took six men to lift the skull? Uh-huh.

So I’m left with the slim possibility that another humpback will stray into my home waters, to rub shoulders with the estuary’s recently established population of dolphins and the recently reintroduced population of white-tailed eagles, and the biggest winter assembly of eider ducks in Europe; and where the Bell Rock Lighthouse still glitters like the lowest star in the huge night sky. It will surely know it has nothing to fear. After all, when the Thames whale died after days of round-the-clock rescue efforts, people in the crowds wept. The Forth killers ate their fill over a couple of weeks and disappeared, and those who had seen them kill seal cubs, of all endearingly photogenic creatures, responded, not swearing vengeance and brandishing words like ‘savages’, but with a collective ‘that’s-nature’ shrug. Whales had come calling, and that was what mattered. They had felt chosen, the subject of a predestined moment.

And of course, the wandering humpback, being a world traveller, could easily have encountered – or received intelligence about – the humpback mother and calf that swam 75 miles upriver from San Francisco to Sacramento in May 2007. There they turned round, and started to make their way back to San Francisco, urged on every mile of the way by thousands and thousands of well-wishers. They made it all the way back to San Francisco Bay, too, but almost within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge they stopped, and California held its breath. The San Francisco Chronicle splashed the story on Wednesday, 30 May:

The two humpback whales that captured worldwide attention for their two-week sojourn in the Sacremento–San Joaquin River Delta returned to San Francisco Bay on Tuesday and came within only a few miles of the Golden Gate and their Pacific Ocean home.

By nightfall Tuesday, the mother and calf faced a swim of less than eight miles to the narrow channel under the Golden Gate Bridge – but they weren’t leaving the bay just yet. Instead, the pair spent the early evening parading close to the Tiburon shore, delighting onlookers outfitted with binoculars. Then they appeared to settle for the night just off Larkspur.

It capped a day of significant progress for the whales, who had been exploring the delta since May 13. On Sunday they crossed under what seemed to be a major obstacle – the Rio Vista Bridge – and dawdled around the Benicia area until Tuesday morning. But around 10 a.m. they had darted under the Benicia and Carquinez bridges. They crossed under the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and entered San Francisco Bay around 5 p.m. having travelled 30 miles.

Each time they sprinted several miles towards the ocean, they would periodically slow and frolic in the deep, salty water . . .

Exhausted scientists and government staffers grew increasingly excited Tuesday as they watched the whales head unaided toward the ocean. Several attempts last week to drive them from the delta with dissonant sounds and fire hoses were generally unsuccessful . . .

If the whales succeed in joining California–Mexico stock now feeding off the Farallon Islands, it’s unclear if researchers will be able to chart the animals’ progress. A telemetry tag that researchers had hoped to stick in the mother whale malfunctioned, thwarting attempts to track the whales by satellite. Efforts were under way Tuesday to obtain a replacement tag.

Large ships and ferries traversing San Francisco and San Pablo Bays seemed to take extra care to avoid the whales on Tuesday, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. John Copley. The whales, which suffered large gashes after hitting a boat keel or propeller, were protected by the flotilla that enforced a 500-yard safety zone around the animals. The boats were to be called off overnight to protect both the crews and the whales.

If the humpbacks stay in San Francisco Bay, ferries could be re-routed today to avoid them. In such cases, ferry commuters could suffer delays, Copley said . . .

Rod McInnis, the regional director of the fisheries department for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said no cost estimates have been tallied on the rescue effort. But he rejected arguments that the whales were not worth the time and money spent so far.

‘These aren’t just any marine mammal – this is an endangered species,’ McInnis said, noting that only around 1,200 humpbacks belonged to the California–Mexico population. ‘This is a proven breeder and her young calf. They are worth saving.’

The cutting had been sent to me by an American friend, the New Hampshire-based painter Sherry Palmer. It had a hand written note on it: ‘They are back at sea now!’, accompanied by a drawing of a smiling face.

So a humpback whale turns up, and on a shore of the Tay estuary, I raised an arm in greeting.

Welcome whale.

What water is this?

The Tay estuary.

That means nothing. What ocean?

No ocean. The ocean lies back the way you have come, north then west, then the Atlantic.

This is a sad place.

Why? I am not sad. It is a beautiful place.

You are not whale. It is a sad place for whales. The waters tell me whales died here.

Many dead whales were brought here in ships. One whale died here.

Brought in ships by the killer men?


What about the one that died here?

He turned up alone, stayed to feed for six weeks. The killer men were at home for the winter. They belonged here. They went out in small boats for him and he died slowly.

Do you belong here too?


Yet you are a friend of whales?

Yes. We are all friends of whales now. We have changed. You have nothing to fear here. The whale that died is a bitter inheritance for me.

I can feel him. He is still here.

His bones are here.

His bones are still here? I can feel him. He is still here.

Yes. I regret the death. I regret that the bones are still here.

You must not keep him. Where the bones are is not a whale place.

No, it is not a whale place. It has walls and a roof.

The whale must not live within walls or under a roof.

He does not live. He was killed 125 years ago.

The whale must not live within walls or under a roof.

Do you think he still lives on through the bones?

You say you have changed in the last 125 years but you do not know that the whale lives on in the bones. The whale must not live within walls or under a roof.

Where then?

Where he belongs, as you live where you belong.

Where does the whale belong?

He belongs where he last swam, where the lowest star in the sky beckons.

Do you want the bones returned to the sea?

It is not the bones you must return, it is the whale.

Will that appease . . .?

Yes! That will dispel the sadness of whales in this water where you belong. It will also be better for you with the sadness gone.

Yes, I would like your sadness to be gone from these waters.

Then will you see to it? Will you see to it that the whale is returned to the place where he belongs?

I will do what I can, yes.

See to it. Tell me you will see to it.

Yes. I will see to it.

Now, tell me about the whales that were brought back dead in the ships. What did the killer men do with them?

We made a fabric – like a skin – called jute. Whale oil made it work for us.

What did you use it for?

To make the sails of ships so that we could travel the oceans of the world, to make the ropes and rigging for ships, to cover the wagons of travellers who crossed all that land between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Whales helped us to be world travellers.

Whales understand world travellers. It was overdone, the whale killing, but whales understand world travellers. Whales travel the world and also kill as they travel. But it was overdone, the whale killing.


Put my Brother Whale back where he belongs, then you will have made your peace.

The whale lifted one long flipper and held it aloft, waving gently. It was the last I saw of him as he went under. I stayed out there on the edge of the ebb-tide watching the sea through the late afternoon into the dusk, until the first light glittered suddenly from the lowest star in the whale’s sky.

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