Modern history

Chapter 5


And they laughed and grinned just like wild baboons,

While they fired at him their sharp harpoons:

But when struck with the harpoons he dived below,

Which filled his pursuers’ hearts with woe:

Because they guessed they had lost a prize,

Which caused the tears to well up in their eyes;

And in that their anticipation was only right,

Because he sped on to Stonehaven with all his might . . .

William McGonagall

‘The Famous Tay Whale’

A Word for the Whale

Is there no one to put in a word for the poor whale? I don’t think I can be called squeamish, yet your account of the whale hunt in the Tay has given me ‘a bit of a turn’. I look upon the treatment that whale has received as an outrage on nature and humanity, and I would to Heaven that the Christian Nimrods who had all the glory of it had got three days and three nights in the whale’s belly for their pains! What harm was the beast doing? Harm! What greater New Year’s treat to thousands of idlers, old and young, than to see the noble creature leaping and spouting in the Tay! And to have swam the ocean stream all the way from the frigid zone to be gashed and gored with lances to make sport for the Philistines of Dundee! And then that long, desperate, agonising struggle to shake itself free from its murderers . . . The necessities of trade cannot be pleaded in extenuation; either greed or cruel instinct is to blame; and I am much mistaken if it be not widely felt to have been a wanton outrage on the innocence and majesty of nature . . .

A. Stephenson, Edinburgh

Letter to the Scotsman newspaper, January 1884

Captain Charles Yule commanded international respect as well as ships. Wherever men and whales coincided in the northern oceans of the world, whenever whalers met and discussed the business of wresting whales from Arctic waters, the names of a handful of Dundee sea captains punctuated the conversation as reliably and vividly as the Bell Rock light lit the night sky. Captain Yule belonged to that seagoing aristocracy. But he was an exception to the rule that they lived and died for the job, and died young at that. He had certainly gone to sea when he was very young, he captained the whalers, notably the Dundee-built Esquimaux (and eyed the prospect of taking her to the North Pole in 1873), but then he became harbourmaster to the Port of Dundee at the age of around 43, retired at the age of 80, and died in Dundee in 1936 at the age of 100. It is fair to say that when the humpback turned up in the Tay in the last few weeks of 1883, there was no one in Dundee, and few anywhere in the world, who knew more about whales and how to catch them.

He was naturally intrigued. He had first seen the whale from his office window, for it would be a poor harbourmaster’s office whose window was not full of the river and the business of ships, and this harbourmaster’s office was not poor. And he had recognised the whale for what it was without the telescope, not by its leap or its tail or by the way it blew, but just by the way it lay dead still on the water, a low-lying black hull on the slate-gray winter river that was not a craft and not a familiar fragment of the river’s landscape. He knew two things in his life with a quite consummate expertise: the landscape of the Tay estuary at every conceivable and inconceivable state of the tide and every season of the year and hour of the day or night, and what every characteristic of all the whales of the northern ocean looked like, sounded like, felt like, smelled like. And one November morning he walked over to the window the way he did perhaps fifty times a day and he saw the river, and there was a stationary whale in it where there had been none a quarter of an hour before. He looked without speaking for a few seconds then told the empty room, ‘Humpback!’, then he confirmed his diagnosis with the telescope already mounted by the window.


He had spoken the word softly as if there was someone standing by his shoulder who should be told, but rather the fact of speaking its name aloud was required for his mind to accept what his eyes were telling him. Yet why should he be surprised? He was sure that sooner or later that flowing tide of fish must summon one of the great whales lingering off Norway. Perhaps he had not expected a humpback, for they foraged so rarely down the North Sea, but there was no argument about what he saw in the circle of the glass – that old familiar colossal indifference, the tribal aloofness.

He spoke louder over his shoulder, his eye still at the telescope:

‘Ritchie! Come and see this!’

From the next room, a scrape of a chair, a heavy ledger closing, his clerk Ritchie’s slow footfall:


Even as he watched, the whale stirred, it rose on the water, then the tail . . . the wonder of it, the graceful heave of it . . . then the whole creature slid under, and in the glass were ripples and bubbles, and then there was just the slate-grey river.

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing. Sorry. My mistake.’

His clerk turned back to his desk with a grunt and a furrowed brow. Captain Yule did not make mistakes, at least not with that telescope and that river, and then he heard Ritchie’s footfall pause in the doorway and turn, then his voice:

‘No, you didn’t.’

‘Didn’t what?’

‘Make a mistake. Not with that.’

Ritchie had gestured at the telescope. The captain turned and smiled.

‘No. No, you’re right. I just saw a ghost.’

‘A ghost?’

‘A whale.’

‘A whale or a ghost?’

‘A humpback whale in the other end of the glass. I spent 25 seasons killing whales and the humpback was the one I never liked to kill, but I killed them anyway, I killed them and then I ordered others to kill them. Finally I came home, believing I had killed my last whale. Harbourmaster of the port from which I sailed to kill whales – it’s a fine distinction, wouldn’t you say? And now a humpback has turned up just outside my harbour. Why else but to haunt me? It’s what ghosts are for.’

‘I never met a ghost, Captain, but the whale is here to eat fish.’

‘But a humpback, Ritchie, here! It’s an ill omen. This town will spill the whale’s blood on the front doorstep if it gets the chance. On my watch.’

‘You’re taking this very personally, Captain. The whale might swim back out to sea when the tide turns.’

‘Yes, it might, and I hope so, but I doubt it . . . so much food, such easy pickings. They sing, you know.’

‘They sing? I thought that was just seals.’

‘No, the humpbacks also sing. At home, in the Arctic Ocean, they sing. They sing at you and yes, it’s personal.’

The two men stood beside the telescope as they talked, the hauled-out mariner and the landlubber clerk, and, as they looked out over the estuary, the whale burst the skin of the river apart, turned in the air, raised a flipper and waved it, then it crashed back into the water and vanished, and the river convulsed and shook itself then smoothed itself and layered the whale-chaos with a veneer of slate-grey calm. Ritchie, who had heard a thousand whale stories but never seen a humpback breach, turned to the captain and in his careful clerk’s voice he said:

‘Do you know, I think you’re right. It is personal. That whale just waved to you.’

He tried to make it sound light-hearted. But the normally cheerful harbourmaster wore an expression as unfathomable and distant as a Newfoundland fog.

For two weeks then, Captain Charles Yule watched with growing unease as the built city that massed greyly uphill and inland behind his office emptied every day and the natives crowded down to the shore, the masses thickening daily and growing hoarse.

‘Listen to them,’ he told Ritchie, ‘they are as unreasoning as drunks; they’re a hunting pack without hounds.’

And then, a week after the whale vanished from the river, a week of the-one-that-got-away leg-pulling and legend-polishing, Ritchie saw him at the telescope and ventured a passing remark from the door:



‘She’s gone, hasn’t she? She’s truly gone, to Norway, to the North Atlantic, perhaps, but she has gone.’

‘No, Ritchie. She has not gone.’

‘You sound sure.’

‘I know whales.’

‘Well, you’re wrong about this one. Why don’t you accept it? She’s gone. It’s been a week.’

‘No. She’s out by the Bell Rock, working the shoals as they divide round the reef. She’ll head them off for a few more days, then she’ll turn and drive them in; she remembers where she’s been, and some whales just like being in estuaries, this is one of them. If only she hadn’t chosen this estuary. She’ll be back. And when she does come back, I fear the hunting pack will have their hounds.’

‘What, they’ll launch the boats and kill her here? Surely not!’

‘They’ll try. But it’s harder than they think. They’ll run out of space, they’ll run out of room to manoeuvre – the currents and the sandbanks and the other shipping, and every clown with his own boat will be out there trying to show them up and firing God knows what into the poor damned whale. If they get anywhere near her at all, that is.’

‘The poor damned whale? You’d better not go into the Arctic Whaler talking like that. You’ll be out of a job by New Year.’

Again, Ritchie had tried to lighten the mood in the harbourmaster’s office but the mindset of Captain Charles Yule was still far-off and fogbound. It was hardly improved by subsequent events, for, as we have seen, the whale did return, the hunting pack got their hounds, the boats were launched and the confines and currents and maritime traffic of the Firth confounded their efforts. As the weeks passed and the whale eluded them all, messages of derisory greeting began to arrive from other whaling ports all over Britain. The whaling community was a tight one and news travelled fast within it. Word of the Dundee fleet’s self-inflicted wound was transmitted gleefully from one end of the east coast to the other, and the harbourmaster’s office was the destination of most of their jokes at Dundee’s expense.

By Hogmanay, the harbourmaster’s embarrassment was acute, his mood was wretched and the prospect of a holiday and seeing in the New Year with a houseful of friends and family was as distant as Cape Farewell.1 Then word reached his office that the whale had been hit, then that it had been hit again, and that they had hoisted a coal sack for want of a flag. And now, he thought, it is the whalers themselves who act like clowns. A coal sack! What on earth? . . . And then he knew from the cheers that she had been hit again. And he echoed the prayer of the harpoonist: ‘God, let her die quickly.’ And he guessed that was a doomed prayer when he heard that the whale was towing the convoy in the general direction of Holland.

Captain Yule considered the situation. It was noon. There were perhaps four hours of usable daylight left. The weather was about to get worse and if the whale made it far enough out into the open sea as it began to roughen, then the odds would swing in favour of the whale. Not that it was likely to survive, just that the chances were the lines would part, the whale would escape to die slowly, quietly, alone and God knows where, the whalers would return home empty-handed and beaten, someone else would probably benefit from the whale’s eventual death, and Dundee’s reputation on the world’s whaling stage would take a hammering. None of it made an attractive prospect.

Perhaps there was still time to retrieve the situation, a single decisive gesture that shifted the balance of power quickly, and determined the final outcome in favour of the whalers, the city and (he was not indifferent in the matter) the reputation of the harbourmaster. The whale must be slowed, it must be weakened so that the killing blows could be landed, the hand-driven lances deep into heart and lungs so that she bled to death quickly. Captain Yule ordered the harbour’s hefty steam tug Iron King into the fray and he boarded her himself. If anyone knew how to stop the whale in its tracks, he did. He would. The crowds at the docks spotted the new activity, guessed its meaning and cheered the Iron King out into the Tay, the cavalry riding decisively into the heat of battle. The deed was as good as done.

The Iron King reached the strange, whale-powered convoy at around 3 p.m. Captain Yule decided to take two of the lines on board the tug and leave the third fast to one of the whaleboats. Thus, the whale was now towing the Iron King, the steam launch, and the two remaining whaleboats, and their various crews might have been forgiven for thinking their combined might would have stopped the whale in its tracks, if not actually stopped it dead. But with the colossal drag of the Iron King added to the whale’s malevolent retinue, it simply swam on, its strength and resolve undiminished while the light faded, the weather worsened and the whalers’ spirits sank. They had not anticipated a night at sea and they had made no provision for one, nor had they anticipated that the whale would outlast them. They had no food, no drink, no lights and no spare harpoons, lances or rockets. They watched the light fade, they watched the dark shapelessness of the whale that towed them to God knows what fate, they watched the weather bear down on them and they felt the sea grow uneasy – as if even the sea itself was about to visit its disapproval on them for all that had befallen one of its own creatures. Then, at 4.30 p.m., the two lines attached to the tug snapped. The situation, entirely of the whalers’ own making, was now quite out of control. The Iron King took the last line on board and also the crews of the whaleboats to reduce the possibility of collisions in the dark. And in the dark the whale could see, and in the dark the whale pursued its course, and in the dark the open sea embraced the whale because it was finally home again, and in the dark the sea set about reclaiming its own.

The Dundee Advertiser’s voracious coverage of the Tay Whale considered that night under the headlines THE WHALE HUNT IN THE TAY and ESCAPE OF THE MONSTER:

At this time the steamer [the steam tug Iron King] was between the Bell Rock and the Buoy of Tay, and unfortunately there were no spare harpoons, lances or rockets on board the boats, so that nothing further could be done to secure the capture of the whale, which was therefore allowed to tow the tug and the boats at its own will. At times its strength seemed to be spent, but after a short breathing space it acquired renewed energy, and darted away, towing the tug and boats at a rapid speed. Throughout the night it continued its course, describing a sort of circle, and dragging the steamer from the Bell Rock to within a few miles of Scurdy Ness Lighthouse, Montrose. During the night the weather was very thick, and considerable anxiety was felt by those on board the steamer, but as the line showed no signs of giving way they were confident of the success of their labours . . .

If it seems extraordinary that such an experienced group of seafarers mounted such an ill-prepared expedition to catch such a familiar adversary, apparently discounting the possibility that they might have to spend a night out on the open sea in the middle of a Scottish winter, it also reflects the casual, half-hearted approach to the hunt. The whalers wanted their holiday. The citizens of Dundee wanted a show. Remember the chiding slight to the whalers in the newspaper reports of the self-styled ‘Eye Witness of the Chase’:

It naturally occurs to ordinary people to ask the question, Is this whale to be allowed to come up the river day after day in front of the good town of Dundee, and before the crews and captains of a dozen whalers, flaunt its tail and, figuratively speaking, put its flipper at its nose at them without a determined effort on their part to throw salt on its tail and lay it up on the beach, so that the general public may have a look at him?

The problem was identified late in the day, and by Captain Yule, who before he left port in the Iron King had arranged for a small steam vessel to take on necessary supplies and rendezvous with the convoy with as much haste as she could make. That turned out to be not very much haste at all. For although she did round up at least some supplies, it was Hogmanay, and then as now, Hogmanay is not the best day of the year in Scotland to stimulate the natives into urgency. And although the supply boat did sail eventually, she was overwhelmed by darkness, and of course she was carrying the spare lights that might have enabled her to find the convoy if the convoy had carried them in the first place. For whatever reason, she did not find the convoy, and returned to port with her cargo intact to find the city enthusiastically embracing the traditions of the New Year.

Meanwhile, somewhere between Bell Rock and Scurdy Ness, New Year came and went without fanfare, or even a raised glass – there was no glass to raise, and even if there had been, there was nothing to put in it. The optimism of early evening had ebbed inexorably as the whale swam on and on. The Advertiser narrated the denouement thus:

Early in the morning, however, a stiff easterly breeze sprang up, and a nasty sea rose, so that the strain on the line became very great. As daylight dawned, the prospects for capture were less hopeful, and with the view of accelerating death, a number of marlin-spikes and iron bolts were fired into its body, but without the desired effect. At half-past eight o’clock, when the tug was about four or five miles north-west of the Bell Rock, the line snapped within a few yards of the harpoon, and the fish, feeling itself free, swam vigorously away to the eastward. As nothing could be done to recapture it, owing to the want of gear, the tug and whaleboats returned to Dundee where they arrived about half past twelve o’clock . . .

. . . Although the fish seemed to swim away vigorously when it found itself free yesterday morning, it is the opinion of experienced whaling masters that it is not likely to survive its injuries, and that it may be picked up in a day or two. Three harpoons, having each a few fathoms of lines attached, were still in its body when it disappeared. Great crowds assembled at Dundee Harbour yesterday forenoon to learn the result of the chase, and much disappointment was felt when the news of failure became known. The whale is reported by those who had good opportunities of seeing it to be from 60–70 feet long . . .

(It is always the same with one-that-got-away stories – whatever the size of the one that got away, it is never quite big enough for those who let it slip from their grasp. The Tay Whale would prove to be 40 feet long.)

A single paragraph follow-up from the same newspaper later in the week added an astounding little postscript:

No trace of the wounded whale has yet been found. The opinion of those who were on board the steam tug Iron King is that it will be found dead in a day or two by the Broughty Ferry fishermen either when going to or returning from the fishing grounds. As yet, however, the fishermen have not been at sea. It is computed that the whale must have towed the steamer between 40 and 50 miles, and this is allowing a very small margin for the devious courses which it pursued. In addition, it pulled for six or seven miles the three heavy boats before those on board the steamer took the fish in hand. The Iron King is a heavy iron boat of considerable power, and it is calculated that the whale, from the time it was harpooned till it escaped – a period of 22 hours – swam over 50 miles, pulling a dead weight of between 20 and 30 tons nearly all the way.

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