Whaling in Shetland

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Shetland Museum photo of an oil painting showing a whalegrind in Shetland.
Shetland Museum photo of a school of Caain' Whales in Bressay Sound.
Shetland Museum artefacts, a hand harpoon and a lance from Helgabister, Weisdale.
Shetland Museum artefact. A whalebone linn that was found on a beach at Trondra.
Hoswick 14th of September 1888.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Caaing whales at Whiteness Voe 8th of February 1903.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Whales have been hunted in Shetland for over one thousand years. Archaeological finds dating back to 700BC include tools made of whalebone.

The most common whale hunted in Shetland was the Caain' Whale, (Pilot Whale).
In many Shetland homes of the 19th century, a lance, and sometimes also a harpoon, were kept sharp, greased, and ready to be snatched when the cry of "Whaals!" signalled the sighting of a school of pilot whales close to shore.

When a school, ("grind"), of whales was spotted, the whole community was alerted. All available boats were manned and the whales encircled. Then, by making as much noise as possible, the whales were scared into the nearest voe, where they beached and subsequently were killed. (This way of hunting whales is still in use on the Faroese Islands, "Grindadrap").

The Caain' Whale could come in very large schools, several hundred animals together. The largest catch ever recorded was at Quendale Bay in August 1845, when 1540 whales were killed.
The Illustrated Times, (London), reported on the 29th August 1857 under the heading:

"- On the 14th inst. there was a public auction of forty-one whales, which had been stranded the day previous at Minn, in Burra Isle, N.B.[North Britain?]. The blubber sold at from £16 to nearly 16 guineas put tun [so spelled = per tun (barrel)?]. The heads went at from 30s. to 40s. in lots of five each, varying in size. The crangs or carcasses sold at nearly 4s. for the whole."

Even in those days, not all parts of the whale were used, the meat was very seldom used for food, only when it came to times of famine, different from the Faroe Islands and Norway where whale meat always has been eaten. The blubber was the main reason for killing the whale, it was made into oil for lighting and other things, like lubrication. The large and strong bones could also be useful, they were converted into different kinds of tools and other useful items in the household. Ribs in particular were often used in boat noosts as linns, (runners), on which the boats could be more easily slid to and from the sea. Sometimes the meat could be ploughed into the fields as fertiliser, but mostly it was left to rot on the beach.

In September 1888, a school of 340 Caain' Whales was killed at Hoswick. This catch led to a major change for the Shetland crofters with respect to the ownership of the killed whales. This was the first major catch after the "Crofters Act" of 1886, and the Act stated that the local Lairds could not evict the crofters from their crofts. The Lairds had always claimed a large part of the catch. The local laird tried to do so in this case, but with no threat of being driven away from their crofts, the men from Sandwick and Hoswick brought the claim to court, and eventually won the case. The court stated that those who killed the whales owned them. This case is known as the "Hoswick Whale Case".
This kind of whale hunting went on through the next twenty five years, but the large catches became more and more a rarity.

Venables & Venables says in their book Birds and Mammals of Shetland, (1955) that the last organised drive was at Weisdale Voe in 1903, but that is obviously wrong.

Shetland Museum's footnote on the picture from Uyeasound, dated May 1915 says : "Whale hunt at Uyeasound. Whales were spotted by Ian Sandison and boats were launched to drive them in. Men from the field guns crew helped haul them up onto beach and children got off school to help. The men flensed and the women packed blubber into barrels. Fifty-two whales were caught. Some of the blubber was taken to the gut factory at Baltasound by the Spinnoway and another boat, the remaining carcases were towed off and sunk. There had been a previous whale catch at Uyeasound around 1907. This was the last whale hunt in Shetland."
There is also a record of Caain' Whales being killed at Reawick in 1928.

Whales at West Voe, Dunrossness.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Whale caa at Sand Voe in 1899.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Whale hunt at Uyeasound, May 1915.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.


The Whaling Stations

Ronas Voe whaling stations; Zetland Whale Fishing Co. station nearest, Norrona Whale Fishing Co. station in distance. Anchored in voe is the hulk used for storing coal, ARMENIA.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Whale Catchers at Olna Whaling station.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

In 1903 a new industry came to Shetland - the whaling stations.

Two Norwegian companies established stations in Ronas Voe, Northmavine, first the "Zetland Whale Fishing Company" in April, and then the "Norrona Whale Fishing Company" in July.

The next year the Norwegian owned "Alexandra Whaling Company" established a station at Colla Firth, Northmavine, and Christian Salveson's "Olna Whaling Company" was established at Olna Firth, Delting.
The main reason for establishing in Shetland was that whaling had been banned from the areas off North Norway, and the Norwegian whaling companies needed to find new places for their shore stations. Shetland, with its location far out in North Sea, was a natural choice.
In the beginning, the Shetlanders, including the local fishermen, welcomed the new industry, because there were not many other jobs, except roadwork, in the area. However, bad herring catches in the first year of the two industries being carried out at the same time led to complaints that blood, offal and whale carcasses drifting off to sea from the stations attracted sharks, which frightened the herring away. (This was just the same complaints as the fishermen at the coast of North Norway had come with earlier, which led to the moving of the whale stations.
An official committee was set up in 1904 but was unable to find any connection. Because of the aggravation, and because of the North Atlantic being more or less fished out of whales, and also with the discovery of very rich whaling grounds around the Antarctic, none of the whaling stations in Shetland lasted for more than 25 years. Olna Whaling Company was the last one, closing in 1929.
During the First World War, all whaling was suspended by order of the Admiralty, and all the stations had to close.

The catching of the whale:

Man with a harpoon at Norrona whaling station.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Since the Norwegian Svend Foyn built the first steam powered whale catcher, Spes & Fides, and equipped her with his own invention, the whale gun with an exploding harpoon that killed the whale when it hit, in the 1860's, whale hunting had become much safer, compared to the hunting in open boats with hand held harpoons.

Each whaling station had their own steam powered whale catchers that supplied the station with whales.
When the look out in the crows nest had spotted the whale, and the boat had come into shooting range, the gunner became the most important man onboard. Once the whale was within about 100 metres of the boat, the gunner would get the gun ready for firing. If he managed to hit the whale in the right place it could be killed with one shot. An experienced gunner could judge the size of a whale by the length of time it took between blowing and dipping its fin back in the sea. This was important as there were restrictions on the size and types of whales that were to be caught.
When the harpoon hit the whale, the harpoon head exploded and killed the whale, and the three fins on the side of the harpoon would spring out and secure the harpoon inside the flesh of the whale. The "foregoer", a rope attached to the harpoon, would keep the whale in contact with the boat. The whale would then be hauled to the side of the boat, secured and towed to the whaling station. Non-floating whales like Blue Whale and Fin Whale were filled with air so they were kept afloat. At the whaling station they were attached to a bouy until they could be processed.

Look out in the "crows nest".
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Gunner at the harpoon with the foregoer neatly coiled up in the bow.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Dead whales fastened to a bouy in Olnafirth.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

In the first period, from 1903 to 1914, the whale catchers at the Shetland whale stations killed around 4900 whales. The next period, from 1920 to 1929, the catch was around 1900 whales, mostly Fin Whales and Sei Whales.

The work at the whaling station:

Whale on plan at Zetland Whale Fishing Company's station.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

At the whaling station the whale was hauled up on the plan - a large wooden platform - with heavy duty steam winches. A whale weighs several tons, so strong equipment had to be used.

The flensers worked with large long handled knifes with a bowed blade. They cut off the blubber in strips which then were fed into a cutting machine and taken by an elevator to the boiler were the oil was cooked out, then filled into barrels to be shipped out.

"Hartmann's apparatus", a rotary cooker with a revolutionary boiling technique, was first tested in Shetland. It was designed by the German engineer August Sommermemyer, and was named after the German firm of A.G. Hartmann, who manufactured it. Hartmann's apparatus succeeded in extracting oil from whale remnants that would normally have been thrown in the sea. It also greatly reduced boiling time and, in turn, far less coal and water was needed. It took up very little space compared to the existing pressure cookers, and could be placed anywhere. This piece of equipment was extremely important in the development of modern whaling, as it could be used on the new 'floating factories' in Antarctica, and not just ashore at whaling stations.
The meat was cut off, and cut to pieces by large bandsaws, and fed into another boiler were it was cooked. It was then dried in drying kilns and ground into meal. The bones were also cut up, cooked, dried and ground. Both meat and bones were used as fertiliser.
The baleen was cut out of baleen whales. This substance that the baleen whales have instead of teeth, is made of keratin, the same substance that our fingernails are made of, and was used to make many things that today are made of plastic.

Steam winch in the background is stacks of baleen
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Flensers at Olna whaling station.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Flensing the whale.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Feeding blubber into the cutting machine.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
The bandsaws at Olnafirth.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
The boilerhouse at Collafirth.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Zetland Whale Fishing Company

Zetland Whale Fishing Co. 1905.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
D/S "Frithjof"
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Zetland Whale Fishing Co. owned by the Norwegian company "Chr. Nielsen & Co", Larvik, was the first whaling station in Shetland. It started up at Ronas Voe in April 1903, with a single whale catcher, the Frithjof of Larvik, (Norway).
The station closed down in 1914, and did not open after the First World War.

Norrona Whale Fishing Company

Norrona Whale Fishing Co.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Norrona whaling station with a Sperm Whale's jaw in front.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Norrona Whale Fishing Co, owned by the Norwegian company "Nørrøna Hvalfangerselskap (Peder Bogen)", Sandefjord, was established at Ronas Voe in July 1903. They started with the whale catcher "Norrøna".
This station also closed down due to the First World War, and did not reopen.

Alexandra Whaling Company

Alexandra Whaling Co.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Workers at Alexandra Whaling Co. 1905
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Alexandra Whaling Company was established in 1904 as a Norwegian company, but in 1907 it was British registered, and the major shareholder was Christian Salveson.

They used just one whale catcher the first year, but two the following years.

After the closure during the First World War, the station opened again in 1920, but after the 1921 season, it was closed down.

Olna Whaling Company

Olna Whaling Co.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Workers at Olna Whaling Co. around 1910
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Olna whaling station was the largest and the most modern of the Shetland whaling stations, opening in 1904. In the beginning, this also was a Norwegian registered company, but in 1907 it became British. The owner was Chr. Salveson & Co.

Christian Salveson, (Salvesen before he became British), was a Norwegian who had immigrated to Leith, Scotland from Mandal in 1851, and set up business there.

The Olna station had four whale catchers most of the years, but in 1906 and 1907 they had five.
The station started up again after the First World War, and existed until 1929, when it finally closed.
This closure was the end of the whaling in Shetland.


Most of the information on this page comes from the text following the pictures on Shetland Museum Photo Archive,
and Shetland Sea Mammal Group's page: "Whales and Dolphins in Shetland Waters"

Shetland Whalers Outwith Shetland

Many Shetlanders also joined whaling vessels from outwith Shetland to hunt whales further afield, as well as manning the shore stations. Sizeable temporary communities of Shetland whalers formed in South Georgia within living memory.

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