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These curs’d rufians’and heir women’ DUNDEE WHALING AND WHALERS

Malcolm Archibald delves into the lives of Dundee’s whaling seamen, a group traditionally reviled as rough and uncouth, but who in fact emerge as hard-working (if also hard-playing) professionals, and moreover as men for whom their relationships with women were of central importance
Whalers at an Ice Floe by Albertus van Beest (1830-60)

Today, whaling is a dirty word. People turn aside from the idea of men sailing to the Arctic and Antarctic to pursue and slaughter whales. Yet for over 150 years, whaling was a respectable Scottish industry that employed thousands of men and an unknown number of women. The masters of whaling ships were among the elite mariners in their home ports, and men chose to sail to some of the most hostile seas in the world. There were many whaling ports in Scotland, including Leith, Dunbar, Montrose, Aberdeen, Peterhead and Fraserburgh, but of them all Dundee is arguably the most interesting. The Dundee Arctic whaling industry lasted longest, from 1752 until 1914; Dundee was the last major Scottish whaling port; Dundee pioneered steam whaling; and Dundee mariners were also involved in polar exploration. For these reasons, and because Dundee has a plethora of records that are easily accessible, this article will concentrate on that couthy, friendly, boisterous east-coast city.

Although time has altered perceptions so that what was once deemed necessary is now scorned, nobody can ever deny the hardihood of the ‘Greenlandmen’, the whaling seamen. The Montrose customs and excise records, held in Dundee City Archives, can conirm the danger with an entry from March 1797: ‘No accounts whatever have been had of the ship George Webster, whence it is inferred that she must have foundered at sea’.

99 British whaling ships sunk at sea or in the ice between 1815 and 1834, with around six per cent of whaling voyages resulting in the loss of the vessel. Add accidents on board or when whaling, plus the possibility of disease, and it can be seen that whaling was not a safe occupation. It was undoubtedly not a career that everyone sought. Some seamen were like John Nicol, who only sailed on a single voyage to ‘the coast of Greenland’ on the London whaling ship Leviathan before deciding that the life was not for him. Nicol sailed shortly after the end of the American war of independence, probably in 1784. ‘I did not like the whale ishing’, he wrote in his memoirs, ‘desolation reigns around.’ After one trip, Nicol ‘resolved to bid adieu to the coast of Greenland for ever’. But other seamen spent a working lifetime in the fogs and ice of the polar seas.

The seamen had to be hard, and their contemporaries reckoned British whaling seamen as amongst the toughest, with an unenviable reputation for drunknness and insubordination

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About History Scotland

Explore centuries of history and archaeology in the first History Scotland issue of 2019. Inside you’ll find history, archaeology, genealogy and heritage from some of the country’s top experts. Top reasons to read this issue: • Discover the tough reality of life as a Dundee whaler – and why the city’s female population was crucial to the success of the whaling industry • Read about Mary of Guelders – the Stewart queen who used her European connections to succeed in her royal role • See amazing images from the restoration of Monteath Mausoleum • Discover history events around the country during the winter months • Explore a new project to discover what we know – and have yet to discover – about the uses of gold in prehistoric Scotland