Writing about whalers

Hi Folks

When not writing about crime, or working as a lecturer, I write about the whaling industry. In particular I write about the Scottish whaling industry of the 19th century.

Today people castigate the whaling industry, and quite rightly. It is a brutal thing, to kill one of the noblest creatures on God’s earth – or God’s sea – but when the Scottish whaling industry was at its height, people cared little for conservation. Hunting was a sport enjoyed by all classes and whales supplied baleen and whale blubber. The baleen was used for stays and springs, chair backs and whips, bristles and brushes and a hundred other things. The blubber was boiled into oil, which was initially used for soap and then for lighting. Streets lit by whale oil lamps kept down the crime, so people could walk in more safety.

The city of Dundee, in Eastern Scotland, was the world capital of the Jute industry and whale oil was used to soften the brittle fibres so they could be turned into sacking for sandbags, tent covers and other items. The prairie schooners that crossed the American West may well have been covered with canvas made from Dundee jute, while the gold diggers in Australia and South Africa had tents made of good Dundee jute as well.

More importantly for my purposes, writing books about whaling has created a great deal of interest among people whose ancestors worked in the whaling ships. I have a spread sheet of some four thousand men who manned the ships, and the names and details of each ship that sailed from Dundee. While the ships were included in my book The Dundee Whaling

Fleet, there was no space to include more than a few hundred men. I have had a few enquiries from the descendants of whaling men; they had a hard, hard life out there!

The men had a reputation of being hard, rough and wild. They were truculent, ready to stand up for themselves and would fight at the drop of a harpoon. Whaling history is littered with mutinies, fights, strikes and tragedy: these were not men with whom it was advised to argue. They were also family men, with wives and children; a fascinating oxymoron of character.

Opinions alter; we have little time for whaling but I wonder what these wild men would have thought about the current levels of immorality and drug taking?

That is a thing to ponder



About malcolmarchibald

Happily married for 34 years to Cathy, I have three grown children and live in the depths of Moray in northern Scotland. I was educated in Edinburgh and Dundee and work as a lecturer in Inverness, while writing historical books, both fiction and fact.
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