No 49: Tradition 2 – Ex-Whalers of the Shetlands

For two hundred years, the people of the Shetland Isles worked whaling ships, first north then far south. TheyShetland ex-whalers spoke Norn and a swallowed dialect of English: the isles were part of Norway until 1459, nearer to Bergen than Aberdeen. Barque rigs and square sailed whalers from Hull and Whitby, Dundee, Peterhead and London stopped for water and food, and men too, 15-25 hired a trip. In the 19th century, 1000 men a year from Shetland were on the cold ocean, many then on the seabed too. Baleen fed many industries: spring, umbrella, comb and brush, corset and mattress filling. Whale oil lit city streets, made soap, paint, varnish, candles, treated jute, fashioned cooking fat. The whaling industry brought money to the Isles, helped communities survive the endless dark of winter at sixty degrees North.

The summer dim is distinctive. Long islands of the archipelago warmed by sun, scalped of trees by sheep and salty storm. In the ground, mesolithic stone barrow and cist, double-walled broch, Viking longhouse. On the cliffs, tube-nosed fulmar, stiff-winged, gliding and banking, riding the updraughts for forty-year lifetimes. At night there is no dark, just a dimming, the fog rolling down hills, silencing oyster catcher and sparrow, farmers herding midnight cattle.P1010714

Whaling turned south in the early 20th century, and Salvesens of Leith recruited Shetland whalers. They sailed the roaring forties to South Georgia, 2700 miles from Cape Town alone. They found another cold ocean, this still brim full of whales. At Shackleton’s funeral in 1922, all the pall-bearers were Shetlanders. Now they lived in years of permanent sunlight, at home in the northern summer, at Antarctica in a southern summer that averages just three to five degrees centigrade. “If you thought Shetland was bleak, by God,” said one, “South Georgia was something different.”

On the Plan, blue, fin and sperm whale dwarfed tiny men, the blubber flensed in strips, steam-powered saw slicing bone and every piece of whale crushed and slopped and refined. The accommodation was corrugated iron, steam pipes above ground, pigs wandering the streets. There was welder, carpenter, tinsmith and plumber, riveter and blacksmith, roller and mechanic. They could have built a new ship. They were self-reliant for months. They ate mutton and wild bird eggs, just as in the Shetlands. Some wintered-out, on overtime. Blizzards submerged the huts and houses, the sea frozen, ropes thick with ice. Those returning home came with fishermen’s wallets: nothing to spend for months and now every opportunity. Many bought motorbikes, racing the empty rural roads. Others did not return, thrown from barrel crow’s nest on a pitching sea, crushed between vessel and harbour wall. The whaling stations closed in 1963. Ten years later came another oil and new wealth, fossil fueled from the northern North Sea, and piped ashore to Sullom Voe.

The last survivors of British whaling have published books of memories and photographs, and celebrate a tradition of community forged through isolation and hardship. Outside the old ice house on Lerwick’s Hay Dock are Davy Cooper, Tony Jarmson, Alistair Thomason, David Polson, JP, Laurena Fraser, John Winchester, Gibbie Fraser and Norman Jamieson.

Inland was a field of translucent dandelion, white glowing globes in the western sunshine. Kelp forests bobbed in mirrored seawater, midges safe to fly, the fog furled and tirrik-terns swerved, plunged. A seal head rose from the still waters, swivelled slowly. On a far beach, a sixereen advanced, pulled by oar, six backs bent and straightened, and ocean slipped beyond a cliff.