O, 'twas in the year of ninety-four,
And of June the second day,
That our gallant ship her anchor weighed,
And from Stromness bore away, brave boys!
And from Stromness bore away!
(Traditional whaling song)
The Greenland right whale had been hunted relentlessly in the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. Its thick coat of blubber was a source of oil for lighting and lubrication; the flexible baleen in its mouth supplied everything from coach springs to umbrella ribs and corset busks.
Scapa Flow provided many crewmen for the Arctic whaling of the 18th and 19th centuries. From the latter half of the 18th century, whale ships from eastern British ports took a north-westerly course to Greenland and the Davis Straits, in pursuit of diminishing whale stocks. They called at Stromness, Longhope, Widewall and Deersound, taking on fresh provisions and skilled oarsmen for their whale-catchers.
Besides the perils of the chase, and the arduous task of stripping blubber and baleen from the whale's carcass, sea-ice posed a constant threat. In 1836 and 1837, a makeshift hospital was opened in Stromness to care for whalers suffering from frostbite and scurvy, having been locked all winter in the ice. Such disasters combined with over-fishing and, finally, the discovery and exploitation of mineral oil, to kill off the industry.
A much-reduced fleet, including the Truelove of Hull, turned to sealing to augment the catch. The last whaling crew from Stromness was embarked on the Intrepid of Dundee in 1870, but a few Dundee whalers continued to call for provisions until the early 20th Century.
© Bryce Wilson