Whale Hunt in Thurso

Taken from the Northern Ensign, 27 June 1899.

In many parts of Caithness it was at one time a common thing, when any dispute arose as to the date of an event, to say that it happened in the year of the “muckle win”, or so many years before or after that event. That must, indeed, by the way have been a “muckle win” if one story told about it be true. A bower man was “winowing” corn, standing, as the old practice was, between two opposite open doorways, when the sieve was swept out of his hands, and never “lichtit” till it fell in the German Ocean, where it was subsequently found floating on the surface water. Henceforth, however, when any similar dispute arises in Thurso, in many ways (says out correspondent) be settled by saying that it occurred in the same year that the shoal of one hundred odd whales was stranded on the sands which, for the benefit of future generations, it may as well be here to state that it was on Monday, the 19th of June, 1899. According to common reports, shoals or schools of bottlenoses had been “knocking about” off our shores for a week or so previously, and about mid-day, on the 19th curt., one of them got quite close inshore. At first no one could hardly say whether their visit was anything more than an act of courtesy, but as soon as it became clear the shoal meant to stay, a number of small boats put out from the river harbour in order that their advent on our shores might be turned to profitable account. The occupants of the boats were armed with guns, sword-bayonets, knives, and any other weapon that could be got hold of. For several hours the whales continued swimming about, but never made any attempt to go to the open sea, and were, as the opportunity arose, knocked on the head one by one, or as many of them could be got at. This went on for hours, until the even, when favoured by the tide, they were driven on to the sands near the harbour. The greater number survived their arrival there for some hours, but gradually they were disposed of – their number when ultimately counted having been found to total up to 104. All next day and the day following they lay on the sands, and were visited by hundreds of people, as their capture had been visited by almost every man, woman, boy and girl – at least while the scene in the bay was taking place, a part of the Victoria Walk, the Esplanade, and many other places being crowded by people watching the (for this quarter) the novel sight of what is generally described as a “whale hunt”. On Thursday, Provost Mitchell of Montrose arrived here, and purchased the bottlenoses, and since then a large number of men, at 6d an hour have been engaged in taking the blubber off them, and otherwise preparing them for their future destiny, whatever that may be.

It is not, of course, bottlenoses as the article states but pilot whales. This would have been an understandable mistake as very few people would have seen a cetacean up close, and certainly not in these numbers. Their understanding of cetology would have been based around Chapter XXIII of Moby Dick.

Note also the well-dressed little boy, perched on the corpse of a whale. The idea of a child being allowed now so close to such a germ factory is unimaginable.

The scene on Thurso Beach still is immediately recognizable, although it is arresting to think of teams of men up to their elbows in whale guts working as the water ran red with their blood. I wonder if there still are trophies from this muckle win still in Thurso.


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