A whale of a tale, which sparked an infamous poem by William McGonagall, is a remarkable maritime event in Dundee’s history.
And thanks to the efforts of historian John Watson’s newspaper research, the famous story of a whale – which now resides in The McManus – can be told again.
In the winter of 1883, when all of Dundee’s whaling fleet was ironically tied in dock, a “monster” whale swam up the Tay.
It was New Year’s Eve, and enticed by a catch worth £150, boats scrambled to capture the remarkable creature.
A steam launch belonging to the Polar Star and two other whale boats succeeded in fixing harpoons to the animal but the whale swam out to sea, towing the boats after him, even when the flotilla was joined by steam tug Iron King.
The whale’s decision to “twist about in all directions” snapped lines and “the whalers were reduced to the necessity of allowing the fish to tow them about as it pleased.
“Accordingly, after dragging them two or three miles beyond the Bell Rock, he turned northward and swam as far as the Scurdy Ness Lighthouse, Montrose. Here he turned his head southward again, and by a devious course made for the Bell Rock,” said John.
When daylight broke several attempts were made to kill the animal but the one remaining line broke and the exhausted whale swam out to sea, harpoons still lodged in its body.
The boats, meanwhile, returned to harbour on New Year’s Day where a large crowd awaited and “much disappointment” was expressed.
However, on the morning of January 7, the crew of a Gourdon fishing boat, which was five miles south-east of the village, saw what they thought was the hull of a vessel bottom-up only to discover it was a dead whale.
They made for port and tried to hire a tug, but with “the secret of the monster find having “oozed out” three Gourdon boats – the Esquimax, Esk and Guiding Star – set out in hot pursuit.
John said: “Several of the men scrambled on to the whale and succeeded in getting a rope from each of the boats fastened around the tail. Still further – to make sure of their prize – a chain from one of the boats was also attached and kept slack to be ready in case of any of the ropes giving way – a wise precaution as the result proved.”
Winds prevented landing at Gourdon, and then Montrose. They toiled all night to drag the weight. “It was an awfu’ job,” said a crew member.
But, at daybreak, after 30 hours at sea, they saw the welcome sight of Dunnottar Castle and soon landed at Stonehaven Bay.
Their arrival sparked “intense curiosity among the citizens of the old town, a curiosity which increased rather than abated when it became known that it was the famous Dundee whale.”
Crowds flocked to the quay but “for some hours all that could be seen of the monster was a portion of the belly above the water. When the tide receded, he was left high and dry and ample opportunity was afforded to ascertain his dimensions,” said John.
The whale was 40ft long and his tail resembled the propeller of a large steamer. The fins were 12ft long and 4ft wide.
“His mouth, an aperture of about four feet wide, can only be seen by getting down on one’s knees and looking underneath what one might be permitted to call his chin; and several yards of what a visitor called ‘a blubbery kind o’ thing’, is said by knowing ones to be his tongue” the report added.
Having pondered the story, John believes fishermen failed to spot the whale for a week because of what’s known as the ‘nine day rule’ where an animal will reappear in water for a short time before sinking again.
The tale of the whale doesn’t end there – it was bought by entrepreneur John Woods and transported to Dundee.
According to John, however, “that is another story”.