Shetland and its Whaling Heritage

My practice, built around British Whaling and Moby Dick is rather niche. Generally I have to explain the whys and wherefore of the British whaling trade to people when I discuss my work.  It’s been very different during my month in Shetland. The most common response to my describing my work to the locals has been ‘oh yes, my grandfather went to the whaling’ followed by an anecdote or the disclosure that there is a bag of whale teeth in their attic.

Museums in Lerwick and Scalloway have excellent whaling displays. The Shetland Archive has lots of whaling related material across the various phases of Shetland whaling related activity.  There are accounts and ship lists for the Shetlandmen crewing Arctic whalers from Hull and Peterhead and other British whaling ports.  There are descriptions and photographs of the hunting of pilot whales by driving them onto beaches carried out until the early 20th century.  Newspaper reports and other information about Shetland based Norwegian whaling stations from the early 20th century bring the conflicts of interest and protests alive, and archives including oral history recordings and photos of the Antarctic whaling in the mid-20th century.  There are also some of the most patient, and helpful archivists I have ever come across.

A significant number of Shetlandmen went to the Southern Hemisphere whaling based in the Falklands or South Georgia on ships that hunted whales in Antarctic waters up until 1963.  These young men went for the money and the adventure.  A few seasons in the harsh and unforgiving but beautiful South Atlantic could generate enough money for a man to build a house or commission a new fishing boat when they returned to Shetland.  This injection of money into Shetland was an important economic driver in the 1930-60s.

Shetland South Atlantic Whaler Memorial, Lerwick

Shetland South Atlantic Whaler Memorial, Lerwick

There is an understated and quietly moving memorial in Lerwick harbour to the Southern, Antarctic Whaling.  As it says on the memorial

Erected by the Shetland ex-whalers Association in tribute to all the Shetlanders who, from 1905 to 1963, worked in the Antarctic with the whaling fleets of Chr. Salvesen & Co. Leith.

Through the 1930s depression and post war austerity, money earned at the Antarctic Whaling sustained many families and helped stem the flow of emigration from the islands till the fishing industry improved in the 1960s and the oil industry arrived in the 1970s.

“They did business in great waters and saw the wonders of the deep”

Shetland South Atlantic Whaler Memorial Plaque

Shetland South Atlantic Whaler Memorial Plaque