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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 38

A Whale-Hunt—other Whales less frequently met with— Sharks.

THAN a whale-hunt no better sport could be desired. When a pack of these “monsters of the deep” is descried off the Shetland coast, the intelligence spreads like wildfire from one hamlet to another, and “Whales! whales! whales!” is the universal shout. The fisherman leaves his lines, the farmer his oxen, the women their knitting-wires and domestic duties, and even the children their playthings,—and every one rushes to the boats. The ammunition for the impending conflict is speedily procured, consisting as it does of abundance of small stones, in each boat, and a few big kitchen knives, harpoons, and lances, amongst the whole fleet. Some laird, merchant, or other man of influence, assumes the command and leads the attack. Having neared the enemy, the boats creep slowly round the whales, and make every effort to get between them and the open sea. This accomplished, they gradually close in upon the pack, and endeavour to direct its course to a shallow sandy bay. All this time the utmost silence is maintained. If, happily, the whales have entered the chosen bay, their pursuers come to close quarters. Now begins the melee. The poor animals—for whales are not fish —finding the water becoming shallow, turn round and make for the open sea. Then commences the howling, shouting, screaming, and stone-throwing of the excited crews, and the alternate diving and re-appearing, and rushing to and fro, of the equally excited whales.

Stones are most effective missiles, not only from the splash they make on the surface, but from the effect their descent through the water has on the animals. If the assailants succeed in terrifying the poor creatures, they rush on to their fate. If, however, the whales, headed by the bull, who always leads the pack, succeed in breaking through the barrier of boats, they escape to sea.

Whenever the infuriated whales are fairly stranded, the men jump from their boats, and, with whatever sharp instrument they can best command, stab them through the heart. The dying flurry now sets in. Amid the exultant shouts of the captors, the huge animals struggle fearfully, lash the water furiously with their tails, spout up columns of mingled blood and water, and even utter curious squeaks like a pig. Meantime the agitated sea becomes red with blood.

Exciting as this sport undoubtedly is, there are some painful incidents connected with it. Young whales, too small to run aground with the rest, are often seen swimming round, and occasionally sucking milk from their dying mothers.

The work of death having been accomplished, flenching, or the separation of the blubber from the flesh, is the next operation, and one at which the Shetland men display great dexterity. The dead whales having been flenched and decapitated, a public sale is called, and the blubber disposed of to the merchants. It generally realises from £10 to £15 a ton, and the heads from 8s. to 12s. each. The crang or whale flesh is generally left on the beach, to be devoured by birds of prey, or carried away by the sea, while polluting the atmosphere all round. Occasionally it is taken to the dunghill, and capital manure it makes. More rarely it has been exported and sold to manufacturers of artificial manures. Why should it not be applied to the nobler purpose of feeding human beings ? The people of Faroe eat it at this day, and so did those of Shetland in days long gone by. Why, therefore, do their descendants spam it, even in seasons of scarcity? Whale flesh when raw resembles, in appearance, very coarse bee£ On being cooked its colour becomes very dark. It is, nevertheless, exceedingly tender, digestible, and wholesome. The taste resembles beef, with a game flavour.

According to the “use and wont” of the country, the proprietor of the land adjoining the shore where whales are stranded, obtains a third of the proceeds, while two-thirds are divided amongst the captors. A single shoal has very often brought a landlord £300 or £500, and, on some rare occasions, it has been large enough to yield him £800 or £1000. The shares of the captors, likewise, vary with their own number, the number of the whales, and the value of the blubber. A man drawing a “full share” will often make by his adventure £3 or £5, while women, youths, and children, if present, receive smaller dividends.

The claims of landlords to shares of whales stranded on their property, resting as they do—not on the law of the realm—but on the use and wont of the individual county, have not unfrequently given rise to litigation. The proprietors formerly received half the proceeds, but by a compromise effected by a decision of the Court of Session in 1839, it was arranged they should, in future, receive only a third.

While the “caaing” whale is the most frequent visitor to the Shetland coast, the spotted whale is sometimes also captured there. The “flnner” is rarely seen on the coast, and still more rarely captured. One or two large whales (said to belong to the great Greenland species) have been killed in Shetland, but many years have elapsed since such an event took place. In the absence of the proper gear required for their successful capture, these huge monsters would probably not have been secured had they not accidentally become extricated in some narrow inlet, whence they were unable to escape.

The natural history of the whale is still imperfectly known.

Sharks are also rare visitors to this coast. The Sand-wick and Dunrossness fishermen, however, report that they are very numerous at a certain spot, upwards of thirty miles to the south-east of Sumburgh Head. These rapacious creatures are readily caught, near Iceland, by means of large hooks attached to portions of a small chain, and baited with pieces of pork, but no fishery for them has ever been attempted in the Shetland seas. The liver of the shark is of immense size, and yields abundance of valuable oil.

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