Modern history

Chapter 11

Northward Ho!

He was sure that when people went to look at the Tay Whale they would say it was as ugly an object as ever they saw – (laughter) – and that it presented no particular feature of interest other than the hull of a wreck on the seashore.

Newspaper report of Professor Struthers’

Aberdeen Lecture, February 1884

To anyone who has actually seen a humpback whale up close, the concept of giving such a magnificent and graceful creature such a pejorative name may seem unaccountable. But these animals were named by people who looked at them as blubber – and for whom the grace, power, and awesome beauty of the whale seem to have gone unnoticed.

Roger Payne

Among Whales

In the month of January, 1884, the Tay Whale had towed a small flotilla of boats, swum free with three harpoons in its body, died a lingering death, floated to the surface of the North Sea, been taken in tow by 3 fishing boats, been taken in tow by a steam tug, been hauled vertically from the sea by a 70-ton crane (a feat it used to achieve in life with a flick of its own tail), broken 4 wagons, been towed by 30 horses on an industrial bogie designed to transport boilers, been dissected, disembowelled and embalmed, had much of its skeleton replaced by wood and its flesh by straw (and in the process its weight was reduced by 11 tons), and had finally been stitched up and manhandled onto a cradle which was towed by 20 more horses from the Woods oil yard in East Dock Street, Dundee to Tay Bridge Station, a distance of about half a mile. It was now planned that on the last day of that month, and quite without any acknowledgment of irony, it should become a passenger on a train. The Tay Whale was about to go on tour.

It would be, thought Greasy Johnny, the whale’s finest hour, and the mightiest of his achievements on its behalf. It was about to travel more than 60 miles over land, to Aberdeen. Surely no whale had ever made such a journey anywhere in the world. Surely no whale had been the cause of such a logistical nightmare as the one that now ensnared Greasy Johnny and his army of staff and other conscripts. This would be an unprecedented take on the old whaler’s cry, ‘Northward Ho!’, even if it did involve travelling no further northward than Aberdeen.

And on the way, it would pass through Broughty Ferry, where the crowds had gathered around the castle a few weeks before to whoop their delight each time the whale breached, and gasped each time it blew or flourished its tail; it would pass through Arbroath where the Bell Rock Lighthouse is clearly seen a dozen miles out to sea and which the whale saw as the lowest star in the sky during its brief sojourn in the Tay estuary; it would pass through Gourdon, where the fishermen were doubtless still celebrating with the fruits of their piracy and exaggerating every detail to the very edge of credibility, the way fishermen do; it would pass through Stonehaven where they dumped the whale on its back on the shore and Greasy Johnny’s representative haggled for the right to own it, and finally it would be put on show in Aberdeen where the professor who so nearly became its owner thought people would think it as ugly an object as they ever saw.

It is certainly true that a great ugliness was inflicted upon it, but it is a profoundly disappointing response from a university professor. It was as if he had not noticed that Charles Darwin had recently stood the known world on its head with his writings. In fact, the proximity of Darwin’s work to the events that befell the Tay Whale cropped up in one press report, albeit in the curiously convoluted language of the day:

These notes may, it is hoped, serve in some measure to show the good folks of Dundee and the neighbourhood that they have at present an opportunity not merely of seeing a whale which is a somewhat rare one on our coasts, but of seeing a creature which is, at all times, and of whatever variety, well worth contemplating as full of instruction. The day is not long past when rudimentary structures such as those alluded to above were regarded unintelligently as mere curiosities or freaks of nature. But since the late Mr Darwin put forward his hypothesis, such structures have been looked on as having received their explanation and as furnishing strong evidence in support of the views of that illustrious observer and thinker.

You imagine the writer was thinking as he ended that less-than-crystal-clear summary of Darwin’s ‘hypothesis’ of adding, ‘. . . whatever they may be’ to the end of that last sentence.

It is not at all clear that Greasy Johnny had advanced far beyond the ‘freaks of nature’ school of thought as he and his men laboured through those last days of January to heave the whale back onto its belly (in which position its operation scar and the mutilation by seabirds were happily invisible), and manoeuvred it onto a wooden cradle in preparation for the short journey to the station. Yet it is hard not to admire his inventive industry and his ability to make things happen at speed. Less than three weeks after he had bought the whale it had been seen by 50,000 people, the extraordinary surgical operation had taken place in circus-like surroundings, and he had designed and commissioned the building of a cradle. There was no handbook to consult. The technique for arranging the transport of a dead whale by rail was a blank page, but whatever the colossal shortcomings of the Victorian era in its attitude to wildlife and wild places, there was a can-do attitude of an almost religious fervour abroad in the air and Greasy Johnny was its arch-disciple. Fifty years later, he might have been Walt Disney.

The cradle and its tarpaulin-wrapped cargo occupied the greater part of three large railway wagons, and when the train steamed off into the January night, the whale had a travelling companion too. Of all the zany ideas Greasy Johnny had embraced these last three heady weeks, the wackiest was his decision to bring in a side-show while the professor pulled the whale apart and stuck it back together again. The side show was a ‘talking seal’ that had been caught by a Broughty Ferry fisherman who had mysteriously decided to keep it alive (the whaling ships’ other accomplishment was to kill seals by the million back then), tamed it and taught it tricks, one of which was to make noises that approximated to human words. This hapless wretch was now parcelled up and persuaded to perform on cue when and wherever the whale was unsheathed. So off they steamed into the night, the dead whale and the half-alive seal, and a vast crew of human attendants. Greasy Johnny had finally gone nuts.

‘Dundee’s latest wonder, that sportive scion of the cetacean family whose frolics in the Tay were summarily brought to a close on New Year’s Day, is now to go on tour,’ burbled the Advertiser’s man, ‘having ministered to the curiosity of the public of Juteopolis and neighbourhood for the last few weeks, and to the Aberdonians is to be accorded the privilege of being the first to inspect his whaleship in travelling attire. The ‘monster’, as the animal has been not inappropriately designated since it began its career on terra firma, arrived in Aberdeen last night with the North British goods train, and today, as well as on every other day this week, it will be on exhibition in a marquee at the Recreation Grounds, Inches.’

Do you think anyone at all wrote like that before Walter Scott smothered the Victorians in his word-deluges?

The train reached Aberdeen about 10 p.m. Crowds had gathered at almost every bridge and vantage point along the route, but all they had seen was a slow-moving shapelessness under a tarpaulin that wasn’t quite big enough, all of it smothered in the winter darkness of the coast. However, they could all say they had seen the Tay Whale, and it seems that that was all that mattered, whether it was vigorously alive in the open sea or a corpse on a railway wagon, press-ganged into a starring role as a vaudeville clown. Despite the lateness of the hour, work began at once to effect the transition from freight to showpiece. Once more, and inevitably, the operation was conducted under the gaze of a huge, incredulous crowd, even though all that was visible of the whale itself was a corner of its tail that the tarpaulin didn’t quite cover. Yet such was the pulling power and fame of the animal that even under a tarpaulin in the dark and on the last night of January on what is routinely the coldest coast in Scotland, they came to stand and stare and try to believe the evidence of their eyes. The operation took 12 hours. The whale, still in its cradle, was jacked up and suspended in mid air (not for the first time in its life after death) so that the railway wagons could be removed. Two road-going wagons were backed into place beneath it, and because the whale had shed 11 tons since the surgical operation (not to mention the loss of its tongue), the wagons survived intact when the whale was lowered again, though the Dundee squad supervising the operation must have had a worrying ‘Victoria Dock moment’ as the wagons took the strain.

The streets of Aberdeen groaned under the passage of heavy machinery as the whale formed the centrepiece of yet another bizarre convoy behind 30 more horses and another industrial bogie from the Hall-Russell ship yard, a wagon full of logs, rollers and other traditional whale-moving equipment. The journey from the station to the recreation ground took two more hours, then a new variation of the unloading process deposited the whale on a raised platform in front of one more grandstand inside a marquee. The harpoons that killed it – eventually – were also on show (you would expect nothing less in an extravaganza so utterly devoid of taste), as was the seal ‘which has been trained to go through a performance of a novel and somewhat interesting character’, which endorsement carries more than a hint of damnation by faint praise. Twenty thousand Aberdonians coughed up for the privilege of seeing this shabbiness in just five days.

As I was piecing together the events that defined the fate of the Tay Whale, I found myself thinking time after time that surely my home city couldn’t find yet another insult to throw at it. But now I believe that that journey, with its unwieldy logistics, its colossal labour, the ego of the ringmaster, the vaguely unsavoury aspect of one city showing off its dead whale to its near rival, and the grim parody of the whale that was bathed in its lurid Victorian spotlight . . . all that amounted to the worst taunt of all. The whale itself, alive and in good health and well fed on the bounties of that season, could have accomplished the journey by the simple exercise of its tail muscle, and put on such a show for the gatherings of the coast folk on every headland and harbour wall between Dundee and Aberdeen that everyone who saw it would have gasped with a kind of primitive wonder. The whale could have accomplished the journey in a few hours, and having strutted its stuff in the mouth of the Dee for the benefit of the city of Aberdeen, it could have turned again, north for the Atlantic Ocean off Norway, then west, singing and receiving the songs of its kin.

So I started again, with the whale alive and well and unharpooned in the Tay estuary off Newport on the Fife shore, and I rolled a film of a different journey in my head.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!