The Tale of a Whale

The Famous Tay Whale is one of William’s most anthologised poems. It tells the story of a whale that swam into the Tay estuary in 1883, and the fate that befell him.

The arrival of such a huge beast on their doorstep caused quite a stir in Dundee, as did the many fruitless attempts to catch it – somewhat embarrassing as the city had one of the biggest whaling fleets in the country! Here you can follow the whale’s story day by day, through the accounts of his doings in the Dundee Courier:

Appearance of a Whale in the River.— Considerable excitement was caused in Broughty Ferry yesterday forenoon by the appearance in the river of a large whale of the species commonly known as “finner” or herring whale. Attention was drawn to it by hearing the loud noise made by its blowings when coming to the surface for air. It was seen to proceed up the river beyond the Newcome Buoy, and was supposed to have come in search of food in the shape of herrings, large shoals of which are at present to be found in the river. Several hours after it was seen floating down on the surface of the water like a huge boat bottom up, and supposed to be either sick or asleep. Close to the Castle it dived and was soon lost sight of. Being sabbath none of the fishermen ventured to give it chase.

Dundee Courier, 12th Nov 1883

Whale Hunting in the Tay.— For several days a whale, or, as it is termed, a “finner,” has been swimming about in the river. No attempt was made to capture it until yesterday, when a boat’s crew of seamen belonging to the whaling fleet left the Harbour in one of the steamer’s launches for the purpose of endeavouiing to secure it. After cruising about for some time, the whale was descried enjoying itself on the Fife side of the river near the Mars. The boat was soon within firing distance, and a shot was tired, but the whale was too quick for the harpooner, its it immediately plunged beneath the water, and was soon lost sight of. The launch returned shortly afterwards to the Harbour without the expected prize.

Dundee Courier, 16th Nov 1883

Whale Hunting in the Tay.— Yesterday efforts were again renewed to capture the large whale which has for the last few days been seen in the Tay. One boat and three steam launches, manned by seamen belonging to the whaling fleet, were out during the day cruising about the river near the Mars, where the whale was last seen, but no trace of it could be found. lt is supposed that the whale has left the river. It is reported that one ol the steam launches employed at the Tay Bridge, whilst steaming about, ran foul of the whale, and that the launch, which had a large number of workmen on board, was nearly capsized. The whole boat which was out yesterday belongs to Messrs A. Stephen & Son, and was exhibited at the Fisheries Exhibition, and awarded a prize.

Dundee Courier, 17th Nov 1883

Return of the Whale to the Tay.- The whale which during last week kept swimming about in the Tay, and had apparently left the river on Fiiday evening, has returned to the river, having been seen by several fishermen.

Dundee Courier, 21st Nov 1883

Return of the Whale.— What is supposed to be the same whale as made its appearance in the Tay a short time ago has again returned. It was seen several times on Saturday and again yesterday, and its movements were watched with much interest. lt is evidently getting used to the river, as it was seen yesterday morning disporting itself amongst the large boats lying off the pier. On Saturday morning the fishermen shot their nets close to it, between the Castle and the mouth of the river, and were fortunate in securing good takes of herring. A baby whale of the bottlenose species was caught in the Forth nearly opposite Buckhaven on Friday. It was taken to Kirkcaldy, and is in the possession of Mr Kay, fish dealer. The baby measures about nine feet in length.

Dundee Courier, 3rd Dec 1883

The Return Visit of the Whale.— This monster of the mighty deep seems to have taken a fancy for the River Tay, as yesterday morning he was again seen swimming about between the Tay Ferries Newport Pier and the Mars. He went down the river in the forenoon, and afterwards was observed enjoying himself below the Ferry. Several boats manned by seamen belonging to the fleet, under the command ef expert harpooners, left the Harbour for the purpose of capturing his lordship, but they returned in the afternoon unsuccessful.

Dundee Courier, 4th Dec 1883

On the Trail of the Whale.— Yesterday a number of boats were out trying to catch the whale, which during the day kept swimming about between Tayport and Broughty Ferry. One of the boats was close on the whale, and the harpooner fired his gun, but the whale gave a grin and disappeared below the water. The boats returned once more unsuccessful. Last night the whale was seen in the river off Kingoodie Quarry.

Dundee Courier, 7th Dec 1883

The Whale.— The whale was seen far down the river on Saturday, but has not been seen since. On Saturday afternoon one of the boats which were out looking for it got hold of a porpoise, which was conveyed triumphantly to Dundee.

Dundee Courier, 10th Dec 1883

Whale Hunting in the Tay.— This monster still continues to keep several members of our whaling fleet on the alert, and yesterday the whale disported himself in the river between the Ferries. Two steam launches and two sailing boats were out yesterday on the hunt, and one of the boats was pretty close to the whale and the harpoon was fired, but luck favoured the fish once more. The whale afterwards proceeded down the river, and the boats returned to the harbour.

Dundee Courier, 12th Dec 1883

The Whale Hunt.— Yesterday forenoon Captain Methven, Tay Ferries, received a telegram from Perth from a passenger per 11.10 a.m. train from Dundee to Perth, stating that “The whale grounded near Invergowrie ; could be easily secured. ” Captain Methven communicated with Captain Yule, the Harbourmaster, and the consequence was that a number of steam launches aud sailing boats proceeded up the river to secure the whale. But on reaching Invergowrie no whale was to be seen, and the boats returned again to the Harbour, once more unsuccessful. Apparently tbe passenger had mistaken a large black rock which lies in Invergowrie Bay for the whale, or the big fish had stranded on the bank, and floated off again with the rising tide, succeeding in eluding its would be captors.

Dundee Courier, 18th Dec 1883

Christmas Greeting from the Whale.— Yesterday morning the whale reappeared in the river below the Horsehoe Buoy. Apparently the present visit of the big fish is to salute his friends the whalers with a Christmas greeting.

Dundee Courier, 25th Dec 1883

The Whale Interviewed by his Mother on his Exploits in the River Tay.

Oh! where have you been, my son, my son?
We have not met since the morn was young.
“I left the North, good mother, to see
The whaling fleet in bonnie Dundee.”

Oh! why went you tbere, my son, my son,
Within the range of their banging gun?
“Fear not, mother, ’twas only a lark,
I reckoned they would shoot wide of the mark.”

Ah! Finny, my boy, is it not vile,
They do so thirst for our precious ile?
“Yes, mother, for our good blubber they pine,
But I took care they didn’t get mine.”

Pray, tell me, did they not chase you, dear,
With harpoons, lances, and such like gear?
“What if they followed me, don’t despond,
Chasing’s not catching, mother fond.

They follow’d me up, they follow’d me down,
In view of gaping folk of the town;
But I, when they thought to take sure aim,
Skedaddled, and sent them ‘swearin’ hame.'”

Go never again, my son, my son,
Rest content with the laurels you’ve won;
“Trust me, mother, they may know about bales —
I’m blowed if they know as much about whales.

A party was sent the other day
To do for ma slick in Cowrie’s Bay;
My eye! they peppered it hot on poor me,
Then found it was only a rock. He! he!”

Dundee Courier, 27th Dec 1883

O, That Whale!.— Another Miss.— Yesterday forenoon the whale returned to the Tay again, and when proceeding up the river passed the Tidal Harbour only 150 yards off. Several steam launches and sailing boats went in pursuit. One of the launches got within firing distance, and the harpooner fired, but the usual luck attended the shot, so that another miss has to be chronicled.

Dundee Courier, 28th Dec 1883

The Whale Hunt in the Tay.

Exciting Chase.

Nemo me impune lacesit,” each whaler remarked after his whaleship’s derisive dance on Sunday. Being touched in a vital part by his scornful gestures, they determined on revenge, and had the opportunity given them by the appearance of the monster yesterday morning in his old hunting ground near the Newcome Buoy. On this occasion it did not prove a happy hunting ground to him, for the doughty whalers, goaded on to revenge, took more careful aim than formerly, and the harpooner in the steam launch was at last fortunate in lodging a harpoon in the fish’s neck, which success was immediately made known by the hoisting of an empty coal bag in lieu of a “jack.”

The two rowing boats, on seeing the signal, at once roved up to the assistance of their more fortunate brother. On its being known that a harpoon had been made fast those who observed it expected to see a mighty commotion, but were vastly disappointed, as his majesty took the matter very calmly. He proceeded to swim down the river very quietly at first, but, as showing that he was wounded, blood was observed to be mingled with the spray which he threw up when he rose to blow, which he did every few minutes. The two rowing boats were not long in getting alongside the launch, and were taken in tow so as to cause a greater drag, and thus retard the speed of, the whale. The launch kept very close to the whale, as it was not necessary to pay out much line on account of the shallowness of the water.

After rounding the Castle, one of the boats — a six-oared one — pulled ahead and lodged another harpoon by way of a reminder that now they had got him, and they intended to walk into him. This second harpoon had apparently made itself severely felt, as the whale made desperate efforts to free itself, lashing furiously with its tail and darting hither and thither at a great rate. At this time the excitement was intense, great crowds lining every available part from which a good view could be obtained. It was calculated that there were about 2000 spectators along the Esplanade. By and by he settled down to a more steady pace, and went bowling along at a considerable speed. The chase was followed by a great fleet of all kinds of boats, filled with people eager to see the sport, large sums being in some instances given as hire for boats and men. Some of these reported on their return that they had followed the. chase as far as the Horse-Shoe Buoy ; that at that time the whale seemed to be getting quite lively and gaining strength. It was noticed that after spouting out a considerable quantity of blood a large piece of some black substance, possibly clotted blood, was thrown up. and that after that the spray was quite clear, and the old fellow apparently himself again.

About this time the boat commanded by Captain Gellatly of the Chieftain, ranged alongside, and though the whole body of the animal was in full view and within easy range, a harpoon aimed at it went gracefully over the side. It is stated that one tug’s assistance was declined with thanks. After that, however, another, the Iron King, proceeded to act the good Samaritan, and assist in towing up both boats and whale, when captured. Unfortunately for those who could not go in boats their view of the contest was very limited on account of a heavy haze hanging over the river.

About one o’clock this morning the steam launch returned to Dundee, the crew reporting that they had lost sight of the boats and the whale when darkness set in, and that when they started for home there was no trace to be seen of either.

From our Broughty Ferry correspondent we learn that, between nine and ten o’clock last night, the whale was still lively, with the two harpoons firmly fixed in it, and its captors holding on, with every hope of being soon able to land the monster.

Dundee Courier, 1st Jan 1884

The Whale.

The bloodthirsty, or oil-thirsty, whalers of Dundee have again been foiled— the whale has once more escaped. There are many who had and have a kindly feeling for the whale. He had become almost as great a favourite with the general public who saw him at play, or who read of him, as Jumbo had become with the children of the Great Babylon. He had given no sign that he meant to take liberties with passing craft in the river of his adoption. After having entertained the natives of these parts with his gymnastic performances for many weeks, he disappeared suddenly, probably feeling out of sorts with the brackish flavour of his new play pond, and resolving to once more taste, and have a spin through the briny deep. But no sooner had the Christmas holidays begun than he came back, to add his quota to the host of entertainments in our midst at this festive season. He is no Sabbatarian, and he settled right off, by giving a special gymnastic performance on Sunday last, a deeper problem than the question of the opening of museums on Sunday. But though this was done to the ecstatic enjoyment of the crowds who lined the shore, tho sight of so much sportive oil was too much for the ancient mariners of Dei Donum. They went out against him with murderous weapons. They transfixed him, but they did not run him in. He proved to them his mighty towing power and kept them a day and a night from their homes and their kindred. He is again free though wounded, and heavier by three harpoons and a few yards of rope — no more than the addition of a few barnacles to his carcase. The proof of his prowess as a tug would have delighted the heart of him whose first feeling on beholding Niagara was one of sadness at the water power that was running to waste, and that might have been driving so many mill wheels. It is a pity, after the experience of yesterday morning, that whales cannot be made into trained towers or tugs. “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?” It would seem not. “Will he make a covenant with thee ? Wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?” He will make no covenant with the Dundee mercenaries who yearn for his oil. He will be a servant no longer than the harpoon ropes can hold him to the tug. “Shall the companions make a banquet of him? Shall they part him among the merchants?” Let Captain Yule and his companions of the chase reply. Let the oil merchants of this money-grubbing part of the kingdom make answer. The pursuers return empty-handed — meet reward for murderous designs on the whilom entertainer of the lieges. Let us hope that the prognostications of the defeated huntsmen, to the effect that his huge body will be found one of these mornings floating dead on the surface, will be falsified. But it is too much to hope for his return to a people who, however much delighted with his gambols, cannot extend protection from those who would shed his blood for the sake of his oil.

Dundee Courier, 2nd Jan 1884

The Whale Hunt in the Tay.

Escape of the Whale.

It was with a feeling of chagrin and painful disappointment that those engaged in chasing the whale in the Tay during the whole of Monday and on till eight on Tuesday morning returned to Dundee without their coveted prize, which they for a time had fondly believed would be safely secured and brought to Dundee, there also to become an object of curiosity and wonder in the gaze of the inhabitants of Dundee. The latest reports that reached Dundee on Monday night of the doings of the whale’s pursuers led to the general belief that the whale had been so well “hooked” that the next morning would see the monster’s lifeless body at Dundee Harbour, and a scene of excitement over his arrival such is had never been witnessed at the port before. But the “best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley.” And so it proved in the present case. The boats had harpoons and lances which, in the opinion of their crews, were sufficient to put an end to the days of the whale very speedily, if only they could be got fixed in his body. But with that nonchalance and sagacity which had all along characterised his movements in escaping from his would-be captors in previous hunts in the river, the whale, even in close quarters, proved more than a match for his assailants. After they had put all their harpoons and lances into his body his struggles for freedom were so desperate that he at last got rid of them, and went off “to sea with all their killing gear on his back, leaving them in their discomfiture to return to Dundee to study a more successful method for “tackling” fish of his class.

As it may be of interest to our readers, we give particulars of the hunt from the tine that the whale was last seen on Monday at dusk by the boats that then returned to Broughty Ferry from witnessing it:- At that time the fish was in the vicinity of No. 4 Buoy, and the Iron King, with CaptainYule, the harbourmaster, Mr W. E. Thompson, and Mr Buohan Ritchie on board, had joined the boats which had three lines fast to the whale. Disliking the idea of being caught, it was making out to sea as fast as it could. To arrest his progress as much as possible two of the lines were transferred from the boats to the tug, while the remaining line was allowed to remain fast to a whale boat. Notwithstanding this change in the arrangements to secure it, the whale dragged steamer and boats at his tail, and, in the thick darkness which now prevailed, made their prospect of a speedy return to Dundee a very hopeless one indeed. To make matters worse for the pursuers, the lines made fast to the steamer were snapped by the violent movements of the whale. It was then deemed necessary for the safety of those in the boats to transfer them to the steamer for the night, and then also the line which was still fast to one of the whale boats was made fast to the tug. By this time the whale and its pursuers were between the Buoy of Tay and the Bell Rock, and, as unfortunately there were no more harpoons, lances, or rockets available, nothing could be done further to aid in completing the capture, and instead of hunting the whale its assailants were compelled passively to submit to be dragged about hither and thither at the will of the fish. It continued its course, which was a very erratic one, and in which it frequently made violent squirts during the whole night, and at one time the steamer was dragged to within a few miles of Scurdy Ness Lighthouse, Montrose. Early on Tuesday morning a stiff breeze from the east sprang up, causing a heavy sea, so that the line became subjected to violent strains. Capture now looked less promising than ever, and in the emergency an effort to accelerate the death of the whale was made by firing iron bolts and marlinspikes into its body, but they did not seem to have any appreciable effect. Still onward the whale sped, every now and then making fresh struggles to free itself, and about half-past eight o’clock, when about four miles to the north-west of the Bell Rock, it succeeded in completely breaking away from its assailants, and swam off at a rapid rate to sea. The tug and whale boats then turned about for Dundee, where they arrived about twelve o’clock. At the harbour large crowds had gathered to ascertain the result of the chase, and, as might be supposed, the disappointment felt was great when its fruitlessness became known.

It is said that the whale is of the “finner” species, which is very dangerous and difficult to kill. Its length was supposed to be about sixty feet, and it has a sharp and somewhat crocodile-shaped head. It is generally believed by those who were engaged in pursuing it that it is not likely to survive its injuries very long.

Dundee Courier, 2nd Jan 1884

The Runaway Whale.— No further intelligence has been received concerning the runaway whale. A whale was captured at Davis Straits some years ago with a harpoon fast in its body, and, according to report, it had been sticking there for nine years. There is a chance of the Tay whale paying the river a visit again.

Dundee Courier, 4th Jan 1884

The Tay Whale Found Dead.— Our Montrose correspondent, telegraphing last night, states that the whale which was harpooned in the Tay last week, and which, after swimming out to sea dragging after it a steam tug and whale boats, eventually broke away from its captors, was discovered yesterday afternoon floating a few miles off Gourdon, on the Kincardineshire coast, quite dead. It will be remembered that last Tuesday morning, after an exciting all night chase, the animal, on the snapping of the only remaining line, swam away to sea, but was apparently so exhausted that it was thought improbable that it could long survive. When it disappeared the harpoons were still in its body, and the general supposition was that its carcase would in all likelihood be picked up by fishermen on the coast in the course of a few days. This surmise has so far been borne out, the huge monster having been secured off the Kincardine coast some distance to the south of Bervie. Intelligence of the find was despatched to Montrose, and the tug was immediately sent to assist in bringing the remains to land. This operation was successfully accomplished last night, the fish being dragged ashore at the little fishing village of Gourdon, and thus somewhat ingloriously has terminated a career which has been celebrated in song and story.

Dundee Courier, 8th Jan 1884

The Whale

As in his life, the Tay whale in his death is likely to give rise to trouble. The question is sure to come up, “Who are entitled to the carcase, or to the largest portion of it?” — the men who killed the monster of the deep, the crew of the Gourdon fishing boat who first found it dead, or those of the three Gourdon boats who proceeded to tow it ashore while the outwitted man of the lucky discovering boat proceeded to Montrose to secure the services of a tug ? It is stated that one of the first crew unwisely told the story of the discovery of their “find,” thus stimulating the enterprise of some of their fellow fishermen, or raising their cupidity. It would not be wonderful should the lawyers be called in, and be as puzzled over the laws of flotsam and jetsam as the Dundee whalers were over the transfixing and slaying of the gigantic fish. It would not surprise us if it were found that not the crews of the three boats that landed it, but the whalers who encompassed its death and the discovering boat’s crew, were entitled to the lion’s share of the unhappy cetacean’s remains.

Dundee Courier, 9th Jan 1884

The Whale’s Corpus

As reported yesterday, the great whale with which the Dundee whalers, assisted by a powerful steam tug, had such an exciting struggle, and which ultimately escaped from them on New Year’s Day, was found on Monday floating quite dead by Gourdon fishermen, and was towed into Stonehaven harbour yesterday morning. It appears that the whale was first observed by the crew of a Gourdon boat, while out at their lines on Monday morning, floating in the water off Berne Brow. They returned to port, and one of their number proceeded to Montrose to secure the services of a steam tug ; but in the interval some of the others allowed the information to leak out that they had seen the whale, and three Gourdon boats were manned and proceeded in search of the monster. It had drifted to the north of the point at which it was first seen, but the crews had no difficulty in coming upon it, the carcase standing high in the water, and being visible about six miles off. The monster was quite dead, and no difficulty was experienced in getting a line attached to its tail, and about two p.m. the boats began to tow their prize, reaching away to the south with the view of making their own port. The wind was ahead, however, and as it began to blow hard towards evening the crews resolved to hold away for the north and take the first point. Catterline was reached about five a.m., but it was not considered advisable to land there, and the crews held on for Stonehaven, which was reached shortly after eight a.m., the strange spectacle drawing large crowds to the harbour. The whale was beached in the south harbour, and being greatly inflated with water it presented the appearance of a huge coble turned bottom up. As the tide left it, however, the water escaped, and it gradually assumed a more natural appearance, but during this process a disagreeable smell proceeded from it.

After the tide ebbed it was found that the whale measured 40 feet in length from the snout to the tail, and it is estimated to be 23 feet in girth at the thickest part. The fins on each side are twelve feet long and three feet broad, and from point to point of the fins across the lower part of the creature the measurement is 36 feet, while the tail measures 17 feet 4 inches from tip to tip. From the position in which it lay the mouth could not be got at very freely, but it is stated to be about 4 feet wide. It is calculated that the blubber of the whale is about 8 inches thick. As the fish lies on its back, the nature of the injuries inflicted on it by the harpoons and lances of the Dundee whalers cannot be ascertained, but one of the harpoons can be seen fixed in its right side, about 5 feet above the fin, and the other is evidently fixed higher up on the back, with about 4½ fathoms of a line an inch and a half thick attached to it. When landed the whale was taken possession of by the coast guard officers on behalf of the Government, but it was ascertained in the course of the day that as the animal had been picked up on the high seas, the Government had no claim upon it, and it has, therefore, been handed back to the fishermen who found and towed it ashore, who are to offer it for sale to-morrow. The boats that fouud the whale were the Esquimaux, James Ritchie, skipper; Esk, John Cargill ; and the Guiding star, Charles Ritchie, all of Gourdon. The whale is said to be of the “finner” species.

Dundee Courier, 9th Jan 1884

The Recovered Whale at Stonehaven.

Sale of the Monster to a Dundee Man.

Large numbers of people continued to flock to Stonehaven Harbour on Thursday from places at a distance to inspect the great whale, which had succumbed to the injuries inflicted on it during the exciting chase by the Dundee whaleis, but the capture, or rather recovery, of which was reserved for the fortunate fishermen of Gourdon A few of the visitors are stated to have been actuated with something more than curiosity, and we understand that on Tuesday evening an individual offered those taking charge of it a pretty high figure for the carcase, with the view of its being removed and publicly exhibited at the scene of its former visit at Dundee. The offer was not closed with, however, and the monster was put up at public auction on Thursday afternoon, Mr Alex. B. Murray acting as salesman. There was a large number of people present. Bidding commenced at £10, and by spasmodical leaps soon ran up to £80. The bidding then settled down between Professor Struthers, Aberdeen University, and Mr Charles Ferrier, acting for Mr John Woods, taxman of the Greenmarket, Dundee, to which latter it was, after a very keen competition, knocked down at £226. It is intended for exhibition purposes in Dundee, and a tug is expected on Friday morning to remove it to that place ; but we understand that Professor Struthers has arranged with Mr Ferrier to have the skeleton ultimately removed to the Medical School of Aberdeen University for anatomical purposes.

Dundee Courier, 11th Jan 1884

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  1. In the year 2023, on the 1st day of February at 5:29 am

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  2. In the year 2023, on the 2nd day of February at 11:08 pm

    […] Amusing Planet# The Tale of a Whale, McGonagall Online# Williams, MJ “Professor Struthers and the Tay Whale”, Scottish Medical Journal# John […]

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