Islanders insight into Britain’s whaling industry

Jock Murray recalls his days as a whaler in the new two-part programme
Jock Murray recalls his days as a whaler in the new two-part programme

The ‘Untold Story’ of Britain’s Whaling industry is revealed in a new BBC programme – and features tales from some of the Western Isles whalers.

The two-part documentary ‘Britain’s Whale Hunters: The Untold Story’ begins on tomorrow, Monday, June 9th, at 9pm on BBC 4 and sees writer, and Shiants owner, Adam Nicolson discover the remarkable tale of Britain as a major whaling nation right up to the 1960s.

During the two episodes – the first entitled ‘The Rise’, the second ‘The Fall’ – Adam explores the ruins of whaling stations on the remote British island of South Georgia, reveals dramatic footage of the industry in its hey-day, and talks with some of the last British whalers – including Roddy Morrison and Jock Murray from the Isle of Lewis.

Jock’s whaling days began in 1960, as the industry was drawing to a close: “I did the last season that South Georgia fished, I did the last winter that whalers overwintered in Leith Harbour and I did the last season on the floating factory ship Souther Venturer,” he explained.

It was after three years in the Merchant Navy that Jock followed ‘the local boys’ into whaling, as he continued: “There were 20 whalers from the village of Gress alone and there was only 44 houses.

“I signed on with Christian Salvesen in Leith as a group of eight whalers. Salvesen was a household name on the Isle of Lewis in them years as they employed between 200 and 300 whalers from the
island.

“We were young and healthy and personally I can honestly say I enjoyed it. Work was hard, very hard with long hours during the fishing season, in the cold and wind,” said Jock, who worked as ‘The Hartman’, a job which involved essentially gutting the whale by heaving a wire into the intestines then heaving all into a bucket.

“The heart, the tongue and the belly speck was all part of this particular operation,” he expanded. “It was all cut into small portion of a size to go into the kettle to be boiled and the oil extracted.

“One had to have canvas leggings up to the waist as we were that deep in blood. This was OK if the whale was fresh and the blood still warm, but if it was a week old, that was something else.”

Throughout ‘Britain’s Whale Hunters: The Untold Story’, writer Adam has to put society’s ‘modern guilt’ to one side to view the history of the time in an industry where companies made an annual profit equivalent to £100million in today’s economy and supplied Britain’s growing cities with a vast range of products: from corsetry and umbrella stays to street lighting.

It’s an aspect which former policeman Jock – author of popular book The Whaler of Scotland Yard – is also keenly aware of, as he said: “Whaling was an industry in our days, a very important industry and we looked on it like that.

“One did not object to killing the whale, if we did we would not have gone down there. It was just like slaughtering a cow or a sheep.”

It was the whalers skill and courage which presenter Adam feels great admiration for, but he concludes that he hates the whaling itself.

And although once a whaler, Jock speaks strongly against whaling and the ‘unnecessary killing of these beautiful mammals’: “On hindsight it is sad when one remembers a beautiful 90foot blue whale being butchered. I do not agree with killing the whales just for the sake of it.

“The story has and should be told though. It is history, and in my opinion a very important part of Scottish history,” he added.