In the 19th century communities along the coast of Northeast Scotland ventured into whaling. To gear the industrial revolution energy was needed and hunting whales for their oil became a lucrative business. In towns like Peterhead and Dundee young men boarded industrial vessels to head for the seas east and west of Greenland for trips up to six months .
Traditional whaling songs reveal how whalers look at this adventure. The song Farewell to Tarwathie tells of the cold coast of Greenland which is barren and bare and where ostensibly no life is possible. The song contrasts this with seed-time, harvest and birdsong at home. The young men that boarded those vessels thus travelled to a land where nothing was like what they’re used to at home.
And the trips were not without their challenges. In My Donald the smell of whale blubber on the ship is compared to the smell of roses at home. In the same song the whaler reminds his beloved of the whalers who were lost at sea. The shanty The Whale offers a stark contrast as it tells of a captain for whom the loss of a whaler is far less important than the catch of a whale.
Above all, traditional whaling songs celebrate the comradeship and masculine environment onboard the vessels, and emphasise this by projecting the stories to the loved ones waiting for them at home. Farewell to Tarwathie captures this particularly well: ‘The cold ice of Greenland my love will not chill, and the longer my absence, more lovin’ she’ll feel’.
Nineteenth-century whale hunting did however cause the near extinction of certain whale species. The numbers of whales that Peterhead vessels caught annually decreased after the initial years and in the last decade of the 19th century whale hunting was no longer viable. However contested whale hunting is in the light of the international environmental debate nowadays, traditional whaling songs remind us of the context from which this activity originates and the role whale hunting played in coastal communities in the 19th century.
I'm currently arranging four traditional whaling songs for SAB and SA to be used in singing workshops.
Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst