Why hunt whales?

Pilot whales were important to islanders’ survival, providhetland ming many useful products. Subsistence whaling was unpredictable, because the place and time whales came was a matter of chance, and this meant the community had to work together, at short notice.

Oil was one of three products of the whale, along with the meat and bones. People in all the islands used the oil for light and waterproofing, and in the Hebrides some took it as a health tonic.

When whales came, there was frantic work herding them to a beach, killing and hauling them ashore, then processing. Whoever spotted them ran to the houses, shouting the exciting news that spread like wildfire, and everyone in the district stopped their work to join the hunt. People loaded boulders into the boats, to be used as missiles, and crews took weapons with them - mostly sharp farm tools. They rowed beyond the whales and arranged the boats into a crescent, with a reserve line further out. Folk in the boats shouted and hurled rocks to disorient the animals, and, as soon as the animals beached, those on the beach attacked whales with whatever they had.

This wasn’t commercial hunting, and people didn’t use special tools to kill whales, just everyday farm implements like this ditching spade from Orkney, with its sharpened edge.

Proceeds were shared amongst the hunters’ families; in later years landlords took a share, meaning less for ordinary folk. Everything was used – meat, oil, bones. Britain’s islanders liked eating whalemeat. Hebrideans preserved the flesh by rubbing it in kelp ashes, and as an observer in 1629 saw, the meat “being dried in the smoke they eat it like bacon”. The people in those islands in the 1690s relished whale, and “by experience find them to be very nourishing food”. People melted the blubber to make oil for lamps, lubrication, and softening leather. Bones were valued; a jawbone made a grain scoop, ribs became skids to haul boats up on a beach, and skulls made boat props.

For thousands of years island homes were lit with oil lamps. Whale oil was the brightest and least smoky, and by the 18th century iron lamps like this one from Orkney were used throughout the Western and Northern Isles

In the 18th century Western and Northern Islanders stopped eating whales because they adopted genteel ideas from outside, and started to think it was somehow inappropriate to eat whale flesh – even though their ancestors had done so for centuries. By the 1750s Shetlanders and Hebrideans still ate them, but generally when famine drove them to do it. Later, when islanders could afford imported paraffin, they didn’t need the oil either, and whaling stopped in the 1910s, with Shetland holding on the longest.

Oil was one of three products of the whale, along with the meat and bones. People in all the islands used the oil for light and waterproofing, and in the Hebrides some took it as a health tonic.

Find out more: Follow the links to find out about the Between Islands project, Shetland’s new online exhibition, ‘Fair Game.

Related Posts

Why hunt whales?

Johnnie Notions Project

We are delighted to announce that we have been awarded funding from The Royal Society to make a film on 18th Century Shetland pioneer, ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Hay’s Dock by the Dowry now open

Food and drink is back on the menu at Shetland Museum and Archives, with the much-anticipated opening of ‘Hay’s Dock by the ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Crofthouse Museum open for the summer

The Crofthouse Museum at Dunrossness will be opening for the summer season from Sunday 1 May. The site has been closed for the last ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Restoration work to begin on Maggie Helen at historic Hay's Dock

This week Shetland Museum and Archives will welcome traditional sail vessel the Swallow to Hay's Dock with its crew of shipwrights ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Gunnister Man Coins

Over 70 years after his discovery in a Northmavine peat bog, Gunnister Man continues to intrigue. Last week Shetland Museum curator, ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

We are hiring - Cultural Heritage Manager

We have an exciting new position for a Cultural Heritage Manager to lead our work in protecting, enhancing and promoting Shetland’s ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

The Dowry set to open café/restaurant at Shetland Museum’s historic Hay’s Dock

Shetland Amenity Trust is pleased to announce that food and drink will once again be on the menu having reached an agreement with The ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Shackleton's Shetland Pallbearers - A Talk

Shetland Museum and Archives will be kicking off its Year of Stories by marking the 100th anniversary of the burial of Sir Ernest ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Highlights from two centuries of Shetland fine knitted lace on display

A new awe-inspiring display of Shetland fine knitted lace spanning two centuries is now available to view at the Shetland Museum and ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

550 Years Ago: how Shetland became part of Scotland - part 2

Shetland and Orkney became part of Scotland 550 years ago, on 20 February 1472. Denmark’s economic interests were concentrated in ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

A reminiscence of a traditional Shetland wedding

When lockdown came, one of our first sad tasks was to tell two couples who’d planned a wedding in the museum that it couldn’t ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Shetland Festival of Care 2022 - Tending the Light

'Tending the Light', the Shetland Festival of Care 2022, launches on Friday 18 February at the Shetland Museum and Archives. It ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Shetland Museum and Archives reopens to the public

We are delighted to announce that the Shetland Museum and Archives will re-open from tomorrow (Tuesday 8 February) following a ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

550 Years Ago: how Shetland became part of Scotland

A fortnight ago some women and men from the South Mainland of Shetland marched in Glasgow with torches. They were commemorating the ...

Read more
Why hunt whales?

Up Helly Aa - the Venues

We’re missing Up Helly Aa again - not just a fire spectacle but a major social event, with dances and performances in many venues in ...

Read more