Scottish Arctic Whaling

Scottish Arctic Whaling (1750-WWI): A Digitized Statistical Profile

Chesley W. Sanger, Professor emeritus, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL

The Trade

Scotland participated periodically in Northern Whaling as early as the 17th century. It was not until Westminster increased its bounty incentive to forty shillings in 1749, however, that it evolved into a substantial industry marked annually by the ebb and flow of ports, vessels, personnel and capital. Ships, sailing variously from 16 centers, harvested more than 20,000 bowhead whales and 4,000,000 harp and hooded seals at East Greenland, Davis Strait, Baffin Bay and Newfoundland. And they did so under demanding and hazardous environmental conditions. More than 100 ships were lost, while the return of others was often delayed by pack-ice, causing whalers to suffer starvation, disease, scurvy, frostbite and death. Depleted stocks and the outbreak of WWI brought the trade to a close.


This data set was hand copied from primary documents in 1977-8. The statistical profile became the base of a doctoral thesis in historical geography at the University of Dundee, Scotland. The thesis, “The Origins of the Scottish Northern Whale Fishery,” was completed in 1985. The collection, which is deposited at the Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), was also the prime source for a series of 17 journal articles (1980-2013) and a book, “Scottish Arctic Whaling,” Edinburgh: John Donald, 2016 (SAW). These publications, especially the book, stimulated considerable interest and it was decided to digitalize the data to make it more easily accessible.


Having reviewed the existing literature on Scottish Northern whaling (see SAW), primary sources were examined. Scottish Arctic whaling for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not an exploit of major companies that might have meticulously preserved their archives. Records were maintained by small enterprises and perished easily. Nevertheless, libraries and museums in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, Peterhead, Anstruther, Montrose and Kirkcaldy yielded useful information.

Annual participation (ports, vessels and masters) and productivity (catches, species, hunting grounds and produce) statistics were pieced together from government papers and reports, public and private petitions, whaling company statistics, port records, pamphlets, journals, diaries, letters, log-books, merchant letter-books, charters and co-partnery contracts. Two other sources were used to fill in the gaps that remained and to check the veracity of the data collected. Bounty Payment Documents held by the National Archives of Scotland (NAS), Edinburgh, covered the period 1750-1814, while a series of “Oil and Whale Bone Factors and Insurance Brokers” annual reports in the possession of the former whaling company, Robert Kinnes and Sons, Dundee, provided similar details for 1790-3 and 1814-1910. Having produced what “appeared” to be a comprehensive and reliable data base that could serve as a structural framework for the study, the next task was to flesh out the statistical facts of the collection, to put meat on the bones, so to speak.

Facing a similar situation, a decade previously while conducting MA graduate research at MUN, on a comparable marine exploitative industry, the annual Newfoundland spring seal fishery, it was discovered that local newspapers offered exceptionally detailed coverage of the trade, providing valuable “first-hand” insights into participation rates, seasonal results and offshore deployment strategies, the defining characteristics of individual phases, or cycles, of the trade. It was thus decided to explore the possibility of applying the same approach to the Scottish trade.  An examination of the Advertiser and Courier in Dundee, Aberdeen Journal and Peterhead Sentinel indicated that they not only covered the entire period of Scotland’s century-and-a-half involvement in the Arctic industry, but reported extensively on each year’s “whaling window,” defined by the annual departure and return of the fleet. The statistical profile was used to conduct the newspaper survey in reverse order, slowly revealing information on the birth, growth and eventual death of the Scottish Arctic whale fishery.  Although an onerous and lengthy undertaking, newspapers once again richly rewarded the effort.


AJ =  Aberdeen Journal;  bb = Baffin Bay;  bn = bottle-nosed whale;  bo’ness = Borrowstouneness;  CM = Caledonia Mercury;  cg = Cumberland GulfDA = Dundee AdvertiserDC = Dundee Courier;  ds = Davis Strait; dv = double voyage; EA = Edinburgh AdviserEC = Edinburgh Couranteg = East Greenlanded = Edinburgh/Leith;  hbc = Hudson Bay Co.hs = Hudson Straitls = Land-stationnl = Newfoundlandns = no sealingnw = no whaling; ow = over-winteringOWFIB = Oil and Bone Factors and Insurance Brokersp’head = Peterhead; PS= Peterhead Sentinel;  s = sailing vesselSAW = Scottish Arctic Whaling (Sanger, C.W., 2016);   st = steamer; ww = white-whale (beluga).

Explanatory Notes and Cautions

  • Annual deployment strategies were generally based on the previous season’s results and the owners/masters, though risk takers, were reluctant to deviate from established practices until forced to do so by economic realities. The industry, consequently, was characterized by a series of distinctly different phases separated by sometimes lengthy transitions. These periods of uncertainty gave rise to “double voyages” which often made it difficult to determine destination and catches with a high degree of certainty and should thus be used with care.
  • The major connecting intervals between stages include the 1) switch from whaling at East Greenland to Davis Strait, 2) opening of the Baffin Bay hunting grounds, 3) replacement of bowheads with harp and hooded seals, 4) introduction of steamers, and 5) development of Eastern Canadian Arctic land-based whaling and native bartering. Of these, the final phase, Cumberland Gulf, proved most problematic. Capt. William Penny, Aberdeen, initiated Scottish over-wintering in 1853. Routinely characterized by multiyear voyages, rather than annual trips as previously, the relatively small-scaled venture was so poorly understood and reported that time restraints made it impractical to include this component in the original compilation. Unfortunately, two subsequent publications on this segment of the trade (see SAW) also do not completely reconcile the discrepancies between the different sources. In this collection, therefore, Cumberland Gulf activities are identified generally without specifics as SAW and should thus also be used carefully.  

Organization of Data


When statistical data differed, a) majority number agreements were accepted; b) simple averaging was adopted for minor disagreements (8 recorded rather than 7 or 9); and in a significant number of instances, a variety of contributing factors were considered. These included hunting ground characteristics, species biological dynamics, and the impact over-expansion, unregulated hunting practices, and declining stocks had on catch numbers and specimen sizes.

Column definitions

The statistics are presented in tabular format using one row per voyage with data in columns.

voyageIDA unique identifier assigned to this voyage.
voyageShort description of voyage, consisting of the vessel name and voyage year.
portDetermined by entry into the trade (then listed consistently).
whaling groundGeographic area where whales were sought.
sealing groundGeographic area where seals were sought.
yearThe calendar year of the voyage.
whales caught1) Fractions indicate portions of shared or salvaged whales, with proportions following well-established practices (often supported by court decisions); 2) “0” is used for both “clean” and “lost” vessels; and 3) The determination of Bowhead catches at East Greenland became more problematic after whales taken by sealers became mostly “opportunistic” as ships were increasingly fitted out for sealing only. Recording “0” under these two circumstances, consequently, could be seriously “misleading.” It was thus decided to identify only the number of bowheads “actually” captured.
whale oil (tons)As listed/best determined; more reliable as trade matures; seal catch oil not differentiated from whale until quantities become important; the “Notes” column is used to comment on the industry’s reluctance to pursue harps, hoods, and lesser whales until the principal target species – the bowhead - had been reduced to uneconomic levels.
seals caughtSkins/pelts as listed/best determined.
seal oil (cwt)A seal pelt consisted of blubber (oil yields various) and hide (leather products). Not identified separately until 1852 when catches became significant. The “Notes” column provides evidence of stock depletion and identifies changing seal species/age preferences (harps vs larger hoods, for example, and pup, immature and adult catch proportions).
whales (other)Catch numbers, species, and oil tons (parenthesis) of minor species were only reported towards the end of 19th century as the traditional bowhead whale and harp seal fisheries declined.
masterIDA unique identifier assigned to the master of this voyage.
master_uncContains a question mark if there is uncertainty about the masterID assigned to the voyage.
master1.) Surnames were frequently misspelled (the most common usage was then accepted – Atkins, for example, also represents Atkin and Aitkins). 2.) Additionally, given names were not always reported, especially during earlier years. At a more personal level, it was not envisaged that masters would be essential to achieving the goals established for the original study and, with time a premium, it was decided to only record initials, when available, to facilitate the collecting process. Peterhead and Dundee captains, however, did receive significant attention, especially when both ports rose to positions of dominance and became competitors. Note: Successful skippers often had extraordinarily long careers; usually commanded the same vessel; and encouraged the entry of sons and nephews into the trade, often creating family dynasties, such as the Grays, Peterhead, and Adams, Dundee.
vesselIDA unique identifier assigned to the vessel on this voyage.
vesselSpelling “accuracy” used to standardize mislabeling/name variations.
vessel typeSailing vessel or steamer.
tonnageOften difficult to determine for the 18th century and sometimes changed following transfer to another port and/or after being converted from sail to steam.
notesThis column provides voyage specifics beyond those identified in other columns, and a reminder to refer to Scottish Arctic Whaling (Sanger, C.W., 2016) for more information on Cumberland Gulf, Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay Company voyages.