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The story of Dundee’s whaling industry

Some might disapprove today, but Dundee’s whaling industry was significant in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whale oil was used to soften jute fibres for weaving, to provide heat and light in homes and factories, and to lubricate machinery in the jute mills. Whale bones were also exported from Dundee to furniture-makers and corset-makers across Europe. This panel reflects on important whaling ships at that time and where they sailed, and how the memory of Dundee’s whaling industry lives on in street names close to the city’s port – like Baffin Street, named after Baffin Bay near Greenland, and Whale Lane.

whaling cartoon

1. Whale

Dundee whalers hunted for baleen whales whose toothless jaws contained strong, supple whalebone – a valuable commodity for export. The most commonly hunted whale in this group was the bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus (shown in the centre of this panel) which could be up to 60ft (18m) long, with a huge skull to break through thick Arctic ice. Despite its size, this whale was easier to catch because it swam more slowly. Blubber from the whales was then chopped up and placed in barrels to be brought home to Dundee for processing.


2. Whaling ships & boats

Whaling ships were built, or adapted, to cope with icy water, but smaller open boats were used to hunt for the whales. Typically, Dundee whaling ships would head north from Dundee to Orkney or Shetland, then across the Atlantic to St John’s in Newfoundland or north to the Greenland Sea. Dundee’s first whaling ship is believed to be the ‘Bonny Dundee’: it left the port in 1753 on a voyage to the Greenland Sea, and caught four whales. By 1890, Dundee was the only UK whaling port still in existence.


3. Northern Lights

Greenland is one of the best places to see this natural phenomenon, but the sight of the Northern Lights is unlikely to have made up for the extreme dangers associated with whaling life.


4. Walrus and Seal

Walruses and seals were also hunted in the 18th and 19th centuries, for their tusks, skin and meat, and for blubber to make oil.


5. Whale oil

An essential lubricant used in the production of jute. It was also used for lamps, soap production, varnish, explosives and paint amongst other things.

6. Ropes 

Long, heavy ropes were attached to harpoons and, once the whale had been impaled, it was towed back to the whaling ship. Dundee had its own ropemakers and a ready supply of jute.


7. Grapple hook

This sharp, multi-purpose tool was commonly used by whalers.


8. Lyrics from ‘The Balaena’

‘The Balaena’ is a folk song/sea shanty about one of Dundee’s steam-powered whaling vessels. The first ship to be modified was the ‘Tay’, and subsequent steam-powered whaling ships included ‘Balaena’, ‘Active’, ‘Diana’, and ‘Polar Star’. As whales grew scarce in the Arctic from over-hunting, these four ships were sent to the Antarctic in 1892, to search for whales there. The whales in this region were too large to catch, so the men on board hunted for seals and penguins instead. One unexpected result of the expedition was the discovery of an uncharted island: Thomas Robertson, the captain of the ‘Active’, named it Dundee Island.


9. Harpoons

Whalers used this tool to wound the whale. Made from iron or steel, with a barbed head to ‘catch’ in the whale’s flesh, harpoons were usually mounted on a pole and attached to a long rope.


10. Ribbons

Whaling ships were away from home for many months, with men hunting in treacherous waters for their livelihood. Wives of whalers would give them a ribbon with knots tied in it, to signify how many whales they would catch.

This panel was stitched by

Dennie Anderson-White

Evelyn Baker

Karen Bennett

Jackie Berg

John Berg

Patricia Duffett-Smith

Patricia Gibson

Liz Law

Jill Muchall

Holly Turner

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