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Visit to Shetland Museum and Archives and Lecture – Robb Robinson, University of Hull

November 16, 2011

In July I had the opportunity to visit Lerwick in Shetland to examine the whaling archives and discuss records with the museum staff. During this time I had discussions with various people including Ian Tait, Curator and Brian Smith, Archivist, both of the Shetland Museum and Archives as well as Bobby Gear – a PhD student jointly supervised by the North Atlantic Fisheries College, the Shetland Museum and the University of Hull – who is also very knowledgeable about the museum’s archives – and was able to study a number of records to ascertain their value for the ARCdoc Project.

Shetland Museum & Archives, Hay's Dock, Lerwick, Shetland

Background to Arctic Whaling and Shetland

The Shetland Islands had long-term involvement in the Arctic whaling trade. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries vessels voyaging northwards, particularly those heading for the Svalbard archipelago would call into the Bressay Sound to recruit additional crew and victual. Shetlanders made up a substantial proportion of the crew of the whaling ships that sailed northwards from the Bressay Sound. There were several reasons for their involvement.  Firstly, Shetlanders were superb small boat handlers, thanks in particular to their involvement in the offshore cod fisheries and their skills were invaluable in the business of whaling and the second was that their rates of pay were low due to a dearth of other employment opportunities on the islands.

The whaling ships recruited crews from both Orkney and Shetland. Ships making a voyage direct to the Davis Straits might call into to Stromness in Orkney to engage additional crew whilst vessels voyaging to the Svalbard Archipelago would visit Shetland for the same purpose. However, vessels such as the Diana of Hull often made a preliminary sealing voyage to Svalbard early in the season and returned to the Bressay Sound to offload their catches before making their main whaling trip to the Davis Straits and so recruited their additional crews for both voyages in Shetland.

The Orkney and Shetland Islands were also to have an enduring interest in the whaling trade that lasted well into the modern whaling era with many islanders from both archipelagos joining twentieth century whaling activities in the southern oceans.

Much of the business of recruitment, victualling and the like were handled by agents, firms such as Hay and Company. My visit to the museum provided me with the opportunity to assess the usefulness of the records that survived.

Survey of the Records

The port of Lerwick was not a home port for whaling ships but, as I have said, a place where whaling ships could victual and recruit labour and this is reflected in the whaling archives to be found in the museum. The archives do not appear to include any ship’s whaling logs which is to be expected and therefore the opportunity to trace individual voyages, weather conditions and the like through this medium do not exist. However, a number of letters and short anecdotes from those involved in whaling voyages contained in the archive do furnish some qualitative information, the most substantive of these relate to the tragic voyage of the Hull whaleship Diana in 1866/7 during which ten Shetlanders and three Hull crew died.

The 'Diana' the last whaler out of Hull, locked in the frozen waters of the Arctic Circle from an original painting by Edward Holt 1989

They include a number of accounts of the voyage recalled by individuals themselves or recorded by commentators, though, of course, the Diana voyage was concerned with the post 1850 period.

DIANA RELIC – Ref SEA 74146: Manuscript pages from a notebook containing verses.

The archive also includes an extensive run of material from Hay and Company who had a long involvement with whaling ships from various ports involved in the whale fishery and these seem to provide material relating to voyages in terms of people recruited, repairs to vessels and victuals etc rather than climatic details and the like.

Furthermore, the archive also includes some interesting surveys from the Napoleonic War period of the inhabitants of various parts of the archipelago which appear to provide detail on the proportion of members of households involved in the whale fisheries and Royal Navy Service. These may prove to be of particular value for social historians of the whaling trade.

Lecture and Radio Broadcast

During my visit I gave a very well attended public lecture on fisheries and whaling in the Shetland Museum and was able to use this opportunity to explain the role of ARCdoc and distribute information and records. This provoked some interesting questions. I also repeated the lecture for broadcast of Radio Shetland and took the opportunity to do some filming for the BBC on the voyage of the whaleship Diana.


Robb Robinson, 2011

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Gordon Clark permalink
    December 10, 2011 8:03 pm

    I’m a direct descendant of one of the whalers on the Diana 1866/67. I have some memorabilia that’s been handed down, and some more I’ve acquired over the years. I’ve also been in touch in the past with some descendants of others on that voyage. What are the BBC plans?

    • catharineward permalink
      February 8, 2012 5:39 pm

      Hi Mr Clark,

      This sounds really interesting. The BBC in the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire region are making a small three night feature for their Look North programme which is about the story of Whaling from Hull and will feature the story of the Diana. I would very much like to talk to you regarding the story of your ancestor and your memorabilia.

      Robb Robinson

  2. April 26, 2012 10:19 am

    Good to see the information on the Diana. I am researching my ancestor who, according to family stories, sailed on the Diana on her fateful voyage. However, I haven’t found any confirmation on this and believe he may have sailed on her, just not on the voyage where they got stuck in the ice! His name was John Green Sayers, but he was also known as John Willman, neither names appear in the crew list. Interesting to research though, and I am writing about him for the Your Family Tree magazine.

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