The History of Leith

September 1, 2004

The Whale Ships of Leith

From the end of the 18th century down to 1842 or thereabouts Whale ships went yearly from Leith to Greenland and the Davis Strait for Whale fishing. When they came home bumper full as they frequently did the result of a successful fishing they brought much wealth into the port. The owner of most of them was the old respectable firm of Peter and Christopher Wood.

In olden times there were “The Royal Bounty”, The Thomas and Ann, The Raith, The Dexterity, The William and Ann. In later years the Baffin, North pole, Prince of Orange, Ulverston. The William and Ann was a remarkable ship. She was built in 1759 by the Government, had a pink stern the fashion of the time. We find her one of the Leith fleet in 1803 and she continued to go to the fishing up to 1842 or thereabouts when she was lost. She must have been therefore about eighty years old.

P and C Wood boiled the blubber in their premises at the Timber bush. The blubber being brought home in heavy iron bound casks which were hoisted from the holds of the vessels lying in the old docks and lowered into boats then rowed round to the sands bow Tower Street and taken in at the back door of the boiling house, For weeks a strong pungent oily smell pervaded the whole of Leith which was called the “Woods Scent Bottle”. There were also four other whalers owned in Leith but which went up to Bo’ ness to boil their oil and they lay there during the winter. They were the “Success” (Captain Thomson, The “Rattler and Horncastle” (The manager of these three ships was Mr Archibald Thomson, Merchant in Yardheads), and the “Juno” (belonging to John Hall and Co, Edinburgh)

George Young and Co of a later date owned the Wiliam Young and Claredon.
The Whalers generally sailed in March and arrived home in October or November from the Davies Strait, if the went only to Greenland the arrived sooner. They were all biggish ships of 3-400 tons register. There bows were strongly fortified to protect them from ice. They carried crews of forty to fifty men each and were provided with young surgeons.

Prestonpans, Cockenzie, and other fishing villages on the coast yearly furnished their quota of active men, who were well acquainted with the fishing. They also embarked at Lerwick. The sailing day of the Whalers from Leith Harbour was always a great event, crowds lined the quays and pier. Being full rigged, well manned and fully equipped for their perilous voyage they made a splendid appearance in clearing out of the harbour. Many were lost in the ice and although often replaced by new ships, the trade dwindled away on account of bad fishing seasons and now not a single whaler belongs to Leith. The last season of them was in 1842

From the “Reminiscences of the port and Town of Leith” by John Martine 1888

(It should be added that whaling came back to Leith and by the First World War had the largest Whaling Fleet in the World under Salvesen of Leith. This continued until the 70’s when the trade stopped)

Some Text