125 years ago a 41 foot, 16 ½ ton, humpback whale followed some of the huge shoals of herrings off the East Coast of Scotland into the Tay Estuary, where it swam up and down the river, to the fascination of the locals.
But, sadly for the whale, Dundee was the largest whaling port in Britain at the time and the entire fleet was laid up at home for the winter.
Some whalers decided to cash in on the potential cash bonanza that had appeared on their doorstep and put to sea. Struck by a number of harpoons, the unfortunate whale dragged two, six oared rowing boats, a steam launch and a steam tug north as far as Montrose, then south to the Firth of Forth before heading back towards Dundee. Rising winds finally snapped the harpoon lines and the mortally injured whale was free.
A week later, some Gourdon fishermen spotted a large floating object six miles off Inverbervie, which turned out to be the same whale still riddled with the Dundee whalers' harpoons. With great difficulty, they towed it to Stonehaven where it was beached. Sir John Struthers of Aberdeen University came down at low tide and took measurements and photographs. The fishermen wanted recompense for all their efforts, so the carcase was put up for public auction. It sold for the princely sum of 226 (11,800 in today's money) to John Wood, a Dundee oil merchant familiarly known as 'Greasy Johnny'.
A tug boat transported it back to Dundee, where its weight crushed two strong carts, before a heavy duty bogie, drawn by 20 horses, managed to move it to Johnny's yard. It took 26 hours to complete the half mile journey. Johnny proceeded to recoup his expenditure; souvenir photographs were available to buy, and the monster creature was put on public display, with admission charged at sixpence or a shilling depending on the time of day. Public imagination was fired and special excursion trains were laid on from Perth and Arbroath – 12,000 visited on the first Sunday!
Three weeks later, when the carcase must have been stinking, Sir John Struthers came to dissect the decomposing remains. Not one to let a penny pass him by, Greasy Johnny charged the public to watch the dissection with the added attraction of background music by the band of the 1st Forfarshire Rifle Volunteers. Once the dissection was completed, the remains were embalmed, and the whale was reconstructed onto a wooden frame. Now it was taken on a triumphant tour of Britain, visiting Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and London before returning to Dundee.
Having more than recouped his initial outlay, John Woods kept his promise that he would donate the whale to the town of Dundee. For many years it has been on display in the McManus Gallery. The Galley is currently closed for a major redevelopment project, which will include a special place for the Tay Whale, a long standing favourite. William Topaz McGonagall, Scotland's famous poet, immortalised the event in his poem 'The Famous Tay Whale'.
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