Past & Present

Memories of Whaling

Old Bun Abhainn Eadarra Whaling Station.jpg

Photo courtesy of Angus Macleod

For a while, the long arm of the Bun Abhainn Eadarra whaling station stretched out to Village Bay, Hiort (St Kilda). With the establishment of the factory in 1904, there were many more vessels passing Hiort on their way to the hunting grounds out towards Rockall. Rather than establish another whaling station here, the Norwegian owners paid rent for the privilege of using the bay. Having harpooned a couple of whales, the ships would anchor their catches in the bay. They would then return to the deeper waters for further spoils before coming back to retrieve them. Up to 1928 around 700 fin whales were caught every year in the seas beyond Hiort.

Lachlan MacDonald of St Kilda remembered the whales well:
‘When they had been lying there for two days or so the whale came up like a huge great balloon – if it burst the smell was terrible – the stink was vile… Eventually they took them away. Many a time I have seen them towing as many as six back to Harris. And that’s the way we got so familiar with the Harris folk. You would get across with the whalers and they wouldn’t charge you anything; and then you would be able to pick up one of them coming back…

The dead whales were floated back to the station, winched up the slipway and butchered – flensed. The blubber, meat and bones were put into one or other of the huge cookers so that it could all be rendered down. These cookers were massive, tall cylinders which, once the whale parts had been added, were filled with steam. The contents were left to cook for 8 to 10 hours.’

The blubber was processed separately from the rest of the whale as it provided the best quality oil. The meat and bones went into the other cylinders. The cooking process meant that the oil rose to the top, from where it was siphoned off. It was left to settle and then poured into barrels for export. No part of the whale was wasted. The residue that had sunk to the bottom was shovelled out – a disgusting task – so that it could be reconstituted into animal feed. Pigs were kept on site to 'process' what couldn't be used in any other way.’

Until it closed at the outbreak of the 1st World War, over 100 men and women had seasonal employment at the factory. Some lived on site, others came from nearby crofts and Tarbert.

By Jill Harden

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