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Features / New book delves into whaling past

Laureen Johnson.

A NEW book exploring Shetland’s contribution to the whaling industry is due to be launched this weekend.

Shetland’s Whaling Tradition – From Willafjord to Enderby Land will go on sale at an event at the Whiteness and Weisdale Hall on Sunday.

The publication, guided by written contributions from local author Laureen Johnson, delves into Shetland’s involvement in the now defunct industry, both in terms of locally based stations and also those who embarked on prolonged trips to regions like the South Atlantic and Greenland.

The book will include around 200 photographs captioned by the Shetland ex-Whalers Association, which has around 85 members.

It brings into focus the lifestyle endured by the workers, who often had to depart for sea for periods of up to seven months.

The book covers the period from the early twentieth century through to when whaling stopped in Britain in 1963.

“The main bulk of the book is what’s still within the memories of the surviving whalers, so a lot of it is about their own experience of the South Atlantic whaling,” Johnson said.

“The second chapter is about Shetland’s whaling stations themselves, such as in Ronas Voe and Olna, which takes you up to about 1929.

“The third chapter overlaps, because the South Atlantic whaling started in the early years of the 20th century. So it runs from then up to the Second World War, and after that, the rest is about what’s still within their memories.”

Johnson said the now banned whaling industry provided a vital source of income for Shetlanders in times when work was scarce.

It also gave men a chance to head to sea during the winter to return to croft work in the summer.

“I think definitely it provided a much needed source of employment at times when there was very little else in Shetland, particularly in the 1950s when there was a period of depopulation,” she said.

“Some of them were already merchant seamen, who were used to trips away from home. If you could do the whaling, your life was much more regulated.

“You knew exactly when you were going, you knew exactly when you’d be back, and you were always home in the summer time.

“It was a different life then. Whaling was actually encouraged by the government at various times, simply because of the product that was needed at the time.”

Given the gruelling and at times gruesome nature of the job, many did not enjoy the line of work – but Johnson added there was an undeniable spirit running through the whalers.

“They didn’t all like it, and some of them didn’t stay very long at it. But you were all in it together,” she said. “There is a great camaraderie among ex-whalers.”

  • The launch event at the Whiteness and Weisdale Hall will take place between 2.30pm and 5pm on Sunday, with copies of the book available in a limited hardback edition (£30) and also a softcover version (£20). Afternoon teas will be available.
General Election - 12 December 2019