Stranded whales at Dornoch Firth

In October 1927, a school of more than a hundred whales was stranded in the Dornoch Firth near Ardgay and Bonar Bridge. Martin Alister Campbell Hinton, Deputy Zoologist of the Natural History Museum, came to study the whales and wrote the following account.

A postcard of the stranded whales. © Photo courtesy of Andrew Mackenzie
Pseudorca is one of the rarest cetaceans © Marina / AdobeStock
A young Bunty Gordon on a whale with Geordie Maws wife. They are at Mid Fearn with Dun Creich and the storehouse in the background. © Photo courtesy of Gregor Laing
The whales were scattered up and down the Firth from Tarbat Ness to well into the Kyle of Sutherland.

Many problems of scientific interest and economic importance concerning the breeding, growth and longevity of whales await solution. For some years it has seemed that this solution could be found only when advantage was taken of the comparatively rare opportunities for the examination of large schools of whales. On the coast of northern Scotland, Orkney, and Shetland, large schools of Caa’ing Whales (Pilot Whales) have from time to time been stranded by accident or in consequence of attacks made upon them by fishermen and others.

On the morning of the 21st October, 1927 a telephone call was received from the Receiver of wrecks (R of W) at Invergordon, stating that “one hundred and two bottle-nosed whales” had been stranded in his district. Not a moment was to be lost; eagerly I interrupted the luncheon of the Keeper of Zoology, and represented the importance of taking this opportunity of studying a school of whales. We viewed the suggestion favourably and my visit to Scotland was sanctioned. Mr. P. Stammwitz, the preparator, accompanied me, and the co-operation of Mr. J. L. Chaworth-Musters who, in view of a future enterprise wished to do a little whale work with me. We hastily made preparation for a long weekend of strenuous work, and at midnight were in the train rushing away for Invergordon and the Cromarty Firth.

Arrival at Invergordon

Late next evening we arrived in Invergordon, in the pouring rain, out to meet the R of W.

On the journey we imagined that we were going to find all the whales lying on a nice sandy beach, extending possibly for a couple of miles or so. With our minds on a panoramic view, two or three photos of the best cow, best bull, and best calf, a census of the school measurements, and some quick dissections of the females, a collection of two of the good skeletons, and a series of skulls and our work would be done! (Home Wednesday or Thursday, was my rash remark, but that dream was soon to be shattered)

To begin with, the R of W told us that the whales were not even in the Cromarty Firth at all, but in the Dornoch Firth, and thought that they were mostly near Ardgay and Bonar Bridge, although he had not seen them. Next day (Sunday 23rd October) we drove over to Bonar Bridge in the rain. Between Ardgay and Bonar Bridge the road passes close to the shore of the Dornoch Firth over a broad tongue of alluvial land, and there we got our first glimpse of the stranded whales. Jumping out of the car, we made our way across a little field and in a few yards found about a dozen of the whales lying upon the high-water line. A glance showed that they were not Caa’ing whales, as had been anticipated; their peculiar heads, very large teeth, remarkable flippers, and black colour at once attracted my attention, and in a few minutes I satisfied myself that we had to deal with a school of False Killers (Pseudorca crassidens) hitherto regarded as one of the rarest cetaceans. Looking out over the Firth, we saw a great many of the peculiar flippers sticking up out of the water like the flags of submerged ships. Inasmuch as the dead whales float upon one side and are more than half submerged, each flipper visible indicated a dead whale. So many flippers were to be seen that I thought that all the whales were gathered together in Ardgay Bay: and it looked so easy to collect them that I still had hopes of returning within a week.

“A glance showed that they were not Pilot whales, but False Killers (Pseudorca crassidens), regarded as one of the rarest cetaceans”

What zoologist could care two straws for highland rain with a school of False Killers before him? A merry though wet party of five (I could not leave our cabby out on such occasion) sat down to lunch at the Bridge Hotel, and during that meal I began to learn something of the peculiarities of the Dornoch Firth and the difficulties before us. Someone -I believe it was the cabby- advised me to see Sir Robert Brooke at Fearn as soon as possible, and as events proved, no man gave sounder advice. It appeared that, inasmuch as the local people feared that the whales would soon decay and become a nuisance and imperil the public health, and it appeared that, unwilling to await for departmental decisions, they were making arrangements to tow the whales out to sea as soon as possible. We had therefore arrived just in time, and so that quick decisions have their advantages. I grew eloquent on the importance of the Pseudorca from a scientific point of view, gave my personal undertaking that no whale would go rotten in less than six weeks, promised to remove at once any whale that did go rotten, and in the end persuaded them all to hold on. After some further discussion of plans, we returned to Invergordon, soaked with rain but elated with success.

Whaling station

The next day, Monday, we had a busy morning in Invergordon, telegraphing the news to the Museum, making financial and other arrangements, and purchasing supplies for the coming work. We then proceeded to Bonar Bridge, where we established our base. As a result of our consultations with Sir Robert Brooke, and Mr. A. M. Chance of Spinningdale (brother of the well-known ornithologist), we decided to open our whaling station on the beach at Creich on the Sutherland shore of the Firth, and immediately opposite Sir Robert’s estate. Both very kindly volunteered to collect and tow as many as the whales as possible to the beach at Creich with their motor boats: but for this liberal assistance our work could not possibly have been done.

Tuesday was spent examining the beach at Creich, finding suitable men, and negotiating with interested parties. Next day we began work with six men from Bonar Bridge. They had to be trained to cut up the whales quickly, to leave parts required for scientific investigation and to find the pelvic bones. They took a great deal of interest in their work, and in a few days became quite expert. Later we were able to double the number of employed, and on some days have had as many as twenty men working at our station.

“We trained men from Bonar Bridge to cut up the whales quickly. On some days we had as many as 20 men working at our station”

Sir Robert with his motor boats Wave and Fram, and Mr. Chance, assisted by his wife and Mrs. Russell, his daughter, with his motor boat Alona towed large number of whales off the shores and shoals, and buoying then in deep water, formed dumps in the Firth, from which we towed them to the station as required. The collection and towing of the whales was the most difficult part of the job.

The whales were scattered up and down the Firth from Tarbat Ness to a point in the Kyle of Sutherland six miles above Bonar Bridge: that is to say, the chain of whales was thirty miles long. Some where lying high and dry on grassy banks where an unusually high tide had left them: others stranded on sand and mud banks accessible, with more or less difficulty, only at certain states of the tides and in favourable weather: lastly a good many whales had sunk and could only be retrieved at low water.

“The whales were scattered up and down the Firth from Tarbat Ness to the Kyle of Sutherland: the chain of whales was 30 miles long”

The swift tidal currents of the Firth, its shallowness, and the intricate and uncharted courses of the navigable channels would have been sufficiently formidable by themselves: in combination with adverse winds then rendered work upon the Firth impossible for days together. Such good use was made of the opportunities for this part of the work, however, when they came, that the station never lacked material and no man employed lost a single hour’s work.

We decided to send a large bull and a large cow up to the Natural history Museum to be cast. That proved to be a formidable undertaking. Flensing at our station was performed between tide-marks, and we had no means of lifting such heavy weights from the waterway on to the green grass. The road to our station was also much too steep and too bad to allow such weights to be hauled up the steep side of the Firth to the road a mile away. The specimens selected had to be prepared on our beach, towed down the Firth for two miles to a place called the Dun of Creich, where they were hauled from the water by men and horses, packed in sacking, placed upon a horse lorry, and dragged up the hill. The gutted female, which went first, weighed 22 cwt (1.1 tonnes), and the gutted bull 34 cwt (1.7 tonnes).

Challenges

It must not be supposed that all went smoothly after our start on the 26th October. On the contrary, all sorts of difficulties began to arise. The various Departments that had been approached before our arrival began to move. It was disconcerting, for example, one afternoon to be interrupted by the arrival of three men, each representing a different Authority, and each determined to remove the whales at once. The souvenir hunter was always present, and he did a good deal of damage to the specimens near the road between Bonar and Ardgay. To protect our collections and raw material we had to establish duty on Saturday afternoon and Sunday at our station. The question of disposal of refuse became urgent and at one moment looked so hopeless that we surveyed the way from our hotel to the station, contemplating a possibly hurried departure. In the end, however, patient negotiation overcame all our troubles. We entered into partnership with the Board of Trade: as the result the Firth will be completely cleaned and the Museum will get all the material.

The British Museum (Natural History) is now the more popular institution in this part of the country. Wen we arrived one worthy began to talk to me about the ‘awful calamity’ that had descended upon the shores of the Dornoch Firth. I met him again some days later and his views had completely changed. Bonar Bridge had received a very good advertisement, so far as the able bodied men were concerned unemployment had disappeared; transport people were busy and so was the hotel, the whales being put to good use in Leith and in London, and there was no waste at all. And so, reviewing events, he had come to the conclusion that the ‘awful calamity’ was a blessing and he was going to pray for more.

Our work at Bonar Bridge ended on the 5th December when we returned to London. During our stay we collected and flensed 126 whales (including the two sent in the flesh to London) and from these prepared 124 skeletons. It is probable that we shall receive further material, for some whales appear to have sunk in some of the deeper channels of Dornoch Firth, and from time to time these will come to the surface. Before leaving Bonar Bridge we made arrangements for their disposal: three of these sunken whales have been recovered since our departure from the Firth, and their skeletons are now on their way to the Museum.

As regards the scientific results of the expedition I can say very little at present. We have done what I think has never been done before – made a complete examination of a large school of whales, and we have collected the largest series of cetacean skeletons ever brought together. The data collected will, when analised, throw light on many of the general problems that I set out to solve. The fact that our subject happened to be an unexpected and very rare species was fortunate, although relatively unimportant. Our examination leads us to believe that Pseudorca feeds exclusively upon cuttle-fish and from what we have learned we are inclined to believe that it was an unusual influx of warm Atlantic water into the Moray Firth that brought to the vicinity of the Dornoch Firth first the cuttle-fish and secondly this rare whale.

by M. A. C. Hinton
(Original text gently provided by Gregor Laing)

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