Mr Tait's Whale
Current debates about uses for Kirkcaldy's foreshore have so far failed to suggest the allure of a blue whale.
But in November 1869, thousands of curious locals were able to witness just that, purchased at auction for £120 and towed across the Forth as a brief viewing attraction and then a source of oil.
The man responsible was John Tait, a former butler of Dunnikier House, an oil merchant who later diversified into floorcloth and eventually became a Provost of Kirkcaldy.
The story of Mr Tait's Whale is brought to us by guest writer Kerry Briers.
Mr Tait's Whale
This month we are indebted to Kerry Briers who has produced a little known but fascinating local story from over 150 years ago.
Kerry is English born, hailing from Nottinghamshire, attended a Welsh University and now lives here in Kirkcaldy. Kerry is a qualified librarian working at present with the University of Dundee. Deeply immersed in all manner of local history, since 2018 Kerry has been a volunteer with both the Local Studies Team in the Galleries and also with the Council's Archive Team based at Bankhead in Glenrothes.
It was the opening of a red box which had lain untouched for years which saw Kerry stumble on the genesis of this story. The contents of the box included papers and diaries relating to the Oliphant family – one of Kirkcaldy's best known maritime families. The discovery set Kerry off on a quest to find out more about this intriguing tale and the following is the result of her labours.
In November 1869 Mr Tait, a Kirkcaldy oil merchant, purchased a blue whale at an auction on the beach at Longniddry where it had been stranded. It is also known as The Longniddry whale, but The Fifeshire Advertiser suggested that “surely this monster of the deep had gone to the wrong side of the Firth, and mistaken Longniddry for the Lang Toun”.
The whale became a sensation on both sides of the Forth, with proximity to Edinburgh encouraging a large number of people to go and see it. The Scotsman, reported that the North British Rail company had conveyed 3050 passengers to Longniddry over a four-day period. The position of the whale meant that it was exposed to the attacks of people anxious to obtain “momentos” of the sea monster. A sign was eventually placed in the whale’s blowhole forbidding visitors from cutting the carcase.
The whale was sold by auction on the beach on Thursday, November 11th. Reports in both the Fifeshire Advertiser and The Scotsman suggest that a great many people had taken the opportunity to travel by train to witness the sale on the beach. The sale of the whale opened at thirty pounds, and Mr John Tait, of Kirkcaldy, had the winning bid at £120.
Following the sale, the plan was to tow the whale across the Forth to Kirkcaldy. Professor Turner in his account of the Great Finner Whale explained how the whale had a strong rope attached and “secured around the root of the tail, and when afloat at high water, it was towed by a powerful steamer to Kirkcaldy”.
Despite poor visibility on Monday afternoon, the whale had a welcoming party, as the Scotsman’s correspondent described:
“Thousands of persons were congregated on the East pier, many of whom had come from a great distance in order to see the strange denizen of the deep”.
The Fifeshire Advertiser reported that the whale had started to smell rather unpleasant. “It would be difficult to tell how many girls have nearly lost themselves by fainting away in their mother’s arms at the mere sight and smell – not to speak of a touch - of the great leviathan.” The Times reported that the quays were “lined with thousands of people, large numbers having come from Dysart, Wemyss and other districts.” Amongst these visitors were many photographic artists, whom the Fifeshire Advertiser suggested “exercised their art in conveying a likeness of the leviathan form to paper.”
Mr Tait did not purchase one whale but two. Professor Turner reported that the flensing soon revealed that the “whale was in the gravid state”. The foetus was a male and was exhibited at the boiling house on Pathhead Sands and could be viewed for threepence during the day and a penny in the evening. On Wednesday a long wooden coffin shaped box was used to convey the young whale to Kirkcaldy station where it journeyed across the Forth to Edinburgh College to be studied.
The Scotsman reported the 9th Earl of Wemyss purchased the jawbones and later donated them to the Science and Art Museum in Edinburgh. The jawbones became part of the collections of the National Museum of Scotland but are on display at the former entrance of the Anatomical Museum of the University of Edinburgh.
This object can help us remember one of Kirkcaldy’s greatest sensations, a visit from a blue whale in 1869. The Fifeshire Advertiser at the time of the whale’s arrival was keen to encourage credit to be given to Mr Tait “for causing one of the greatest sensations that has ever been known in Kirkcaldy: for exciting in the highest degree the curiosity of the curious; and for affording a spectacle which human eyes rarely indulge in in this part of the globe.”
Mr Tait had an interesting working life starting as a butler at Dunnikier House, becoming an oil merchant and moving into the floor cloth industry. He served as Provost and was involved with the establishment of the Infectious Diseases Hospital (now Victoria Hospital). He died at the age of eighty in 1903, thirty-four years after the whale.
In death the anatomy and skeleton of the whale contributed to the scientific understanding of whales and the remaining jawbones remind us that whales still occasionally swim in the Firth of Forth and if we are lucky, we might be able to spot them from the shores of Kirkcaldy.
The 50 Objects Team are extremely grateful to Kerry for bringing this hitherto forgotten story into the spotlight. The research, content and production, are high quality and many more details, including a number of images, can be found by clicking the icon on this page which takes the reader to the fully extended story. It is a visit well worth making and once again an object is published which at the outset of the project was completely unknown.
Kerry – thank you once again.