Friday Photo; Bunavoneader whaling station

The whaling station at Bunavoneader was first opened by Norwegian father and son Peter and Carl Herlofson, who founded the company A/S Harupunen (The Harpoon).   The family had started the company in Iceland in 1896, but were searching for a suitable site further down the North Atlantic, settling on Bunavoneader in 1904.  The area had a natural safe harbour and was close to a freshwater stream that supplied both water and generated power for steam saws.  Adding to this, it had easy access to the North Atlantic whaling grounds and the markets of Glasgow, making it an ideal site for a whaling station.

The company was so successful that in the years between 1906-1914 it caught the majority of Northern Right (so-called as they were the ‘right’ whale for hunting) whales caught in Scotland.  However, due to the outbreak of WWI, the station was forced to close as the overwhelmingly Norwegian staff were classed as ‘aliens’, and the few local men employed were called to the war effort.

The station was re-opened c1918/1919 by the Herlofson family, however, the falling price for whale products meant that it was no longer such a viable business.  This led the company selling up to Lord Leverhulme in 1922, who then founded the Harris Whaling and Fishing Company.  Sadly, the company operated at a loss, and following failed attempts to market whale meat to Lever’s African employees, it was eventually liquidated in 1929, four years after Lord Leverhulme’s death.

Whale products, in particular oil and fat became favourable again during the rationing period after WWII, which led to the station at Bunavoneador being briefly revived for two seasons in 1950 and 1951.  The Bunavoneader Whaling Company, again led by two Norwegians, built up the station from near ruin, knocking down one of the old chimneys to build sheds in its place.  Mr Jesperson and Mr Zimmerman employed a Norwegian whaling crew, but hired 30 local men and a handful of local women to operate at the site.  As before, whale oil and fat were the main commodity, but the company also hoped to market whale meat for human consumption.  Britain, unlike other Atlantic coast nations, had never developed a taste for whale meat, and as it was illegal for the meat to be disguised in sausages and pies, it appeared it never would.  However, it was not lack of demand for whale products that saw the closure of this company, but instead a lack of whales.  Over-fishing by many countries had severely depleted whale stocks, and with a lack of raw material, the company closed the station for good in 1951.

The three photos used in this post are from the Stornoway Library photograph collection, and show the first life of the whaling station, from 1904-1929.  The material for this post was taken from the Islands Book Trust book Whaling and the Hebrides and Stornoway Library’s Local History Pamphlet collection.  Both sources have a lot more information about the role of the islands in whaling, and are well worth a read.

About David Powell

Project Manager and Archivist with Tasglann nan Eilean Siar
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