Leith Local History Society

The Harpoon

The harpoon
The harpoon
Photo: D King; Date: 25/06/2012

The harpoon preserved on The Shore reminds us of an industry that was once very important in Leith, namely whaling. Nowadays we tend to regard whaling with distaste. Within living memory it was, however, regarded as a valuable source of food oils and of raw materials for industry. Whale oil was, for instance, used in the manufacture of margarine and soap.

There were two distinct phases to the whaling industry in Leith. From 1616 until 1842 Leith whalers sailed to Arctic waters, mainly around Greenland. This was an uncertain business with ships running the risk of being crushed by ice or, in times of war, captured by enemy warships. In the early 18th century a ‘boiling house’ was established in the Timber Bush. It was still in use in the early 19th century when it was owned by Peter and Christopher Wood. When blubber boiling was taking place a strong pungent oily smell spread through the town – it was known locally as “Woods’ scent bottle”.

In 1908 a new phase of whaling started when Christian Salvesen & Son sent a whaling fleet from Leith to the Antarctic. They established a whaling station called ‘Leith Harbour’ in South Georgia. By 1911 their whaling fleet was the largest in the world. For many Leith people the whaling industry was a valuable source of employment until whaling ceased in 1963.