Records of a Bygone Age The Loss of the Dundee Whaler SS Active

Published here courtesy of The Stronsay Limpet

The Loss of the Dundee Whaler SS Active By Ian Cooper

The SS Active was a wooden whaler built in Peterhead in 1852. At 117 feet long and with a beam of 28 feet, this three-masted ship was built to be capable of sailing through broken ice, to act as an ice breaker and also to withstand the pressures of being trapped and frozen in the ice fields as happened many whalers of that time. Her timbers were clad with good Scottish oak up to 5 inches thick and then much of this overclad with greenheart up to 3 inches thick. With some additional cross bracing and reinforcement in the more vulnerable bow area, parts of her bow and sides were said to be up to 3 feet thick.

SS Active whaling vessel

She sailed off on her maiden voyage from Peterhead on March 1, 1853 bound for the Greenland Sea, calling in along Lerwick on the way, where she picked up some additional crew. In a report at the time, she was described as “the smartest ship in the fleet”, a richly deserved honour. In 1871 she underwent a major refit during which she was converted to steam screw propulsion and fitted with a 48 horsepower steam engine to help power her through the Arctic ice.

In the late 1800s and early years of the 1900s, whaling was big business in Scotland with a number of whalers mainly from Dundee making two trips a year to the Arctic whaling grounds. They would leave their home port in early March, heading about 900 miles due north of Orkney to the Greenland Sea near the island of Jan Mayen, with their last port of call likely to be Stromness or Lerwick where they would often sign up local men as crew. Their main prey in this area was actually seals which were valuable for their skin, blubber (which was boiled to make ‘seal oil’) and bones and, with seals being relatively easy prey large quantities were captured. .The whalers would return to port around the end of May and, after eight or ten days discharging their cargo and loading up with supplies, would head off to the Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada to hunt both whales and seals, returning home once more around the middle of November.

Captain Thomas RobertsonAs whales got scarcer in these areas, in 1892/93 an expedition consisting of the Active, under the command of Captain Thomas Robertson, and three other steam-powered whalers set off to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica to try their luck. During the course of this journey, Captain Robertson identified a previously undiscovered island off Graham Land which he named Dundee Island and, in some quarters, Captain Robertson is also credited on this voyage with being the first man to set foot on mainland Antarctica.

Their whale hunting wasn’t too successful that season as the blue whales common in that area were too powerful to be caught with the equipment they had at the time but they returned home with a few smaller whales and a great number of seals, calling in past Stromness to coal up before going on to Dundee. She had much more success in northern waters, returning from the Hudson’s Bay and the Davis Strait in late October 1896 with a cargo including 2 tons of whalebone valued at £2,200 per ton and 60 tons of oil valued at £18 per ton.

By 1909, the whales were less plentiful but, while she had caught only one small whale, she returned with 480 walruses, 105 bears, 247 seals and even a live tame bear which had been purchased from the local Inuit tribe. 1912 was a more successful season for the Active as she returned from the Davis Strait with 6 whales, said to be one of the last great catches of the whaling years, and in 1914 she made her last whaling voyage to the ‘Nor’wast’, only discovering when she met the United States vessel Pelican at Hudson’s Bay on 4 October that Britain was at war.

Dundee was the last active whaling port in Scotland but, with the advent of larger, more powerful steam whalers capable of catching larger whales, the old whalers were put to other uses or were laid up and, by the time of the Great War, nearly all of these whalers had been sold off.

After a very successful career as a whaler where it was said “No ship afloat has taken more whales from the Arctic region than the Active”, she was destined for a new role. With the outbreak of war, she and her sister ship, the Dundee whaler ‘Morning’, were both commandeered by the Admiralty for “special duties” and placed under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They both underwent a refit during which their tanks for storing blubber and whale oil were removed and, while this greatly increased their cargo capacity, it also affected their stability and the strength of their hulls.

Loaded with a mixed cargo including munitions and a large amount of candle wax, it is reported that many of the crew felt the Active was overloaded and unsafe for a winter passage and refused to sail on her. They were subsequently sent to trial and jailed for 90 days and another crew, under the command of Shetlander Captain William Leask, took over.

She left Leith on 13th December 1915, berthing at her home port of Dundee for a few days before leaving on the 21st bound around the North Cape of Norway for the Russian port of Archangel, a round trip which would have been well in excess of 4,000 miles.

Not long after leaving Dundee, a gale sprang up from the south-east which soon strengthened to winds of hurricane force, accompanied by blinding snow. While somewhere east of Orkney on the 24th of that month, the Active communicated with the Lyness based converted ferry HMS Duke of Albany and this was to be the last that was to be seen or heard from her.

The mountainous seas and the hurricane force winds evidently proved too much for her weakened hull and she began leaking badly. The crew must have battled long and hard to keep her afloat, manning the pumps as long as they were able, but it was to be of no avail and they eventually had to accept that she was foundering.

The First Mate James Jamieson, who was also a Shetlander, penned a last message, which was also to serve as his will, to his family saying:

“Dear Family, this will be my last letter to you. We are sinking to the North and East of Lerwick. God bless you all as he has given me strength to die, my soul is resting on the finished work of Jesus. A navy boat passed us and we told him we were sinking. I have been under the boat all night trying to get the water out . . . filled . . . (blanks illegible). The water is at my knees on the cabin floor. Don’t mourn for me, meet me in heaven, Mother, Father, Agnes, Andrew, Ann, Margaret, Coventry. Again God bless you all. I leave everything among you. Ta ta. James S. Jamieson.”

The paper was thrust into a bottle which was thrown over the side before the Active and her crew went under on Christmas Day 1915 and this letter, like the bodies of many of the men, was to be washed up on an Orkney beach. The first intimation anyone had of this disaster was when the bottle containing this message was tossed up on the Stronsay shore to be found and read by one of the local men and the contents passed on to the authorities.

Soon after, lifeboats, wreckage and the bodies of some of the 20-strong crew began to come ashore, with five bodies being found on Stronsay, two on Rousay (one of which was James Jamieson who was later buried in the Glebe Kirkyard in Rousay) and others on Deerness, Shapinsay and other parts of Orkney.

Mr Jamieson’s estimation of the vessel being north-east of Lerwick was incorrect and it had always been surmised locally and generally accepted that, judging by where this bottle, the bodies and the wreckage came ashore, the Active must have foundered somewhere close to Odiness Bay on Stronsay.

Part of her cargo was large slabs of candle wax about 30mm thick contained in jute sacks and a number of those were washed up on Stronsay and also some of the other North Isles at the time. Pieces of these slabs were to continue be washed up around Stronsay’s east coast for many years after. I can remember as a young lad finding pieces still coming ashore in the 1960s and 70s, more than fifty years after the Active was lost, a final sad reminder of the tragic end of a proud old ship and her crew.

large slabs of candle wax

If anyone has any more information about the ‘Active’ I would be delighted to hear of it, emailing


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