The Birsay Whalebone

On a lovely autumn day, I took the short and lovely walk from Birsay towards the old gun battery near to Whitaloo Point. This walk takes you past a restored 19th-century fisherman’s hut built into the side of a cliff. Deep grooves in the ground called ‘nousts’ or ‘noasts’ show where fishermen drew their boats up high onto the shore for protection.

A short distance beyond Skiba Geo is a peculiar monument – a whalebone which has been set on a post above the shore. The question was why erect a whalebone on the edge of the cliffs? The story goes that sometime around 1876 a Right whale washed up on the shore at Birsay.

Right whales were prized by whalers because they were slow swimmers and carried plenty of blubber, or whale fat. The local fishermen could have sold the whale to a company that specialised in boiling down the blubber for oil, and grinding the bones for fertiliser.Instead, they decided to do the work themselves. Unfortunately, there were too few of them to turn the whale carcass over once they’d cut up the top of the carcass. So, the locals essentially had a half whale worth of blubber to sell. It then took at least 25 years for the entire whale to decompose and the bones to wash away or be used by local families.

Part of the jawbone was set upon a post, with a crossbar formed from part of the skull. It was blown down in a gale in 2008 and has suffered over the years from children swinging on it, but there is now a metal rod inside the jawbone and the post has been set in concrete so it should be good for another century or two!