Many of us remember going to see the Tay Whale skeleton on display in the McManus, but do you all know the story behind the incredible chase? It was November 1883 when the 40ft humpback whale first appeared in the Firth of Tay, just off the shore of Dundee. Whaling was big business in Dundee at that time and with it being winter, all the whalers, their ships and equipment were in harbour. Not able to resist such a bounty right on their doorstep, many whalers set out to hunt the beast.

After several failed attempts, on 31st December the whale was finally harpooned in the neck. Two rowing boats joined the steamboat that had harpooned the whale to create more drag and to slow the speed of the whale. Not seeming too bothered by this the whale continued to slowly and calmly swim down the river, dragging the boats closely behind him.

After passing Broughty Castle, another boat pulled ahead and lodged another harpoon into the animal, and this time the whale was not happy. It made desperate efforts to free itself, lashing furiously with its tail and darting everyway it could as fast as possible. Great crowds gathered to watch the spectacle, around 2,000 watched from along the esplanade and many boats followed the chase in the river. Once darkness set in however, the boats lost sight of the whale and the four ships attached by harpoon line were dragged out to sea.

As it was dark and no other boats could be summoned to help, the hunters now found themselves unable to do anything other than be dragged by the whale, and hope for its injuries to overcome it. All through the night, and into new years day of 1884, the four ships were dragged all the way up the coast to Montrose, back down to the Firth of Forth, and then back up the coast again towards Dundee. The winds were howling and the whale was moving erratically and thrashing, all adding to the strain of the harpoon lines. The hunters tried to fire iron bolts and marlinspikes to accelerate its death, but the strain finally made the harpoon lines give way and the whale broke free and swam out to sea. Large crowds had gathered at the harbour and after finding out the whale had escaped an air of disappointment was felt, by none more so than the hunters who had failed in their chase.

A week later, the whale was found dead and floating out at sea near Stonehaven, still filled with the harpoons, iron bolts and other projectiles of the hunters. It was towed back to land and sold at auction, bought by local entrepreneur John Woods, a worthy also known by the name ‘Greasy Johnny’. He was determined to make a fortune out of the spectacle, which had drawn thousands of spectators in the chase, and in the sensational press that followed. On the first Sunday that it was exhibited 12,000 people paid to see it.

Outbid at the auction of the whale was Professor John Struthers, an anatomist from Aberdeen. Struthers wished to dissect and examine the anatomy of the whale, and after the whale had decomposed to the point where it could no longer be publicly displayed, and make money for Greasy Johnny, Struthers was invited to dissect the remains. Not one to miss an opportunity for a quick buck, Johnny charged a special fee to observe the dissection and even added background music by the 1st Forfarshire Rifle volunteer’s band. Professor Struthers complained that these distractions adversely affected his work, and the state of the by now well-decomposed whale didn’t help matters. His assistants were wading knee deep in the putrid mass of the viscera and muscles that were liquefied and poured out of the incisions.

Professor Struthers seen here in the top hat, standing to the left of the great Tay Whale. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Struthers removed most of the bones except for the skull, and made a very detailed examination, which can be read online for any of you interested in whale anatomy! Greasy Johnny was at the ready again to make his money, and after introducing a wooden backbone, the whale was stuffed and stitched back to its original form. The stuffed whale was then taken on a grand tour, visiting Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London and Manchester before returning to Dundee on 7th August. Professor Struthers completed the removal of the skull and the skeleton was now completely removed and able to be assembled and re-articulated.

While Greasy Johnny no doubt made huge profits from the publics interest in the whale, he did refuse several large offers for the whale skeleton to keep his promise made earlier to gift it to the city of Dundee. It was moved to the Albert Institute, now the McManus, where it has remained a centrepiece and talking point for generations.

The great spectacle of the chase and capture of the whale caught the interest of the whole town but was immortalised in the words of the worlds worst poet, our beloved local bard William Topaz McGonagall, in his poem “The Famous Tay Whale”. While factually accurate, like most of McGonagall’s poems it has been remembered more for the appalling quality of the poetry, rather than the content.

Instead of simply reading the words, the best way to experience this majestic work is in this performance by the Harvard and Princeton glee clubs. The poem has actually inspired several works of art and music based on it, so people are still profiting off the interest in this great beast even today.

Dundee is currently known as a place of scientific research and discovery, but here’s one Dundee scientist you might not have heard of. Dr Patrick Blair was a Scottish surgeon and botanist, he was born in Dundee in 1680 and practised as a doctor here. And, in 1706 he was the first person to dissect and fully describe the anatomy of an elephant.

Just outside Dundee on the road from Broughty Ferry on 26th April 1706, Florentina, a female Indian elephant which was being exhibited around the north of Scotland, fell over and drowned in a ditch. It was going to be expensive and difficult for the keepers to dispose of the dead animal and so handed the corpse over to the Provost. The local Dr Blair jumped at the opportunity to be the first to dissect and describe the large animal, and the provost was quite frankly glad to be rid of the problem of what to do with a dead elephant!

Dr Blair gathered the help of local butchers, and one particular assistant was Gilbert Orum, harassed debtor, under-employed tradesman, neglected husband and harassed father. But he was also a skilled copper engraver, and he both assisted with the messier parts of the dissection and made engravings of the internal organs and skeleton of the elephant.


The locals were determined to take trophies from the elephant or large chunks of meat and an armed guard had to be used to keep the masses away while Dr Blair and his assistants worked on through the night by gaslight. The once majestic beast was measured, dissected and reported on. Blair taking many notes and measurements with Orum making detailed engravings. When they were finished, Blair had the information needed to write an expansive and detailed review of the anatomy of an elephant.

The bones were recovered and the skeleton assembled and mounted as the centre-piece for a new ‘Hall of Rarities’ in Dundee, and the skin was stuffed. Blair was meticulous and wrote up his findings in a paper under the title of Osteographia Elephantina, to the Royal Society of London, published in 1713.

His assistant Orum, seeing an opportunity to further capitalise on this sensational story, also published an account of the dissection. In it, far from being inspired by this historic task, Orum is more concerned with keeping clear of his creditors, or if he can’t avoid them, repaying his debts with anything other than what he lacks the most: ready cash. He uses some of the unusual parts from the dissected elephant as a form of currency in his attempts to pay off the butcher, baker, the chandler, and the blacksmith.

Orum also writes about his family life. His wife is sickly and suffers from extreme nervousness, as do all his children. He is relentlessly pursued by a no-longer younger woman, who waits only for his wife’s death to capture the widower for herself. He also needs to be swift to avoid the baker’s wife, a large lady who is keen to convert his debt into certain ‘services’, and he feels obliged to look out for his older brother and his chaotic family of ten.

Orum details some of the less serious aspects of the dissection, including Dr Blair’s cook being outraged by the storage of parts of dead elephant in her kitchen. Dr Blair retorts: “Never mind, Miss Goag! Just think that your splendid kitchen has this evening played a part in the History of Philosophical experiment!”. Miss Gloag expressed her ardent desire that “Philosophical experiment would rot slowly from its ***** upwards, die painfully and be ******* by Satan forever”.


And what became of Dr Blair? While he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1712 and received a lot of fame for his elephant dissection works as well as his great work in botany, it was his political beliefs that landed him in trouble.

At the time of the dissection, the Act of the Union was being born. An anti-unionist, Blair compared his own dissections to those of the Commissioners “cutting and butchering the Body Politick of Scotland. Blair’s family were also Jacobites, so it was no surprise when he joined Lord Nairn’s Battalion as a surgeon during the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. He was captured and taken to Newgate Prison in London, where he was sentenced to death. Lobbying amongst friends and other influential scientists saw a reprieve come at the final moment, past the midnight of his pre-execution night and he was pardoned.

Returning home things were more difficult for his practice in the time of the Union. He carried on with his scientific studies and practising medicine, moving to London, then Boston in Lancashire, where he died in 1728.

Full pdf of the dissection available here –