Visitors to Harris in the Western Isles have much to wonder at, with spectacular mountains and remarkable beaches contributing to a unique and memorable landscape. There's also intrigue here. Only a few miles north-west of Tarbert the main road turns north-east at the head of a loch, towards Lewis and Stornoway. On the shore of the loch, if you can tear your eyes away from the mountains that rise in the background, is a tall square chimney made of red bricks, apparently standing completely alone. It's not hard for the curious to discover that this is the most obvious remnant of the old whaling station at Bunabhainneadar. This place has fascinated me since my first visit to Harris many years ago and I've always wanted to know more about it.
And now I do. "The Whalers of Harris" by Ian Hart tells the story of the whaling station at Bunabhainneadar, and those of the companies and individuals who brought it into being in 1904 and operated it until 1928; and then very briefly from 1950-1951. During its period of operation the whaling station processed 2,866 whales and brought about the probable extinction of one species.
There's something especially commendable about an author who chooses a subject that has never been fully explored before and writes a book about it that is so good you know it is the only book on the subject that will ever be needed. "The Whalers of Harris" by Ian Hart is superbly researched, wonderfully presented and very nicely illustrated. It covers its subject so well that you know it will remain the definitive book on that subject and a valuable reference source for generations to come. This is a book we'd strongly recommend to anyone with an interest in the natural world and in Scotland's impact on that world. And to anyone wondering about the presence of that brick chimney on the shore of a loch in Harris.
The publisher's blurb outlines the contents of the book well: "This fascinating book is the first to describe comprehensively the history of the whaling station located on the west coast of Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It starts with the ‘royal fish’ and subsistence whaling and moves on to the introduction by Norwegians at the beginning of the twentieth century of modern whaling techniques with ships equipped with harpoon guns, and the effect on the local population and economy. It follows with the consequences of the First World War and unfavourable trading conditions, and the whaling station’s sale in 1922 to the industrial magnate Lord Leverhulme and his grandiose ideas for experimentation. Finally, after closure in 1928, it describes the station’s partial but short-lived resurrection under joint Norwegian and British management in 1950, to its final demise caused by the decline in North Atlantic whale populations and alternative sources of relatively cheaply procured Antarctic whale oil and vegetable oils. In this meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated book, author Ian Hart tells a story which is also tinged with tragedy and severe consequences for the natural world. It not only describes the history of whaling from Harris but perhaps serves as a warning that we should treat our fellow mammals on this planet with more compassion, care and understanding."