If there was one place on earth that a young humpback whale in December 1883 did not want to be, it was the Firth of Tay.

Dundee at the time was Scotland’s major whaling port. And the 40-foot long whale’s wrong turning would be the death of it and the start of perhaps one of the city’s most curious episodes.

Before long the whale would achieve celebrity status, attracting train loads of curious Victorians happy to defy the stench of decaying whale flesh to pose alongside it.

One inventive chap even rolled up with a piano which was propped in the creatures mouth for a photograph.

And, to make its humiliation complete, the ‘world’s worst’ poet, William McGonagall, penned a horrifically bad poem, The Famous Tay Whale in its honour.

It contains the lines: “Twas in the month of December, and in the year 1883, That a monster whale came to Dundee…” and, in reference to the almost comical effort to slay the mammal as it fled in fear: “And they laughed and grinned just like wild baboons, While they fired at him their sharp harpoons.”

The strange story of how the humpback strayed into Tay waters and created a ‘whale’ of a commotion will soon be told in a day long event highlighting the city’s maritime heritage and the changing landscape of the river.

As well as reflecting on how the area’s past has shaped life today in the area, speakers will look at what the future might hold for the Tay and the people who live with it.

It will also feed into efforts by Dundee Libraries to develop a new online resource that will explore the city’s maritime past, present and future.

When it comes to maritime adventures, few match the events on land and sea surrounding the unfortunate Tay Whale, to be recounted on the day by Library & Information Officer and storyteller, Dr Erin Farley.

The Herald: One of Prof. Struther's illustrations of the Tay WhaleOne of Prof. Struther's illustrations of the Tay Whale (Image: Contributed)

It was first spotted by a group of schoolchildren as it swum off Broughty Ferry in December 1883, and soon attracted excited whale spotters, many who appeared to become rather fond of their unusual guest.

“People were amazed to see a live whale,” she says. “Unfortunately for the whale, Dundee was a whaling town, and the whale crews were in town for winter.

“Plus, it was December, and the festive period when people are maybe in a daft nature.”

The whale’s arrival as it chased unusually large number of herring and sprat saw off duty whalers dash to the harbour, anxious for some sport.

But despite their prowess with a harpoon in Arctic waters, the whale on their own doorstep proved a difficult target.

After an exhausting chase lasting several hours, a harpoon pierced the ribs of the exhausted mammal followed by two more, only for it to get a second wind and charge for the open waters.

It was Hogmanay, and the boats remained attached to the whale through the night and into the New Year, towed as far as Montrose.

The struggle continued until a sudden sharp breeze caught the harpoon lines, snapped them and allowed the whale to escape.

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Defeated, the whaling crews, weakened by lack of provisions on board their vessels, made their way back to Dundee, tails between their legs.

It would be a further week before the whale was found, dead, off Stonehaven.

But its sad tale was only beginning.

After much rowing and hauling, the carcase was first dragged ashore at Stonehaven then transported back to Dundee where, upon being hoisted by a 70 tonne steam crane, its tongue fell out and the two lorries employed to carry it broke down under its weight.

With its legendary status already confirmed, the whale had been snapped up by a local entrepreneur, John Woods, known as “Greasy Johnny” who paid £226 and transported the by now ripe smelling 16-ton whale to his Dundee yard to put on display.

On the first Sunday, 12,000 visitors paid handsomely to see it.

“Quickly there became an element of humour around it,” says Dr Farley. “There are poems, songs and people writing about it.

“One thing many people found particularly funny was that this was a whaling town and yet the they couldn’t actually catch this whale that’s made its way right up the River Tay.”

Special ‘whale’ express trains were arranged to transport crowds to Greasy Johnny’s yard to see the whale, and be photographed by its side.

And within a few days 40,000 people had paid between 6d to a shilling for the thrill of viewing “the monster”.

The clock was ticking, however, and soon its decomposing state would mean it could no longer remain on public view.

By January 25, it was in the hands of Professor John Struthers, the Regius Professor of Anatomy at Aberdeen University, who offered to dissect it and record his findings before the whale’s skeleton could be returned to the people of Dundee.

No stranger to the grim task of dissection, his room was said to permeate its own particular stench “like the deck of a Greenland whaler”.

While, ever the entrepreneur, Greasy Johnny made sure he made a little more income by charging the public to watch the grisly task, serenaded by the rousing tunes of a military band playing in the background throughout.

With the dissection complete, the whale was stuffed and sent on a bizarre ‘farewell tour’ travelling the country by train and heading as far as Edinburgh and onwards to London.

“Professor Struthers did lectures and published papers about the whale,” adds Dr Farley. “He talks about it as a mammal, and the similarities between the whale’s skeleton and the human skeleton.

The Herald: Storyteller Dr Erin Farley of the Local History Centre, Central Library, DundeeStoryteller Dr Erin Farley of the Local History Centre, Central Library, Dundee (Image: Grant Keelan)

“There was a lot of response in Dundee, sometimes with a tone of mockery.

“Darwin has published his theories, so it’s not like this is news but people might not have understood it, and they are thinking it’s a fish.

“When he starts talking about the evolutionary side of things, people are quite uncomfortable at the possibility that this creature which is very much seen as a commodity in Dundee, is something that they are connected to in a way they hadn’t thought of before.”

The whale’s skeleton was eventually put on display in the McManus Galleries in Dundee, where it remains.

Dr Farley says the story and the excitement the whale generated reflects the natural curiosity around sea animals, both then and now.

“Their world is very different than the one we live in and that makes them quite fascinating,” she adds.

Dundee’s Maritime Pasts and Futures is a day long event of talks and discussions planned for Central Library on Thursday, March 14. For details visit here