fbpx skip to Main Content


 Scottish Maritime Museum (Denny Tank), Castle Street, Dumbarton

The Scottish Maritime Museum (Denny Tank) in Dumbarton delves deep into Scotland’s forgotten history of industrial whaling in All mortal greatness is but disease’, a new exhibition opening on Sunday 17 September.

The exhibition, whose title is taken from Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, explores how industrial whaling pushed some species almost to extinction and, in the Antarctic alone, led to the killing of nearly 1.6 million whales between 1900-1960.

Though an audio installation, photographs, artworks, artefacts and textiles drawn from the Scottish Maritime Museum’s collection and on loan from the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the Scottish Fisheries Museum, the exhibition focuses on Scotland’s substantial but largely forgotten contribution to this industry and the Scots for whom whaling provided an unrivalled opportunity for prosperity and adventure.

The exhibition concludes with a look at whaling across the globe today.

Eva Bukowska, Exhibitions and Events Assistant at the Scottish Maritime Museum, says:

Scotland’s participation in industrial whaling and the global impact on our marine ecosystem is a bitter and unsettling story but one we wanted to unpack for discussion with visitors.

“As well as the exhibition, we are delighted to partner with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation on a series of workshops and talks, details of which will be announced soon.

“Altogether, through ‘All mortal greatness is but disease’, we hope people gain a greater understanding of industrial whaling, the many complexities involved, how it still impacts us today and the need to preserve marine life for future generations.”


Though subsistence whaling dates back to the Neolithic period, the history of Scottish whaling began a thousand years ago when Vikings hunted whales in the North Atlantic. Whilst whale hunting practices advanced in other areas of Scotland, these Viking whaling traditions were still in use in the Hebrides until the 20th century.

Industrial whaling in Scotland began in earnest in the mid 19th century as industrialisation led to increased demand for whale oil, particularly for lubricating machinery, lighting and heating. In Dundee, the largest jute manufacturer in the world, it was also a vital part of the process of softening jute fibres.

Whale by-products, which also included household, fashion and medicinal items like soap, perfume, whalebone corsets and parasols, also became essential to newly industrial urban societies.

Setting out from the Scottish whaling ports of Dundee, Leith and the Shetlands to hunt blues, humpbacks, seis and southern right whales and seals in Antarctic waters, conditions were brutal.

Whalers faced the danger of the animals, unpredictable weather and seas and desolate locations. Injuries and death were not unusual.

Once harpooned, whales were ‘played’ and chased until death. Carcasses were hauled to processing stations and the blubber stripped in a process akin to ‘peeling a banana’ according to one whaler’s recollection. A whale the size of a railway carriage could be deconstructed in just twenty minutes.

From the mid 19th to mid 20th century, advances in equipment included electric and explosive harpoons, sonar and helicopters making hunting more efficient than ever.

One of the most dramatic and devastating advances though came with the shift from land-based stations to vast ‘factory ships’.

Onboard these vessels, which extended the length of one and a half football fields (170 metres long), crews of up to 4,000 men could catch, butcher and process 200 whales a day. Many of these vessels also included their own meat and oil processing plants.

By the 1950s and 1960s, whale populations had decimated and whaling was no longer profitable. In 1982, a global moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted under the International Whaling Commission (IWC) although many countries continued the hunt for cultural, commercial and scientific purposes.

All mortal greatness is but disease’ runs from 17 September to 11 February 2024.

Content Warning
This exhibition features graphic images and descriptions of whales being hunted, killed and processed.

Facebook/Twitter/Instagram @scotmaritime

 Issued on behalf of the Scottish Maritime Museum by
Joanna Harrison, Mobile: 07884 187404

Back To Top
Skip to content