The Zoology Museum

Captain Gray's whale model


Model of a bowhead whale by Captain David Gray


The town of Peterhead, which lies some 30 miles North of Aberdeen, was a centre of Arctic whaling in the 19th century. The sailing vessels that went North from Scotland, all the way to Greenland, were in pursuit of the bowhead, or Greenland right whale Balaena mysticetus.

Just a few families dominated the high ranks of the industry; the Gearies, the Robertsons, the Souttars and the Volums, but in particular the Grays. David Gray Sen. (1776-1833) started as mate on the Enterprise (1) in 1806 but in 1811 he got his own ship, the Perseverance (1). The Grays were to dominate the Greenland fishery for the remainder of its existence. David Gray Jun. (1828-1896), entered the industry in 1849, as master of the North of Scotland and sailed in her with great success until 1852. In that year he took over the Active (2) which had been built specifically for him, and later the Eclipse. Over the next 14 years his prowess as a whale catcher was such that he became known as the "Prince of Whalers" although in reality most of his profits came from sealing. David Gray was also an outstanding naturalist who made many important observations in the Arctic. He was one of the very first people to propose a "closed season" to protect the stocks of seals in the Arctic.

Whaling captains were expected not only to kill seals and whales but also to learn and record as much as they could about their behaviour and status. David Gray, had an inquisitive mind and took to zoological studies with a particular zeal, and became a leading expert on Arctic matters, gathering data and collecting zoological specimens and Inuit (Eskimo) artifacts. Many of these are still on public display in Aberdeenshire Council's Arbuthnot Museum in Peterhead and in the British Museum, Natural History, in South Kensington, London.

In 1885 W H Flower of the British Museum, Natural History, had written to David Gray to enquire about the possibility of bringing back to London the skeleton of a bowhead whale. Gray was unable to accommodate the request but did provide a carved scale model. Gray captured the whale, on which the model was based, at 80 degrees North on the 17th of June 1878. The carved wooden model still hangs among the real whales in the Natural History Museum. Captain Gray made a second painted model, to the same scale of 1 inch to the foot, in 1885 and donated it to the Arbuthnot Museum in Peterhead. It was later transferred to the University of Aberdeen Anatomical Museum and then to the Zoology Museum where it is now on public display.