The following is the text of the second volume of the log book kept by James Melville Keith, then a medical student studying at Aberdeen University, who sailed as the doctor on the Dundee whaling ship “Active” on her voyage in 1881 to the whaling grounds of northeast Canada.
The original was donated to Dundee Museums and Art Galleries by his relative, the Reverend Alan Roy, then of 23 Shamrock Street, Dundee. A copy was made and lodged in the City Archives. The original was authenticated on 18 November 1980 by David S Henderson the expert author of the seminal work “Fishing for the Whale” who was, at that time, designated as Assistant Keeper, Natural History.
In his writings, James Keith reveals himself as a committed Christian. Moreover, he was an acute observer: of the work of the crew of the Active in treacherous Arctic waters; of the landscape, flora and fauna at sites where the vessel made landings; and of the culture and daily life of the Inuit with whom he came in contact. He was clearly the friend and confident of the Captain, James Fairweather, then on his last voyage as Master of the Active and the last of his 10 seasons in the employment of the Tay Whale Fishing Company before moving on to a larger, and hence more remunerative, ship-the Thetis.
In common with many vessels of the time, Active undertook two voyages in 1881. The first was to take part in the “Greenland sealing” departing on 7th March. A full account of that voyage can be found in the “Advertiser” on 22rd April 1881, the day after her return. There was a remarkably short turn around and on 28th April she set off again, this time to fish for whales in the Davis Strait. The fishing was poor and the fleet as a whole secured only 48 whales that year. As James Keith confirms in his log, the Active returned to Dundee on 26th October 1881. Later that year a one thirtieth share in her was sold for £225 giving the vessel an estimated value of £6750 (around £7.5 million at current prices).
A summary of the dimensions of the Arctic and her voyages over the period 1852-1914 is set out at pages 113-4 in Malcolm Archibald’s authoritative book The Dundee Whaling Fleets: Ships, Masters and Men pubs Archibald published by Dundee University Press in 2013. In 1914 the Active was the last Dundee whaler to sail to the Arctic with a Dundee crew. She returned to her home port to find the country at war. She was requisitioned and, consequently not sufficiently well maintained to meet the worst of weathers: wreckage was later washed ashore on Orkney.
Further detail Captain James Fairweather is to be found in his biography produced by his granddaughter Nancy Rycroft. Drawing on published and unpublished records as well as family documents and photographs she has covered his life and career which spanned the period 1853-1933 in her book: Captain James Fairweather: Whaler and Shipmaster published in 2005.
And what of James Melville Keith? He went on after his adventures on the Active in 1881 to graduate MB CM from Aberdeen University. In 1916, aged 56, he was engaged in “private & panel practice”. His address was 56 Addison Place, Arbroath, a substantial 6 bedroomed semi-detached stone built house with garden ground all of which he rented for £40 per annum. Dr Keith died, aged 70 in the St Andrews District of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately, there is no trace of the first volume of James Keith’s two volume log has been lost. This, no doubt, recorded events from 28th April when the Active left Dundee. Volume two takes up the story from 9th July by which time the Active had reached the Davis Straits.
Since morning the weather has been dull and grey, the wind blowing gently from the southeast. The ship was early hove to and made fast to an ice floe, until the men had put the essential part of yesterday’s fish into the tanks. After breakfast the Captain went to bed, as he had been up a good deal during the “night”. One officer and his watch (i.e. of men) were left to look after the ship while most of the others had gone to sleep, when just about dinner time the officer came hurriedly and woke the Captain, saying that the ice was fast flying down, owing to a change of wind, and was closing round the ship. Steam was ordered to be got up as quickly as possible and immediately afterwards the Captain hurried on deck. I had gone on deck myself by this time to have a look at this new danger, when I plainly saw what was causing the perturbation. Immense fields of ice were closing in around the ship & should she be caught between two of the heavy floes, she would be crushed into a shapeless mass. Fortunately, though most of the ice was about six feet thick and some of it even ten, there was one place where it was comparatively thin, scarcely a foot thick, through which the ship, if got under steam quickly enough, could easily force her way. All hands were soon on deck and the boats hoisted out of the reach of the ice, as some of it reached as high as the ship’s gunwale. Steam was by this time got up & the ship, with a great deal of manoeuvering, began slowly to make headway. The men, meanwhile, ranged themselves on one side of the deck & then began running from one side to the other so as to make the ship roll & thus assist her to force her way through the ice. After about an hour’s steaming we got clear of this danger, for which we ought to be very thankful.
We saw a fine large whale tonight and would have captured it without fail, had it not been for the carelessness of one of the harpooners who frightened the fish away, just when another man was about to fasten it. The conduct of the harpooner who scared the fish caused no small amount of discontent amongst the men and the Captain threatened that if he did the same again he would lose his place in the ship, and no wonder, as the lost whale would be worth fifteen hundred pounds.
It has now fallen down very thick, so that we cannot see twenty yards from the ship. Right ahead can be distinctly heard the blasting of a large whale, but as it’s impossible to see any distance, it can blow away in peace.
Nothing of importance since Saturday to record, save that we have moored farther south and that the ship is now made fast to a floe of thick ice opposite “Pond’s Inlet”. The ice-floe runs from where we are fastened right into the land, a distance of fully ten miles. There is a native settlement hereabouts, but we are hardly near enough yet for the natives to come off to us. They are real “savages”, I believe. I trust I shall have an opportunity of seeing some of them.
Don’t suppose that because I so often mention being among ice, that the weather must be dreadfully cold: on the contrary, the weather on the whole is wonderfully mild; and today, for instance, it is positively warm, so warm in fact that I was lying for a good while in the open air and basking in the glowing sunshine. Indeed, I believe that were it not for the presence of such vast fields of ice, the weather would be meltingly hot; as it is the sun & the ice together generally tend to keep it moderate. One thing I cannot fail to remark and that is that a temperature of 45˚F out here is generally felt to be as warm, if not warmer, than one of 55˚F does in the old country. The chief officer is away shooting loons, large flocks of which are flying about. The Captain has gone on board the “Polynia” to consult with Captain Yule about their future proceedings. The “Polynia” and the “Active” are the only ships that are here at present; all the others have gone up “Lancaster Sound”.
We, in company with the “Polynia”, left our moorings about 8 o’clock and steamed almost six miles further up. We had to run hard to beat the “Polynia”, but we managed to do it, though, among other small casualties, at the expense of a bump on the back of my head, which I got by the ship, which was steaming full speed at the time, running right into a heavy mass of ice several feet thick. We are now made fast for the night; no doubt the new day will bring something new with it.
We have had capital fun since Tuesday chasing “unicorns” or “narwhals”. Seven were captured on Wednesday and five yesterday. Five of these had beautiful ivory horns from three to eight feet long. I was in the boat which caught the one with the longest horn, on which occasion the catchers were nearly caught. It happened thus. The second officer was going away in a boat to try his luck, as the sailors say, and I went with him. We hadn’t been on the road above five minutes when up came five or six large narwhals right ahead of the boat – a few strokes of the oars brought us up to them, and, singling out the largest one the second mate fired into it. The fish lay stunned for a moment, then darted off at full speed ahead, right down, and hauling out the line with as much speed as a large whale would do. Suddenly the rope fouled, i.e. one part became entangled with another, and the officer was nearly carried away trying to get the entangled mass thrown over so as to save the boat; it was cleared just in time or the boat would have been drawn down by the fish within two seconds. It was a narrow escape indeed and we were very thankful that there were no more serious results than a few cuts and bruises received from the misadventure. The wild rascal made off with between three and four hundred yards of line, an inch thick, before he stopped. After we got him up he was seen to be the largest of any that we had captured and had an ivory horn eight feet long.
The exercise of rowing gave me a good appetite for my dinner. After dinner I went away again with the Captain, but we didn’t get the chance of a “uni” & in about an hour returned to the ship. Today two other “unies” were caught, one of them having a horn seven feet long.
We unmoored immediately after dinner and after six hours steaming and ploughing through a field of heavy ice we arrived here in Pond’s Bay or more properly the mouth of “Pond’s Inlet”.
While coming along we were favoured with a sight of that strange phenomenon the “mirage”. A strong southerly breeze was blowing at the time and along the land appeared a beautiful white veil, moving from south to north with great speed. The mountains and promontories assumed the most fantastic forms imaginable, some also appearing where doubtless they had never been & others just as mysteriously disappearing out of sight, not by being enveloped in mist, however, but seeming to jump from their place as if by magic.
There is a small settlement of the Esquimaux here and we were awaited by a number of them that had driven nearly to the edge of the ice in their carriages, drawn by six – not horses but dogs. As we steamed up to the ice & made fast, the natives made a great noise and cut a great many capers indicative of pleasure at our arrival. Soon several kuhnas, isaki and picininas were on board. I noticed a marked difference at once between the Esquimaux on this & the other side of the strait. Those here have more of the appearance on the Red Indian about them but with this difference, they are not so tall. The men, I think, average about 5 ft 4 inches in height, while they are of a strong and muscular build & have very prominent high cheek bones. The women are much smaller and will not average more than 4 ft 8 inches in height. Both sexes wear their hair long and hanging about their necks. Their eyes are very dark and piercing. All the married women have certain parts of the face i.e. the chin, part of each cheek and part of the forehead – tattooed with the juice of wild berries. All the natives here, from three years old & upwards smoke! I must confess that I could not help looking with wonder at the ladies with their picininas, each smoking at the hardest.
Somehow they seemed to recognise at once what position I held in the ship, without being told, for several of them came and addressed me at once as “Uktar”, their word for doctor. They are very dark, though not black, in complexion and can give a smile like other folks! Their “meekies” cannot bark like other dogs, or rather cannot bark at all. Instead of barking they give a wolfish howl which they prolong, while they run up and down the scale at a fine rate. Just now about a score of “meekies” are holding a concert at the side of the ship and I can assure you that I wouldn’t like to be alone among the mountains & hear that same cantata from as many hungry throats.
All the natives here appear to be very warmly clad in bearskin garments. The mothers carry the little ones upon their back somewhat in the same manner as the tinkers in Scotland do, only with a good deal more care.
A native brought us four fine large salmon tonight; they are said to be very plentiful in some of the mountain streams here. Last year the men of the ship caught several thousand of them. I was a good deal amused tonight by hearing one of the natives sing a verse or two of the Scotch song “Highland Laddie”. He could do it very well.
The weather is keeping remarkably fine and free from fogginess. We have been keeping mooring most of the time since Friday last near the mouth of Pond’s Inlet. This is a favourite resort for whales at this season of the year generally, but this year the ice is in such a condition that they are keeping south longer than usual & at the same time we are unable to get further down just now. We caught four narwhals on Tuesday, the Captain himself shooting two of them. Two had single horns and one had a pair, each being about five feet long. Last night we saw a number of large black whales and the boats gave chase; one was captured after a severe struggle. At the first sweep it made off with eight lines of 120 fathoms each. I was in one of the boats engaged in the capture and several times the fish with its tremendous tail, twenty-one feet broad, nearly turned us into the air. As it was such a wild sort of a fellow, we could only approach it at a good deal of risk to the boat, so the Captain himself came to our assistance with the bomb gun and it was soon killed. The value of the whale would be fully £1200.
The general health of all on board is keeping good, with the exception of some trifling ailments. The toothache has been keeping a few of the men lively, but I’ve been enabled to cure every case by extracting the offending member, lancing the gum or applying a soothing remedy.
I am a good deal astonished by the amount of superstition that prevails on board not only of this ship but also most of the others. The “lucky” curiosities that are to be seen are innumerable. Various prominent places are decorated with horse-shoes, perforated coins etc., while the omens, dreams and prognostications of old wives at home, which are brought forwards as infallible tokens of what is about to happen, completely upset my gravity at times. But sailors have always been accounted a superstitious class and I half believe not without good reason.
This is another beautiful day, mild and calm. Saturday and yesterday were both somewhat foggy and we couldn’t see very far at times, but today we have a beautiful view in every direction. We chased an immense whale on Saturday afternoon, but the fogginess of the weather soon befriended the poor fish and we lost complete sight of it.
The “Victor”, the ship that brought out my letter, came alongside yesterday. She is in a very bad condition, having been caught in the ice in Lancaster Sound just after we left. The pressure upon the poor ship must have been very severe as about twenty feet of her port bow is crushed in and thirteen of her timbers broken right across. She is also making 18 inches of water hourly. It is very much feared that she will have to be left here unless they can patch her up sufficiently so as to enable her to stand an Atlantic passage.
We had a fine quiet day yesterday. Our Sabbath evening meeting still goes on and it is always well attended. I had a long talk with the Captain last night upon the fulfilment of prophecy, more especially that concerning the second coming and I believe it was with some profit to myself if not to him. I am often refreshed also by half an hour’s talk with our second engineer, who is a sterling Christian. (He was the constant companion of Robert Annan, “the Christian Hero”, till the death of the latter, who lost his life saving that of a child who was drowning). He is a married man and has a son in the “Victor” who is qualifying himself for a Captain’s certificate. I believe he thinks as much about home as I do myself. I am sure we are both more homesick than any others on board. I think he must be still very much in love with his wife, though he has been married above twenty years, for he seems in his delight when he is speaking about her and praising her. But, like himself she is one of the King’s children and that is a great thing even in this life.
Tuesday (July 26th)
We have just got clear of a difficulty which at first threatened us with the same fate as that which befell the “Victor”. Between four and five this morning we were suddenly surrounded by large and heavy fields of ice which jammed in the ship between them. The vessel was so tightly wedged in that even with steam she could not for some while be moved. All hands had to be called, large holes were drilled in the ice and little kegs of powder put into them and the ice blown up. In other places some of the men had ice saws with which they were sawing through the ice, but this was most difficult to do as it was so thick. After eight hours struggling with steam, powder and saws we wriggled our way out without any damage to the ship. The weather today has been somewhat raw and wet and there wasn’t much pleasure being on deck.
The weather since Tuesday has kept dull and raw; we have had a deal of rain, sleet and snow during the last few days. We are but creeping slowly south, being now in the 72˚ of north latitude and 74˚ of west longitude. Owing to a dense fog that prevailed yesterday we were completely caught in the “nips” and the ship nearly lost. By this time you will understand what is meant by the “nips”, an expressive word the sailors coming here use to designate the besetting of the ship among the ice. The ship was completely hemmed in by large floes or fields of ice fully three feet thick and as hard almost as rock. For hours she could not move an inch, while the pressure upon her side by the ice was terrible: the timbers and beams were creaking and groaning with the strain until the ice still closing together lifted the ship bodily out of the water for several feet and partly turned her on her starboard quarter. The hours passed on and the heavy strain on the ship continued and even increased until at last we expected every moment to succumb. Every one was on deck as it was somewhat dangerous to remain below owing to the fact that the beams might give way at any moment and fly up. At last a heavy charge of gunpowder was placed under the port quarter well aft and a tremendous mass of ice that was crushing against the stern post was blown up and the ship considerably relieved. In a short time she sank into her proper position; but I must state that it seemed almost a miracle that the ship’s side wasn’t blown in; as it was it lifted the ship as well as the ice with a pretty severe shock – my sleeping berth was in strange confusion when I looked in: everything was upside down, books, bedclothes etc, completely turned topsy-turvy. In the cabin bottles were broken, stands overturned and a lot of minor casualties that had happened stared one in the face.
We ultimately got out without any serious damage happening to the ship, but it was a hazardous position to be in. We have one comfort at any rate to be thankful for and that is, should the ship be lost out here, very few on board would be losers by the calamity, that is in a worldly point of view, as most of those on board are well insured so as to recompense them for any loss they might sustain.
We are now made fast along with several other ships to a heavy ice floe about ten feet thick opposite “Coutt’s Inlet”. The weather yesterday and today has been magnificent, sunny, summer-like and salubrious. The Captain and I went forward to the Half Deck to have the meeting there instead of in the cabin; there were about forty present. We have a good supply of Spurgeon’s and Talmage’s sermons on board and I enjoy the reading of them very much. Today was very warm and I tried to catch some of the small “Creatures of fishes” and “other things” that the whales swallow as food. I had succeeded in catching one, which I put into a bottle of salt water, and the Captain in trying to capture another with my little net lost the whole affair and my experiment came to an end. It is now 11 p.m. and a beautiful night – the light glorious to behold. As I stand on the deck I see right before me hills and mountains topped with the everlasting snow standing range upon range as far north and south as the eye can reach, while between them can be seen valleys, fiords and gorges. Again reaching out from the land as far as can be seen, you perceive immense fields of ice thicker than the walls of St Andrew’s old castle and as smooth as a bowling green, save where here and there a gigantic iceberg rears aloft his massive and wonderful form. Then everything is so peaceful, while the sun, as of wont, is flooding the landscape with his glory and making the whole look like some fairy scene.
We have experienced a great change in the weather since Monday. On Tuesday the temperature had fallen 15˚ while the wind had backed into the northeast, and to crown it all we were favoured with a severe snowstorm. From then until this morning the storm has continued almost without intermission, but today it looks more settled and it almost appears as if we were going to enjoy summer weather again for a time. Several of the men are suffering from colds and influenza through the changeableness of the weather. Captain Yule of the “Polynia” reports that the second officer of the “Erik” was killed the other day, while working with a whale. His back was broken and he only lived two hours after the accident. From all that I can gather I’m afraid, poor man, that he wasn’t prepared for so sudden a call.
Oh how I do long and hunger for the sight of the waving corn, the rippling brooks, the bonnie blue bells and best of all - dear familiar faces. But I trust to see all these again in the Lord’s good time. I dream of home every night now, the result of a little homesickness I suppose. I generally take a good deal of exercise in walking about throughout the day and consequently sleep well at night.
We haven’t made much progress homewards since last Friday as we are in just about the same place as we were in then, i.e. opposite “Coutt’s Inlet”. I should like very much if we could get into the land so that we could get some bear or reindeer hunting, but the floe of ice prevents us from this. The weather for the last few days has been delightful – the sky last night was a real arctic one. About 11 o’clock the sun was hidden behind some clouds, while the effect was something magnificent. The mountains appeared like huge pyramids of fire, while the sails of the ships appeared to be in one blaze. The clouds, behind which the sun was hidden, were of the deepest pink possible, a colour I never saw clouds assuming in the old country. The whole scene was so enchanting that I gazed with unfeigned delight upon it for a long time.
I have caught a cold by exposing myself perhaps a little too carelessly about the end of last week, when it was so foggy and stormy. I trust that I shall soon be all right again. Several on board are affected with colds beside myself just now.
It is a wonder that we haven’t come across any polar bears yet. The “Mazinthien”, which is lying not far from us, has captured nine of them. I constructed a little net today, with which I caught some more specimens of the little jelly-like fishes designated whale food. They are queer looking little creatures. The Captain wishes me to catch a few for him that he may take them home. This country must have enjoyed a very different climate in days long gone by from that which is now woven into its existence. For both here and far up Smith’s Sound in the 78˚ north latitude coal is found in abundance, and that very much resembling our “Scotch Coal” both in appearance and quality: another proof that the climate of some parts of the world must have materially changed through the lapse of time.
We are now anchored within half a mile of the land a little north of Scott’s Inlet. During Thursday and Friday the wind blew strongly from the SE and drove a good deal of the ice away allowing us to get down this length. The SS Victor, which had been crushed so severely up Lancaster Sound sometime early last month, sank out here, within sight of us, on Wednesday forenoon. As it was seen that, even with the steam pumps, she couldn’t be kept up much longer, the men abandoned her on Tuesday night and got on board the other ships that were lying about. We had been out a distance and didn’t know she was abandoned and were steaming up to where she was lying when, with a plunge, the brave old ship disappeared out of sight. For a few moments we could hardly realize what had happened and could hardly believe our senses. But it was actually true, the Victor, after braving many a tempest and danger had sunk to her rest at last. In the evening when the wind had risen somewhat, ships gear, camp-stools etc., and one or two empty boats went driving past us and these were now all that could be seen of the ship that once was. The SS Wolf has about thirty of the Victor’s crew on board and I hear that she is going to St John’s, Newfoundland at about the end of this month. I will try if possible and get a letter sent home with her.
I heard yesterday that the man who was killed about the beginning of the month by the whale met his death by a blow from the tail of the fish, the blow beside killing him sweeping other three men also out of the boat and seriously injuring them. The deceased man’s remains, with the remains of another man who died a week after, were interred at Pond’s Bay.
The cold that I mentioned as having on Tuesday became pretty severe on Wednesday and Thursday, but I believe I am getting over it now. The chief engineer and I went on shore today to see if we could meet in with a bear, wolf, fox or reindeer, but we failed to see anything living except a jet black raven in the air and a good sized salmon in the water at the foot of a stream. The Captain caught two fine salmon this afternoon with which cook sweetened our mouths at tea-time.
I saw the sun setting last night for the first time since the 29th of May. Towards midnight he sank in a golden flood beneath the horizon; the great orb of light appearing as he descended, a flaming immense ball of a soft deep red colour. I watched him out of sight, and then, for a few moments, fancied myself at home, before I went into the cabin.
I gathered a few buttercups and daisies today when I was on the land and also picked up a few specimens of “North American” Aberdeen and Peterhead granite, the natural rock of the place. We saw signs about indicating that natives must have been staying here some time formerly; but what astonished us not a little was to see the bones of whales lying far up the hillside, where neither the whales could go themselves, nor as far as we can judge, could the natives drag them – yet how got they there?
I hear just now the deep growl of a polar bear from the “Mazinthien”, which is lying about two hundred yards from us. These bears can be very strong brutes – one of them has been seen to repeatedly attack a narwhal in the water and, after killing it, to drag it, a weight of 10cwt, completely out of the water upon the ice. Many a perilous adventure with and hairbreadth escape from these same gentry is related by the Captain and officers at the dinner table.
We arrived here last night about 6 o’clock. The weather from last Saturday till Tuesday was exceeding fine, with general warm sunshine and a very little wind from the south. On Sabbath evening there was a bear near the ship, but it soon made off. On Monday the doctor of the Mazinthien came on board and he and I went on the ice and had a walk for about a couple of hours, the sea being fully half a mile deep beneath our feet, but then the ice between us and it was fully four feet thick. The Mazinthien’s doctor, who is also an Aberdeen student, was telling me that he had had some capital bear hunting and had been successful in killing several of the bruin tribe. One of them, however, a young one, had caught him by the leg with his teeth and didn’t let go until he shot it dead.
The following day – Tuesday – we steamed down along the coast passing on our way “Scott’s Island”, an island of an oblong shape, without a shore, the face of it rising perpendicularly fully five hundred feet all around. Towards night a heavy fog fell down completely hiding the land from view, so we had to grope our way very cautiously, and, as I remarked before, it was well on the next day ere we managed to get into Eglington.
This is a beautiful and safe natural harbour. It is well sheltered and has good anchorage. A hill rises, about a stone’s throw from the ship, right from the water’s edge for fully three thousand feet in height, and around us are various other hills and eminences where we can obtain fine views of the sea in clear weather.
After we had anchored and had had tea, the Captain and I went on board of the “Erik”, which had arrived twenty-four hours before we did. We remained on board until nearly one o’clock in the morning – in the meantime the “Mazinthien” also arrived and her Captain (Souter) joined us in the “Erik’s “ cabin between ten and eleven p.m.
This morning was somewhat wet and foggy, but after breakfast I took a gun, landed and went to see if I could get a shot at anything. I went away up the river side, the waters of which were as clear as crystal. I wandered on till well in the afternoon, but didn’t see anything save a white arctic fox, who, cunning fellow, took good care not to come within range. I saw the footmarks of some deer that had been down to the river to drink. No bear or wolf could be seen and perhaps it was as well as I found out that the gun had somehow got wet and was very much inclined to hang fire- a rather shaky state of affairs should a big fierce bear make his appearance and I completely out of sight of everybody.
I got back to the ship in time for tea, which I was quite prepared for and to which I did good justice. But when I got back I saw that we had some visitors on board. An Esquimaux chief named “Alnick” with his “analouka” (wife) “erning” (sons) two in number, his “angana” (big brother) and his “analouka” with one or two others were all in the cabin. The chief, who was a little, pleasant-faced man had been taken to Britain some few (four, I think) years ago by Captain Adams of the “Arctic”. He had lived a winter in Scotland and England and during that time thousands had been to see him. It was such a curious sight to see a real living Esquimaux in the old country that the Prince of Wales even had to be introduced to him. When I entered the cabin they were all smoking, men women and children, but they gave me a broad grin of welcome and soon I was trying to talk to them a little in their own language, which is a very difficult one to pronounce. I got a sealskin from one of them in the evening, but I hardly know what use it may be put to. The Captain and the chief are having a game of draughts just now and the Eskimo is playing very well, better indeed than I could. But as I’m somewhat tired after my clambering over the rocks and up the glen, I had better prepare for a sound sleep.
This is a delightful evening and all around is beautifully calm and peaceful. We are still in the same harbour, and, taking the opportunity, I have had some walks in the country and among the hills both yesterday and today. We had the natives on board all yesterday and some of them today also. Their “toopucks” are put up about four miles from the ship on the other side of the harbour and as several of them are desirous of being on this side the Captain sent off two boats with their crew to assist with their “flitting”. They have not returned yet. I went on shore last night after tea with the second engineer, each with his gun, to have a walk and see if we could fall in with anything. We travelled a good distance among the mountains without seeing anything worth shooting except a flock of wild ducks, which were too far away. It was midnight when we returned, the latter part of our journey being a little troublesome on account of our having to cross several rivers, marshy places and several miles of terrible rough and rocky ground.
Today I had another excursion with the doctor of the “Mazinthien”, a good distance up the river side. We were away from 9 a.m. until tea time when we returned empty-handed, hungry and like a pair of Red Indians. It was very warm on the land today and I should have liked if we had fallen in with a bear or some deer. I am writing this surrounded with half a dozen native, who are looking on in admiration and exclaiming as they watch with interest the movements of the pen. “Pēyook! pēöyook!” - good, very good!
I have just been shewing them the inside of my watch and it would have amused anyone to have seen their wonder and amazement at the (to them) strange creature. They are a very harmless and innocent people and in their way are very happy, while their mode of life is very simple. As soap, until lately, was unknown among them they have contracted the bad habit of allowing at least several months’ dirt to adhere to their skin. But since Alnick, the chief of this tribe, returned from Britain, there has been a good deal of improvement in this respect, as he sets them the example of washing himself every day. The example thus set appears to be followed now by a good number of them, especially the men, the “kuhnas” appearing to be more conservative in their habits. Another thing I have noted is that I have never perceived them to fall out with one another, both old and young appearing to live in the most perfect amity with each other.
We are still in Eglington harbour, though it is quite possible that we may leave at an hour’s notice. We had a beautiful day yesterday but I remained on board and read a few of Talmage’s sermons. We had our meeting as usual in the evening when several natives were present. Today the chief told me he liked the singing but there was too much “speakem” by one man and all the others (?) “speakem namme or meekiook”.
I went on shore today, the weather being similar to yesterday’s and had a look at the “toopucks” or skin tents of the natives. The chief “pelidad”, i.e. presented, me with a beautiful white fox’s skin, which had been taken off the fox without being cut in any way whatever. It is quite fit and ready for stuffing. I was noticing today that the “kuhnas” use the thimble on the forefinger while sewing instead of the middle one as used by our gentle ones at home. But I will leave the ladies themselves to decide which is the right and proper way to use it.
The Captain today bartered with the natives for some beautiful bear skins, which he obtained like a true Scotchman, upon very advantageous terms – a Henry rifle for nine of them, each worth on an average £2. 10s. There are some splendid hunters among them (i.e. the natives) and they prize a good rifle very highly. One of the natives in the cabin just now has never had any weapon but his bow and arrows and the Captain has given him, in exchange for some skins, a Snider rifle and cartridges, and the poor fellow and his wife are jubilant with delight.
I was on board the “Mazinthien” this forenoon for a short time and had a look at the living bear that they are taking home with them. It is a beautiful but fierce creature and could easily tear a man to pieces in a few moments if it had the opportunity. But I hear the Captain giving orders to get the steam up so we must be going away from here even more quickly than we expected.
We left Eglington on Monday evening and with a fine breeze arrived here the day following. We passed a ship, the “Ravenscraig” lying stranded on the shore where she had been driven by a storm a year or two since. There are five ships lying at anchor in this harbour, which is not such a good one as Eglington, the more handy for the ships. There is another, the real harbour, a few miles further down, which is much better, I’m told; we haven’t been there this season yet. The weather since we came here has, on the whole, been pretty broken, with occasional showers of snow.
There is a native settlement here, a village of skin houses or “toopucks”. When winter sets in they take down their “toopucks” and build snow houses instead, which they cover inside with skins and fur, making them on the whole, were it not for the smell, comfortable and warm. I went ashore yesterday and had a look at the city of skin houses. The “meekies” were lying about in scores and appeared to be very anxious to gobble up a fine black dog we had with us. I had a walk through their cemetery and I don’t know if I remarked it before, but their burial places and their mode of burying their dead are rather peculiar and yet in keeping with the people. They never dig a grave, but, after having sewed the body up in the skin of an animal, they lay it on the ground and heap up around and cover it with a great number of stones; so their graveyard simply consists of a great many stone heaps or mounds. They have some notions about the state of the dead that strike me as very peculiar and put you in mind of some of the stories told of some of the very ignorant Roman Catholics. For instance tonight there were half a dozen of them in the cabin getting a cup of tea and one of them, a good-looking fellow, whose father is dead, went with the 2nd engineer a distance of several miles with a pipe filled with tobacco to put in his father’s grave. It appears that this is done regularly for a long time under the impression that the deceased comes back after death and enjoys a quiet smoke in his confinement.
And now a hint to the ladies - no Esquimaux women ever wear stays or tight-fitting dresses and consequently they are spared nine tenths of the aches and pains that afflict their civilized sisters of Europe. What a comment or otherwise on the sunshine makers of Bonnie Scotland and elsewhere. And have you not a hint to give to the gentlemen also, I think I hear you ask? Well, any hint I might give on that score might be of rather a dry nature, for I would never hint to them to imitate the male Esquimaux, for the single reason that the latter are dreadfully lazy, the most of them. The only thing they appear to care about doing, and that I suppose rather from necessity than from choice, is to go about hunting now and again. Their chief delight is smoking “tobacco-meek”
But to change the subject. A bear was captured today by one of the boats of the “Nova Zembla” – it was caught on a piece of ice. As it was a big fierce monster it had to be shot and was then drawn through the water to the ship. A whale was also seen today going north, but no boat got near enough to get a shot at it.
Just now there is a sound that I like to hear; that is the sailor’s sea songs. It’s positively refreshing to hear the jolly tars as they troll out from fifty lusty throats in good time the chorus to some solo sung by one of their leaders.
It is now eleven p.m. and for the first time since about the beginning of June a star is shedding his rays upon us. I could not help looking for a long time at it, as at the face of an old friend whose presence had been missed for a long time. It reminds one that he is still in the world after all. For out here one almost feels as if he were out of the world altogether, so shut off are we from all communication with the rest of civilized mankind. We haven’t the faintest idea how the world is getting on; whether there are wars and wasting, poverty and pestilence or peace and plenty in it. It is a time, in many respects, of trying suspense and gnawing uncertainty. If we knew how things were getting on and how our friends were, it would remove a burden from the minds of many. But, as this is impossible, we have just to bide patiently and hope the best. The S.S.Wolf steamed away for St John’s, Newfoundland some time last week. She and the “Active” were about a hundred miles apart when the former started for home, else I would have sent some news with her. I was very much disappointed that I had not an opportunity of doing so.
We are still sailing about Kater, though we are not now in the harbour, having been forced to leave yesterday by some heavy ice that was coming in. The weather during Saturday and yesterday was, on the whole, very pleasant, but today it has changed and we have had several light falls of snow. It is not very cold, however, but it is foggy and we can’t see very far from the ship.
The sailors had a concert on Saturday evening and I took the opportunity to go and see how they got on. Alec Scott, a harpooner, one of the funniest fellows I ever saw in my life, was the manager. And he did manage, and that in a way that made my jaws sore and the tears run down my face with laughing. He, along with the boatswain, who was a capital impersonation of a negro, kept everyone perfectly convulsed most of the evening. Then there were pathetic, patriotic and comic songs and recitations by a number of the others, who were dressed up for the occasion. And to wind it up a real donkey was brought in with a sailor on its back. Several natives were present during the singing etc., who appeared to be highly amused, though seemingly doubtful at times whether some of the men hadn’t taken leave of their senses. But when the donkey appeared, throwing its heels into the air and trying to toss the sailor off its back, this went beyond the comprehension of the natives entirely. They gaped with fear and amazement, then retreated as far as possible and sheltered themselves as well they could upon the tops of some chests. The charge for the entertainment was a stick of tobacco from each one, the proceeds to be given as a prize to the best singer.
I had a talk on Saturday afternoon with a fine young Esquimaux (male). I would take him to be hardly twenty and he had been married last year (they marry very young out here). He wasn’t very tall, being fully six inches shorter than I am, but had a fine, mild, intelligent cast of countenance and was very well proportioned. I got from him as best I could some idea of their religious belief, but poor things they know nothing. One thing they believe and that is it is good to do right. Any sins they have (I mean glaring sins) are purely of European importation. When I look at them I cannot help but pity them from the bottom of my heart. But will mere pity do them any good, well, I suppose not much. The great drawback is the difficulty of understanding each other. They have but a few words of English and I have only a few words of their language, so it is often very difficult to comprehend what each other means and sometimes we cannot do it at all.
I thought when we left Dundee that by this time we would be making preparations to return home. But going home is not in the Captain’s thoughts yet and I suppose won’t be for a month to come. We came back to Kater harbour again today. For the last few days we have been about 40 or 50 miles off the land, but as a rule the ships, after this, will run into the harbour at night in case they should be caught outside in a storm, while in the dark. A very undesirable thing to happen when one remembers that numerous ice-mountains are tumbling about in the trough of the sea around the ship. The “Erik”, “Nova Zembla” and “Narwhal” are also in this harbour, while some of the other ships are farther down the straits at “Yakefiord”. We have heard nothing of the “Arctic” (Captain Adams) now for fully two months. The last place she was seen was Admiralty Inlet, far up Lancaster Sound. We expected her down here, on her way home a fortnight ago.
I saw several natives going away this morning on a deer-hunting expedition; some “kuhnas” went with them. The “kuhnas” are invaluable as a decoy. They hide themselves behind some stone, when they see any deer and imitating the cry of the unsuspecting prey allure them close up to the vicinity of the hunters and the “isake” pops them off with his gun. A native who has just left the cabin shot five deer this forenoon.
I have just finished examining a picinina Esquimaux boy whom I heard coughing severely a while ago. I found nothing seriously wrong with him and gave him a little chlorodye in water for his cough. There are three kuhnas in the cabin just now sewing and mending some skins and it struck me rather strangely to see all three earnestly “nankooking” while the little boy took his medicine.
There are plenty of wild ducks swimming about, but they are very shy and won’t let us near them. This is a fine quiet evening and very mild. Everything is quite still in the ship and “Tom” a favourite black cat is sitting on the table, purring and looking with an old-fashioned face at me as I write as if he understood all about it. Tom is the favourite of everyone on board, including the dog, he and the cat living on the best terms.
I have very little to record for yesterday and today. I went ashore yesterday to see if I could fall in with any curiosities, geological or otherwise. I was not very successful, yet I picked up one or two very pretty looking stones. There were some fine grassy plots on the mountains and, as I was alone, I lay down and had a good think (quietly).
We steamed out from Kater Head whenever I came on board and came down here to Kater Harbour, eleven miles south of the “Head”. This is reckoned the finest natural harbour on the west side of Davis Straits. It is very large, commodious, well sheltered and has good anchorage. But there are no natives here, though they had a settlement near the entrance of the harbour last year. There are three Englishmen’s graves on the shore, a stone at the head of each marks the separate resting place of each. I was away for several hours in a boat today. The second officer of the ship had charge of the boat and the second engineer was with us. We saw a number of seals, some large and others very small and also several flocks of ducks, but they won’t allow us near them. There are plenty of gannets to be found on the land hereabout, I am told, but I haven’t been in the right place to look for any.
I am gathering a good collection of Esquimaux words and will have a little vocabulary in a short time. I have got above two hundred already. There are very few on the sick list at present; a case of bronchitis, one of lumbago and two slight accidents are all I have got to attend to and this is more than I have had on my hands at once for some time now. I forgot to mention that I soon got over the cold that I had some time since.
We left Kater Harbour on Monday afternoon and anchored here a short time after. There was a pretty smart storm from the southeast with wind and snow on Sabbath. I kept the cabin most of the day and enjoyed the quiet very much. I read a sermon of Spurgeon and two of Talmage’s, which I enjoyed a good deal. We had our evening service as usual in the main deck; there was a good attendance. I didn’t go ashore on Monday to look for the garnets as the Captain was uncertain at what time he would leave the harbour. The weather cleared up a good deal on Monday and the afternoon was pleasant and fine. We measured the distance from the harbour to here with a patent log and found it to be fifteen miles.
Yesterday was pleasant, but cold, with a fine breeze blowing and the chief engineer and I took the Captain’s boat and went for a sail. We went scudding over the water at a fine rate and enjoyed the bracing air for about three hours before we returned to the ship. We saw some flocks of ducks but didn’t get any. There were also some sea horses about, but they didn’t come near us. I didn’t go anywhere today but exercised myself on board the ship.
A fine looking young native, Mukusha by name, is sitting beside me just now (11 p.m.) looking earnestly while I scribble my notes. He is a most interesting young fellow, with a pleasant frank face and a great favourite of mine. I showed him my bible and told him it was the “nudtay” (book) that told us about “Idolo” (God) who is peöyook (very good). He became very interested and said he would like very much to learn to read – he is very anxious that I should take him to England with me and teach him. I measured him and his wife, for he is married, last night and they measure, both of them, four feet eleven inches in height. Mukusha is reckoned the best hunter hereabout he is very modest and seems in his own eyes to be less than the least. Another young Esquimaux whom I had not seen before came into the cabin this evening. He had been away with some others hunting; they had been unsuccessful in their search for deer and the whole party of poor fellows had been three days without food, besides having to lie exposed at night on the cold mountainside. This young native is the finest and noblest looking Esquimaux I have yet seen. His long flowing locks hung down over his shoulders, while his countenance was of a most pleasant, grave, noble cast, his manner and attitude graceful and natural. His name is “Ok-ok-ok”. I measured him and found him to be five feet three inches in height; the medium height of the west side natives, perhaps rather above it if anything.
I almost forgot to say that the men had another concert last Saturday evening of a most complete character. I was present for fully an hour, but the fun was that I was requested to compose a song for it early in the week. I complied and gave them a paraphrase of their concert the Saturday before. It was sung by one of the men (who is a good singer) and encored by the jolly tars. The song was something of a parody on the “Hundred Pipers” and I’m afraid there was more rhyme than reason in it. The sailors, poor fellows, often feel the time to hang heavily on their hands and they get up these amusements to break the monotony. I promised to give them some lectures during the voyage upon some useful subjects, but circumstances prevent my doing so. I should have liked to have done so myself and several of the men have spoken to me about it, but as things must always be some way, so things as they exist at present prohibit anything of the kind being done.
We have had a change in the weather since last Wednesday. Thursday and Friday were somewhat cold, the mercury standing a little below freezing and the wind blowing pretty hard at times. On Saturday a fine strong breeze was blowing from the westward, and with a clear view and a sunny day the Captain determined to run up the country a bit and see if he could reach Eglington. We commenced steaming at 6 a.m. but by the afternoon we had to stop on account of the large quantities of heavy ice that were coming down the country. Shortly before dinner we espied a large polar bear on a piece of ice. There was an exciting chase after him. He ran over the ice very fast and plunging into the water that separated the floes of ice from each other, he swam nearly as fast as the boat was going that was after him. He was wounded by the first rifle ball sent after him, but it was fully half an hour before he was come up with. He was swimming at the time and he had to get six bullets before he gave in. When he was hauled on board I had a good look at him and all I can say is that had he been alive and in good health I would on no account have desired to shake hands with him.
Towards evening the wind veered round against the sun to the southeast and we had to make the best of our way down country with a strong wind in our face. Yesterday the weather became more disagreeable as it began to snow and continued to do so more or less most of the day. It was also foggy and somewhat cold most of the time. Yet on the whole I had a good time of refreshment, though often my thoughts would wander away over the western ocean a great distance from here. At such times the beautiful lines pointing to patience and simple trust would come vividly before me.
“The storm may be wild and the night may be dreary
The waves may roll high o’er the surf-beaten shore;
But safe with our Captain who never grows weary
Rest still in his strong arms and ask for no more”.
And this is the place for both wild storms and dreary nights during the fall of the year; but it is to be hoped that through Divine Providence they won’t do us much harm. And then, as F R Havergal puts it, there are compensating springs which operate in every state, position or condition of life; so here, if we see the wild, we also see the wonderful, if we undergo a little risk from the storms that sweep down the fiords, these same winds are healthy and bracing and carry life and vigour with them.
“Peopled and warm is the valley, lonely and chill the height
But the peak that is nearer the storm-cloud is nearer the stars of light.
Launch on the foaming stream that bears along like a dart
There is danger of rapid and rock, there is tension of muscle and heart;
Glide on the easy current, monotonous, calm and slow
You are spared the quiver and strain, see the safe and quiet flow.
Then hush, oh hush, for the Father portioneth as He will
To all His beloved children, and shall they not be still?
Is not His will the wisest, is not His choice the best?
And in prefect acquiescence is there not perfect rest?”
Thursday September 15th
The weather since Monday has been rather broken and stormy. On Monday the three ships “Nova Zembla”, “Mazinthien” and “Active” were seeking down the country together. The Captains were together for a short time to see what general opinion was in regard to how they should proceed. On Tuesday we all proceeded south. The weather was raw and snowing while a heavy haze hung over the water, preventing us from going fast. We had also to go very cautiously on account of heavy pieces of ice and icebergs that were rolling about and which we couldn’t see till we were pretty near them. It must have been much more dangerous to have been out here when the ships were only sailing vessels and hadn’t the use of steam. But to proceed – we came down all the night (which was very dark) keeping near to land, till five o’clock yesterday morning when we were in the entrance to Home Bay. At that hour the officer of the watch came down to the cabin to tell the Captain that we could get no further south on account of a heavy field of ice that blocked our way.
About breakfast time a strong wind began blowing from the southeast, which increased during the forenoon to a fierce gale. By this time the majority of the men were a good deal alarmed, thinking that we were about to be caught in the ice and kept here the whole winter. I could not keep from laughing at the dismal faces some of them were putting on, while in the ‘twixt decks, which is generally resounding with singing and laughter, everything was “as quiet as pussy”. The captains were also a good deal perplexed as to how to proceed, in fact they were more than perplexed, they seemed a trifle alarmed also. So we steamed as well as we could through the ice, the “Nova Zembla” and “Active “in one direction and the “Mazinthien” in another, looking for a way out, the wind meanwhile blowing a perfect hurricane. The Captain had come into the cabin to drink a cup of warm coffee when the second officer hurriedly came in to say that the “Mazinthien” was flying the Union Jack as a signal to come to him. This was now cause for more alarm as the general impression was that she had stove in her bow against the ice and that the signal was for help. But such fears were groundless; the “Mazinthien” was as safe and sound as any of us and was merely signalling us to come the way she was going. But the storm was our friend, or we might have been in the ice for a time at anyrate; but, blowing as it did from a favourable quarter, the southeast, it opened the ice, driving it in all directions and let us out.
It was not till after a whole day’s steaming, and the ship getting several blows from heavy pieces of ice that set us all reeling, that we got through just at nightfall. In the evening we spied another ship outside of the ice bearing in our direction, but which turned about immediately we were seen. I may mention that for several weeks back the three ships “Mazinthien”, “Nova Zembla” and “Active” were the only vessels remaining north among the ice, all the other ships except the “Arctic”, which no one knows anything about, being south.
The storm abated a good deal towards night. During the night the wind changed and today it has been blowing moderately from the NW. Immediately the ship was considered safe, the long lugubrious faces disappeared and the men, who in the morning were looking as if they were about to be hanged, were in the evening, when the danger was supposed to be over, as bold as Nansie Wauch, who, being a brave volunteer, thought he was fighting the French, when he riddled his gude-wife’s washing tub with buckshot and made the goose, who was sitting comfortably inside, “a lamenter for life”.
The ship that was seen last night in the gloaming we came up with today and she proved to be the “Resolute” (Captain Kilgour). Our captain went on board of the “Resolute” about three o’clock in the afternoon to get the news. When he came back he told us that the “Resolute” had been deputed by the fleet, which was lying in Yakefiord, to go in search of us, as it was thought that we might be beset about Kater. The S.S. “Arctic” (Captain Adams) has neither been seen nor heard of and very grave fears are entertained for the safety of the ship and crew, unless she has managed to go home down the east side, which is very unlikely considering that it was the custom of Captain Adams, if he was bound for home first, to speak to the other ships so as to be able to report the state of affairs when he reached Scotland. It is too late and too dark tonight for the ships here attempting to go into a harbour; so we shall have to wait till another day brings fresh opportunities.
We didn’t get into shelter yesterday as we were hoping to do. Early in the morning a storm of wind and snow from the northwest burst upon us, and as there was a broad strip of very heavy old ice between us and the shore, the Captain chose to remain out and take the “dusting” as the sailors call passing through a storm. The wind blew very hard all day and night, but the water near the ice was small and the ship was kept pretty well in it. I turned into my bunk shortly after eleven o’clock and slept till six, when I was awoken by the engine. The morning at this hour was pleasant and peaceful, the storm having blown by. Yakefiord was in sight and we steamed for the harbour. About seven o’clock as we were passing through a stream of ice, a half-grown bear was seen coming towards the ship. The chief officer and chief engineer had each a shot at it when it was a stone’s throw from the vessel, but both unaccountably missed and the bear coolly walked away the road it came. The Captain wanted the ship into harbour, so he didn’t trouble to send any one after it. We got into harbour (Yakefiord) about ten a.m., the “Mazinthien” coming in shortly after us. The whole fleet, except the “Arctic” is here: there are ten ships altogether, all steamers.
There are some natives here and while I am writing this one of them is sitting opposite me playing a concertina of mine in a manner I could never approach to. He plays Scottish airs like a native and with true expression and fine feeling. I am both delighted and astonished at the facility with which he handles the instrument and the music he brings out of it. A few minutes after writing the above I was astonished by hearing him play beautifully the children’s favourite hymn “Mothers of Salem”.
I went ashore after dinner with the doctor of the “Aurora” and went into the “toopucks” to learn as much as I could about them. In one that we entered there was a Cŏdling, or Esquimaux lamp burning and a pan filled with fat hanging above the flame. The lamp is all that they have for giving both light and heat. It is simply a stone longer one way than another and hollowed out lengthwise. The hollow is filled with fat, having a little moss on the top, which when lighted feeds on the oil or fat as long as the supply of the latter is kept up. There were all sorts of things in the different “toopucks” that we entered. Among other things I saw a looking glass and a melodion in one of them!!
The vessels in the harbour have caught about forty head of deer at this place and several of the captains sent us a quarter when we got in. This is the most beautiful harbour I have been in yet. It is fully half a mile broad and about a mile long. There is a fine sandy beach round part of it, while at other parts the water ripples along the foot of high mountains. Yakefiord is, I think, only the sailors’ name of the place, the proper name being “Hooper”. I notice there is a great difference between the latitude and longitude as given in the chart and the true as obtained by actual observation; the former being Lat. 68˚ 6΄N, Long. 64˚36΄W and the latter being Lat. 68˚ 00΄N. Long.65˚ 38΄W.
The doctor on the “Aurora” tells me that they were far up Cumberland Sound and that the weather there resembled that of the West Indies, it was so hot. The “Aurora” has been cruising more than any of the other ships, but she saw as few whales as the others. They, i.e. the whales, seem to be playing hide and seek with the ships and at present they seem to have the best of the game.
Latitude and Longitude - I do not know – at the same time we are not far lost. We lay at anchor all Sabbath in Hooper harbour and had a severe snowstorm from Saturday night till Sabbath forenoon. The natives remained on board all night as it was unsafe for them to attempt going ashore till the storm abated. They went to their “toopucks” on Sabbath about mid-day. Shortly afterwards the weather cleared up and we had a fine afternoon and a beautiful evening. We had service in the ‘twixt decks at six o’clock; there were several strangers present. I heard about 8 p.m. that the “Polynia” (Captain Yule) was going home soon and as I expected that we would be leaving the harbour early next morning I took the opportunity of sending a letter home by the “Polynia”. About 8 o’clock a shoal of white whales entered the harbour and I watched them for a few minutes but they soon went away again.
On Monday, which was somewhat cold, I went on board the “Polynia” (we didn’t leave harbour as I had anticipated) and there learned that Captain Yule wasn’t sure about going home for a short while yet. He showed me a half-grown Arctic wolf that he had got from the natives at Pond’s Bay. The creature was pretty tame and running about quite free; there were also two dogs that seemed to get on well as playfellows with him. The wolf, if taken home alive, will be worth above a hundred pounds! I then left the Captain, who was going ashore, and went on board the “Mazinthien”. I got the loan of a book of poetry (Scottish) from the doctor and he and I went ashore together and had a walk through the “toopucks” and a talk with the natives. I forgot to mention that I also got a capital book – “The life of Samuel Budget” – from the doctor of the “S.S. Aurora”, who seems a sensible nice fellow.
On Tuesday morning the “Aurora” and “Polynia” steamed out of the harbour and we followed suit about 11 o’clock. We steamed north in order to try and reach Kater again, and in a few hours we lost sight of the other ships, which kept in another direction. Since then we have gone up as far as the Captain judged it safe to go, but we couldn’t get into Kater on account of the ice. The “bay” or young ice is also forming now so that care must be taken not to get caught amongst it, though there is not much fear of that happening just yet. But some of the men, and those the oldest hands too, are very timorous and getting somewhat anxious to start to go home. I am sure I wouldn’t in the least find fault if we started for England (sic) tomorrow. I only trust we shall get, through divine providence, a good passage. When we leave here we have a thousand miles to go before we get round Cape Farewell.
The weather all this week has on the whole been very good, the thermometer standing most of the time a degree or two above freezing until today, when it was at freezing point. We have fresh venison three times a week just now, the deer are not dear here if you can lay your hands upon them, or put salt on their tails, or best of all shoot them, as it’s least troublesome. Tuts, tuts, what nonsense to put down in black and white; ye’re havering laddie. Well I believe I am, so I’ll stop for a night.
If all goes well we are going to bear up for home tomorrow!!! Home! Home, sweet home! Up till this evening the weather has been very favourable for the past week. We have had pleasant days and beautiful starry nights. We have been out of sight of the other ships now for the past week and don’t know how they are getting on or whether any of them have gone home or not. We wouldn’t have thought of bearing up for a fortnight yet, but that there is an exceptionally large amount of ice and a very great number of icebergs in the country this year. More so by far than usual, I understand, so that it’s considered risky to remain much longer.
The icebergs here are very numerous and very large; as many as 120 being seen at one time from the mast head. The young or “Bay” ice is making fast now and all the creatures are seeking south. Great flocks of birds are passing us now every day, seeking the warmer regions. On Saturday evening we saw several large swordfish close to the ship. They were almost as big as black whales, but much more fierce. We also saw both on Saturday night and yesterday a number of bottle-nose whales (a small species). Last night we had a beautiful exhibition of the aurora borealis or northern lights. And a wonderful thing in connection with the celestial illumination was that a beautiful picture of the ship, rigging, sails etc – natural size - was to be seen upon the face of the sky. Ever and anon could be heard the crack, like distant thunder, of some monster iceberg as it yielded to the forces of nature and fell to pieces.
But like the steady pole star, the eye of our Father is upon us even here. He is our watch and word by night and by day and it is good to trust always and not to be afraid.
Around us icebergs crash
And bare their radiant summits to the sight
Whilst o’er us play the weird auroral light
With strange unearthly flash.
Yet overhead afar
The gentle moon sheds still her lambent ray:
While guides us ever on our devious way
The constant polar star.
Type of that sleepless love
Which, whether ‘mid the tropics brilliancy
Or, in the stillness of the Arctic sea
Guides us from Heaven above.
No shadow of a change
Can ever pass across our Father’s face;
The voyages on this wild wintry place
Pass not His love’s wide range.
And that is consolation indeed on such a night as this; for there is a fierce storm of wind and snow besieging us just now and the sea is very heavy causing the ship to roll and pitch at a great rate. But our greatest danger is the iceberg; the night is so dark that we cannot see any distance; and we might as well run against Dunnet Head as against one of them; the consequences to the ship would be almost the same. But, we are in good hands and merciful as good; and “Happy are all that put their trust in Him”
Impossible to write any more as there is a very heavy sea and the ship is rolling fearfully. I will proceed when I get an opportunity.
We are bounding homewards across the ocean again – we bore up on Tuesday from Exeter, N. America, and have this afternoon reached the latitude of Cape Farewell. We have had what the sailors call good sailing weather since we left; and to me the weather was very pleasant indeed and I was enjoying it to the full up till yesterday afternoon when a strong wind from the northwest came sweeping upon us. In a short time the sea got up and was tumbling about in fine style. As the wind was right abaft the ship, she began to do just what other ships do under similar circumstances, roll and tumble about at the hardest. I tried to write, but had to give up. After reading a while I retired to rest (about 10 p.m.!!) and was rocked in the cradle of the deep. And well was I rocked, I believe too well, for I could hardly get any sleep. You land folks are well off, and many don’t realise it. The storm may blow great guns if it likes and you lie down snug and cosy, but it is a different thing at sea. Your house appears to be nearly upside down at times, the roads are in a very shaky condition and your bed – well it naturally sympathises with the house and the house with the road and the road with the weather – and there hangs a tale. To illustrate which I have to say that when I turned in I was nearly turned out again – I did the first myself, the united conspiracy of ship, sea and storm tried the last.
I got up this morning feeling as if I had passed through a mangle – a happy feeling that was fully shared, as he told me, by the Captain also. The weather has been much the same all day but tonight it is a little more moderate. Yet the vessel is rolling very heavily just now and it takes me all my time to write this. I saw a beautiful large iceberg yesterday. I suppose we won’t see any more now. The weather is mild in temperature, though we have occasional showers of snow and hail. There is no frost. I have nothing particular to note that I can remember. The ship’s company, including your humble servant, is in good health. And I am only hoping that through the Lord’s kindness we may have a good passage and that we may not only all arrive safely home, but that we may find our friends all that we desire them to be.
“Rocked in the cradle of the deep
I lay me down in peace to sleep
Secure I rest upon the wave
For Thou, O Lord art strong to save.
I know Thou wilt not slight my call;
For Thou dost mark the sparrow’s fall.
Then, calm and peaceful will I sleep
Rocked in the cradle of the deep”.
It is with a sense of deep thankfulness that I have to record that we are now bounding over the western ocean and that thus far we have been graciously preserved and safely carried through many perils that beset our watery pathway. We are now three hundred miles east of Cape Farewell and have now things in a different manner from what we have had during the last four months and more. The climate is warmer and the sea is rougher. In the straits, though we have had several storms, the sea seldom rose very high and we could generally go into a harbour and escape any rough usage from them; but here it is altogether different and that we have been made to realize since Saturday.
We had run down the Strait, which is several hundred miles broad at its lower point, clearing the icebergs – magnificent but dangerous curiosities – successfully as we went and reached the latitude of 59˚ N longitude 55˚W. When we got this length, which we did on Saturday, the barometer began to fall very rapidly and shortly after a gale from the southwest burst upon us. We had to lie-to with the ship all night, at the same time the gale increased and the sea rose very high. The glass was very low (28.7 inches). On Sabbath afternoon it began to rise and the wind suddenly shifting to the WNW blew harder than ever. We had our meeting as usual in ‘twixt decks and at that time the ship was rolling and straining very badly. Later on it got worse and all that night and next day it blew a perfect hurricane. The roar of the wind and sea was deafening and the men and officers had great difficulty in keeping themselves from being washed overboard. We remained hove to till Monday evening, when the gale lessened somewhat and we sped on our journey. The sea is still very high, though the wind is a great deal more moderate.
We saw two other icebergs on Monday night and had to keep an extra good watch in case we came suddenly upon any other. For the last two nights twenty men have always been kept on deck in case of an emergency. We passed the topmast of a ship standing end up in the water today: it had been blown off some ship during the gale, the rigging etc was attached to it. The weather looks very unsettled and I believe the general desire is that we may reach home as soon as possible.
We are still in the midst of rough weather. For the last two days we have been running in a gale from the southwest. Tonight the wind seems as if it would blow the hair off one’s head and there is a cross wild sea running. But the air is very mild, the temperature being 50˚ F. Last night a very large whale rose quite close to the ship and blew a blast that startled some of the hands on deck. “Making a back and throwing his tremendous tail in the air he again dived and we saw him no more. The Captain was telling me that he was in a boat one day with a boat crew (i.e. when he was a mate) when they saw an immense whale coming towards them like a locomotive engine and his gaping jaws wide open. By the fierce way the monster was tearing along they thought it was going to swallow boat and crew at once. They all got a terrible scare, supposing their last hour was come, but just as it got about a boat’s length from them it did what last night’s one did, threw his tail in the air and disappeared leaving the boat’s crew very thankful for such a termination of their fright.
I have just come from the deck after being there for about two hours and enjoying the grand but wild picture that the night presents. The moon is full tonight and the whole sea is flooded with her beams. The storm is wild and we are still flying before it. The sea is covered with foam and the billows are chasing each other like race-horses. There are two heavy cross seas meeting and every now and then there is a battle between them with the result that they often come tumbling on board locked in each others arms and fill the decks fore and aft. I have got several compliments from the sea today in the shape of salt water showers, but I just gave myself a shake, as tars usually do, and was all right again. We are now in the 28th degree of longitude and in the latitude of Shetland. A few more days, if all goes well, will see us near the Scottish land again.
For the last two days we have had very good sailing weather; the wind being fair though pretty strong, the sea at the time being rather heavy. I have little or nothing of interest to note, except the fact that we are drawing pretty near the land, now being in the 10th degree of west longitude, or about 300 miles from Shetland. The first ship that we have seen since we left the Davis Straits passed us yesterday going out to America. The Chief Officer met with a slight accident yesterday. He was struck above the left eye by a spoke of the wheel, which was flying round at the time, a heavy sea having just struck the ship. It caused an ugly wound which I immediately washed and dressed; today it is looking very well.
For the last two days we have felt the weather very warm, the thermometer being generally above 50. It has been raining a good deal today & the barometer has fallen very low, indicating another storm. The wind just now is beginning to howl in a threatening manner and I'm only hoping that tomorrow's dawn may not see us in a peck of trouble again. This has been a great cleaning day on board. All hands, except the Captain and I, have been employed scrubbing, washing and painting every hole and corner of the ship, and tonight she "looks like a new pin". I wasn't idle myself either, for I had all the Captain's books to look over and see that everything was right, while the Captain himself was occupied most of the day with his charts etc. Fifty-three bees on board and the vessel itself like a beehive.
The weather since Monday has just fallen out as we feared; and we have to thank the Lord for His goodness that we are here in a safe harbour this day to tell the tale. Many a good ship since then has met a watery grave. I mentioned in my last note that on Monday the barometer was falling - and fall it did, alarmingly low, the lowest I have seen yet. As the night advanced it grew very dark and there was a heavy downpour of rain. At midnight the bar was at 29 inches and still falling; the wind was blowing hard from the southwest and the sea getting up in a threatening manner. At breakfast time on Tuesday morning it was blowing a gale from the west-northwest and the barometer had gone down to 28.66 inches. As the Captain was getting uneasy lest we should run down upon a lee shore, (there was no sunshine and we could see but a very little distance), the vessel was hove-to under a close-reefed maintopsail. Towards the afternoon the gale increased to a hurricane and the ship was being swept fore and aft by the sea.
What astonishes me as much as anything is that more lives are not lost during storms such as these; also how ships stand the terrible usage they get during such weather. I am sure I had but a very poor conception of what a storm is till I came to sea, and this year, I am told, I have been in more severe storms than can be remembered by the oldest sailor on board, if that is any consolation. On Tuesday evening the sea was frightful to look at. Being, as we were, near the Scottish western coast, we were getting the full force of the whole Atlantic Ocean, and these waves as they reared their crested heads, one would think to heaven, were enough to cause the stoutest heart to quake.
There was no sleep for any on board on Tuesday night. The roaring of the tempest, the labouring of the vessel and the crash every now and then on deck as a fresh body of water came on board, formed, with the knowledge that we were nearing a lee shore, a quartet that kept the most careless eyelid open. Yesterday morning dawned without any idea of where we were; it was very thick and the rain was coming down in torrents. About this time the wind lulled a little, but soon afterwards it blew harder than ever, and a tremendous sea struck the ship on the starboard side and did a lot of damage. The sea, which was the height of the mainyard, went right over the ship, smashing and carrying with it part of the bulwarks, main-gangway, stanchions etc. and injuring a number of the men. Shortly afterwards another sea came over the same quarter doing a deal more damage and putting us in a very precarious condition.
Things were serious indeed when our steward, who is what sailors would call a hardy sea-dog, was also thoroughly frightened. This is the first time I have seen him afraid since I joined the ship - and I'm certain it takes a lot to frighten Jack, as he has seen a deal of service both in war vessels and in the merchant navy.
About noon the sun gave a blink and the Captain and Chief Officer got the latitude of our position and, a few moments after, a cry from one of the men of "land on the lee quarter" gave us our longitude and showed us to be fifty miles nearer the land than we thought we were. It was providential that we saw the land when we did, for had we not seen it and drifted down upon it in the darkness nothing, humanly speaking, could have saved us. It was Foula island that we were drifting upon, and as there is no light upon it we wouldn't have seen it till it was too late to help ourselves, and in a few minutes the ship would have been destroyed. But this was prevented by an all-merciful Providence and now that we knew where we were, we flew upon the wings of the tempest to seek a haven of refuge. We sped along as fast as we could both with steam and wind through a terrible sea till we rounded Sumburgh Head with thankful hearts, just in the gloaming.
The wind was now fearful, lifting the water in sheets and dashing it up to the yards and pressing the vessel over on her beam ends till she was down at the scuppers. As we rounded Bressay Island we were nearly driven ashore, and it was not till midnight that battered, weary and worn, we dropped two anchors in Lerwick harbour and rode out the remainder of the storm in safety.
The mail steamer "Queen" came into the harbour this evening and reports that when she was coming round from Stromness today they saw a ship breaking into pieces upon the rocks. She was a timber-laden ship from America they could see by the logs of wood that were washing about. Before the masts went the Captain of the Queen counted thirteen men clinging to the rigging. A flag of distress was flying, but the steamer could render no help as it was with the utmost difficulty she was kept from being driven ashore herself.
It must have been a heart-rending scene to see the poor fellows perishing and not to be able to save them. But it is only in such circumstances that man learns the insignificance of his power, when brought face to face with the power of Him, who has but to command, and the mighty powers of nature are called into extraordinary activity causing man's heart to quake and his soul to fail because of fear. And yet how evanescent, generally, is the fear produced by such circumstances - the danger over (I am speaking now of sailors) and Jack is the same as if there never had been or never would be a storm upon the sea. Sailors are a puzzle to me, and I suppose to many a one else.
We heard today that other two vessels were driven ashore last night upon the western part of Shetland. Fortunately, they were not driven upon any precipitous rocks but into voes and the crews of both vessels were saved. There is a large steamer lying here engaged in repairing the telegraph cable connecting Shetland with the island of Sanday (Orkney). There has been no telegraphic communication between this and Scotland for several months past and it is felt a great inconvenience. The people here speak of this last gale as the most terrible they have had for a long time, though one involving more loss of life was experienced by the fishermen at the fishing season.
We are all longing for home and yet we are no nearer there than we were on Thursday last. The weather is still very unsettled and stormy. I didn't go ashore until Saturday evening when I went at the Captain's suggestion to see Mr Robertson, the gentleman whom I had treated for paralysis of the throat and tongue at the beginning of the Davis Straits voyage. I found him a great deal improved both as regards the local complaint and in his general health, and he expressed himself as very grateful for the improvement he experienced.
Whilst going to church yesterday forenoon with the Captain we met the shipwrecked crew, among whom was a negro, of the barque that was driven ashore at the north end of Shetland last Wednesday night. The poor fellows had lost everything they possessed, except the clothes on their backs, and were in a forlorn-looking condition. Such a loss would not be felt so much, indeed very little, by the majority of sailors in the Arctic ocean fleet, as most of them take care before leaving of having their effects well insured; a precaution entirely neglected, I believe by sailors in the merchant service.
The Captain and I went to church twice yesterday and at night we went to the shipping agent's house by invitation, where we remained till eleven o'clock. We had some hymns which the lady of the house accompanied on an American organ. That puts me in mind to say that all the churches here except the "Free" are supplied either with organs or harmoniums, being as far forward in this respect as their friends in the south.
We thought to get away today for Dundee, but a southerly wind sprung up and blew pretty hard and as it was right in our face, it was judged expedient to remain at our anchorage. The mail steamer St Clair has just come in and from the papers received we learn that five of the fleet have arrived at Dundee. The SS Arctic, that we were so anxious about, being the best fished ship in the fleet, the Polynia being next best.
This is the most fearful weather that has been experienced for many a day. Men's hearts appear to be failing them with fear, while they wonder what is coming next. The loss of life, too, has been something awful. The harrowing details of last Friday week's casualties are enough to wring any heart. I could not help shedding tears as I read of the heart-rending scenes which were witnessed at Eyemouth, Burnmouth, Newhaven, and various places along the coast. At the former place not a third of the male population is left alive. Husbands, fathers and brothers being engulfed not a stone's cast from their own homes, while others were being dashed upon the rocks, and all the time the wailing multitude upon the shore utterly helpless to render them any aid. We had a pilot on board last night (a Newhaven man) and his account of what he saw and experienced, for he was out at Inch Keith during the hurricane, or typhoon, as it properly was, was sufficient to make any heart ache. At that time we were lying in Lerwick harbour.
The following morning we made the attempt to go South but were driven back again and so had to give it up for the meantime. The wind all last week up till Thursday was blowing hard from the SSE but on Thursday morning it veered round two points to the East. The Captain judging this an opportunity to try and make for the Tay river, steam was got up and we passed Sumburgh Head about 8 a.m. All went well till midnight, though the wind was blowing half a gale all day, when Kinnaird light near Peterhead was sighted. The wind was now blowing very hard and the night was anything but clear.
The Captain now became timid lest we should get too near the land, and the tide was so powerful that it was sucking us in fast. To come down too close upon a lee shore is the most dangerous position for any ship to be in, and the shore that we were drawing near is a very dangerous shore. The Captain then put the ship about and ran out for several hours to the northeast. With Friday upon us the weather looked much the same; the wind was blowing from the same direction and as hard as ever. The sky was overcast and looked very threatening, and the land was out of sight. We again faced the passage but the sea was very heavy and wind and wave were both against us. Early in the afternoon we saw that we were driving down fast upon the land, so we had to put out to sea again.
We steamed northeast till midnight when the captain had the ship again put about and steamed south till Saturday dawned and showed us that we were pretty near the mouth of the Moray Firth. At breakfast time we had again sighted Peterhead and during the forenoon we made good progress, passing Aberdeen about eleven o'clock. The wind all this time was blowing hard and a very heavy sea was running. At this time the Captain was not very decided what to do. A terrible sea was running on Tay Bar, which is a dangerous place in a storm, and he thought we had better try to stay out if possible to see if the weather would moderate a little. Instead of moderating, however, it grew rapidly worse. There was every indication of the gale becoming more intense till darkness set in, when it was again blowing a perfect hurricane. The night was pitch dark, and the rain at times coming down in torrents.
Between six and seven we sighted St Abbs Head light which gives a bright flash every ten seconds. We sought towards it till we were about twelve miles off, when the Captain gave orders to lie to and let her drive up the Firth of Forth in the direction of the May island. This island at that time was on our lee quarter about 18 miles away. But as the Captain is unacquainted with this Firth he became afraid of driving or running up in the dark and against the advice of his officers, he again turned the ship's head out to sea.
Had he persisted in doing so it was almost certain destruction, as we were too far down on the Carr rocks and a lee shore to save ourselves. But the next tremendous sea was the means of our salvation. For the vessel hadn't been going in this fatal direction five minutes when she shipped a sea that almost buried her. The Captain was washed from the starboard main rigging right round the ship and dashed against the mizzen rigging of the port side. The bridge was driven six inches aft out of its place and the boom, having got loose, made such a thumping that for several moments we all thought the ship was breaking up and foundering. The din of crashing spars and roaring sea and howling tempest was fearful indeed.
The Captain now saw that there was nothing but to run for it, unless he wanted the ship to founder and all on board to perish. He now turned the ship's head before the wind and with both steam and canvas we sped up the Firth. All the way up, till we were a good distance above the May island, the sea was very tempestuous. But as the Firth narrowed the sea lost its power and at midnight, to the immense relief of everyone on board, we hauled up at the back of Inch Keith and let go both anchors. We could now retire to rest in a sort of security and I for one slept soundly for nearly five hours.
Next morning (Sabbath) when I went on deck between 7 and 8 I was astonished to see a perfect forest of ships, scores of great steamers being amongst them. There were hundreds of them all lying in the open roadstead, having run up for shelter. There were some shocking sights among them, some of the vessels having their bulwarks carried away and others their masts; several of them must have been in a very bad condition. All the morning more vessels were coming running up, some of them reporting that outside nothing was to be seen but wreckage and vessels floating about bottom up. In these cases, of course, the crews must have perished.
About nine o'clock the Captain signalled for a pilot as he wanted further up the Firth. We soon got a Newhaven one who engaged to take us up to the "Hope" at Queensferry. Just as we were getting under way I descried and pointed out to one of the officers a vessel on the Fife side that appeared to be driven ashore. After we had steamed out a bit we could see that it was a schooner. She was ashore and the waves were washing right over her. The Captain with his glass could see the crew up the mast and clinging to the main rigging. We were drawing too much water to be able to go down to them, but soon afterwards we saw a tug running down to their assistance. As we were steaming fast up the Firth we soon lost sight of them, but we learned today that the tug couldn't help them but that the men had been saved by a fishing boat.
We anchored up here, North Queensferry, yesterday about noon and the storm has continued much the same ever since. This is a beautiful place and a great contrast to Kater harbour. I have several severe cases of catarrh to treat just now; all are getting on as well as could be expected. We may reckon our marine trouble at an end now, as we can, as soon as the weather moderates, run round and get into Tay river.
We are on the land again and the feeling is pleasant after what we have gone through. The weather settled a great deal yesterday and a pilot was sent through by train to Queensferry to take us into the Tay. We bore down the Firth in the afternoon and reached the Tay river in safety about midnight. As we could not get into the docks till 4 a.m., when it would be high water, we steamed slowly up. We got in soon after the gates opened and the ship was berthed shortly afterwards.
I was astonished to see at this early hour quite a crowd of people, chiefly women, on the quay. They were the wives and friends of the sailors, many of them having been anxiously watching night and day for the missing ships. When I was on deck I spoke to Kennedy, the second engineer. I saw at once he, at any rate, was happy. I asked him if he had seen his wife. He seemed half beside himself with gladness as he whispered energetically "yes, and she is quite well and all at home". I left the ship at 5 a.m. and went and knocked up the people at a temperance hotel where I put up during the interval between the two voyages. I am remaining here till tomorrow when I hope to go north again and see some of my friends.
The people here have been in a great state about the three ships Narwhal, Active and Mazinthien as they were all getting a battering from the last gales. The Mazinthien came in this afternoon and there was quite a multitude down on the quays seeing her come to her berth. I met and spoke to the doctor of the ship this evening and he had much the same tale to tell as myself. We all ought to be sincerely thankful that we are in a haven of rest at last.
End of the text of the second volume of the log book kept by James Melville Keith, doctor on the Arctic on her voyage to the Davis Straits in 1881.
Posted on behalf of his relative the Reverend Alan Roy and the Knight family of Carnoustie.