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Greenland's Icy Waters

  • (Brian McNeill)

    A wild and windy morning on the first day of the year
    I was waiting for the ferry when a working man appeared
    He was joking with his mates about the duty on a beer
    While the excise man was looking o'er his cargo
    When the forty-tonner's doors they opened wide
    I saw the name they'd painted on the side

    And oh! Christian Salvesen, perhaps the fault is mine
    But there's things that Auld Acquaintance will always bring to mind
    As I looked intae the wagon I was sure that I would find
    The bloody memories of Greenland's icy waters

    A hundred years ago your flags were flying in the shrouds
    From Dundee tae St John you were the proudest of the proud
    But thank God you changed your trade, tell me where's the glory now
    In the hunting of a species to extinction
    For the silence of the waters tells the tale
    Of how the oceans lost the singing of the whale

    And oh! Christian Salvesen, is the world's opinion right
    To paint the bloodiest of colours in such simple black and white
    Or would Auld Lang Syne be better served by following the lights
    O' the men who sailed for Greenland's icy waters

    They were lean and they were hard, they were hungry for the prize
    They followed him in open boats, threw steel into his eye
    And looking back across the years their dreams are easy tae despise
    Till you think about the lives they left behind them
    For what was there to dream of on the land
    Just a life behind the plough, cap in hand

    For oh! Christian Salvesen, they were young and in their prime
    And for every cup o' kindness they drank ten of bitter wine
    Frozen death and bloody iron made them old before their time
    And claimed their lives for Greenland's icy waters

    Leviathan for fortune, pantechnicon for trade
    One was ready for the slaughter, one delivers ready-made
    And you know I'd be a liar, when the consciences are weighed
    If I justified the bloodiest of hunting
    But through the singing of the humpback and the blue
    I hear the voices o' the whalers ringing true

    So here's to you, Christian Salvesen, here's a health untae your name
    I'll drink a glass to all the courage, drown my sorrows in the same
    Lest Auld Acquaintance e'er forget the glory and the shame
    And the memories of Greenland's icy waters

Susannes Folksong-Notizen

  • [1991:] A song that explores my feelings about whaling - and in particular that thorny subject's place in the history of Scotland's people. The incident which gave rise to the piece took place on New Year's morning, which is why the words of Auld Lang Syne are woven through it, and the firm of Christian Salvesen, now road hauliers, were once the owners of one of the country's biggest whaling fleets, sailing out of Dundee. (McNeill, The Back o' the North Wind 9)

  • [1993:] This is the story of men like the Grays of Peterhead [...], of legendary whale masters [...]. It is also the story of the Orcadians and Shetlanders who went a-whaling, and who, in many ways, were the backbone of the Scottish whaling fleet. Not least, it is the story of the men from farms and fishertowns who left their homes believing that they would make their fortunes in the Greenland seas; [...]. They fought starvation and disease, and they endured untold suffering, losing limbs and sometimes their lives. (Smith, Whale Hunters 5)

    There were twenty whale catchers in South Georgia in those days [the 1930s]. At one time, they called them whale killers, but to mollify a sensitive public the name was changed to 'catchers', which was hardly an accurate description of the bloody work they did. (Smith, Whale Hunters 48)

    Christian Salvesen & Sons, of Leith, whose whaling operations in Shetland had upset local fishermen, were looking to the Antarctic for new fishing grounds. Leith had been involved in Arctic whaling as far back as the early seventeenth century, and now Salvesen money and manpower were to be directed at what [Scottish scientist W. G.] Burn-Murdoch had described as 'this strange Antarctic world'. In 1908, having been granted a government licence, Salvesen sent an expedition to Leith Harbour in South Georgia - the start of an Antarctic connection that was to last for more than half a century.

    They employed men from Shetland, Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh. They earned their money the hard way, particularly those who wintered in South Georgia, maintaining and overhauling the catcher fleets. They lived in buildings made of timber and corrugated iron, each housing about fifty men in four-berth cabins. The sanitation in these foul-smelling barracks was said to be 'pre-historic'. [...]

    The winters were appalling, bringing winds that were 'the fiercest and wildest in the world', with icy blasts reaching a force of 150 miles an hour. [...] Snow lay on the ground in twelve-foot drifts, and avalanches crashed thunderously down from the towering peaks that overlooked the station. In the early days, this dismal scene was made even worse by whale waste left lying on the sea-shore. The Norwegian station at Grytviken in South Georgia, set up by Captain C. A. Larsen in 1904, had miles of shoreline on Cumberland Bay choked with the bones of whales, spinal columns, loose vertebrae, ribs and jaws, and 'a hundred huge skulls within a stone's throw'. [...] Nor did the passage of time greatly improve things. Neil McKichan, from Portincaple, Garelochhead, who made two trips to South Georgia between 1948 and 1953, says conditions there were 'very, very bad'. He has a clear recollection of the huts they lived in [...]. Nor was the food anything to write home about, although the men were given a special treat at the week-end - 'You got a whale-steak every Saturday night for tea.' Neil, who was a clipper, cutting up dead whales, [...] spent two winters in South Georgia, which put extra money in his pocket, but for that he had to endure the grim Antarctic weather, with little protection. He had to provide his own gear. Some men did two winters at Leith, one after the other, but the doctors on the station eventually put a stop to that because, as Neil put it, it 'affected their heads'. 'It's very, very lonely there', he said. 'Very isolated.' (Smith, Whale Hunters 101ff)

    There was no blast of trumpets [when whaling ended in the Antarctic]. It was almost as if the whalers had suddenly walked out on the past, shrugging off centuries of history. To-day, the old whaling stations lie in ruins, rusted corrugated-iron sheds groaning in the wind, roofs collapsing. The hulks of whale boats rot on the water's edge and cormorants shelter under the pillars of a pier gnawed into ragged fragments by the wind and sea. Huge chains can be seen draped across the shore like giant necklaces. They were used to turn over the whales when they were being flensed. [It] is hard to understand why we should still want to hold on to this God-forsaken island in the middle of the Antarctic. [South Georgia is part of the Falkland Islands.] There are good reasons. The hunt now is for knowledge, and the result is that the Antarctic has become a vast science laboratory. [E.g., whales and seals provide information about their position and activity.] It is a far cry from the days when whales and seals were hunted and slaughtered in their thousands. (Smith, Whale Hunters 111f)

  • [1996:] The Edinburgh-based company [Christian Salvesen] is a leader in food distribution to supermarkets [...]. The Salvesen family, which owned the group until it was floated in 1986, still owns 38 per cent. (Observer, 28 July)

Quelle: Scotland

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