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Home > Research > The Anstruther Whale Fishery Company > The Anstruther Whale Fishing Company (1756 - 1762)



The Anstruther Whalefishing Company was established in late 1756 to early 1757, prior to the 30th January 1757. In a series of letters held by the National Archives of Scotland, from Sir John Anstruther, 2nd Baronet, to the Earl of Leven, inviting him to be a partner on 29th November 1756, the rationale for forming the company is outlined. The financial security offered by the Government bounty cited as the primary basis for undertaking the venture:

“We have begun a Whale Fishing Company for fitting out a ship form Anstruther, in which I and the Gentlemen of this Neighbourhood are to be concerned and several others”

“As to the Management and Plan to be followed, we propose that of the Dunbar Company, which has been very successful in a great measure owing to the right management and the Execution of it we think our situation more favourable, particularly on the article of Sailors, as there are just now a number of hands on this Coast who have been Employed in that Service in different Companys.”

“I am assured that there can be but a trifle lost, were the ship ineffectual the bounty given by the Government being so considerable”.

In a subsequent letter, after the establishment of the company prior to the 11th March 1757, the initial structure of the company was discussed:

“The Ordinary Managers are Baillie Waddle, a ship builder and James Anderson a Ship Master, The Extra Ordinary are Sir Philip Anstruther, David Anstruther, Mr Fall and Myself”

Mr Fall, Robert Fall was the brother of Sir John Anstruther’s wife, Janet. His father Captain James Fall was involved in the Dunbar Company (East Lothian and Merse Whalefishing Co).

In a letter between a Captain James Kyd to the Earl of Lauderdale on the 30th January 1757, Kyd gives an account of signing up the Earl to the company at the inaugural meeting and the delay in fitting out a ship:

“John Anstruther wrote you of his Whalefishing Scheme, which you seemed, to approve of, and if I am not mistaken you said you would take two shares of fifty pounds each. I was present at their first meeting, when the company was established, and as it was necessary for every partner to sign themselves, or by proxy I therefore [took] upon me to sign for your Lordship which I hope you approve of.”

Vessels & Premises

In a short account entitled “The Horrors of an Arctic Winter” compiled by George Gourlay (1887: 17), Joseph Bowman reminisces on the 18th century whaling at Anstruther, as told by old whalers. In it he mentions the vessels used, and importantly the whale store property:

“In 1757 the Bailies at Anstruther granted a waste comer at the Forth, known to this day as the Greenland Close, as a boiler-house for the two whale ships, the “Hawk” and the “Rising Sun,” which sailed this spring from the harbour. The bounty at this time was 40s. a ton, but the venture succeeded so ill that it came to an end by the one being crushed in the ice, and the other being put into the Quebec timber trade. It was the beginning, however, of a new era on the coast, for from this time her fishers embarked from year to year in the Dundee and other whale ships.”

While there is little reference to the type of vessel used to carry on the Scottish whaling operations at this time, collier brigs were popular vessels refitted for the purposes of whaling (Ransley et al. 2013) and exploration (e.g. Cook’s HMS Endeavour) due to their strong construction and cargo capacity (Barrow 2001), of a similar tonnage to that mentioned by Sir John Anstruther, at 250 tuns. The carved stone from the Whale Store, although worn, may indicate a 3-masted brig rigged vessel of this type.

Whaling Company Shipstone

In the letter of 29th November 1756 some basic details of vessel sought for the venture is set out by John Anstruther to the Earl of Leven:

“The Ship proposed from two hundred to about 250 tuns…The Capital three thousand pounds.”

William Scoresby, looking back to the late 18th century and early 19th century discusses that a vessel of this size is too small for the northern fishery (1799: 40-41), at 200-250 tons such a ship was smaller than the average whaler used by the English and Scottish whaling fleets at this time (Jackson 1978, average around 300 tons). Scoresby argues that a 350 ton ship is ideal as it requires the same stores, provisions and crew to that of a smaller vessel and the optimum cargo capacity for a typical season. A 250 ton ship may not be have been able to carry all its catch and thus be uneconomical, similarly a ship above 400 tons was never filled in his experience (Scoresby 1799; 40, 1820b).

Additionally, a ship above 400 tons was not eligible for the bounty and was presumably therefore a significantly riskier investment.

Owing to the expense of supplying and fitting out a ship at short notice after the inception of the company it was deemed too expensive to take part in the 1756-57 season. This was seemingly discussed at the first meeting of the company as explained by Captain Kyd to the Earl of Lauderdale:

“…they are not likely to fit out the ship for this season therefore … the money will not be wanted for some time…”

In March 1757 the cost of some of the supplies was sought from the Partners:

“The Meeting of the Managers of the Fife and Anstruther Whalefishing Company the 15th [last] appointed Every partner to pay to [Masters Coulls] Brothers and Company their Cashier, against the 26th day of May next £10 Sterling upon every share inscribed by them, to answer the payment of Sundry Stores already bought and payable at the above term.

“And as they expect to buy a ship soon probably another Call will then be made for a greater sum.”

By 1758, two vessels were operated by the Anstruther Whalefishing Company, the Rising Sun (active 1757 – 1762) and Hawke (active 1758 –1762) (Sanger 2008, Dodley 1762)

The Rising Sun took part in the 1757 first season and is assumed to be the kind of vessel intimated by John Anstruther in his correspondence with the Earl of Leven. As the vessel was successful in hunting a whale in its first expedition the addition of Hawke to the whalefishing fleet in 1758 appears to have been sensible business decision. Almanacs published at the time indicate the Hawke was active in earlier seasons prior to being lost in 1762.

However, the crew of the Hawke were unsuccessful in every season the vessel took part in, prior to being lost in 1762. Scoresby (1799: 114) remarks that during this period a single stout whale was sufficient to recoup the expense of a season, bolstered by the bounty. With the low numbers and intermittent catches returned by the Rising Sun whilst they may have paid for that vessel, presumably any profit made from those catches was lost by fitting out the Hawke making the overall venture unsuccessful. The Hawke was itself lost in 1762 and Bowman (1887) indicates this was due to being crushed in the ice. Bowman (1887: 17) also suggests that due to the terrible final season for the Company, the Rising Sun was sold off and used in the Quebec timber industry.


Letters from Sir John Anstruther to David, Earl of Leven, regarding proposals to set up the Fife and Anstruther Whale-fishing Company, and inviting Leven to join. GD26/13/648 (05/11/2013).

Sir John Anstruther: Parliamentary papers. (last accessed 08/01/2014).

The Spermacaeti whale brought to Greenland Dock, suggesting 350 tons was the average size of an English whaler in the mid-18th century: Royal Museums Greenwich, Atlantic Worlds Gallery.

Letter to the Earl of Lauderdale from Capt James Kyd: wishes Lauderdale to represent to the Admiralty on his behalf, in view of his navy service; refers to Sir John Anstruther’s whale fishing scheme, and has signed up Lauderdale in his absence as a partner. RH1/2/967 (05/11/2013).

Ackers 1759, The London Magazine, p450. (last accessed 06/01/2014).

Dodsley, R, 1762, The Annual Register , or a View of the history, politicks and literatures of the year. (last accessed 03/07/2013).

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