The Peterhead whaling trade



The Masters

David Gray - Naturalist

The Masters

We know very little about the individual men who served as crew, but we know a great deal about some of the Masters, or Captains, of the whaling vessels - the Scoresbys from Whitby, Sadler from Hull, Parker and Penny from Aberdeen and Adams and Yule from Dundee. In Peterhead just a few families dominated the high ranks of the whaling industry; the Gearies, the Robertsons, the Souttars and the Volums, but in particular the Grays, who were involved in the trade from beginning to end.

David Gray Sen. (1776-1833) started as mate of the Enterprise (1) in 1806 but he got his own ship, the Perseverance (1) in 1811. The Grays were to dominate the Greenland fishery for the remainder of its existence.

David Gray stayed with the Perseverance (1) for 2 years, taking 44 whales and 349 tons of oil. He then moved to the Active (1) and over a period of 13 years slaughtered 159 whales and thousands of seals, producing over 1650 tons of oil. In the autumn of 1825 the Active (1) was trapped and wrecked in the ice in Baffin Bay and had to be abandoned. The following year David Gray, accompanied by his brother John, returned on the Perseverance (1) and towed the Active (1) and her valuable cargo of blubber back home. David Gray then retired, aged 50.

John Gray now assumed command of the Active (1) and in 1827 captured 11 whales. For the 1827 season he took the Alpheus into the dangerous upper reaches of the Davis Strait and on the 17th of July his vessel was lost in the ice. Three days later the Enterprise (1) was lost in the same area. Coming on top of the loss, in early June, of the Active (1) 1827 was proving to be a very bad year indeed for the Peterhead fleet.

John Gray, probably mindful of the horrors of 1827, remained at home for the next 7 years, but in 1836 took the old Eclipse (1) north, and remained with her for 20, profitable, years. He died, as he might have wished, whaling in the Davis Strait in August 1856.

John's oldest son, David Gray Jun. (1828-1896), entered the industry in 1849, as master of the North of Scotland and sailed in her with great success until 1852. In that year he took over the Active (2) which had been built specifically for him. Over the next 14 years his prowess as a whale catcher was such that he became known as the "Prince of Whalers" although in reality most of his profits came from sealing. David Gray was also an outstanding naturalist who made many important observations in the Arctic.

Awash with money, David Gray Jun. and his brother John Jun. decided to invest in a brand new boat and the Eclipse (2) was launched in 1867. Under David's command she was initially very successful, taking, for example, 13,000 seals and 15 whales in 1871. However, by the late 1800s both whales and seals had been hunted to near-extinction and the industry was on its knees. The Eclipse (2) was sold to Dundee at the end of 1891. David then retired but was to have one last voyage, when, in 1893, he took the Windward back to the Greenland Sea. That was to be the end of Peterhead whaling.

John Gray's second son, also John (1830-1892), was an accomplished whaler and commanded the Queen, Mazinthien, and Hope (2). He retired in 1891.

Alexander Gray (1839-1910), John Gray's third son, was master of the Labrador, the Erik and the Windward. Alexander completed his sea-going career commanding vessels for the Hudson Bay Company in northern Canada.

By the time that the industry died, the Gray family had been pivotally involved in Peterhead whaling for almost a century, from 1811 to 1893.

The North East Archive - Sailors and Whalers


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Captain John Gray Senior

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©Martyn Gorman
Captain John Gray Senior's grave

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Captain David Gray Junior's family

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David Gray's house - The Links

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© Aberdeen University
Model bowhead made by David Gray Jun.

Martyn Gorman   ·   University of Aberdeen   ·   Department of Zoology  ·   © 2002