Joseph Bowman and the 9 Pittenweem men who went to the Arctic

Joseph Bowman was born in Pittenweem in 1814, the tenth of fourteen children, of the rope spinner James Bowman.  In March of 1836 he, along with another 8 men from Pittenweem, as well as men from Arncroach and Cellardyke, walked the 20 miles to Dundee to join the Arctic whaler “THOMAS”. The THOMAS was a fine old ship of 356 tons, and had braved many an Arctic storm. Captain Davidson of Pittenweem was their young Master. Their destination was Baffin Bay in the high Arctic, between Greenland and Northern Eastern Canada.

In the 18th and 19th centuries before the discovery of modern oils, whale oil was a very profitable business to be involved in. It was used for street lighting, processing jute and other cloths, sail making, candle wax, soap making and machinery oil as well as household oil lamps.

There were fleets of whalers from many harbours round the coasts, such as Aberdeen, Hull, Whitby, Dundee, Peterhead, and Lerwick. It was an unbelievably hard life, in dangerous and unpredictable waters with freezing conditions, as work went on continuously during the long daylight hours, as long as there were whales to catch. Unless a boat was unlucky enough to succumb to the arduous conditions of gales and ice, some of these boats had long fishing careers. The HENRIETTA of Aberdeen was built in 1764 at Whitby and only lost in 1834. A remarkable fishing life of 70 years.

The boats generally sailed in March or April, and returned in August or later, depending on how well they fished. There are records of whalers returning (clean), having caught no fish at all, and the families of the men facing starvation, as they had no pay. Some men had never seen growing corn as they had never missed a season in the ice pack. One old hand named James Webster died aboard the ECLIPSE in 1872, aged 73. He had never missed a season in the Arctic since 1815.

The main risk to Arctic whaling was being stuck in the ice. Many boats were simply crushed, while others although badly battered, were lifted up and out of the pack ice and would not be completely wrecked. In certain conditions of pack ice, docks could be cut from the ice with huge ice saws as much as 16 feet in length, and each saw being manned by about 16 men. Often 2 boats would berth together and the onerous task of sawing would be completed by the two crews, with the entrance to the dock always wider in case they needed to escape.

The whaler crews numbered between 40 and 60 men, depending on the size of the boat, and of these only the captain, surgeon and mate lived in the cabin. Captain and mate were always very experienced men, and had served for many years in whalers and worked their way up the ranks. Whalers always carried a surgeon, and although regarded as an officer, often they were only recently qualified, but energetic and adventurous. The author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, having trained as a surgeon, served in an Arctic whaler to experience this, “to him”, great adventure.

And it was an adventure of sorts. Captain William Scoresby Snr of Whitby in the 20 years between 1796 and 1816 returned a total of 2693 tons of whale oil, the largest amount ever by any whaling master. Also in 1806 while steaming north, and seeing nothing but clear water ahead, he turned to the south due to the lack of whales. If he had kept to the north he might have been the first man to get near to the North Pole as he was only 500 miles away.

The next level of crew lived below decks in their own cabins. They were the second mate, specksioneer (chief harpooner), coopers, carpenters, boatswain and other harpooners. They had a common mess called the half deck. The rest of the crew were berthed in the forecastle and congregated below decks round the galley.

The THOMAS had generally had good captains and been a successful whaler, but there were always poor years. The East Greenland fishing was getting poorer and in 1828/1829 more ships were making for the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay to fish. A few boats were lost but fishing was good for most boats in 1828 and 1829 although bad weather and much ice hampered fishing in1829. Season 1830 was the worst year in the history of British whaling. Of the 91 ships in the Davis Straits that year, 19 were lost and 21 returned clean (no fish), and hardly a ship had not been damaged in some way. This then was the life the men of Pittenweem had chosen.

In 1836, 59 whalers sailed to the Davis Straits, 13 belonged to Hull and 10 to Peterhead. Fishing was poor and 5 boats killed a total of 7 whales. 7 other Peterhead boats were clean. When the ships made the ice in May, it was soon realised that it would be a bad season, due to the tremendous fields of ice and their thickness. As fishing to the northward was poor most of the fleet headed south in late August. Six boats stayed in Baffin Bay till the first week in September, but by then it was too late. They were trapped by an impenetrable field of ice and unable to make a passage. These boats were the NORFOLK of Berwick; the DEE of Aberdeen; the GRENVILLE BAY of Shields; the SWAN of Hull; and the ADVICE and THOMAS of Dundee.

By the 23rd September due to the strong winds, the boats had to make fast to large blocks of ice which they called “scones”. That night the rations of the DEE were cut to 3 pounds of bread per man per week.

Excerpts from the THOMAS’s ship’s log:

October 23rd “my pillow last night was frozen to the bed”

November 30th “my blankets last night were perfectly frozen where I had been breathing”

The cold was so intense that the ice inside the hull was 3 or 4 inches thick.

On the 12th December there was a howling wind, and the bergs were grinding together creating huge turbulence in the icy sea. There was a tremendous crashing of ice, massive timbers split apart bending huge iron bolts, and masts and rigging falling, as the THOMAS was wrenched free and thrown high and dry on to the ice. With the help of seamen from other ships, they managed to get stores, some equipment and some tea chests onto the ice. Joseph Bowman reportedly dived into the cabin and rescued an oil lamp from the old whaler. There they were all night watching their ship being wrecked before their very eyes. By this time hunger, fatigue, and cold were endangering the men’s health. Exposed to wind, sleet and snow showers, the men huddled together for warmth. Sadly it was too much for some and the first two casualties died. William Watt 33 from Pittenweem was first, followed soon by young Alexander Ednie of Arncroach. Their bodies were laid below the ice.

Soon after this the stores that had been salvaged, were carried to other ships and the remaining crew, were distributed evenly, 10 men per ship. Joseph Bowman was berthed in the NORFOLK. By January the terrible disease of scurvy was rife amongst the crews and many were confined to bed. During this period as many as 6 men of the THOMAS died. Every liquid on board was frozen and every bed was covered in solid ice. On one boat, icicles were hanging round the water cask, 6 feet from the fire, which was melting snow to be used in cooking. Men were so weak they could hardly eat. Their gums were full of black ulcers and teeth would often fall out even though they were not rotten. Sores broke out which would not heal and became infected even more.

About this time the steward killed 11 foxes. This was a great treat for the men, who had been reduced to eating whale tail fins for sustenance, however on the 24th December the allowance of pork was reduced to 6 ounces a day.

As the NORFOLK was so crowded, Joseph Bowman shared a small cot in the focs’le with his townsman Alexander McKenzie. Jammed in the back Joseph needed to get up and said, ” Alex, will you let me up ”. Sadly there was no reply. Alex had died during the night. This was not an unusual occurrence.

In January 1837 the Government offered a £300 bounty to relief ships sailing before February 5th, and a further bounty of £500 to any vessel that was able to help any one of the distressed whalers within the edge of the ice. By mid-February an open gap was seen in the ice not far off, but it was the 11th March before the first ship managed to set herself free. This was the ADVICE from Dundee.

On the night of 26th April 1837 the first of the distressed whalers to arrive was the DEE, at Stromness in Orkney. The GRENVILLE BAY and the NORFOLK arrived the following day. Out of a crew of 46, the DEE had only 9 men alive, and 3 of a boat’s crew of 12 from the THOMAS.

When the THOMAS was wrecked on 12th/13th December, there was much loose ice and some of the boats were badly buffeted about, and crushed by the ice opening and closing again. This was the worst scenario for the crews, as they had to contend with keeping ropes fast so that she would not be tossed about by the strong winds. All this and pumping out water from the leaks, and the unrelenting freezing conditions day after day, in dark gloomy days. The sun went down on November 10th and did not reappear until January 23rd…….. 74 days later.

The GRENVILLE BAY and the NORFOLK were luckier than the DEE and the THOMAS, as when they became stuck in the ice, they were solid fast in thick ice for all the time until freed. The NORFOLK managed to free herself from the ice on the 16th March, where she had been locked in solid ice for 5 months and 11 days. 50 men and boys crewed the NORFOLK, and she returned to Stromness with 42 still alive and only 8 dead. Remarkable in the circumstances.

On arrival most of the crew were taken to hospital and cared for until they were healthy enough to be released. Joseph Bowman weighed 5 stones when he landed, having lost 6 stones during the voyage. As soon as he was able, he took the steam packet ship VELOCITY to the Firth of Forth, where he landed at Anstruther.

Seeing his terrible condition a man named David Todd, offered to take him to Pittenweem in a carriage. However Joseph made the journey on foot, but word had been passed that he was on his way, and when he reached the Kirk Latch farm on the east end of the village, a large crowd of young and old were there to meet him. He was the sole survivor of the men who walked to Dundee in the March of 1836.

50 years later, he was the last remaining crewmember of the THOMAS of Dundee still alive, after the dreadful winter of 1836 in the Arctic Seas when so many men perished. He died on Saturday morning the 18th of May 1895, and is buried in Pittenweem.

As he was so well known, his death was reported  even in papers like the GLASGOW HERALD and the BELFAST WEEKLY NEWS. A notice in the DUNDEE EVENING TELEGRAPH says, ” A fine specimen of our hardy seafaring class, he was frequently asked for sittings by the late Sam Bough, and other well known artists of the present day, to which he willingly acceded “.

Three men from Cellardyke who were also on the THOMAS on that fateful voyage, also lost their lives.


James Horsburgh:         died on board the Grenville Bay of Newcastle
Thomas Smith:              died of scurvy
William Watt:                died on board the Norfolk of Berwick
John West:                      died on board the Grenville Bay of Newcastle
Alexander Motion:        died on board the Advice of Dundee
James Cook:                   died on board the Dee of Aberdeen
Alexander McKenzie:   died on board the Norfolk of Berwick
Alexander Latto:           death not listed
Joseph Bowman:           only survivor of the Pittenweem men


William Davidson
John Muir and his cousin William Muir


  • The Arctic Whalers by Basil Lubbock.
  • Our Old Neighbours or Folk Lore in the East of Fife by George Gourlay.
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph.

Our thanks go to Professor T C SMOUT and MAIRI STEWART for some of the following information which was compiled from their book:

“The Firth of Forth an Environmental History”

Whales have been recorded in the Firth of Forth for centuries. About 8000 years ago sea levels rose because of what was known as the Great American Melt. The result of this was a huge marine inlet, covering what was formerly dry land, which stretched as far west as Lake of Menteith, 12 miles from Stirling. As Loch Lomond was also flooded at this time it became a sea loch, unlike today, and the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea were only about 10 miles apart.

Approximately 7000 years ago there are signs that a Tsunami struck the east coast of Scotland, when part of a huge Norwegian mountain collapsed into the North Sea. It is believed in Shetland to have created a sea surge 80 feet above normal levels. Further south on the Fife coast the height would be more like 15 feet.

About 1000 years later as the meltwater receded, the deposits which had been left exceeded the water level, and the land gradually overtook this enormous lagoon. For a few thousand years though there was a huge tidal basin far to the west of modern Grangemouth.

In the Victorian period, engineers whilst recovering land for various projects, discovered in the clay deposits, the skeletons of 16 great whales, 12 of them above Stirling. The largest of these was a 72 feet long Blue Whale found at Airthrey (between Bridge Of Allan and Menstrie) in 1819. Another great whale of different species was found at Meiklewood by Stirling. Some of the tools which were recovered in the area have been carbon dated to about 5900 years ago.

The Tay Whale: In November 1883 a 40 feet long Humpback whale was seen in the Firth of Tay. With the local whaling fleet in port for the winter months, some of the men took boats out to try and catch the whale. It was eventually harpooned on 31st December, but continued swimming out of the Tay, towing the boats behind. After some considerable time the boats broke free, and one week later the whale was found dead floating near Stonehaven. Full story click the blue link below.

Another Blue Whale carcass was discovered stranded near Longniddry in East Lothian in 1869, and was painted by Sam Bough, a famous artist of the time. The Blue Whale was first scientifically described by Sir Robert Sibbald from a specimen washed ashore in the Firth of Forth in 1692.

Whales are more common round Scottish waters than many people think. In September 2012 a pod of Pilot whales, 26 in number, stranded themselves a few hundred yards east of Pittenweem harbour. Sadly 13 of them could not be saved.

In April 2013 a group of Sperm whales were seen near the islands of Fidra and Lamb about 1 mile offshore from North Berwick.

More recently, from January to March 2017 a Humpback whale has been sited a few times near Kinghorn and Inchcolm and breaching (jumping out of the water).

On Friday April 21st 2017, a 21 foot long juvenile Minke whale was seen by a member of the public, alive but stranded, on Largo beach at about 4 in the afternoon. Rescuers attended, and put flotation bags round the whale, to stop it rolling backwards and forwards when the tide came back in, and managed to get it refloated. It seemed however to be disorientated and swam back onto a nearby skelly, (Scottish word for a reef or line of rock). Eventually at the second attempt the whale was freed about 10pm and swam off. A search of the surrounding beaches on Saturday morning, found no sign of the whale. A successful conclusion we hope.

The writer of this piece has also seen whales in the North Sea many times over the years, and on a few occasions small pods of Orca (killer whales), whilst on passage round Shetland. You may not see them often, but they are around us.