Birsay whalebone, Mainland, Orkney, Scotland

The Birsay Whalebone is a vertebra of a vast and long dead mammal from the front. From the back it’s a bird of prey zoning in on its next meal. For me, its twin aspects are both repellent and enthralling. Located on Mainland, Orkney, I know that all paths will lead to Birsay when I return there in January.

Species and type

The Birsay whale was a Baleen washed ashore in the 1870s. It was also a Right whale, i.e. one of the “right” whales to hunt: rich in blubber, easy to catch and capable of floating after being killed. Right whales could be up to 60ft long. This one was probably already dead when it washed ashore at Birsay.

Gold mine

In the late 19th century, a beached whale was a gold mine for the local people. They would cut up the carcass and use of every bit they could: oil, bones, and meat. However, they did not have the correct lifting equipment to roll the whale over and get at the blubber on its underside. Hence, it remained on the beach for the next 25 years and would have stunk out the entire neighbourhood!

The Birsay Whalebone

The Birsay Whalebone was erected in around 1880, possibly as a marker of where to fish and where it was safe to sail. Equally, it could have been intended as a symbol of respect for this  huge creature – a whale gravestone if you like.


The Birsay Whalebone and its jawbone post were blown down after a terrible storm on 25 January 2008. There were fears that it could not be saved. Nonetheless – thanks to the Birsay Heritage Trust – it was finally repaired. However, the jawbone is hollow and had to be strengthened by inserting a metal rod that was attached to a concrete base.

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