Primary pupils put on whaling disaster exhibition at museum

An exhibition about the Diana whaling disaster put together by primary school pupils has been unveiled at Shetland Museum.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the vessel returning to Shetland after being trapped in ice for seven months while whaling in the Arctic.

The museum invited pupils from Aith Junior High School to curate the exhibition after staff were impressed by their performance of a play called The Voyage of the Diana at Shetland County Drama Festival in March.

All 40 pupils who took part in the project went on a school trip last Friday to see the fruits of their labour.

Pupils and staff from Aith Junior High School with musuem staff at the unveiling of the Diana exhibition. Photo courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives


Primary 6 pupil Eva Clark, 10, from Aith said she was impressed with what she saw.

“I think it’s cool – it just shows what we have learned. And I like having the TV here so we can see our performance of the play as well,” she said.

Archives assistant Mark Smith said: “The kids wrote the text, selected the objects, and wrote all the captions. They did the bulk of the work.

“It’s a new kind of collaboration for us here. We had never done that before – we had never handed over to a school, saying ‘you do that.’

“I’m really pleased the kids could come in to see their work.”

On 19th February 1866, the Bremen-built Diana set sail from her home port of Hull, heading north for Jan Mayen Island, off Greenland, in search of seals.

She picked up 26 Shetlanders in Lerwick to bulk up her skeleton crew and then carried on her way. But it was to prove an unsuccessful trip and with not a single seal to her name, the Diana returned to Lerwick where she anchored on 28th April.


When she set sail again 10 days later, it was to hunt for whales in Pond’s Inlet off the northeast coast of Canada.

However, she ran into a great deal of ice all along the coast and became trapped.

The Shetlanders set up camp on an iceberg by fashioning makeshift tents out of spare sails and spars.

Conditions on board the ship were appalling. Not only did the men endure bitterly cold temperatures, their food supplies were so limited they became seriously malnourished, prompting scurvy to take hold of many.

The ship’s surgeon Charles Edward Smith kept a daily journal of the crew’s experiences, which makes for harrowing reading.

On Thursday, 31st January 1867, he illustrated how difficult it was to keep the ship in working order.

He wrote: “Intensely cold again last night. This is dreadful work; it is murdering us. We cannot endure it much longer in our starving, exhausted condition.”

So it was to everyone’s tremendous relief when, in March 1867, a strong wind blowing from the northeast helped to free the ship from the ice and she began the homeward journey.

On Tuesday 2nd April 1867, the Diana arrived at Ronas Voe. The Scotsman printed an account of a survivor who said the people he met off the boat were “uncommonly kind”.

He said: “I have never met so much attention in all my life. They would have done anything for us. They sent men and boats to help us, and supplied us with all kinds of provisions.”

The Diana anchored in Lerwick on Thursday, 11th April 1867. But amid the joy that greeted the men coming off the boat, for some Shetland families there was deep misery.


Nine of the 26 Shetlanders who went on the expedition died.

One who survived was Christopher Tait, a half-deck boy from Hoit, East Burrafirth, and two relatives of his were among the Aith Junior High School pupils who visited the museum last Friday.

Sadie Anderson, 10, from East Burrafirth and Charlie Anderson, 10, from Gonfirth said they are related to Tait, who was the last living survivor of the Diana’s crew until he died aged 91 in 1940.

“It’s really cool. It’s amazing,” said Sadie, when asked how she felt about being related to Mr Tait. “I feel that there’s something special about it. East Burrafirth’s history is very cool and weird.”

Sadie also said she has spoken to Rhoda Tulloch, granddaughter of Mr Tait.

“Christopher Tait died when she [Rhoda Tulloch] was four but she told me she can remember how he had to sit down on wool because he was so sore after the Diana,” said Sadie.

Headteacher Michael Spence: “I think it was good that the pupils had an input into the exhibition because they built up a lot of knowledge and I was speaking to the museum and archives staff and they were saying how good it was to get the pupils involved because they were giving ideas that the adults wouldn’t have thought of.

“Hopefully it encourages pupils to come with their families. That builds their knowledge of Shetland, which is what the museum is here for.

“The kids have certainly enjoyed themselves.”


Add Your Comment
  • Michael Hughson

    • July 1st, 2017 23:58

    Pond Inlet is on the North coast of Baffin Island, which is in Canada. (Alaska is part of the USA)

  • Ron Young

    • July 2nd, 2017 10:07

    Firstly, I’m a southerner – from Derbyshire.

    I think that it’s good to get the younger generations to research and present the story of something that influenced their area, and the sea in general has had a similar influence on your life to coal mining where I live.

    I assume that the Diana is the same one mentioned on a Hull museums web page as having being wrecked off Donna Nook in 1969?

    Are there any plans to perhaps use the exhibition to reach a wider audience when it has served its time in the Shetland Museum? I am thinking along the lines of it perhaps being transferred down to one of the museums in Hull (which is a little nearer for me to visit).

    • Bill Smale

      • July 3rd, 2017 11:56

      It was wrecked in 1869!

      • Ron Young

        • July 3rd, 2017 13:04

        Oops! That’s the problem with us “sooth-mother’s” we can’t always read. Thanks for correcting the date Bill.

  • Frances Macdonald

    • July 3rd, 2017 10:34

    I find this fascinating as I am a descendant of the Taits of East Burrafirth.

  • Frances Macdonald

    • July 3rd, 2017 11:25

    My great- grandmother was Elspeth Tait who married Robert Johnson. Their first daughter was Elizabeth Johnson , born in 1884. My grandmother migrated to Australia around 1910 to accompany her sister Jane Johnson who was to marry Willie Leask here. This marriage occurred some time after their arrival. My great-grandmother, nee Elspeth Tait, and her other daughter Margaret migrated later.
    I visited the family home, ” The Holm” in East Burrafirth in 1970.
    The cousin of my great- grandmother was living there with his wife. They looked after me so beautifully.
    It was a particular joy to me as my grandmother died 4 months before I was born. I do remember my great- grandmother, her mother., who passed away when I was three..


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