Port na Cùile

Or where are all the Basking sharks?

A report in The Scotsman on the 18th May 1939 tells of “a great migration of basking sharks into the Firth of Clyde [having taken] place in the past few days1Sharks In Clyde | The Scotsman | Thursday 18 May 1939 | British Newspaper Archive. [online] Available at: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000540/19390518/344/0008 [Accessed 11 May 2022]..

Large schools of sharks had been “seen passing into the Firth through the Sound of Sanda, at the extreme south-east point of Kintyre“. The sharks would then disperse throughout the bays along the east coast of Kintyre, with a more than a dozen, some over 30 feet long, being seen in Carradale Bay.

It was not unexpected, the warm weather and the arrival of herring shoals, usually foretold the arrival of the sharks, never far behind, for herring and sharks both feed on krill or sheildhu. But in that spring of 1939, both herring and sharks  arrived unprecedentedly early in the season.

Sharks are regarded as comparatively benign. Later in the season that there are reports of them leaping out of the water and charging boats. Two years earlier, in September 1937, three lives had been lost in Carradale Bay, when a huge shark charged and capsized a small sailing boat. However, at all times, fishermen would complain of sharks causing damage to their nets.

Basking sharks can reach up to 11 metres long and weigh over 3 tons. They feed by filtering krill from seawater passing through their gills at the rate of 1.5 million Kg of water per hour2“Field Guide to the Water Life of Britain”. Reader’s Digest Nature Lover’s Library.1984..  One shark, The Scotsman report estimates, consumes as much krill as a million herring, hence fishermen believe the presence of huge shark shoals significantly affects their catches of herring.

But the basking shark has been much exploited. Their livers can weigh as much as a quarter of their total body weight and yield 2,270 litres of oil which was used in oil lamps and candlemaking3Ibid..

The year before this “great migration“, in 1938, a shark oil factory had been set up in Carradale by Dr Secombe Hett, a London surgeon, and Anthony Watkins. Hett seems to have been the brains (and the money) behind the enterprise. He is described as a “a keen student of marine biology” who spent his holidays fishing and shooting in the Highlands4Shark Oil Factory. | The Scotsman | Thursday 12 May 1938 | British Newspaper Archive. [online] Available at: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000540/19380512/324/0008 [Accessed 11 May 2022]..

Watkins was the practical man, expediating the purchase of the boiler and heavy equipment needed for the operation5Ibid.. He fitted their boat, a cruiser by the name of the Dusky Maid, with a 37mm Norwegian made harpoon weighing 17lbs6Speedie, Colin. “A Sea Monster’s Tale: In Search of the Basking Shark”. Page 58. Princeton University Press, 2021. [Available online at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=l_YlEAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false].

A location for the factory was agreed at a cove called Blackport, variously described as 400 metres7Ibid. Page 58. and ¾ mile north of Carradale Pier8Shark Oil Factory. | The Scotsman | Thursday 12 May 1938 | British Newspaper Archive. [online] Available at: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000540/19380512/324/0008 [Accessed 11 May 2022]., the main criteria the obnoxious smells being far enough away from the harbour.

400m north of Carradle pier would point to Port na Cùile, the location in the photo but when the machinery arrived on site at Portnacuil, it still had to be transported further up the coast to Blackport by rafting. Seems a bit of an oversight9Ibid..

Ruined building – evidence of the shark oil factory – perhaps a substation?

The only signs of industrial activity along the coast is a small derelict building at about the ¾ mile mark. Could it have been an electrical substation?

So the factory was set up and ready to go for the 1939 season. And a momentous season it turned out to be.

Crowds on Carradale Pier gathered to watch the action. A big school of sharks were basking on the surface around the pier. The Dusky Maid harpooned a 35 feet long one10Battle With Shark Thrill For Crowd At Carradale Harpooners’ Misfortune | The Scotsman | Wednesday 14 June 1939 | British Newspaper Archive. [online] Available at: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000540/19390614/053/0010 [Accessed 11 May 2022]..

As soon as the harpoon fired, the sharks dived and disappeared, but one had been hit and it “made off at racing speed towards the Kilbrennan Sound but whirled back in its tracks and went round and round in the bay in a series of great circles” towing the Dusky Maid behind it.

The sea was choppy and there was a strong swell running; the Dusky Maid was proving difficult to steer and seemingly at the whim of the shark. Suddenly, after about forty minutes, the shark turned towards the pier and the crowds realised the danger of the situation. It seemed as if the Dusky Maid would be smashed against the steel supports.

The cruiser however, just managed to avoid the danger, but in doing so, the rope broke and the shark dived and disappeared underneath the pier.

If it wasn’t so sad it would make a good Ealing comedy.

That was in June. In August, it was reported that the Dusky Maid had caught five sharks in Carradale Bay, the biggest catch to date — with a light steel hawser instead of an hemp rope. “Holiday-makers who watched the operations got a thrill when one shark leaped almost clear of the water when it was harpooned11Shark-Hunter’s Big Haul At Carradale The Shark-Hunting Cruiser Dusky Maid Has Just Returned With Her Heaviest Oneday Catch, Namely | Edinburgh Evening News | Wednesday 09 August 1939 | British Newspaper Archive. [online] Available at: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000452/19390809/120/0005 [Accessed 12 May 2022]..

Basking sharks being processed to extract their oil at Blackport, just north of the harbour and village. [From the Carradale Goat website http://www.the-carradale-goat.co.uk/ accessed 12 May 2022]

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