The Arch at Bragar by Mary Macaulay
For a few moments of each summer weekday our quiet little corner of the Lewis village of Bragar is less quiet while the bus with the “towerists” stops and they all pile out to gaze at and photograph our Whalebone Arch. We, of course, never notice it, but we do find the visitors interesting and we do our best to answer their questions about the arch.

This, in a rather more leisurely way, is its story.

On a calm evening in September 1920, a few village boys out fishing spotted a large, shiny mass far out at sea. They thought it was an upturned ship and continued with their fishing, then went home and forgot about it.

By the next morning the “ship” had floated in to Geodha Nam Muc, and was seen to be an enormous 80 foot long blue whale. It had a harpoon stuck in its back, a long, thick rope trailing from it. This was not the first wounded whale to drift in on the powerful current, indeed the inlet must have been named from some earlier whale. Muc-mhara is the Gaelic for whale. The creature was jammed in a dangerous and inaccessible spot, so some of the more intrepid mariners decided to tow it into Bragar Bay.

a picture of the blue whale in Bragar Bay, 1920

As the Stornoway Gazette of the time reported:

“The spirit that daunted the Hun was not to be beaten by the dangers of the currents, and two small boats contrived to pull it safely round the headland to Bragar Bay.”

Once it was on the foreshore the whale attracted even more attention. It was regarded as sacrosanct because of official interest in the preservation and removal of such a magnificent specimen. Soon a whaling boat from Amhuinnsuidhe was sent to tow it away.

Perhaps it was lack of Hun-daunting experience that foiled their attempts to navigate. They retired, whaleless, to Harris.

Choking stench

But still the authorities maintained an interest, and the enormous mass lay rotting on the shore while they thought about it. The stench, when the wind blew westerly (as it usually did), almost choked the villagers and strong representations were made for permission to have the beast disposed of. At last, when the folk of Bragar thought they must be in danger of all manner of plagues, permission was given and activity began.

The black, rubbery portion known as whalebone was first removed by an enterprising group who placed it in Loch an Duine, a freshwater loch, in the hope of selling it. Alas for these hopes, no successful deal was ever made. A man came from the mainland to bargain for it, but it appears to have rotted away in the loch.

The blubber was put to a great number of uses, now mostly forgotten. It was use with tar, as a disinfectant (dip not yet being available); to oil wool before carding; as a fuel oil, an ointment for burns, and even, in extremis, an internal medicine (a pretty gruesome medicine, from all accounts: one lady told me of a boy who inadvertently sucked one blubbery finger and promptly parted with his breakfast).

To fill a bottle one had just to stick a knife in the blubber and hold the bottle underneath till it filled. Cartloads, creel loads, bottlefuls were transported all over the village and round about. Soon the massive skeleton lay bare. The useless intestinal parts were floated out to sea. The thick ropes, of which there were 50 fathoms, were cut up into threshing ropes.

Deadly harpoon

The village postmaster and general merchant, Murdo Morrison, had taken a great interest in the whale, and had been a spokesman on behalf of his co-villagers in the matter of its disposal. He now decided to take the permanent memento of the monster, and was struck by the suitability of the lower mandible. It would make an ideal arch over his gateway at Lakefield, Bragar.

So, in the autumn of 1921, a procession wound its way from Bragar Bay over the rough tracks. There were two horses and many men hauling the enormous bones on a kind of sledge, with of course, many shouting small boys in tow. The death-dealing harpoon was also brought out to serve as a centrepiece. The bones could not be erected as they came out, it was discovered, because the centre part of each half was too soft. This was pared away until the harder bone was reached, thereby shortening the arch considerably. A skilled ironworker from Stornoway joined the bones at the apex with supporting iron studs down both sides, a decorative droplet shaped on top and the harpoon suspended in the middle.

The harpoon had itself caused a sensation, for while it was being cleaned and painted in the garage there was a deafening explosion and a shot from it drove a huge hole in the garage wall. Miraculously, no one was hurt. From this it was surmised that the whale had been wounded and not killed at sea because only one of the two shots had gone off; the animal’s maddened jerkings had forced the whaler to cut it loose.

Norman Morrison, a skilled stone-worker, erected the two pillars to support the arch you see today. Through the middle of each passes a hairpin-like band of iron, which keeps the bone in position. Wrought-iron gates were specially made to complete the archway.

Oriental hunters?

It has stood there since despite the strong winds. The bone is now very dry and flaky where for 30 years it secreted oil. All too often pieces are prized off as souvenirs. In the old postcards sold by the late Mr Morrison the whalebone was said to be the largest on record. It is over 20 feet high and 40 feet across.

Where the whale came from remains a mystery. There were markings on the harpoon, which seemed to indicate oriental origins, and it was thought that the whale might have travelled hundreds of miles from the Antarctic whaling grounds.

Lord Leverhulme, who was active in Lewis at the time of its arrival, was most intrigued by the arch and offered to buy it. But it was not for sale at any price.

Mary Macaulay, 1980