The Whalebone Arch - Lakefield House, Bragar

On a calm summer evening in September, 1920 a few village boys out fishing spotted a large, shiny mass far out to sea, thought it was an upturned ship and continued with their fishing. By the next morning the "ship" had floated into a bay known locally as Geodha nam Muc and was seen to be an enormous, 82 foot long blue whale. It had a harpoon stuck in it's 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 place, but some of the more intrepid mariners used two small boats to tow it round the headland to Bragar Bay.Once it was on the foreshore the whale attracted even more interest.It was regarded as sacroscant because of official interest in the preservation and removal of such a magnificent speciment.Soon a Whaling boat was dispatched from Amhuinnsuidhe on the Isle of Harris to tow the carcass away but their attempts at navigating to Bragar was unsuccessful and they retired, whale-less, back to Harris.

But still the authorities maintained an interest, and the enormous mass laying 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 that they must be in danger of all manner of plaques, permission was given and activity began.

The black, rubbery portion known as whalebone was first removed by an enterprising group and placed 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 did come 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 such as disinfectant when mixed with tar (dip not being available yet) to oil wool before carding, as a fuel oil, an ointment for burns , and even, in extreme cases, an internal medicine. To fill a bottle one had just to stick an knife in the blubber and hold the bottle underneath till it filled. Cartloads,creel loads, bottlesful were transported all over the village and round about. Soon the massive skeleton lay bare, and the useless intestines were floated out to sea. The thick ropes, of which there was several fathoms length, were cut up into threshing ropes.

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 it's disposal. He now decided to take a permanent momento 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.

It was discovered that the bones could not be erected as they were because the centre part of each half consisted of gristle and was too soft. This was pared away until the harder bone was reached, thereby shortening the arch considerably. A skilled ironworker from Stornoway, the islands main town, used steel plates to join 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 jaws measure 25 feet each and weight about 4 tons. The height at the apex of the Arch is approximately 20 feet

Left: Early photo of Arch
Right:
Extent of decay prior to repairs being started

Refurbishment

This community based and community led project ensured the restoration of the Whalebone Arch and the continuance of it's role as a tourist attraction on the West Coast of Lewis and was undertaken with the desire that the Arch would exist for future generations. There will be free and open access to the Arch and a local community group has acquired the ground in front of the Arch to enable this to be a permanent facility.

Consent to carry out repairs had to be obtained from the appropriate authorities - Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) in their role as the local Authority which has powers under the Listed Buildings legislation and Historic Scotland who have an advisory and an executive position in the matter.

The original plan was to construct a timber support cradle to enable the removal of the Arch but after further consideration it was decided to erect two scaffolding towers, situated directly in front of each half of the arch, and secure the bone to the scaffold.

The upper half of the bone was wrapped in "pallet wrap" cling film and a scaffold board was placed between it and the scaffold tubes. At the areas where the horizontal tubes transverse the bone, protective polystyrene packing was placed round the bone and racket straps were used to secure the bone to the scaffold.

A hole was bored sideways through each section of the bone at the lowest level of the platform big enough to allow a length of scaffold tube to be inserted. These tubes were then tied into the main platform structure to allow the bone to be supported from near the base when the lift takes place. Timber gate rails were strapped to the middle section of the bone on the South side as the degree of deterioration was more severe than on the North side and there was a possibility of the bone breaking sideways. A crack propagated from the thickened section just above ground level and continued through the bone at an angle of approximately 45 degrees.

A crane was used to lift each section of the Scaffold/Arch one at a time and topple them down onto the ground so the Arch would be left secured on top of each platform. They were then loaded onto a flatbed trailer and transported over to the premises of Long Island Thermal Insulation Co in Newmarket near Stornoway where they were encased in 12mm of fibreglass protective coating once the very flaky bone areas have been removed and the damaged areas build up to the original shape using isopon filler.

The final coat was applied in an ivory colour and textured finish. The harpoon was also shot blasted, repaired and coated but the steelwork holding the sections together at the apex was too badly corroded and had to be replaced.

The proposed second phase would involve the construction of a Car Park and access which will provide a much needed facility and also ensure the safety of the visitors as they walk towards the Arch.

Click Link for Photo album of Restoration Project