Chapter 1: Press reports – page 9

This chapter examines press coverage of the event and looks at headlines, reports of what took place at Thorntonloch, including action by the local council and the RSSPCA, the disposal of the whales, letters to the press on event, the controversy over the role of British Road Services, and press reports of earlier whale strandings.


There was extensive coverage of the event in the local and national press, some with alarming headlines. The Scotsman (May 15 1950) reported:

STRANDED WHALES AT DUNBAR: Visitors throng to the beach Miles of Cars and Buses

The headline in the Edinburgh Evening News read:
Chemical Firms Will Dispose of  Dunbar Dead Whales:  R.S.S.P.C.A. Men Ended Animals’ Sufferings
The Illustrated London News was more restrained:
This referred to the stranding of almost a hundred whales at
Stronsay in Orkney in the previous month.

The Sunday Post’s headline was more dramatic:
Suicide Whales Again!  162 Ashore at Dunbar
The event was also covered by UK national newspapers and the Daily
Sketch, like the Sunday Post above, also had a dramatic headline:
The local paper, The Haddingtonshire Courier’s headline
was more matter of fact:
WHALES STRANDED NEAR DUNBAR:  Thorntonloch Beach Scenes  Disposal of Carcases
The Scottish Daily Express’ headline was:
30,000 SWARM  TO WHALE BEACHInline image 1 Fishermen offer to sink the lot

The Bulletin and Scots Pictorial’s  headline was in a similar vein:
Whales shot as 30,000 watch

The Glasgow Herald was more restrained:

image (20)
Photograph from the Daily Sketch (ceased publication 1971) May 18 1950
showing crowds at Thorntonloch.

Chapter 2: How people got there – page 29

Getting to Thorntonloch by car

Lines of cars stretching both north and south of the main road at Thorntonloch were reported in the press. George Robertson, then aged 8, cycled with his father to Thorntonloch and was astounded by the sight of so many cars on the road. He remembers “The first thing that struck me was the sheer volume of traffic as we got to Broxburn with the bypass joining the road there. It was absolutely gridlocked with cars. I’d never seen so many cars in  one place and I thought that it was amazing to cycle past them all, as they were parked on the road”. Ian Porteous then aged 7 travelled from Dunbar High Street to Thorntonloch in a borrowed car – “Jimmy Huntly, who owned the Foresters Arms pub in Dunbar, had a car, a Standard 10 and it was quite a big car. My uncle Jimmy was here with his  wife and my father went to see Jimmy Huntly to see if he could get a loan of the car to go and see the whales, and Jimmy Huntly gave him it”.
John Borthwick, then aged 6, remembers the excitement of going to see the whales, because of the sight of the whales, but perhaps more because he went in the farmer’s car. He recalls “We lived on a farm on the outskirts of Gifford and my father worked on the farm. It was actually the farmer and his wife – he had one of these big old Wolseley cars and there weren’t many cars about at that time. We lived on a farm where there were very few cars about and you got the odd bus now and again. Getting taken by the farmer in his car was quite an event. It was really quite an experience with someone taking you in a car as people very rarely went in cars in those days”.

image (22).png

Standard 10 car in 1950. Reprinted with permission from

Chapter 4: Behaviour and feelings – pages 49/50

Some of the recollections are:

“People were just mulling around slowly and having a close look at the whales” (George Foggo)

“I think that most people were going around in silence as they appeared to be overawed by the whole experience” (George Robertson)

“There were lots of people there just gazing at the whales and there were lots of adults looking after us [children], making sure we didn’t get too close to the whales” (Helen Kennedy)

“I think that most people who were walking along the beach and looking at the whales, treated them with respect. People were walking the length of the beach and just, I think, trying to take in what had happened to those poor whales” Jim McMaster
“We just walked around the whales, without touching them, as we didn’t think that was right. Most people were just doing the same and everyone seemed to have a look of amazement on their face. Some people were shaking their heads, I think just in disbelief at
this strange scene” John Anderson

image (24).png

Photograph looking south at Thorntonloch.

Photograph given to the author by Peter Hamilton.

Chapter 5: Why did the whales strand and what would happen today? Page 69/70

Also, in 1950, there was no television in Scotland. The BBC Scotland News (BBC 2012) reported on the Fife stranding and the report contains interviews with local people who went to see the whales. Other television stations covered the event, including the Irish TV station RTE (Radio Telefís Éireann) and a photo (RTE 2012) showing attempts to refloat the whales can be seen on p62.
The second stranding of note was, in terms of the number of whales beached, more similar to the stranding at Thorntonloch in 1950. In February 2015, 198 whales were beached at Farewell Spit in New Zealand. The New Zealand Herald (February 13 2015) reported a local official as stating “It hasn’t been a great day to be a stranded whale. This is a big stranding. It’s a real challenge”. The official also told the reporter that “people had to brace themselves for the unpleasant possibility the pilot whales would have to be euthanased, but rescuers were a long way from giving up on the animals”

image (26)

Photograph of whales stranded at Farewell Spit, New Zealand in February 2015.

Reprinted with permission from Newshub, TV3 New Zealand.