PRESS RELEASE: Crushed to Atoms by Arctic Ice – Artwork Recalls Wrecked Whaler

20th May 2013
Scottish artist will create a driftwood celebration of a new book about a ship which once searched for a lost polar explorer

The destruction of a Scottish whaling ship “crushed to atoms” by Arctic pack ice over 150 years ago is being commemorated by an artist and historians.

Sarah Keast, a Dumfries and Galloway artist taking part in Spring Fling 2013 –Scotland’s premier visual art and craft open studios event – is creating a driftwood artwork recalling Abram, which was lost in 1862.

She has been commissioned, by retired Lancaster University lecturer Dr Rob David, to celebrate the publication of his book about the remarkable vessel.

Sarah said: “It’s a really dramatic story – Abram had sailed from Kirkcaldy, hiring extra crew in Shetland to hunt whales in the Arctic. The men faced horror and hardship and they thought of the whales simply as fish, rather than highly intelligent mammals.

“The ship was caught in a dreadful storm and crushed when the wind blew two huge sheets of ice together. Remarkably all the crew were rescued although they barely had time to escape onto the ice. It seems astonishing that anyone could have survived in those conditions.

“Stories like these are fascinating to learn about. A lot of my art is about the sea and maritime life, and it’s a real pleasure to be asked to create something that recalls Abram and its men.”

The former geologist and management consultant turned artist has made a series of works from driftwood that hark back to the days of sail.

Dr David, a keen art collector, met Sarah at an event and was so impressed by the quality of her work that he asked her to create a piece to mark the publication, due at the end of May, of The West Indies and the Arctic in the age of sail: The voyages of Abram (1806-62) which he has jointly authored with another retired Lancaster University historian, Dr Mike Winstanley.

Dr David said: “The Abram had a long career, carrying goods like sugar and rum to Lancaster and Liverpool from the West Indies before being sold to become a whaler – sailing out of Hull then being sold again and operating from Kirkcaldy. She was also hired by Lady Franklin to search for survivors of her husband’s doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage – one of the greatest ever polar disasters.

“Each year she would head to the Arctic, stopping at Shetland to recruit fishermen keen to earn extra money from whaling. The Shetland men were valued because they were expert oarsmen, ideal for the rowing boats sent out to harpoon the whales.

“Everything went wrong in 1862 when the weather was terrible and a total of eight  British whaling ships were reported lost – including all three of the Kirkcaldy fleet.

“The descriptions show just how terrible it was. A huge storm had built up while they were in Melville Bay, off Greenland and their attempts to escape as the ice moved towards them failed.

“When Abram was caught between two vast sheets of ice the pressure built and built until the wooden hull couldn’t withstand any more and she just splintered and sank.”

Sarah, who has been combing beaches for the perfect piece of driftwood, is creating an artwork that includes a compass rose crafted from copper, the names of the Abram crew members and lists of the creatures they caught. It will also have harpoons and ceramic whale vertebrae.

Whales were hunted for their oil-bearing blubber, while the whalebone was used for items like corsets and umbrella spokes. Walruses were killed for ivory, while seals also provided oil.

The July 26 sinking of Abram, which had just caught two whales, was vividly described by Captain Wells of a nearby ship called Emma. He wrote: “During the latter part of the gale, the Abram was crushed to atoms so that not a vestige of her was seen again. It was truly distressing to see the shipwrecked dragging the few clothes they had saved towards the surviving ships.”

British newspapers took a close interest in the disasters overtaking the whaling ships that year with accounts appearing in The Times and the Fifeshire Advertiser (see below).

The crew were all rescued by two Peterhead vessels – the Abram had herself previously saved crewmen from two stricken vessels.

In 1849-50 Lady Jane Franklin purchased shares in the vessel in return for her spending time going in search of her husband, Sir John Franklin, who had vanished without trace after setting sail in 1845 to seek a Northwest Passage to Asia. After a desultory attempt at searching the mission found nothing of the 128 men and continued whaling.

Sarah, who is originally from Fife, hopes her artwork will be ready for Spring Fling and that visitors to the event will be able to see it at her studio in Moniaive near Thornhill when the event takes place from 25 to 27 May.

Leah Black, Spring Fling Manager, said: “The story of the Abram is quite remarkable and Sarah’s work shows how art can create links between historical events and the present day.

“Spring Fling will be a great opportunity for visitors to see high quality artwork of all kind which is inspired by everything from the oceans to the countryside – and by human stories of every kind.”



Background about the Abram


  • Built in Lancaster, the Abram sailed from the port to the West Indies 22 times between 1806-17. It called at Tortola, St Thomas and St Croix which are now part of the British Virgin Islands. 
  • On outward voyages she took the necessities of life for Europeans living in the West Indies. Return voyages were dominated by sugar and to a lesser extent cotton, rum, spices, exotic woods, dyes (eg indigo).
  • In 1818 she was sold to Hull and became a whaler, and in 1855 was resold to Kirkcaldy.
  • Conditions aboard the Abram would have been terrible by modern standards, but a successful mission could earn ordinary sailors enough to live on for several months.
  • Every spare space  would be filled with barrels of whale blubber and the bones of the great animals. Surfaces would be covered in grease and the whole ship would have been filled with the stench of dismembered whales.
  • When the ship sank The Times quoted Captain Wells as saying: “The Abram was crushed with such suddenness, that although provisions, boats, clothes, etc., were on deck in readiness for an emergency, everything went down with the vessel, and the crew was with difficulty saved.”
  • The Caledonian Mercury and the Fifeshire Advertiser carried a report which said: “On Saturday evening Kirkcaldy was again thrown into considerable excitement by a rumour that a telegram had been received by a share holder of the Whale Fish Company, stating that the Abram, Captain Soutar, was lost. This, on investigation has turned out quite correct … the crew was reported all saved … we understand the vessel is fully covered by insurance, as also the ‘oil money’.”
  • The West Indies and the Arctic in the age of sail: The voyages of Abram (1806-62)is being published by The Centre for North-West Regional Studies, Lancaster University. See for ordering information.
  • The research and the book were made possible due to a grant from Dr Margaret Bainbridge whose relative Alexander Horn had died in 1857 while sailing in Abram


Notes for editors

● Spring Fling is ideal for a day trip or for a short break – with lots of delightful small towns, villages and superb coastal areas to stay and enjoy.

● Studios are open daily 10.30am to 5pm during the event and are free to visit.

● The Spring Fling Fringe includes a range of evening events and activities for visitors to enjoy when the studios are closed. These include everything from classical music to a masterclass in artisan pizza making.

Getting around: There are three great alternatives to getting around the studios by car:

  • Six bus tours 
  • Bike tours 
  • Walking tours  

Finding the route: A fold-out map will be available which shows the studios and the fringe locations. There are also seven suggested coloured routes to follow – each provides a great day-long tour of studios and super countryside.

Smartphone app: An updated smartphone app can be downloaded for free so visitors can plot their own routes – choosing where they want to visit by area, name of artist or the type of work they produce.

● Spring Fling is a Community Interest Company. The core event is funded by Dumfries & Galloway Council. The Springboard Project is funded by The Dumfries and Galloway LEADER Programme and The Holywood Trust. Additional projects are funded by Creative Scotland and The Galloway Association of Glasgow. The Trigony House Hotel are the 2013 Prize Draw sponsors.

● To find out more visit


Media information  

● Contact Matthew Shelley on 07786 704299 or at

● Free-to-use pictures are available on request.