The Famous Tay Whale

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Doggerel subject: the dissection of the Tay Whale by John Struthers, wearing a top hat, to the left of the photograph

"The Famous Tay Whale" is a poem[1] by William Topaz McGonagall about the Tay Whale, also known as the Monster, a humpback whale hunted and killed in 1883 in the Firth of Tay near Dundee, Scotland, then the country's main whaling port. The doggerel verse is famous for lacking poetic quality.


The Tay Whale came to public prominence when it was subject to a public dissection by the anatomist Sir John Struthers and taken on a tour of Scotland and England by a showman, John Woods. Its skeleton is now held by the McManus Galleries in Dundee city centre.[2][1]

Worst poem[edit]

Paul Godfrey described McGonagall on the strength of the Tay Whale and other verse as "the worst poet in the English language".[3]

The poet and essayist Hugh MacDiarmid wrote of the Tay Whale that "what this [the verses about John Wood and the Tay Whale] amounts to, of course, is simply what quite uneducated and stupid people—the two adjectives by no means necessarily go together, for many uneducated people have great vitality and a raciness of utterance altogether lacking here—would produce if asked to recount something they had read in a newspaper."[4] MacDiarmid continued that "in their retailings of, or comments upon, such matters, the hoi polloi would also reflect their personal feelings, as is done here, by the tritest of emotional exclamations."[4]

Musical settings[edit]

McGonagall's poem was set to music by the composer Mátyás Seiber in 1958. The premiere performance of this work – scored for orchestra, foghorn, espresso coffee machine and narrator – took place at the second of Gerard Hoffnung's music festivals, with Edith Evans in the role of the narrator.[5] In 2013, the poem was scored for two SATB choirs by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi in a commission for the Yale Glee Club and Princeton Glee Club's centennial pre-football game concert.[6]


  1. ^ a b McGonagall, William (1884). "The Famous Tay Whale". McGonagall Online. Retrieved 10 December 2014.
  2. ^ M. J. Williams (June 1996). "Professor Struthers and the Tay whale". Scottish Medical Journal. 41 (3): 92–94. PMID 8807706. Archived from the original on 3 March 2006. Retrieved 19 June 2008.
  3. ^ Godfrey, Paul Corfield. "Review: Robert Zuidam, McGonagall-Lieder". Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  4. ^ a b MacDiarmid, Hugh (1936). Scottish Eccentrics. Edinburgh: G. Routledge, R. & R. Clark. p. 63. Retrieved 10 December 2014.
  5. ^ "William McGonagall (1830?–1902) The Famous Tay Whale", Representative Poetry Online, version 3.0, University of Toronto, retrieved 14 January 2012
  6. ^ Princeton University Glee Club Archived 21 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine