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The story behind Cardigan Castle’s whalebones

Unique garden feature intrigues visitors

Since Cardigan Castle was reopened to the public in April 2015 thousands of people have walked around the gardens and been fascinated by the whalebone arch which has been restored and replaced in the castle  grounds.

These bones were brought to Cardigan in the middle of the 19th century by a local sea captain who gave them as a wedding gift to the son of Castle Green House.

Many have expressed an interest in their history and their origins.

The Natural History Museum in London has looked at photographs of the arch and have been able to establish that they are from a  Right Whale. These whales had very substantial jawbones considerably longer and thicker than those of the even larger roqual whales for example the Blue Whales. Furthermore the twist at the ends is characteristic of this type of whale. Interestingly the arch does not display the bones in their full original glory as they have been resited at least twice with perhaps up to a metre being discarded on each occasion. The arch measures 2.5 metres in height and originally the bones may have been up to 5 metres in length.

These unfortunate creatures were so named as they were considered, for a number of reasons, to be the ‘right’ whales to hunt. Firstly they were quite slow moving and could only dive for about 20 mins following which they were obliged to spend considerable time on the surface before diving again. This made them very easy to follow and kill. Secondly they were particularly well covered with blubber, yielding much more whale oil than some of the even bigger whales. Additionally and conveniently for the whaler, this also ensured that they floated after being killed making handling very much easier. Whale oil, which had been much in demand for powering street lighting etc, was superseeded by petroleum oil and later electricity but unfortunately this provided very little relief for the Right Whale. They were also known as Bowhead Whales  due to the size and shape of their heads which occupied about a third of their body. This head contained large quantities of baleen which became of huge value and more than made up for the drop in oil prices. Baleen was used as a precursor to plastics in the construction of everything from corsets to buggy whips. The profits were huge and the capture of one Right Whale could pay for the complete cost of an expedition.


During the 19th century it was thought that these whales lived for up to a hundred years. However the ageing of these animals has today become a rather more exact science and it appears that they will actually live for 150-200 years of age. In 2007 one of these whales was caught and a harpoon head was found embedded in its neck. Markings on the harpoon indicated that it had been manufactured in Boston, Massachusetts in 1890 and it would appear that this whale had carried it for over 110 years.

Sadly they were hunted so successfully that this particular type of whale once numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the North-East Atlantic is now effectively extinct, perhaps down to a few dozen animals.

Cardigan Castle whalebones are one of the few remaining arches in the United Kingdom and have stood in Castle Green grounds for over 140 years.

When Cadwgan Trust started restoration of the site the whalebone arch had collapsed, with only one bone remaining complete and the other in pieces on the ground. The complete bone was in remarkably good condition. Although it had some ancient graffiti carved into it – which you can still see today – and it looked a little green with algae and lichen it was still firmly embedded into the ground. The other bone was in several pieces on the ground and badly rotted. It was decided to conserve the one good bone and make a resin copy of its badly damaged twin. The model incorporated some of the original bone to start the shape off and give it the right texture

The complete bone and all the broken pieces plus the new cast were transported back to the castle nestling on foam mattresses before being placed on the southern edge of the lawn overlooking the Teifi.