elise campbell
Beyond Here Lies NorthElenaThe Grassy PlaceSoap Stack

Campbell, originally from the Peterhead area, wanted to explore local subject matters she knew nothing about. A visit to Arbuthnot Museum provided the inspiration for her work. Displayed within a cabinet of whaling artefacts, a single specimen of a mineral called cryolite, sat next to jars of whale meat and whale oil. In front of the yellow-white rock a label read, “Sample of cryolite (sodium aluminium fluoride) from Ivigtook, Greenland. Used as an early source of aluminium and in soap manufacture”. No further information about the mineral was provided.

Having never heard of cryolite prior to her visit to the museum, Campbell was keen to research the town’s connections with this mineral; this later proved to be challenging. Museum staff knew little about the town’s trading of cryolite, and most texts existed only in Danish, Greenland’s second official language. After sourcing a limited supply of literature and from communications with several overseas institutions, Campbell uncovered a lucrative but apparently grueling industry, that only a small number of Peterhead ships had been associated with.

The demise of the whaling industry in Peterhead, during the mid 1800s, brought about new patterns of trading. Captains and ship owners, keen to keep their ships, would try try their luck with alternative trades. Several ventured into the trading of the mysterious Greenlandic mineral, an industry which was relatively unknown at the time. Whaling ships had been designed to withstand the harsh conditions in the Arctic. Able to smash through drift ice, the Peterhead ex-whaling ships were ideal for the cryolite industry. The ships from Peterhead were some of the first in the country to become associated with this newly established industry.

Peterhead ships involved with the trading of cryolite routinely undertook complex networks of commerce. The ships would often be out to sea for months on end and the crews frequently endured treacherous weather conditions. In Jim Buchan’s Portrait of Peterhead, it is referenced that ships would sail down to Burntisland and Leith to load up with coal. This would be taken up to Greenland. Coal would be deposited at Ivittuut and cryolite would be collected and shipped over to Philadelphia, US, to be used by the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company for the manufacturing of aluminium and soap.

Shortly after these initial dealings with the Pennsylvanian Salt Manufacturing Company, petroleum oil was discovered in the fields of Pennsylvania and the Peterhead ships became involved with the first trading of petroleum oil. The oil was shipped over to the UK and Europe in barrels. Ships used for the cryolite industry often traded timber from the Baltic region. Timber would be brought back to Peterhead and other UK ports. Many ships were stranded in ice for periods of time or never made it back.