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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Life in a lighthouse

"All had a tale to tell, and most were expert embroiderers."

In the early Seventies I worked as a lighthouse keeper on three islands off the west coast of Scotland. I was between art schools and before taking the job I didn’t really think through what a lighthouse keeper actually did. I was attracted by the romantic notion of sitting on a rock, writing haikus and dashing off the occasional watercolour. The light itself didn’t seem important: it might have been some weird coastal decoration, like candles on a Christmas tree, intended to bring cheer to those living in the more remote parts of the country.

I was 19 when I was interviewed for the job of relief keeper by the Commissioners of the Northern Lights in the New Town of Edinburgh. My hair hung well below my shoulders. I had a great set of Captain Beefheart records and I walked about with a permanent grin on my face as I had recently, finally, lost my virginity. I rolled my own cigarettes, was a member of Amnesty International and had just read Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. In short, I was eminently suitable for the job.

At the time, there was a shortage of lighthouse keepers. This was not because the lights were being automated – that would come later – but because most of the men who would traditionally have entered the service were finding better wages building and manning oil-rigs in the North Sea. I turned 20 around the time I received the letter telling me how to get to my first posting. It read like something out of a Graham Greene novel. I was to purchase a second-class rail ticket and travel to Glasgow, staying overnight at the Seamen’s Mission. From there I was to take the local train to Girvan, a ferry to the island of Arran, and in ever-diminishing steps involving buses, a tractor and a rowing boat, I would eventually come, they promised, to the tiny uninhabited island of Pladda, and there would be initiated by three seasoned keepers into the ancient art of keeping watch.

I was greeted by the three of them on the jetty. One was in his sixties and clutched a black Bible in his potato-like fist. Another was middle-aged and wiry. The third, in his thirties, had a little corgi by his side, and was one of the few bachelors I met during my time on the lights. He often blamed the dog for making it difficult to form a lasting relationship with a woman, but I could never see the connection.

The three of us and the dog hopped onto an old trailer while the principal keeper started up the Massey Ferguson tractor and pulled us up a steep hill to the beacon. To my relief, I found that the tower of the light was surrounded by numerous outhouses in which we would live, eat and sleep. Later, I would hear tales of other lights, such as the legendary Skerryvore where the keeper lived in a tower: the bedroom walls were cylindrical and there was a circular hole in the floor and ceiling to allow the enormous metal weight which turned the reflectors to be winched up and down at 30-minute intervals throughout the night.

Over the coming weeks the keepers would teach me how to shear sheep, build roads, construct a jetty, fish for mackerel and lay lobster creels. They would also teach me the true function of the lighthouse keeper. The principal keeper, an elderly Gaelic speaker and a member of the Wee Free Church, took me aside and encouraged me, in an avuncular way, to stop referring to the four-hour watches we all undertook twice every 24 hours as ‘shifts’. This lapse was a hangover from my previous summer working in the Pig and Whistle bar at Butlin’s in Ayr, just across the water from Pladda.

Being on a lighthouse resembled nothing so much as being in a spaceship. We had comfy armchairs, Tetley tea and coal fires, but we also had the night sky, the aurora borealis, and the luxury of leaning on the rail at three in the morning, a hundred feet above the sea swell, watching satellites track across the Milky Way. It was the summer of 1973 and the Watergate hearings were beamed live by satellite (possibly one of the ones we watched circling overhead) to our island outcrop, yet we lived in many ways an early 19th-century life with our paraffin beacon and steam-driven fog signal. We made our own entertainment. Often we received a week’s newspapers at once, thanks to the generosity of the skipper of a fishing boat. (In return, we gave him the giant conger eels that got caught in our lobster creels which he would then sell to a Chinese restaurant on the mainland.) Supplied with our stack of newspapers we were able to bet among ourselves on Saturday’s horses at Newmarket or Ayr, having painstakingly studied the form and the weather conditions, then immediately check our results in Sunday’s papers.

There are three types of lighthouse. Rock lighthouses come straight out of the sea and, as a keeper, you spend all your time in the tower. Coastal stations skirt the British Isles and are on the mainland, allowing keepers to live with their families. Island lights are situated on uninhabited islands and I worked on three of them. A trainee lighthouse keeper entering the job for life (or until automation) would spend 18 months serving short periods of time on many different lights around Scotland, and would undergo strict psychological tests before gaining employment – something I body-swerved. Thereafter he (there were never any shes) would be posted to a variety of lights for three years at a time. In the space of less than a decade a keeper might find himself on a rock west of the Hebrides, then on mainland Orkney and after that in an inner-city coastal station.

Thus begins a marvelous essay by Peter Hill, in the London Review of Books.

READ THE REST of this entertaining and enlightening yarn, including the bloodcurdling story of the invasion by birds. 


Paul, Dammit! said...

That is a gorgeous image of Old Scituate Lighthouse. I proposed to my wife there.

Joan Druett said...

The lovely painting was created by my husband, Ron Druett. I can't remember who bought it, but it is hanging on a wall somewhere in New England. I hope the proposal went well (I gather the answer was yes!), and that you found your way home afterwards. Going to Scituate, for us, always guaranteed getting lost. Wherever we drove, we finished up at the golf course.