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Confessions of a Lighthouse Keeper
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.
Each light had three keepers and each keeper took two four-hour watches every 24 hours. These watches rotated daily. Let’s say you were on from ten at night until two in the morning. You would then sleep until breakfast at eight (always attended by all three keepers) and then from nine until 12, two keepers would perform the duties that needed doing around the island. (These duties ranged from shearing sheep to building jetties to painting the tower white.) During this period the third keeper would prepare a lavish three-course lunch. (Lunch duty was rotated on a weekly basis.) Your next watch would be from two until six in the afternoon but this was usually a quiet period, with only a few radio tests to make to all the nearby lights and coastguard stations. You would then have a night watch from two until six in the morning: the worst of the three since you would be lucky to get an hour’s sleep before breakfast. The following afternoon you would sleep. And so it would go on, seven days a week. I once kept up such a regime for eight weeks without a break and was ready for a pint of Export when I hit the high life in Girvan.
We were kept busy and I didn’t complete many haikus or watercolours. The light had to be wound up like a giant grandfather clock every 30 minutes. Every 20 minutes we pumped up the air pressure to the paraffin. This was a subtle ruse to keep us awake and alert, as was the little hammer that banged away on the brass every second through the night. At the highest level the light itself burned and the giant mirrors, the reflectors, turned like a slow-motion merry-go-round supported on a huge bath of mercury. To light the paraffin you had to cause a mini explosion in the light room, allowing a small cloud of paraffin vapour to form in the air, shielding your face while igniting the gas with a burning taper.
There was an unwritten rule that when one changed watches the keeper about to head off for bed would stay up for an extra half-hour and engage in conversation with his colleague in order to help him stay awake. A large pot of tea would have already been prepared, along with a plate of digestive biscuits and cheddar cheese. It was at these times that I really got to know my fellow keepers. I must have worked with over a dozen of them that year. Many had lived action-packed lives and ‘retired into’ the service in their forties and fifties. One had been a gold prospector in Australia, working a seam near Kalgoorlie. Another was a former submariner who had witnessed the aftermath of the fire-bombing of Dresden. Others had been firemen, philosophers, trawlermen and farmers. All had a tale to tell, and most were expert embroiderers. The 2 a.m. stories always seemed the best. One person would be consumed with tiredness, the other trying desperately to shake off his dreams. It was at that hour, with the wind whistling like a devil outside, that I would hear tales of lighthouse murders and suicides. Lighthouses are the next best thing to bridges for those who want to take a header from a great height.
Isolation affects people in different ways, and island life can be utterly surreal. There was a lighthouse keeper on Pladda whose wife lived less than a quarter of a mile away on Arran. She was learning to drive and he would use Morse code with a torch at night to ask her questions on the Highway Code. Three goats on Hyskeir in the Outer Hebrides insisted that humans and goats walk in sequence across the island; if they failed to do so they would be butted into place. The correct order, if I remember rightly, was goat, human, goat, human, goat. I spent the most bizarre night of my life on Hyskeir. If I mention The Birds you will immediately understand. The helicopter which was due to collect us was fog-bound and we had to stay an extra night on the island. At that time we were all smokers and had rationed our tobacco to last exactly our expected term of duty. Now we had to spend an extra 24 hours on the lighthouse and, starved of nicotine, kept our own council – one in the light, one in the living quarters and the third biting his nails at the opposite end of the island. That night the land birds from Scandinavia headed south. Apparently, sea birds know to avoid lighthouses while land birds navigate southwards from beacon to beacon, many of them flying straight into the glass. My watch started at 2 a.m.
From the moment I woke up I was aware that there were birds everywhere. Dozens of them tapped against every window at ground level and the same manic mantra followed me up the 223 steps to the light room. Then things got worse. Because the light operated on paraffin there was a huge hole at the top of the tower to let the vapour escape and this, of course, let in the migrating birds. Some were fit and healthy, others had broken legs or damaged wings. There were at least fifty walking, flying and flapping wounded percolating around the light chamber. Fearfully, I settled into a routine for the night. Every half an hour I would run up the stairs, wind up the light, pump up the paraffin, then disappear down to the kitchen while all around me a death rattle was tapped out on the inch-thick glass. At certain hours of the night every keeper on duty has to open the hatch in the light room and venture onto the balcony, often hundreds of feet above the sheer cliff face with only a low rail for protection. On the worst nights I had to pull myself round on my stomach because the winds were so strong. The point was to check that all the neighbouring lights were still burning. On the other lights, you soon realised, they would be doing exactly the same thing. The greatest sin was to let the light go out. The second greatest was to let the light stand so that it was burning but not turning. The night the birds came they were waiting for me on the balcony, sitting tightly shoulder to shoulder staring beyond me to the light. Behind them, tens of thousands of their flock circled in the beams of the light. Every few seconds another one would fly straight into the glass, break its neck and fall out of the sky. Not a night for a smoker to be without his poison.
The next day the flat outhouses were carpeted with dead birds – redbacks, wrens, tiny finches, thrushes. It looked like an installation by Louise Bourgeois. We placed ladders against the wall and over several hours threw them all into the Atlantic. Finally, the helicopter arrived and shuttled us back to Oban, to pints of Export, traffic, noise, women and endless swirls of colour and movement. It was always harder adapting to being back in civilisation than to joining a new light. Every third night, in my city flat, I would leap out of bed at two in the morning ready to start my watch.
When I stepped out of the helicopter I knew that I had served on my last lighthouse. I had made plans. I was going to finish the novel I was writing, and if that failed, I would return to art school. Now, twenty-odd years later and a non-smoker at last, I have come to rest, a retired lighthouse keeper, on the island of Tasmania, where some of the lights, at least, are still manned.
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