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.
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