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Lights of the North

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 2 comments

The current dispute over access to the now privately owned Rubha Reidh lighthouse, near Gairloch on the west coast of Scotland, has served to highlight the ongoing fascination that visitors have with these strange and incongruous towers, that leap up from our tallest cliffs and remotest of islands.

Mostly from the Victorian era, these marvels of engineering are a reminder of a time of industry, increased prosperity and a ‘can do’ attitude that has stood the test of time.

The history of lighthouses in Scotland is intrinsically linked to one family in particular – a story that begins with the grandfather of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who first built the Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1807. The masonry work on this sea washed structure was completed to such a high standard that it has not been replaced or adapted in 200 years. Subsequently known as the lighthouse Stevensons, they were for 4 generations responsible for engineering these magnificent structures in some of the most remote and inhospitable environments in the country. To visit today is to be awed by the tenacity of the builders and the hardiness of the original lighthouse keepers.

In 1899 David Stevenson constructed a lighthouse on the Flannan isles, a tiny uninhabited chain of rocky islands 20 miles off the coast of Lewis which was the scene of one of the most curious unsolved maritime mysteries this country has ever seen. Although uninhabited, the main island of Eilean Mor has always sparked people’s interest. It is named after St. Flannen, a 6th century Irish Bishop who later became a saint. He built a chapel on here, the remains of which still stand and for centuries shepherds used to bring over sheep to the island to graze. Fearful of the spirits believed to haunt this remote spot, they observed such practices as removing their hats and upper clothing, and turning in a sunwise direction when arriving. They would never, ever, spend the night.

On the 26th December 1900, a small supply ship made its way here. Surprised to see that there was no welcome party for this scheduled visit when the captain ventured ashore to investigate, he found no trace of the three lighthouse keepers. The door to the lighthouse was unlocked and in the entrance hall two of the three oil skinned coats were missing. In the kitchen area he found half eaten food and an overturned chair, almost as if someone had jumped from their seat in a hurry. Theories abound, as to what could have happened, the official investigation concluded a freak wave must have been responsible, despite the moderate conditions at the time. Why, in the bitter cold winter, had one of the lighthouse keepers ventured out without his coat? Furthermore, why had the three experienced lighthouse staff left their posts at the same time, when rules and regulations strictly prohibited it? No bodies were ever washed ashore.

Superstitious locals talk of sea serpents and boatloads of ghosts. It is often speculated that the isolated life of the lighthouse keeper led to madness, but it is now known that mercury was commonly used in the giant lenses that reflected the light. Prolonged exposure to this substance is known to hasten the onset of lunacy (hat-makers commonly used mercury, hence the origin of the phrase as mad as a hatter). What could be worse than being trapped on a tiny remote island in a storm with no communication with the outside world – you and your only companions being driven slowly insane?

The incident has found its way into popular culture with the story being the basis for an epic poem by Wilfred Wilson Gibson, a rock song by Genesis, an opera by the Queen’s composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and even an episode of Dr Who. The notoriety of the incident is only set to increase as a new film is currently in production featuring two of Scotland’s biggest Hollywood actors. Gerald Butler and Peter Mullan will star in Keepers, a psychological horror tale inspired by the events that will be in cinemas in 2018.

Sule Skerry is the most isolated lighthouse in the British Isles and was built in 1892-94 by David Stevenson and his brother Charles. 40 miles west of Orkney and as far from the coast of Sutherland, so many vessels were lost here that that local fishermen would make special trips here to salvage wreckage. This tiny rock outcrop was to achieve some measure of international fame in the 70’s when the traditional ballad The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry was recorded by Grammy award winning folk singer Joan Baez. The island itself must be one of the least visited outposts of the British Isles, but was actually bombed in the Second World War as well as having mines washed ashore. During its early years of operation pigeon post was the only method of communication. In the end this proved to be as unreliable as attempts to use a heliograph which failed due to lack of sunshine.

The Northern Lighthouse Board is the organisation that oversees and maintains all the Scottish lighthouses. It is a body that is not operated by the government and it does not cost the tax payer a penny. Every ship that passes through British waters pays a due, which goes back into a fund to keep the coastline safe. The Princess Royal is the patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board. As it turns out, far from the position being merely ceremonial, the princess is actually a bit of a lighthouse spotter and has for 13 years being enthusiastically visiting as many as possible. It’s easy if, like the Princess, you have your own boat – but that has not stopped her being turned away after attempting an unscheduled visit to what is now a private residence on the isle of Jura. As automation has spread the need for lighthouse keepers has diminished and many of these original buildings are now holiday homes.

One of the best that is open for visitors is Cape Wrath. Built by Robert Stevenson in 1828 on the most north-westerly tip of the Scottish mainland, the name of the headland derives, not from the stormy waters of the area but from the Norse word for a “turning point”, for here, Vikings would turn their ships to head for home. This is one of Britain’s iconic cornerstones where the north and west coasts of Scotland meet. There are stunning & spectacular views with dramatic coastlines, the expansive Atlantic Ocean and a vast moorland wilderness all in one place.

Visitors need to cross the Kyle of Durness by a passenger only ferry boat and then travel twelve miles by minibus along a track to get to the lighthouse, which now houses a café. It’s a great spot to sit and reflect on these iconic sentinels watching over our stormy coast. In the modern world where ships have satellite tracking technology and GPS, is there still a need for these reminders of a simpler more adventurous age? Who can say for sure. Despite cars having sat nav, nobody really questions the need to have warning signs on the road so maybe it will be some time ‘till these stone towers outlive their usefulness. For the time being there is talk of installing mobile phone masts at lighthouse all across the Hebrides to provide much needed coverage for islanders, a far cry from the days of pigeon post.

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Comments (2)
  1. Fiona mcintyre says:

    My Father was a lighthousekeeper on Flannen isle for five years.

    • True Highlands says:

      Oh wow – that’s amazing!

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