Message from the Skies returns to Edinburgh this month, with five celebrated writers reflecting on Scotland’s relationship with our waters, coasts and maritime heritage. Their words will illuminate and animate landmarks around the city until Burns Night, 25 January. Here, Charlotte Runcie offers a meditation on Scotland’s lighthouses...
Lightkeepers, by Charlotte Runcie
Don’t you find Edinburgh gets so dark, some January days, you feel its teeth on your neck?
Even in the dark, though, you know you’re home. You can smell the breweries and the salt. You can see such a long way from this old city.
Up Arthur’s Seat or Calton Hill on pale mornings, look to the north. See the green of Fife, and the beginning of the sea, and the world stretching before you like a whole new year.
At night, look for the lighthouses. Look further. All around the coast, a sparkling necklace made of light, a string of fairy lamps, little fires held out against the dark. That’s what the sky must think.
We have filled the north with light, even in the darkest days.
And light has a way of returning.
Scotland’s lighthouses are controlled from inside this building, The Northern Lighthouse Board. Here on George Street.
There is a little lighthouse right here too.
Beacon calls to beacon.
Calling all around the coast. Calling to the lighthouse on the Isle of May standing in the Firth of Forth. The lighthouse designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather.
In Stevenson’s Kidnapped, the captain says: “The wind’s fair, and the tide upon the turn; we’ll see the old coal-bucket burning on the Isle of May before to-night.”
The wind’s fair and the tide upon the turn. And light has a way of returning.
Imagine being at sea without lighthouses. Without that necklace of light, without those little fires.
Where rocks are only rumours. Islands dim behind mist. Sea swallowing the light from the moon.
And ships keening alone in the night. Heave and roll. Yaw and swing. The fog and the storm beckoning wrecks. Colliding and riven and lost. Souls forever missing in the deep.
Fear grows in unknown places. And here the kraken waits, hungry to reach up its fingers, feeling for a boat to pull down and down.
And the purple bruise of thunder sets a cloudy omen in the dark.
Scotland has spread darkness as well as light.
Scottish traders took people across the sea. We took people from their homes into captivity and death. We sent souls missing in the dark. We wrung out blood and salt to pay for sugar and tobacco.
There are crimes and dark places in our past. A sea of wrongs that need light shone brightly upon them now.
And light has a way of returning.
Lighthouses shine on the water tonight. Unmanned now, and empty but for electricity and mercury and birds. Guillemot and kittiwake, razorbill and puffin, fulmar and shag, living among the ghost lights, saying the things we won’t.
Each a lantern for those across the sea. A lantern for the lives on brink of shipwreck. For all those who turn their hope towards the light, in the mire of grief and desolation.
A glass lantern is something to reach for.
The waves roar at Newhaven and Portobello and at Cramond with the voice of someone asking:
Where’s home? How do we get there? Who will light the way?
The wind is fair. The tide upon the turn. We’ll see the old coal-bucket burning on the Isle of May before tonight.
We write a message on dark water and we write it on the night.
These are the darkest days. They say in Fife, grip fast. They say in Leith, persevere.
Keep the light alight and speak it.
Every lighthouse writes a message:
It’s going to be all right. You are not alone. Others have made this path before you.
Yes, the way is rocky. Deep water and darkness mask danger. But together in the sea we make a path.
Away to safer harbours. We light the light. Little fires against the dark. Beacon calling beacon.
At rising tide and falling, we find words that mean, come home. We find each other in the night.
The sea is listening. Listening for the light. And light has a way of returning.
Devised by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, this year’s Message From the Skies is subtitled Shorelines and marks Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 with texts by five leading writers reflecting on our relationship with our coasts, waters and maritime heritage projected onto buildings around the city. Produced in association with Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust and supported by Creative Scotland through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, these literary illuminations continue until Burns Night on 25 January. For more information, visit www.edinburghshogmanay.com