An illuminating love letter to the lighthouses of Scotland

As love letters go, it illuminates a deep and fond regard.

It was originally argued that building a lighthouse in the waters around Shetland would be impossible, too dangerous and expensive. Bressay lighthouse, built in 1858 opposite the east coast of the mainland of Shetland, is proof that this argument did not hold sway. It still stands guard over the ‘sooth mooth’ or southern entrance to Lerwick harbour. PIC: HES.

Author Donald S Murray has written with affection on Scotland’s lighthouses in his new book, For The Safety of All, and pays tribute to the powerful place they fill in both our history and our imaginations.

Respect is given not only to the visionaries who built these “distant miracles” but the lighthouse keepers who sacrificed their own lives to keep the lamps burning, often inhabiting claustrophobic spaces from where there was nowhere left to run.

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Murray, who is originally from Lewis in Outer Hebrides, has found himself surrounded by lighthouses all his life.

Tarbat Ness lighthouse near Portmahomack, Easter Ross, is Grade A listed and dates from 1830. It was designed and built by Robert Stevenson. PIC: HES.

He recalled a boyhood trip to the Butt of Ness lighthouse, an experience which literally changed his view of life.

Murray, now of Shetland, said: “I remember going up to the gallery in my socks and sandals and I realised, standing there, there was this entirely different perspective on things. I felt semi-regal .Instead of always looking up at things, here I was looking down. I could see Dell Rock, I could see the pattern of the lazy beds. It was magical.

He added: "What I am saying is true of a lot of islanders. You are always aware of the light on the headland.”

The first warning lights for sailors working in Scotland’s water were probably fires lit by monks tucked away on the away on the country’s tiniest isles, such as the Benedictine Order who lived on the Isle of May from the 12th Century.

Lights were later maintained by clerics in Portpatrick and Fair Isle, Murray writes, and by the mid- 16th century beacons blazed at the busy mouths of Leith and Aberdeen harbours.

With trade driving safety on the east, the west was later in getting its shores lit. Some resistance was felt by islanders to the arrival of the Northern Lighthouse Board – which was formed in 1786 and harboured the talents of the Stevenson dynasty of lighthouse builders - not least given the usefulness of a shipwrecked cargo to residents.

On Barra and North Uist in 1886, a Board of Trade Inspector noted the “marvellous miscellaneous collection of old clothes” worn by islanders and concluded the fashions must have come from shipwrecked vessels. Around £300,000 worth of property was washed up on the Western Isles in six months that year.

When a NLB party, headed by Alan Stevenson, arrived on Tiree to build the 48-metre tall Skerryvore, a certain distrust was felt by islanders. Why did it matter more to protect those at sea when those living on the land felt little care?

For The Safety of All by Donald S Murray pays tribute to Scotland's lighthouses and the place they take in our history and our imaginations. PIC: HES.

Murray wrote: “There would have been a sense of prejudice from the outside world - and the mainland of Scotland specifically – had washed onto their shores.”

Stevenson employed only a few islanders given their “excesive indolence” but Murray said the lighthouse engineer ultimately opened up new horizons.

“Tiree went from being a suffering community to a place that had more sea captains than anywhere else in Scotland, other than perhaps Sandness on the west side of Shetland. So in a sense Stevenson gave a new vision. The arrival of the lighthouse directed life in a different way.”

For The Safety of All, published by Historic Environment Scotland, is out on 29 July priced £25

Author Donald S Murray, of Shetland, grew up on Lewis and says he has been surrounded by lighthouses all his life. PIC: HES.

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Sumburgh Head lighthouse on the southern tip of the Shetland mainland was built by Robert Stevenson in 1821. PIC: HES.
Davaar Lighthouse, Kintyre, was built in 1854. Davaar is an island only at high tide and at low tide is linked to the mainland by the Dhorlin bank of shingle. PIC: HES.