Obituary: Eric Bruce, one of the last lighthouse keepers to man the beacons before automation came in

Eric Bruce was one of the last lighthouse keepers to man the beacons before automation came in
Eric Bruce was one of the last lighthouse keepers to man the beacons before automation came in
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Born: 5 August, 1944. in Linlithgow. Died: 18 February, 2012, in Aberdeen, aged 67

Eric Bruce knew better than most the astonishing power and the perils of the sea.

He had witnessed them first-hand for most of his life: first as a teenage fisherman, once rescued from a sinking trawler, and later as a lighthouse keeper whose dedication to his solitary duties helped to ensure the safety of fellow sailors in the fickle seas around Scotland.

One of the very last keepers to man the beacons before automation was fully embraced, he had visited all of the country’s 200-plus lighthouses in his capacity as safety officer and experienced the end of a lightkeeping tradition spanning more than two centuries.

But his working life had begun on dry land in a very different sphere – as a trainee grocer in Aberdeen, just down the coast from his parents’ birthplace in Boddam.

He was born in Linlithgow, where his father George was posted as a blacksmith during the Second World War, but the family moved north again when their son was a toddler. They settled in the coastal village of Newtonhill, Aberdeenshire, where Bruce got his first taste of the sea. Educated at the local Muchalls School and then Stonehaven’s Mackie Academy, he left at 14 to serve an apprenticeship at the Co-op in Aberdeen’s Loch Street. But being stuck behind a counter weighing out provisions was not for him.

He already had his own boat at the beach at Newtonhill and was used to shooting lobster creels so, at 17, he ditched the grocery business and went to sea full-time. He crewed on numerous trawlers and seine netters, always sailing out of Aberdeen and often heading for Icelandic waters.

On 24 January 1963, he was one of eight men on board the Banff-registered MV Rosebank when it sprang a leak and sank off the Shetland Isles. He was rescued and taken to Lerwick Fishermen’s Mission where, having lost all his own clothes, he was given a duffle coat which he kept for years afterwards.

The experience did not dent his enthusiasm for the sea and he swiftly returned to the fishing industry, often spending some of the year trawling and then returning to Newtonhill for the salmon season.

On New Year’s morning in 1968 he was introduced to the woman who would become his wife. Rosie had moved into a house across the road and they met when they both happened to first foot the same neighbour. By March, just three dates later, they were engaged. Bruce gave up the sea then to spend more time with his fiancée and they married that July at nearby Bourtreebush Church.

He then worked for a period as a welder for the Balmoral Group in Aberdeen before his wife spotted an advert for lighthouse keepers, something he had always been interested in. He applied immediately. A yearning for the sea and isolated places made him the perfect candidate and he started with the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1970, initially as a supernumerary before being made a first assistant keeper.

He had applied for a position at the Isle of May, five miles from the mainland at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, when it seemed that nobody was interested in going there. Having secured the post, he and his young wife spent two-and-a-half years there and raised a young family on the island. His younger daughter was proud to have the Isle of May address on her birth certificate. Though her mother had given birth on the mainland, the new arrival was just eight days old when they returned to the lighthouse by fishing boat.

His wife and children later moved to lighthouse accommodation in Salvesen Crescent, Edinburgh, before his work took them to Corsewall lighthouse near Stranraer. Bruce then worked one month on, one month off, at Sanda Island lighthouse, off the Mull of Kintyre, while his family lived in Campbeltown for seven years, allowing the girls to attend primary school.

He had also acquired two boats by this time – one berthed at Campbeltown, the other kept at Sanda for creel fishing.

His next posting was to Girdleness lighthouse, at Aberdeen, where he stayed until it was automated in 1991 and worked repairing pallets to keep himself busy on his days off.

He then asked to be transferred to Butt of Lewis, known as the windiest place in Britain. While they were there his wife also became part of the staff, taking a post as relief lighthouse keeper after the departure of one of his colleagues.

The couple worked alongside each other for more than four years and were responsible for filing hourly weather reports to the Met Office, then based in Bracknell, in Berkshire. On one occasion Bruce logged a 136pmh gust which took the Butt of Lewis into the Guinness Book of Records.

During his time there he also welcomed Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, and was involved in various local initiatives. He chaired Ness Social Club, was groundsman for the local football club, a member of Ness Harbour Board committee and helped to produce a small local paper that once featured the story of an otter casually strolling into his home.

He was also union representative for his fellow keepers and served as the lighthouse board’s safety officer which involved him making inspections to several beacons each summer, resulting in him visiting all 200-plus lighthouses.

But spring 1998 marked the end of the era of manned lighthouses. The automation process was completed on 31 March, when Fair Isle South became the last manned beacon. Bruce and his wife left their post the day before when Butt of Lewis was automated. Not only were the couple out of a job, they also had to find a new home.

They moved to Johnshaven where he had various jobs: as a handyman at Storybook Glen, Maryculter, and then as an ultra-efficient village orderly in Inverbervie, Auchenblae and Fettercairn. Though he retired at 64, he never really stopped. He still gardened, grew tomatoes and devoted three years to compiling a record of news snippets, historical events and amusing stories of life in Johnshaven down the years.

He is survived by his wife Rosie, daughters Yolanda and Nicola and grandchildren Andrew, Louise and James.

ALISON SHAW