The romance, reassurance and slight terror I associate with lighthouses – Alastair Dalton
It was an obvious news story, both simple and inspirational – the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) was offering a rare opportunity for someone to become a paid “retained” keeper to check on two of its remotest lights on the Scottish mainland.
After being published first by The Scotsman, our tale was followed up by pretty much every major newspaper and various broadcasters, including being featured on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
After the Covid pandemic, war in Ukraine and as the cost of living crisis deepens, who wouldn’t want to get away from it all to be a lighthouse keeper in the wilds of Scotland, even if only for a few hours a month?
It was equally unsurprising to hear that such widespread publicity had generated far more applications for the post than the NLB normally receives – more than 90 compared to the usual 50-60.
Even one of my journalist colleagues considered leaping at the chance.
Scotland’s lighthouses, as well as often being situated on stunning coastlines, are also bound up in the country’s history, which must be part of their appeal.
Cape Wrath, on the north west tip of the mainland, and one of two to be covered by the new recruit, is nearly 200 years old, being built in 1828 to a Robert Stevenson design.
The other, Stoer Head, to its south, followed in 1870, designed by David and Thomas Stevenson.
I gleaned this information from Sarah Kerr’s handy guide, The British Lighthouse Trail, published by Whittles Publishing in Caithness, which I was surprised to see includes nearly 300 in Scotland – almost as many as across the rest of the UK, Isle of Man and Channel Isles combined.
Kerr, who lives on the north coast of Caithness, is a trustee of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers and has made her mission to visit all 612 she has featured in her book.
Her compendium will produce surprises for some, such as fewer lighthouses than you might think are striped, and most are white.
I also hadn’t realised that a fair few are not the traditional cylindrical shape, with the newer versions, like one of the latest at Corran Narrows on Loch Linnhe, squatter and more rectangular like a grey, outsized Tardis.
But that’s not to take away from the romance, reassurance and slight terror I associate with lighthouses.
Seeing the intermittent flash of one of the lights from a friend’s holiday house in Wester Ross always makes me think of both the danger and safety associated with their role.
For giving you the creeps, you can’t beat the mystery of the disappearance of the keepers of the Flannan Isles light, west of Lewis, in 1900, vividly portrayed in plays and film such as director Kristoffer Nyholm’s bloody 2018 interpretation The Vanishing.
I think I’m also still looking forward to getting round to watching Robert Eggers’ acclaimed but nightmarish 2019 vision The Lighthouse, set in 19th century Maine.
But the successful applicant to become the NLB’s latest retained keeper will, of course, be made of sterner stuff as they keep the myths in check doing what is still a vital job.
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