Scotland’s lighthouse body invades London to showcase the surprising range of its work

Nearly a century ago, 16-year-old Archie MacEachern joined the lighthouse service ship Pharos as a boy seaman, his first posting in what was to become a lifetime career with the Northern Lighthouse Board.
NLV Pharos on its maiden voyage to Oban in 2007. Picture: Donald MacLeodNLV Pharos on its maiden voyage to Oban in 2007. Picture: Donald MacLeod
NLV Pharos on its maiden voyage to Oban in 2007. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Surviving several near drownings, and undeterred by initial sea sickness aboard the tender in 1926, MacEachern went on to clock up 66 years as a lighthouse keeper across Scotland.

His life story, as told to his wife Anne, has been published as Archie’s Lights - The Life and Times of a Scottish Lightkeeper, culminating in him attending a ceremony in 1998 to mark the last lighthouse to be automated, Fair Isle South, seven years before his death.

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The book notes that it might be the last memoir of its type as the craft of lighthouse keeping recedes into Scottish history.

However, the board, established in 1786 and the longest resident of Edinburgh’s George Street, remains very much in business, despite advancing technology, to guide shipping and operate lighthouses remotely.

It points out that just as drivers still need lanes, kerbs and road signs, mariners continue to require visual references. You wouldn’t drive just by looking at a sat nav screen - whose signal could also be switched off or jammed. Fishermen also don’t have the sophisticated guidance systems of a large ship.

To highlight its continuing vital role, the board’s current Pharos vessel - three generations on from the 1909-built ship which MacEachern clambered aboard - is due to sail up the Thames tomorrow to take part in London International Shipping Week.

The rare visit by such a vessel to the English capital - the first for decades - will be heralded by a bagpiper playing on the helicopter deck as Pharos passes under Tower Bridge to berth beside HMS Belfast, opposite the Tower of London.

The ship will host a careers event for maritime organisations and gatherings for bodies such the Met Office, UK Chamber of Shipping and the UK Department for Transport.

Pharos is the travelling ambassador for Scotland’s (and the Isle of Man’s) 21st century lighthouse service, which does far more than just look after the imposing towers built by the Stevenson family and other engineers, as board chief executive Mike Bullock told me.

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The Oban-based ship’s duties also include marking wrecks and other hazards, acting like a maritime version of motorway police, along with survey and scientific research, such as sea mammal detection from sensors at Scapa Flow in Orkney. As I’ve also reported, Pharos takes part in annual rescue training with the Royal Navy and other navies in case a submarine gets into difficulties.

The board sees itself as a major contributor to the Scottish economy by keeping sea lanes open and being the sole employer in some areas.

It is also funded solely from “light dues” paid by shipping, rather than any government support. The NLB has the further advantage of looking after dramatically located additions to our landscape which are loved by many Scots and quietly championed by its patron, Princess Anne, who has “bagged” many of the towers since she accepted the role 26 years ago.

And yet the 206 lighthouses, despite now being bereft of keepers, are still visited monthly for lens and window cleaning and other maintenance by 19 retained keepers, some of whom are retired keepers, among whose number, 35 years ago, was MacEachern himself.