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Issue 41 - A day in the life of a... lighthouse keeper

Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008

 

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A day in the life of a... lighthouse keeper

David Fleetwood looks at another of Scotland's tradtional occupations.

Lighthouses around the Scottish coast have been battered for generations by high seas, standing sentinel over the most spectacular and rugged parts of the shore. From low-lying headlands to tiny skerries miles off the coast of the Hebrides, the paraffin oilers have maintained the vital navigational beacons for many generations.

The beginnings of the lighthouse service are in the late 18th century. An act of Parliament dated 1786 founded the lighthouse service and authorised the construction of four lighthouses around the coast of Scotland ‘for the security of navigation and fishermen in the northern parts of Great Britain.’ The board of commissioners was established in Edinburgh to implement the act, and the great tradition of building lighthouses around the coast of Scotland was established.

The first lighthouse established by the board was in 1787 at Kinnaird Head near Fraserburgh. The number of lighthouses built expanded very rapidly, and at its peak in 1958 there were some 84 manned lighthouses around Scotland. The lighthouses were split into the shore stations, located around the coast, the island stations which were strung across the islands offshore, and the rock stations which were the most remote and located on small skerries and offshore reefs.

The shore and island stations were traditionally manned by a lighthouse keeper and his family, but it was felt that the remote rock lighthouses were too remote and inhospitable for a keeper’s family to live there, so the keepers commuted by boat, and later helicopter, to work shifts in these remotest of stations. The crew for these remote stations consisted of six men, although later automation reduced this crew to a single man and many of the lighthouses are today completely unmanned.

Lighthouse keepers usually joined the service as an ‘expectant keeper.’ The keeper’s name would be added to a list which was ranked by seniority, as the keeper gained experience his name would climb the list, until, when he reached the top, he became an assistant keeper.

Once he became an assistant he would be attached to a lighthouse for a period of between five and eight years. There were benefits which came along with the post, including rentfree accommodation and free fuel. On becoming an assistant keeper a man would be placed at the bottom of a second list, and he progressed upwards with increased experience.

Finally he would attain the post of principal lightkeeper.

The daily life of a lightkeeper was both demanding and at times tedious, and at all times it was focused on keeping the light burning brightly. The duties of the lightkeeper have changed during the years, and these changing duties have reflected changing technology and expectation.

In the very early years of the lighthouse service in the 1780s the duties were focussed on maintaining the light, which in those days burnt oil. The main burners had to be kept trimmed, cotton wicks filling the holes neither too straight to prevent the oil coming up or to slack so that the flame drooped down. Every morning the keepers had to trim the wicks further to remove the black sooty stubs left after the burning of the previous night. This was a process which it took time to learn, ensuring that the wick was long enough to provide a bright light but not so long that black sooty smoke obscured the light and tarnished the reflector.

In cold and frosty conditions the keepers also had to ensure that the oil remained viscous enough to be drawn up into the lamp. Another essential role was to clean the windows and reflectors to remove the sooty deposits and ensure that the light could be seen clearly out to sea. After removing the soot deposits the reflectors were rubbed with a soft linen rag and Spanish white made from powdered chalk, they were to be polished until “perfectly bright.” Once the maintenance was completed the keeper had to attend to the lighting of the lamp. The lamps were lit half an hour after sunset, and were kept burning until half an hour before sunrise. While the lamps were burning they had to be checked regularly, usually once every two hours. And while he was checking the lights the keeper had to be wary not to stand in front of them, obscuring their light from the ships out at sea.

In stormy weather the keeper had to attend to the light all night, and he was required to remain in the lamp-room. If the storm broke any panes in the lamp-room windows they had to be filled very quickly with a supply of blank panes which were kept for this purpose.

By 1836 when keepers were issued with a formal set of instructions for their job their task had become more onerous. A keeper had to be on watch for the whole time the lamp was lit, between sunset and sunrise, taking shifts with his fellow keepers. The task of maintaining the light was split into two, the first of which involved keeping the lamp and reflectors clean, and the second was responsible for the cleanliness of the glass, brass-work and the floors of the light-room. At larger lighthouses, some of which even had twin lights, the principal light-keeper was responsible for ensuring that the underkeepers fulfilled their duties. The principal keeper also gave out a daily allowance of oil which could be burnt in the lamp-room.

The principal light-keeper was also responsible for the records kept of the weather and resources at the lighthouse. A daily journal was kept which recorded the amount of oil which was used, the routine of the duties discharged and also a note of the weather. These records were sent to an engineer each month. The light-keeper was also required to give a full account of any shipwrecks within the district of the lighthouse, in his account the light-keeper had to note whether anyone on board had seen the light.

The shipwreck book underlines the seriousness of the job. The rugged Scottish coast was subject to some treacherous storms and navigation in many areas remains difficult even today. The maintenance of a network of navigational aids around the wildest parts of the Scottish coast was essential to the traders and trawlermen whose lives depended on the sea, and for the communication links between Scotland and other countries.

The attention to detail and the dedication of the keepers to keep up the watch throughout the night, isolated in the lamp-room, was essential to the safety of mariners all around the Scottish coast.

Lighthouse keepers today are at the forefront of technology, with radio beacons and satellite guided navigation, but at the core of their day is still the task of keeping the light burning bright to warn sailors of the perils of the coast.