22nd July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Hard to put down – the tales of Flugga

Muckle Flugga: The Impossible Lighthouse. Published by Unst Heritage Trust, £6.

MANY of us are fascinated by lighthouses, especially those situ­ated on rocks far out to sea or on the remoter parts of our shores. The keepers who manned them, before automation, needed to have qualities of fortitude and endurance to cope with the dangers and loneliness.

My imagination and interest in lighthouses were fired at an early age when I first read of that strange event on the Flannan Isles which claimed the lives of the three keepers, something that has remained a mystery to this day.

Shetland is now well-covered with a chain of lights and beacons, all vital in safeguarding the vessels and their crews that sail around a coastline often fraught with danger.

One such light, which has been sending out its warning beam for over 150 years, is on Muckle Flugga, the most northerly in the United Kingdom. Now its story has been told in this splendid book produced by the Unst Heritage Trust.

The book is well-named, for the lighthouse might never have been built. Engineer David Stevenson (of the famous Stevenson family), when asked to undertake the work in the middle of the 19th century, “was adamant that the seas around the Shetland coast made building a lighthouse in the area impossible, impractical, dangerous, too expensive, and any ship that took that route was mad anyway”.

Stevenson was overruled and the hazardous task undertaken against all the odds. The result was the erection of a temporary light on the rock by 1854, followed by the permanent structure in 1858 at a total cost of £32,000.

The book graphically describes how all the building material was ferried off by boat, then manhandled up the rock face to the 200ft summit. The workmen were paid half a crown a day, double the normal wages of the time, but they were surely well worth it.

Today we can but marvel at the difficulties and the achievement, such a contrast from, for example, the building of the modern Ve Skerries light when the construction materials were ferried by helicopter from Eshaness. The helicopter was again used to good effect when the Fedaland light was built. This book gives a picture of what it was like to be a keeper on so lonely an outpost (though I wished for more first-hand stories – maybe that’s for someone else to do).

The book also tells the story of the boatmen who serviced the light from the Shore Station at Burrafirth. Here we see ordinary men tackling extraordinary tasks.

Jonathan Wills, boatman from 1975 to 1977, describes the approach to the rock: “I’m not sure Health and Safety would let you do today what we routinely did over 30 years ago . . .

“What you did, once you’d picked your wave, was to take the boat in between Da Peerie Flugga on the port side and the reef on the starboard, then swing her hard a-starboard between the point of Da Comb and the westernmost fang of the reef; then you almost immediately put the helm hard over the other way and the motor full astern; this manoeuvre brought you neatly alongside Da Comb, a couple of metres away from cast iron rungs set into the sloping rock.” The book covers both the drama and the daily routine. It also has its hilarious moments – like that unlikely football match that Sandy Wylie took part in against some extremely odd opposition, and the eventual surprising score-line!

Then there was the unfortunate episode of the “supernumerary” keeper and the hens. Medical emergencies are recounted, a Royal visit noted and another visit that certainly did not go as planned.

This is a book that’s hard to put down. It has been painstakingly researched by Alison Priest and carefully compiled by Rhoda Hughson. The volume is beautifully presented and well illustrated. The cover photos by Friedie Manson and Jonathan Wills are worthy of special mention.

Muckle Flugga: The Impossible Lighthouse was launched at an event in the Haroldswick Hall last Tuesday and is available in local shops. It will make a great present for anyone who loves Shetland or enjoys a good story.

Louis Johnson