Illuminating story of a remote way of life

On The Rocks by Lawrence Tulloch. Published by The Shetland Times Ltd, £15.99.

When I bumped into Angie Hutchison, Scotland’s last principal light keeper, on the street in Stromness last year I was reminded that he’d retired from Fair Isle South lighthouse almost 12 years ago (when it was “unmanned” by the Princess Royal, no less).

The career of lightkeeper is no more and now I read in the papers that Trinity House, which runs the English and Welsh lights, is proposing to do away with many of them, seeing that every little whelk punt now has radar, sonar and GPS to find its way on a dark and stormy night. There will be trouble about this, mark my words, for we nautical fellows are very conservative and find deeply disturbing the idea of da Lighthoose o’ Bressa (or anywhere else) no longer shinin’ ower da sea.

There have been many memoirs by former lightkeepers. As a former lighthouse boatman I read them avidly. Few of these publications are as entertaining – or as illuminating of the details of this vanished trade – as Lawrence Tulloch’s On The Rocks.

I’m not saying that just because Lawrence is an old friend, a former colleague in the Northern Light-house Board’s service and says some kind things about me in his book. What makes Lawrence’s book special is his innate talent as a storyteller, his eye for detail and the shrewd cameos of character, but this is no more than we would expect from the son of the Cullivoe skald, Tom Tulloch himself.

As a young man Lawrence seems to have been a bit direction-less until he got into the lighthouse service. Like many of his contemporaries, he found being a “supernumerary”, the lowest form of lightkeeping life, a very steep learning curve.

Apart from being the butt of practical jokes in an organisation notorious for pranksters, the rookie keeper would rapidly discover that, far from being the simple, quiet, lonely life he’d imagined before he joined the NLB at 84 George Street, Edinburgh, living on a lighthouse was a very complicated business indeed, with little privacy. It demanded a wide range of skills and abilities and, at times, the greatest patience with one’s fellow men.

This was particularly so on a “rock” light, where the daily business of survival was added to routines imposed by temperamental, diesel-powered generators and the ingenious clockwork machinery that kept the light shining and going round.

Despite his incurable seasickness, Lawrence had more than his share of isolated “rock” lighthouses, being at various times “on the rocks” at Muckle Flugga, Out Skerries, the Bell Rock, Rubh Re and the Calf of Man. In between he served at Sumburgh Head (probably his least isolated posting), at Fair Isle North, Ailsa Craig and the dreaded Cape Wrath, which some reckoned worse than a rock.

Lightkeepers did indeed make ships in bottles, painted landscapes in oils (as well as lime-washing the lighthouse); some of them read the entire works of Shakespeare or did pokerwork (and forged pokers in the smithy, indeed), among many other hobbies but there was less leisure time than you would think. The multifarious technical and domestic tasks demanded a disciplined routine that was almost military.

The NLB had its share of martinets and curmudgeonly disciplinarians. They feature in the book. Although Lawrence diplomatically changes their names, some of us will know of whom he speaks. But the vast majority of lightkeepers were agreeable fellows; many of them pretty good cooks (an essential attribute) and serious fallings out were rare. Some of them were very remarkable people.

The book rightly devotes a whole chapter to the late and much lamented Magnie Leask of East Yell, who was one of the principals at the Flugga when Lawrence and I served there. Magnie was a musician, a songwriter, a poet and an inveterate joker – a natural entertainer. He kept two stuffed dummies on the Flugga, named Boki and Grulie. They were forever startling trainee keepers and unwary visitors. One of them fell through a trapdoor on top of young Lawrence while he was making his way up to the light room in the middle of the night. I seem to remember that another was left propped in the toilet on the day of the annual visit by the Pole Star, causing inconvenience to an elderly Commissioner of Northern Lights who had climbed the 258 steps to the top (after a few gins on board, no doubt) and urgently needed a “comfort stop”.

The other principal at the Flugga, who was on duty while Magnie was ashore, had no time for his colleague’s thrifty habit of hoarding bits and pieces in case they ever came in useful. Arriving for his four-week shift, he would order a clear out of the workshop and empty boxes of Magnie’s “junk” over the side. On Magnie’s return he would spend hours clambering down the cliffs, retrieving his precious “proil” and soon everything would be in proper disorder again. Lawrence’s affectionate portrait of Magnie is a fitting memorial to a kind-hearted, ingenious and gentle man.

We also meet memorable light-house characters such as Alex Tulloch, Tom Budge, John Henry Priest and the irascible but endearing Lowrie Edwardson (my predecessor as Flugga boatman) who, as an elderly bachelor, took a lively interest in conversations between the keepers and their wives and girlfriends, conducted over a very public radio telephone that was a much valued evening entertainment for most of north Unst back in the 60s and 70s.

Oh what changes the mobile phone hath wrought! Lowrie Edwardson’s doughty crew of seafaring pensioners also get an honourable mention and I was glad to supply some rather grainy photographs of Willie Gibbie Mathieson and his cousin Peerie Willie Scolla’. They look better in the book than they did in my dog-eared album.

One of the best bits of the book is a wonderfully detailed account of how a North Yell wedding is organised. The marriage, in 1972, was that of Lawrence and Margaret Henderson of Gloup and by all accounts it was a lively affair, despite being delayed by the exigencies of the service and almost postponed by a looming dock strike that threatened to cut off access to strong drink.

“The Office” did its bit, arranging special leave and Lawrence recalls our strict but kindly superintendent at 84 George Street, Mr Simpson (I never knew his first name and it would have seemed impertinent to ask).

Mr Simpson had an extraordinarily stressful job, constantly juggling the postings of hundreds of employees and their families, moving them around Scotland and the Isle of Man (Lawrence once got a shift from the Calf of Man, the most southerly NLB light, to the Muckle Flugga).

When a vacancy occurred Mr Simpson had to take into account the experience and seniority of the available keepers, whether they were due a shift, how many children they had and whether it was fair to give their father yet another rock.

It must have been a nightmare, without laptops and spreadsheets, and yet he would find time to divert the NLB helicopter to pick up a keeper from a rock so he could attend his father-in-law’s funeral.

The lighthouse board was one of the last great Victorian bureaucracies and its ways were sometimes illogical, mysterious and infuriating but it really did look after its people. And it did so without a “human resources department”.

No doubt Mr Simpson and his colleagues had an easier time of it when there were no longer any lightkeepers. The radio-controlled robots and computers that replaced them had no domestic baggage, never got drunk or slept in and – eventually – probably cost less.

The beneficiaries of this were the shipowners, who paid less in light dues. The casualties were many small communities around Scotland who lost a useful source of casual employment, gash rope, paint, blue serge clothing, oilskins, wellies and the occasional barrel of baksheesh diesel but, most importantly, the friendship of the lighthouse families.

Burrafirth in Unst is the poorer for the passing of lightkeepers, and so are many other places around the coast. But the men who designed and built the Muckle Flugga, Sumburgh Head, the Bell Rock and about 90 other lighthouses, Robert Louis Stevenson’s father, uncles and grandfather, would probably have loved the new technology.

Given the chance, they would never have let keepers anywhere near their gleaming brass and glass creations, endlessly rotating on baths of mercury. It took 200 years but automation eventually rendered a human presence unnecessary. President Obama seems to have come to the same conclusion recently about the delusion of manned space travel.

Lawrence Tulloch left the lights long before the end. He made a new career in the Gutcher Post Office, became a renowned tour guide and storyteller and has started a new stage of his life, in North Roe.

He has done a splendid job with On the Rocks. This is a substantial book, handsomely produced and worth every penny. I could only find one proofreading error – the picture titled “Heavy sea at the landing” is of Out Skerries, not the Muckle Flugga, and it’s not mine, neither!

Jonathan Wills


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.