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Page last updated at 17:47 GMT, Tuesday, 11 May 2010 18:47 UK
A lighthouse keeper's tale

The Northern Lighthouse Board is responsible for marine navigational aids

Crashing waves and the beacon of light through the darkness is the romantic notion of lighthouses which most of us have in our imagination.

Author Peter Hill worked as a lighthouse keeper in his early twenties.

Stationed as an assistant and then keeper, Peter began his career at Killantringan.

Before being stationed at Sule Skerry, Ruvaal, Barra Head, Holburn Head, Inchkeith, Mull of Galloway, Ailsa Craig, Islay and the Rhinns.

Nothing had changed

"I was looking at an old BBC documentary made back in 1969 "The Northern Lights" which was very apt because nothing had changed between then and when I joined the service in 1979.

Routine duties involved changing watch, cleaning, painting and attending to the signal. Inchkeith, for example, was a paraffin light and it was a case of lighting the light each evening then climbing the stairs and drawing the blinds in the morning. All lighthouses which had a rotating lens had to have blinds. If there was anything combustible in the light room, the lens acted like a magnifying glass.

There were a couple of incidents at pillar rocks where the most dangerous aspect was fire. It's a wonder that there weren't any fatalities. When they did catch fire there was little chance of escape. Even if you do escape, the isolation means there's little chance of relief.

Peter Hill on Rhinns of Islay (Photo courtesy of Peter Hill)
Peter was stationed as a keeper at Rhinns of Islay towards the end of his service

For me personally, the incident at Inchkeith during a winter when the temperature in Fife dropped to -27 comes to mind. We were at -23 and had five inches of frost on the aerial of the radio. It was in danger of collapsing due to the sheer weight and it was dire straits.

Lowering the flag pole was the only way to reduce that tension. We were frozen and that was the nearest we came to giving up as the conditions were so severe. I was keeper in charge so it was down to me to notify the superintendent that the light was impaired because the inside of the lantern room was frosted up as well and there was nothing we could do.

Anything could have happened

It was a way of life. We were a community of colleagues and were there for each other.
Peter Hill

Relief was the time when anything could have happened. At Inchkeith we had a helicopter relief in thick fog. The courageous, skilful pilot managed to land on the helipad which had six feet clearance on either side in the forecourt.

Boat reliefs were another thing altogether.

A fishery protection vessel, The Swither, ran aground on the morning of the relief out at Inchkeith. I was going out to Inchkeith and a Jacob's ladder off the side of the lighthouse fair-off in normal conditions is bad enough but in an eight foot swell...

That was the worst experience I had.


The water filter at Inchkeith packed up so instead of replacing the unit, they replaced the keepers every three years to avoid kidney stones. When it went to four weeks on and four weeks off, out of three years you'd only be out on the rock for 18 months at a time.

A lot of it could have been psychological too. That's what could build-up after a while.

After they decided to discontinue the fog signal at Mull of Galloway I knew that my time in the service was limited.

The isolation was accepted as part and parcel of the job.

Life had gone

Lighthouses are funded by fees paid by commercial shipping
The Northern Lighthouse Board remotely operates stations from its base in Edinburgh

The day they decided to discontinue the fog signals almost one third of the service was redundant.

To prepare you for the outside world, there was a course at the Nautical College in Edinburgh, help refresh your CV or help those of a certain age get ready for retirement.

A survey on lighthouse keepers' longevity diminished considerably when they left the service.

Why? After such an idyllic lifestyle in the lighthouse service, the sudden shock meant that it was as if life had gone."

Turning beacon

Reducing the number of keepers meant more investment in the automation programme and less need for keepers.

Automation and the introduction of GPS may have superseded the need for manned lighthouses but the light from a turning beacon remains an important symbol.

The Mull of Galloway Lighthouse celebrates its 180th anniversary in 2010 while Bell Rock Lighthouse is in its 200th year.

The lighthouses shown in the video are: Pladda, Ailsa Craig, Bass Rock, Hellier Holm, Clyth Ness, Bell Rock, Strathy Point and Scrabster.

In Pictures: Lighthouses
12 May 10 |  People & Places
Northern Lighthouse Board
01 Jun 10 |  People & Places


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