"Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night."
A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
A Pharaoh for pharologists, the Egyptian-styled lighthouse was hewn by the Stevenson’s masons in 1849. Its lofty all-seeing eye flashes white every 20 seconds and can be seen 24 miles away. Stuff Cornwall, this is as far west as it gets on the British mainland.
Prior to 1988, the lighthouse was home to three keepers and their families. Relatively cushy in lighthouse terms – no fishing using kites from the balcony or having your ears popped as the seawater choked the light – still, it was a service that offered unique challenges.
Three four-hour watches every twelve hours on a month-on, month-off timetable. For the deep sea lights (towers), the relief tender relied upon the whims of Osiris - who was rarely reliable.
It was a life that attracted and then retained a certain breed of man, for only our American cousins have dared employ women as keepers. And with the service came the stories.
Ardnamurchan has been regularly battered. Its names suggests sea-hounds, otters, pirates or wreckers and like much of its coastline – just plain wantonness. Yet still it stands and still we come to wonder.
George Preston, Principal Keeper-Land Light
“Evan on a land light the middle watch (12 – 4am) is the one you feel that you are absolutely on your own. You find your thoughts beginning to ramble. Sometimes you just sit and stare, other times you get weird ideas and funny feelings come in to your head – Like somehow you’re the only person left in the world. Sitting on your own looking out of a lighthouse window; it’s a funny sort of existence.”
“It was a calm sort of day and the SAK (Supernumerary Assistant Keeper) asked to go fishing. On a tower light about the only place you can go fishing is at the lighthouse door. I was trying to get some sleep as I had been on the early watch (8 to 12 am) when the AK ( Assistant Keeper) woke me up to say that the SAK was missing. I thought he was pulling my leg. We searched the tower from top to bottom – calling out his name at each landing. When we got down to the entrance floor the doors were open and fastened back. The floor wasn’t wet – so the sea had not come up suddenly. The regulation iron bar that was supposed to be across the doorway was gone and there was no sign of the SAK.
There was nothing we could do. We raised the alarm on the radio and then just sat down at the kitchen table looking at each other trying to think what could have happened. By the time the tender arrived it was pitch dark and the sea had gotten up. There was nothing anyone could do. We never found the body. Now when I go to bed in the afternoons I can’t settle until I’ve looked at my watch and its gone ten to five.
Mike Longman, Assistant Keeper
The Deep Sea Lights (tower lights)– I always call those the proper lighthouses; and they are the only ones that appeal to me. It must be because they are on their own: they are loners and so am I, so we suit each other.
It never made any difference to me whether it was winter or summer, I liked them both. And when you live out there you can’t help it that you get very fond of the sea. I got to feel very friendly towards it, like it was a personal friend. I still do even though I can’t swim. I know I will never die by drowning because the sea’s a friend, it knows I like living on it. Out there if I ever fell in it’d throw me up again back on to the tower
Tom Whittaker, Assistant Keeper
I’m not romantic about the sea, like some people. It’s as treacherous as a vicious dog, it’s not safe to turn your back on it for a minute. We were down on the set-off – the concrete platform running around the base of the lighthouse, clearing away freshly delivered supplies. It was an ordinary calm day, no wind or anything and we were thirty feet or more above the water. Suddenly this tremendous wave came up out of nowhere and swamped us. If we hadn’t been hooked on that would have been the end for us. It had come up from behind the tower. No one had time to shout a warning.
Stella Whittaker, Assistant Keepers Wife
About a mile inland there were some hills and a lovely green valley where I used to go for walks whenever I could. There were wild daffodils and trees there and birds singing in them; song birds, not those damn awful seagulls that do nothing but squawk all the time. It was the only place I knew where you could go and get away from the sound of that bloody bloody sea.
Paul Bailey, Assistant Keeper
It’s part of everyday life to us, waiting for weather to change. You listen to the wind in the night, wondering if it’s starting to change direction and if it is whether it’s for better or for worse. I’ve always found a kind of excitement to it; the thought the wind’s deliberately having you on, letting you know it’s deciding if it’ll let you go or not.
Every keeper on a rock moans about having to go back at the end of his month’s shore leave. But the moment he gets there he stops moaning and settles in to get on with it. It’s a different world out there. Sometimes you start wondering which is the real one, the one on the lighthouse or the one ashore. As soon as I get off the rock my way of talking changes; I can’t put two words together without a swear word in between. Perhaps it’s the company I keep or because everybody else does it; it’s a habit you slip into, a kind of separate language, almost a foreign one, or perhaps the way I talk ashore is the foreign one and how we talk out there is more genuine.
Ray Flint, lighthouse maintenance
The Trinity folk are very traditional. Because I’ve got long hair they’ll think I’m a junkie or something. They’re all a very traditional lot, but I think they’re basically lacking in something, otherwise they couldn’t put up with the life: the loneliness, the unreality, the abnormality of it all. No normal person would choose it: if he did, he couldn’t stick it for long and stay normal, he’s bound to get odd.
Suzie Archer, Keepers wife
When a boat goes round the rock in good weather and brings back a letter from him, I read it once every hour after I’ve got it: and I go on reading it four or five times a day till I get the next one. I take it to bed with me at night and sleep with it under the pillow. I hate it when I’m on my own and he’s not there where he should be on the other half of the bed.
Margaret Vincent, Principal Keepers Wife
During his month ashore the only time he still doesn’t want to go out is in his last week: the days are very precious then. He doesn’t like me to do any housework so I don’t, I just let things go. All he wants is for us to be sitting quietly and watching the telly or reading. It mightn’t sound a lot to someone else but it does to me. It’s a wonderful thing to have it made plain to you that to be with you is all your husband wants.
Tony Parker, Oral Historian
In the particular direction it’s in, the wind is blowing straight in to the end of the toilet outlet pipe down at the bottom of the rock near the sea. Have never seen a toilet with a swell on the water in it before. Mentioned it at teatime. Bob said “You want to try sitting on it with a Force 10 blowing; you have to wear your life jacket when you go and take a shit.
Alf Black, Assistant Keeper
Two different men, I’ve been two men so long now. When my pay comes through we take out the rent for the landlady then the rest of it is mine: and over the four weeks ashore I spend every penny there is of it on drink. I don’t feel the need of company, it’s not the companionship I go in for, only the drink. I don’t drink in my digs, people who are drinkers on their own are what’s called alcoholics and I am not one of those. I can’t be because when I come off here there’s no liquor on lighthouses so I do without.
The lighthouse is a sort of fixed point isn’t it, that helps with navigation? And what I am doing is to keep the light going for people to make their way. But it’s the fixed point in my life too. Four times a year I come out here and this is where my proper life is; this is where it is clean and fresh. Out here’s the sort of light and ashore it’s the sort of dark. So as long as I keep coming the candle’s still glowing for me.
Stanley Vincent, Principal Keeper
It’s a dead man’s shoes job. You can’t get to Principal Keeper unless the man in front of you falls down and dies. So you have this feeling all the time there’s a man behind you waiting to step up and fill your place. Somewhere a man’s waiting for me to die.
Mary B, Assistant Keepers Wife
I never did find out what it was about the place that made it so marvellous. Time and again I tried to ask him and discuss it, but all he ever said was he felt happy there on a tower in the middle of the sea. It was almost as though he’d got another woman out there; or the lighthouse was another woman he loved more than he did me. So I can’t look on it any other way than it was the life on the tower which changed him. It seemed to me if a man had got in to that state, when he was prepared to write off his wife and children for the sake of a job, then it must be a terrible job.
Occasionally you see a mention of the place in the newspapers or hear its name; whenever I do I can’t help it, just to hear it makes me shudder. To me it’s like some horrible ogre.
Eric G, Supernumerary Assistant Keeper
A lighthouse keeper’s nine to five working day lasts for two month. He doesn’t meet anyone apart from the two others with him. It’s as though he’s in a monastery or a prison, he’s totally shut off from the world. I began to notice it in time: that when I got ashore I didn’t belong in the ordinary everyday world. I’d be talking about things that mattered to me the last time that I had been ashore – but that was eight weeks ago. Or people would be talking to me about something that was going to happen “next week”; and I’d realize it was meaningless, it had no relevance because I was going back on the lighthouse.
You get very conscious of this. If you went into a pub you would sit in the corner on your own and wouldn’t get into conversation because of letting your ignorance show. Streets and traffic would be very frightening because you weren’t used to the noise and movement and there were so many people. All I wanted to do was to get back where I felt safe: get even further away from the world and back to the lighthouse.
Amos D, Assistant Keeper
When I was a young man I used to go out in a boat on my own down there where the tower is, fishing and lobster-potting in the summer evenings on the low tides. That way you get to know where all the rocks are and touched them with your own hands. So when it is the winter like now and a big sea running, you know exactly what there is underneath you; how large or small a rock is, what it is shaped like, how near the surface it’ll be depending on the tide at the time. To anyone else the sea looks like a stretch of water with big waves on it, it looks like a blanket covering everything over. But you know what’s under the blanket.
The sea fascinates me, it always has since I was a boy. It’s got such a power to it: when I go away on holiday I always like to go somewhere near the sea, I like to be near where I can go and look at it
All extracts: Tony Parker "Lighthouse" Eland Publishing ISBN 0-907871-66-6