A few weeks ago, in the post An island light, I wrote a bit about lighthouses, having seen the lamp from the Eilean Glas lighthouse in the Science Museum. I grew up by the sea and became fascinated by lighthouses. Where I grew up in Dunbar, and where I lived latterly, had a view of two lighthouses. By day was Barns Ness lighthouse, built in 1902 and more recently decommissioned, not so far away on foot. By night, however, was St. Abbs Head, the light on a headland about 20 miles away. Walk around the clifftop a little way and then it’s the Bass Rock, seabird colony, once prison of Covenanters, the Isle of May, another seabird colony but shared with seals, and Fife Ness. Dunbar is where the Firth of Forth becomes the North Sea and consequently is, more often than not, baltic. If you don’t like looking at water, it isn’t the best place to be. Luckily I do.
Lighthouses in Scotland and the Isle of Man are all automated now, controlled remotely from the Northern Lighthouse Board’s offices in George Street, Edinburgh. Randomly, it is right next to a branch of Hollister, the uber-trendy clothes shop, which has a lecky-guzzling screen in the window showing waves crashing onto a beach in California. Not entirely sure why. Anyway, if you are ever on George Street in our nation’s great capital, look up and you’ll see a model lighthouse with its light shining every few seconds. There are computers in there controlling lighthouses and buoys across the country, from the Bell Rock to North Ronaldsay, the Mull of Kintyre to the Mull of Galloway and many other places besides. That blows my mind a bit. Thinking of all these lights on clifftops and on islands all taking instruction from a little office in Edinburgh is remarkable. Only a few yards from the NLB, you can stand at the corner of Frederick Street and look right the way down through the north of Edinburgh and see the Firth of Forth and of course Fife beyond, watching ships as folk pass by oblivious. The statue of Pitt in the middle of the road, naturally, faces the other way, towards the Castle.
There is a great book I can recommend about working as a lighthouse keeper, which quite honestly is better than it sounds. It is called ‘Stargazing’ by Peter Hill, about a summer he spent in his youth as a relief keeper in some of the more isolated lights dotted around our coastline. For any Glaswegian readers, there is a copy at the Mitchell; for people in Dundee, there is a copy in Arthurstone Library, somewhere in the Hilltown in that
shi not too bad city (though disappointingly not in Coldside, possibly the best library name I’ve encountered for a while); and those elsewhere can look themselves. Your library should be able to get one. I did have a copy but lent it to someone who hasn’t returned it. It was years ago, though, and I did buy it second-hand, possibly in Barter Books, Alnwick. (I’ll need to write about Alnwick and that fine establishment some time.)
Recommending a book brings up another thought about light. One of my libraries is a Carnegie library, in fact the last in Glasgow but the first to allow patrons to actually get their own books off the shelf. Many Carnegie libraries, including the Central Library in Edinburgh, Carnegie Library in Dunfermline and Jedburgh, have the words ‘Let There Be Light’ carved into the lintel at the entrance. Those in Glasgow that still exist as libraries are Dennistoun, Govanhill, Langside, Maryhill, Parkhead and Woodside, six of the city’s 33 public libraries. Looking at the list, a lot of the Carnegie libraries in Scotland are or were in some of the least recognised parts of the country (much like lighthouses), including Airdrie, Bo’ness, Burntisland, Coatbridge, Grangemouth and Motherwell, which is entirely appropriate as libraries bring light into the darkest places or act as a beacon in those with more going for them. Having just looked it up on Google Street View, Airdrie Library is a grand, imposing structure, looking much like a scaled-down version of the National Library in Edinburgh, though I am sure they do just as good a job inside.
I seem to have gone a bit further from lighthouses. Some time last summer, I spent a few hours in Arbroath, which is in sight of the Bell Rock lighthouse, ten miles out to sea. The Signal Tower, which was the home of the lighthouse keepers’ families, is now a museum run by Angus Council and is worth a visit, telling the story of the Bell Rock and its construction, designed by John Rennie (of Phantassie, near East Linton) and Robert Stevenson. Prior to the Bell Rock being constructed, a light would be lit in the window of the ruined Abbey just up hill to aid navigation. The Abbey was also where the Declaration of Arbroath was composed in 1320, thought to have inspired the US Declaration of Independence and of course countless Scottish nationalists, some of whom left the Stone of Scone there after it was liberated from Westminster Abbey in 1950. I prefer to think of it because of the light that once sat in the big round window. What the reflections must have looked like in the sunset against the red sandstone.
Lighthouses conjure up thoughts of dramatic waves and wide vistas. Even standing in George Street or in the Science Museum or the National Museum in Edinburgh, you can’t help being taken away to some windswept spot far off, watching the ships sail safely by. My nearest lighthouse is now Pladda, just off the bottom of Arran. It might not be so easy to be there any time soon. Instead next time I’m in Dunbar I might need take a longer walk along to Barns Ness, even if it is decommissioned, and look out and see what I can see, to St. Abbs Head, Torness and back towards the town. You can see it from the railway too, with best effect in the sunshine with a deep blue sea beyond. There is at least a wide vista, if not so dramatic waves, and despite being a mile or two from the town, it still feels isolated, far from anywhere, the white tower standing out and tall to be seen far out to sea.