Seeing the light

Fair Isle's two lighthouses have been central to the commmunity for the last 116 years

During these long winter nights, one of the things I find myself noticing more are the island’s lighthouses. Fair Isle’s South Lighthouse is less than half a mile from my house, and lying in bed I can see the beam against the walls: four flashes, one after the other, repeated every 30 seconds.

There are two lighthouses on the island, one at the north end and one the south, just about three miles apart. The north light covers the water between Fair Isle and Shetland, and the south covers that between here and Orkney. These are both very dangerous stretches of sea, and the lights have undoubtedly saved many lives over the years.

The south lighthouse was first lit about 116 years ago, in January 1892, and the north light later that year. They were both designed by the brothers David and Charles Stevenson, cousins of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, and part of the renowned family of lighthouse engineers. They are noticeably different in size – the tower at the south is 26 metres high, while that at the north is just 14. But sitting atop 200 foot cliffs it is well elevated above sea level. Both lighthouses also had fog horns for warning ships in poor weather.

The construction of the lighthouses in Fair Isle had been suggested decades before they were eventually built, but it took many more ships (and lives) to be lost before the plans eventually came to fruition. An incredible number of vessels ended their days on the rocks around the island, often several ships in a single year. And while the islanders did their best to rescue sailors, they did so at considerable risk to themselves, and were not always successful.

It is true though that wrecks did provide a valuable source of timber to the island, and many lost cargoes found their way into people’s homes. There were also occasional rewards for the rescue of stricken mariners, including £100 that was sent to the islanders after they assisted and helped to repair the Copenhagen ship, Dronning Louise, in 1884. When the lighthouses began their work, this source of wood and other goods was drastically reduced.

One of the great benefits of the lighthouses was that they brought extra people in to the community. For much of the twentieth century, three keepers and their families lived at each light – a substantial boost to the population.

This, though, has changed. The north light was automated in 1983, with engineers at the south providing cover when needed. Then, 15 years later, the south light too was automated. It was the last Scottish lighthouse to be manned. Since then part of the south light building has been converted into two flats by the National Trust, so once again people are living there.

In more recent years, another part of the lighthouse story has ended. The foghorns – once familiar sounds to everyone on the island – have been switched off. For those people living in the lighthouse flats, it was, perhaps, a relief.

The lights themselves have changed too. The beam has been altered to make it less bright as it passes over the land. Until recently, folk were able to find their way home in the dark, taking steps only as the bright light swept across their path. Now it is less conspicuous, less direct, but still there all the same.

In some peculiar way the light is rather comforting. It comes and goes against the wall, steady and familiar. I am glad to see it there.