June 1, 2011

Lighthouses and their keepers

The Lighthouse Stevensons
by Bella Bathurst

For two hundred years, the seas along the Scottish coast claimed thousands of ships and lives. When shipowner and merchant losses became too high, the Northern Lighthouse Trust was established in 1786. They sought out engineers to construct lighthouses along the Scottish coast. Thus began the illustrious careers of Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather, father, uncles, and cousins. Together, they built 97 lighthouses, some of which still stand today.

The Stevensons' extraordinary achievements in engineering, science, and optics, helped change the shape of the Scottish coast, often against incredible odds. Travel to the remote rocks and islands were fraught with danger, and workers were understandably hard to find. Meanwhile, building sites were often underwater, rough seas made supplies difficult to land, and hurricanes could wipe out a season's work in minutes.

An incredible story told with elegance and verve.

built by Alan Stevenson

Keepers of the Light
by Donald Graham

If you've ever had romantic notions about being a lighthouse keeper, this book is a cruel reality check, especially during the 1860s to 1940s. Isolation, combined with damp, cold, wind, and starvation, took its toll on many British Columbian keepers and their families. Mental illness, murders, and suicides were not uncommon. The mercury used to run the lamps didn't help, nor did poor pay and government indifference. Meanwhile, the seas were especially cruel, swallowing up keepers, livestock, food supplies, and, of course, ships. There are moments of heroism and fleeting glimpses of happiness, but most stories end in heartache. Best if not read before bedtime.

Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper
by Peter Hill

Happily, things had improved a great deal in 1973. Peter Hill was then a nineteen-year-old Scottish art student with a lot of time on his hands. When a friend asked him what he would most like to do, he came out with lighthouse keeper. So began a summer working as a temporary keeper at three lighthouses: Pladda, Ailsa Craig, and Hyskeir.

Loneliness wasn't a factor this time, as he always worked alongside PLKs (principal lighthouse keepers) and ALKs (assistant lighthouse keepers). They showed him what to do, and often told him entertaining stories of lighthouse lore, filled with humour and horror. Lack of sleep led to interesting dreams, while foghorn-interrupted conversations, a trio of goats, and Hitchcockian birds added to the surrealism. The book is also a paean to a forgotten way of life.

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