Spotlight on life of a lighthouse keeper
Published: 13 May 2016
The north-east has a long and historic connection with lighthouses and
the brave keepers who operated them.
Nowadays, many of the region’s lighthouses have been converted into hotels and tourist hotspots, with those still in use operated by machines, but the legacy of this noble profession is still apparent in the culture and landscape of the north-east’s coastal communities.
This weekend, the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh will uncover the tough reality of this much revered profession, with a Lighthouse Keeper’s Bootcamp, taking place as part of Scotland’s Festival of Museums.
The life of the lighthouse keeper is often romanticised, enshrined in the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and real-life mysteries such as the strange disappearance of three keepers on the Flannan Isles in 1900, which remains unsolved to this day.
Ron Morrice and Ian Duff spent a combined 20 years as custodians of lighthouses across Scotland and the north-east, from the Mull of Kintyre to Girdleness and Skerryvore.
In the more remote stations, keepers would have to commute via boat to work shifts in the perilous stations. Day-to-day life was arduous and the devoted keepers encountered many dangers to keep the light shining and help seafarers navigate the complex Scottish coastline come rain or shine.
Ron Morrice is the chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Scottish Lighthouse Museum. He worked as a lighthouse keeper in the 1960s at a number of remote houses, following a spell in the Merchant Navy.
Mr Morrice said: “In the Navy it was a most welcome sight seeing the flashing light of a lighthouse after a few weeks of open sea. I was working with an engineering company when I saw an ad for lighthouse keepers in a newspaper. It was the memories of that welcome sight that made me apply.
“The career was tough at times. I remember landing on Skerryvore, before the days of helicopters, via a pulley from a small boat. Being a keeper was just like any other job but being on watch alone in the middle of the night on a rock station, during a storm, could get your imagination going.”
Mr Duff joined the Lighthouse Service in 1976, serving for 17 years at houses including Cape Wrath, Rattray Head and Pladda.
He said: “I’d wanted to become a lighthouse keeper since I was a small boy, following a visit to the Kinnaird Head lighthouse. The profession had just always appealed to me. Life as a keeper could be tough, mainly because of wild weather. Most people never get near the remote rock lights in bad weather – but we were living there.
“I still remember vividly the day a helicopter got swamped by a freak wave at Skerryvore. The experience reinforced the dangerous conditions we worked in. But the job was also extra special and I have a wonderful memory of witnessing an iconic St Elmos Fire one night at Pladda.”
Tomorrow, visitors to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, in partnership with the Fraserburgh Heritage Centre, can sample the life of the lighthouse keeper as part of the Lighthouse Keepers Bootcamp.
The event is part of the Festival of Museums, a nationwide festival, organised by Museums Galleries Scotland, featuring more than 100 day and night events, each specially curated to help visitors experience Scotland’s museums in unique and hands on ways.
Visitors of all ages can spend a day in the shoes of a keeper and learn the vital skills required to keep seafarers safe, from tying knots and signalling with flags to using a Marconi radio.
They can also venture to the top of the museum’s own lighthouse and recreate a heroic rescue of a sailor from a shipwreck.
For further information and a full events programme, visit www.festivalofmuseums.com