Sea kayakers often have a significant interest in lighthouses. There is something about their location, design and history which attracts us in a way that perhaps no other type of building does. Some of us have probably been paddling long enough to remember the days when if we were heading out to somewhere with a lighthouse we would pack fresh milk, daily newspapers etc as a gift for the guardians of the light in the hope that we might be invited in.
Over the years I was invited into Beachy Head, the Skerries and the Hanois to name just 3 but as we are all aware automation has had its impact and these visits are a now just a distant memory.
Much has been written over the years about the development of lighthouses and when you are in France, pop into a bookshop to see how many “coffee table” books are available on the subject. The lighthouses of Brittany in particular have fired the imagination of a generation of photographers.
On the subject of books about lighthouses the other day I was given the book “Stargazing” by Peter Hill. It is a delightful book about a 19 year old Art student, in the early 1970’s who took a job as a relief keeper for the Commisioner of Northern Lights.
He starts his short career on Pladda, an island which I had recently become acquainted with through reading the sea kayak photo blog by Douglas Wilcox. He describes the daily routine of the keeper, expressing his concern about having to undertake the cooking duties whilst learning about the routine required to keep the lights burning.
Considerably younger than many of the other keepers he not only learns about the lighthouses but some of the characters who spent significant proportions of their lives on these remote outposts fulfilling a valuable service.
His second posting was to Ailsa Craig, an island which he eventually spent 8 weeks on, as a consequence of changed rotas etc. It is interesting to note his observations on the rats, which were so numerous that doors had to remain closed to prevent infestation of the lighthouse buildings. The first rat was seen on the Island in 1889 when one was killed by a lighthouse keepers dog. The impact of the colonisation by rats was significant on the nesting sea birds, including the complete destruction of the puffin colonies. In 1991 it was decided to eradicate the rats, which involved flying in 3 tonnes of Warfarin that year and another 2 tonnes the following year. It was an immediate success and the last live rat was seen on Ailsa Craig on the 15th April 1991. By 2009 the puffin colony which had re-established itself had between 50 and 100 pairs of puffins.
In contrast to comparative spaciousness of Ailsa Craig his final lighthouse was Hyskeir, accessed by helicopter it has the Small Isles of Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck to the north with Coll and Tiree to the south. It was here that he was introduced to the game of nautical scrabble, a 30 minute time limit and only nautical words allowed, sounds like a must have game on the next sea kayaking trip.
Peter Hill was not destined to be a full time lighthouse keeper, Hyskeir was his final stint on a light, but what a great way to spend a summer.
Stargazing will appeal to anybody who has an interest in lighthouses or sea kayaking off the west coast of Scotland but you will probably enjoy it far more if you remember Captain Beefheart, Carlos Castenada, the Vietnam War and Watergate.