The little girl clambered into her wooden bed and pulled the wool blanket up to her chin. Lying back on her straw mattress she could see the lighthouse through her tiny bedroom window.
The lighthouse was painted white and it stood proud atop a small rocky outcrop surrounded by crashing seas. In the summer months, when there was barely darkness, she could see the two lighthouse keepers moving about in their circular quarters. She often wondered if they were preparing meals, and if so what they were eating? She imagined plates of porridge and heaps of oatmeal bannocks with delicious honey accompanied by cups of steaming tea to keep them warm.
‘The lighthouse keepers must write up their logbooks on the state of the weather and note the ships that pass by in the Minch,’ the little girl’s father explained. ‘They have to trim the lamp wicks every few hours to keep the reflective lenses clean. It is their duty to ensure a bright light is shining to warn ships of treacherous rocks near the shore.’
The girl’s father was well acquainted with the routines of lighthouse keepers because he had an uncle who was once a keeper on Orkney.
The windows in the curved walls of the towering structure gave the little girl intriguing glimpses of the keepers’ busy lives. Sometimes she could see a figure at the very top of the lighthouse in the lantern room from where the beam shone. Secretly, she would like to go inside and had already made up her mind that she would be the wife of a lighthouse keeper one day.
The lighthouse was immensely tall, tapering as it reached upward into the sky, it was higher than anything she had ever seen before, higher than the tallest trees. It made her giddy when she stood outside the croft and looked up at it. The little girl loved the comforting solidity of its presence, whatever the weather, its flashing beam swept across her window through the night. Even the woven wool curtain strung up by her mother, could not prevent the light seeping into her room, each rake casting magical patterns on the croft’s white-washed walls.
Once a month, Donald, a carter from the nearest village arrived, his cart was loaded with provisions for the lighthouse keepers. Donald tethered his pony to a fence post a few yards away from the cliff edge, adjacent to the suspended rope and hawser walkway that led to the lighthouse entrance. Before unloading, Donald would give the pony some hay or oats from a canvas bag. The animal was always tired and hungry having trudged ten miles from the village. The twisting road was steep in parts and punctuated with sharp stones. The shaggy, highland pony disliked pulling the heavy cart as it hurt his hooves, and he was not getting any younger.
On these days the principal lighthouse keeper would emerge at the foot of the tower through a large door with a porthole window. Whatever the weather, blasting cold winds or warm sunshine, the keeper wore the same dark, navy reefer coat and cap. He would exchange a few words with Donald before they started to shift the provisions into the lighthouse. When there was a raging gale Donald refused to cross the swing bridge to the lighthouse as he was afraid of being swept onto the rocks and tempestuous seas below. Instead he would unload the boxes of vegetables, tins of food, packets of tea and assorted provisions and postage and place them at the foot of the gangway. When the weather was calm, he would pluck up the courage to make the perilous crossing, gingerly holding the rope sides. As a reward, the lighthouse keeper would make him a brew of tea on his stove and add a tot whisky.
The girl watched these proceedings from the stone gateposts of her croft but she never ventured further. The lighthouse keeper would always raise his hand when he saw the girl but she never returned the greeting. Her mother had forbidden her to talk to strangers. She would have liked to wave back but something inside her made her afraid. Perhaps it was the keeper’s dark clothing and his bushy ginger beard and enormous eyebrows that reminded her of red squirrels’ tails. Nevertheless, the little girl felt an element of sadness as she sensed the man was lonely, despite having an assistant keeper as company. The only time she saw the assistant was when it was his time to be relieved, and he seemed to want to get away from the lighthouse as fast a possible, urging Donald to be off, despite the old pony’s unhurried reluctance.
When the cart unloading was done and the tea and nip of whisky consumed, Donald untied his pony and trap and trotted over to the croft to speak to the girl’s mother.
He would deliver any mail and what meagre provisions she had ordered from the village. Sometimes it was sugar or flour, boot polish, oats, maybe a bag of coal for the fire instead of burning peat, but never any luxuries like tinned fruit or corned beef the lighthouse keepers were delivered.
‘M’eudail Morag,’ Donald would say, in his friendly voice, as he ducked down to enter the croft. The girl’s mother would blush at Donald’s endearment, but she knew he had been fortified by his dram with the lighthouse keeper.
‘Aye, and what news have you from the village, young Donald?’ asked the mother, who would stop whatever work she was doing and sit and gossip about the latest news from the village. She always gave him a scone and delicious farm butter before he set off on his return journey. Donald was a good humoured, handsome young man, and the mother was only a couple of years his senior. It was rumoured when she lived in the village she had walked out with Donald before her marriage.
The little girl was inexplicably drawn to the young man, they shared the same Celtic white complexion with lustrous black hair and blue eyes. She always joined them during his monthly visits, it was exciting to listen to another voice in the croft and she patiently waited for the sweetie Donald always brought her. These brief interludes were one of the few occasions for the mother to enjoy some recreation. Rory, her husband, in contrast was not given to idle chatter and came home exhausted from his farm work. Donald’s visits only altered if the winter weather was extreme and the hours of daylight short. The lighthouse keepers would normally be relieved every two months, subject to weather, but the principal keeper had become an increasingly permanent fixture, like the lighthouse, he appeared immovable.
One day, as winter was approaching, the girl was watching Donald delivering his usual monthly order. There appeared to be a violent argument underway as she could hear raised voices with the principal keeper remonstrating with Donald. His arms were waving about and he drove his fist into the cart’s boarded side panels. The girl could not work out what was being said and she wondered if Donald had forgotten something in the monthly order.
‘I don’t know what’s the matter with Gordon,’ said Donald to the mother, when he came into the croft for his scone. He’s become crabbit and I couldn’t see Hamish, his assistant, anywhere. Something is not right; I bought a sack of oats for their porridge as usual and he told me he never ate porridge. Then he started cussing and shouting and hitting the cart. I have been delivering sacks of oats for the last five years, regular as clockwork.’
‘Imagine those two men cramped together day and night, it’s enough to send anyone gyte, it’s the solitude. The principal keeper has not left that place for a longtime now, it’s not healthy. I don’t think he has a home to go to.’
‘His wife left him years ago, she went south with a sheep farmer,’ said Donald.
As winter set in the nights were at their longest, daylight hours were short and the dangerous Minch seas pounded the lighthouse with monotonous regularity. On the occasional calm days, the little girl heard new sounds drifting from the lighthouse: muffled shouts and crashing pans. Then one night, when there was a violent sea raging, the lighthouse beam went out and the little girls’s room was enveloped in total darkness.
This previously unheard of occurrence alarmed all the occupants of the croft. They knew the lighthouse keepers’ duty was to keep a good light to warn vessels of the dangers of the rocky coastline, especially in stormy weather. The little girl lay in bed frightened by the dark and between gusts of the ferocious winds she could hear distant cries coming from the lighthouse. By morning the gale had blown itself out and the weather was cold and clear, the ground hard with frost. The little girl plucked up all her courage and ventured to the foot of the gangway and looked up at the lighthouse windows searching for any signs of life.
Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion, the unexpected sound made her sway on her feet, and for a moment she thought she might tumble over the cliff edge into the clear, icy waters. She stepped back to regain her balance and looked up and saw the principal keeper in the glass lantern gallery. Although it was a long way up, she could see the principle keeper, his customary cap was missing and his red hair was a tangled mess. He was staring down at her and the unease she had always felt about the man flooded over her. Then he started laughing and jumping up and down running around the other the circular tower, as if he was doing a jig. Then there was a second explosion and the sound vibrated through the little girl’s body, terrified at what she had witnessed, she turned and ran back into the croft.
The little girl’s mother had come outside to investigate the commotion.
‘What was the noise, Mammy,’ she asked.
‘It was only fog warnings. Goodness knows why, it is clear as could be,’ she said, scanning the wide arc of the bay for signs of incoming mist.
‘Come in lassie, it’s bitter out here. I have no idea what has got into the man.’
‘I could see him in the lantern room, he was dancing about as if he was at a ceilidh.’
‘Your father will go to the coastguard’s house in the village tomorrow, something peculiar is going on in the lighthouse, for sure.’
There were intermittent fog blasts throughout the day and the lantern beam failed to light up at dusk as normal. That night another gale blew from the west and the little girl could hear the waves crashing on the rocks at the base of the lighthouse, but she heard no more frightening sounds.
The next day her father rode to the coastguard’s house to report the strange happenings.
As the replacement keeper was due to take over from Hamish, the assistant keeper, on the following day, it was decided to wait until then to investigate further. That night the lighthouse’s lantern was lit but it was not working correctly, its sweeping sequence was slower and the light dimmer.
The following morning the replacement lighthouse keeper arrived in a two horse cart accompanied by a senior coastguard and a constable. The little girl stood by her gate, the morning was misty with a damp cold that penetrated her woollen skirt and jumper. The beam from the lighthouse seemed even weaker than the previous night, and despite the swirling mist, there were no fog warning explosions. On hearing the clattering hooves of the ponies as they trudged up the slope to the croft, the little girl’s father left his cows in the steading and joined his daughter at the gate. Her father went forward to greet the party and together they approached the lighthouse entrance. The little girl was fearful and needed no encouragement to wait at the gate.
The constable led the way over the swinging walkway, taking care not to slip on the damp wooden slats. Once he reached the safety of the stone platform at the door’s entrance, he peered through the port hole and hammered with a gloved hand onto the heavy steel door. There was no reply. He banged again with more force, but still nothing. The replacement lighthouse keeper joined the constable on the stone platform and shouted, ‘Gordon, Hamish,’ and he twisted the large door handle, but the door did not budge. Searching in a leather satchel the assistant lighthouse keeper brought out a large iron key and inserted it into the lock, and with one turn the door swung inwards. The two other men now crossed the gangway and followed the constable and assistant keeper inside.
On climbing the spiral staircase, they reached the galley and living space. There was no fire lit and the condensation on the windows was dripping, frost had frozen the windowpanes on the landward side. They climbed higher to the bunk sleeping quarters which were unoccupied, but they found coal scattered on the stairway and the coal hole door was half open. There was a nauseous smell coming from inside. The constable tied a handkerchief over his nose and mouth and put his head into the coal hole and spotted a pair of boots sticking outwards and scrambled over the heaped coal until he reached the body of a man. The constable and the keeper each took a leg and dragged the body over the coals to the entrance door. There was a deep gash with dried blood on his head and face. It was clear he had been dead for some time.
‘Oh, Hamish, my friend,’ cried the assistant keeper, ‘what evil has befallen you?’ The constable pointed to a coal shovel neatly hooked to the wall, its pointed, steel blade was smeared with dried blood. It required no detective work to realise this had been the instrument that had struck Hamish down.
The constable looked around at the shocked party and putting his fingers to his lips he withdrew his truncheon and beckoned the coastguard and the girl’s father to stay where they were. The other two quietly climbed the metal ladders upwards to the lantern gallery. As soon as the constable’s head peeked over the top of the ladder he could see the principal keeper crumpled up on the floor. He had a grubby cloth at his side. Once the assistant keeper reached the gallery he recognised the rag that was used to clean the mercury balancing level of the optic lens. Gordon was muttering incoherently, his eyes were staring, large and unblinking in terror, as if he was witnessing a ghostly apparition, his whole body occasionally convulsed.
‘Gordon, Gordon, can you hear me?’ cried the assistant keeper.
‘No oats, no porridge for Christmas,’ was all he could murmur before his eyes rolled back.
For many years lighthouse keepers had been prone to supposed madness. It was only after the medical profession, and with the help of scientists, discovered that it wasn’t the solitude of being a lighthouse keeper that sent them off their heads, or drove them to suicide. It was continued exposure to mercury. At one time the very heavy lighthouse lantern was suspended on a near-zero friction bearing. This bearing floated the Fresnel optic lens on a circular track of liquid mercury which meant less winding for the keepers and greater speed of light rotation. To maintain the smooth running of the light the mercury had to be kept clean from dust and any other impurities. This was achieved by the lighthouse keepers regularly straining the mercury through a very fine cloth. What they did not know at the time was that mercury is a deadly poison, and sustained periods of inhaling and touching the liquid eventually causes hallucinations and can lead to insanity.