Sunday, 29 August 2010


I like lighthouses, there’s something comforting about them – I don’t know why. I’ve always imagined them to be cosy, I doubt that the lighthouse keepers found them comforting or cosy though. Three men, sometimes with their families, locked inside a long thin tube in the middle of the ocean for months on end, often without running water, working toilets or heating – and I’m not talking about the 1800’s, it was like that until the last one became ‘unmanned’. We don’t have lighthouse keepers in the UK these days, the helicopters and automation finally took over in 1998. I think it’s a pity, I wonder if the ex-lighthouse keepers feel the same?

There are a lot of stories about lighthouse keepers going mad or disappearing without trace. In 1900 three keepers vanished from the lighthouse in the Flannan Islands. The entrance gate to the compound and main door were both closed, the beds were left unmade, the clock had stopped, and there was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. No bodies were ever found and rumours abounded - one of the keepers had murdered the other two and then thrown himself into the sea in a fit of remorse, a sea serpent (or giant seabird) had carried the men away to its lair, they’d been abducted by foreign spies or anarchists, they’d been spirited away (literally) by a boat filled with the ghosts of drowned sailors.

The magnification of light from the lamps in lighthouse takes place through giant arrangements of curved prisms and lenses which weigh tons and these float in a bath of liquid mercury. Thanks to the properties of the mercury and in spite of their weight, they’ll rotate with a push from a single finger. Mercury evaporates easily and the vapour is very poisonous. The main symptoms of mercury poisoning are the loss of rationality, an inability to distinguish reality from illusion, and erratic and uncharacteristic behaviours. In short, breathing mercury vapour over long periods of time causes you to go mad - perhaps that’s what happened to the three keepers on the Flannan.

Sometimes, when I stare deep into my snow globe, I swear I can see a light, a flicker of flame in the lens house. Occasionally, when I shake the white snow into life, whipping up a terrible storm, I can hear the wind raging and above the wind loud laughter - shouting, screaming. Always, when I’m climbing these steep stairs up to the light, carefully carrying my glass of steaming mercury, I smell the smoke and see the dancing flames before the cleansing fire is even set.


  1. I've always envied the life of a light keeper except I'm claustraphobic and I wouldn't cope with the disruption to my sleep with the watches.
    Michele lent me a great book about lightkeepers - Star Gazing by Peter Hill - set in 1973. I think you'd like it AKH.

  2. I heard a radio programme about the Flannan Island lighthouse keepers. They went out to fix a crane and were washed away. What a terrible way to die.