The fascinating history of Scotland’s lighthouses is revealed through the stories and voices of their keepers in a new book which has just been published.
For the Safety of All, written by award-winning Scottish author Donald S Murray and published in partnership by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), brings to life previously untold stories of former keepers and historic plans and drawings from NLB which have been published for the first time.
Amongst the untold stories and first-hand accounts by former keepers and their family members is one tale told by a retired fisherman from Shetland who recounted the story of when his aunt, Mary Anderson, became a local casualty of the Second World War after a German bomb was dropped in the vicinity of the Out Skerries Lighthouse on Shetland.
Another first-hand account came from a former keeper of the Pentland Skerries Lighthouse who, for the first time, recalled rescuing survivors from an East German cargo ship carrying sugar from Cuba in 1965. Later reports from a local fisherman suggested that the cargo was in fact hiding nuclear weapons amongst the sugar.
Readers can also discover how nearly £300,000 worth of goods washed ashore on the west coast of Scotland in 1866, as well as the dramatic rescue efforts of keepers including an incident during a storm at Skerryvore Lighthouse in Shetland in 1978. In order to facilitate the rescue of a helicopter pilot and injured keeper, a former keeper who was on site tells the story of his colleague creating a makeshift cradle out of rope so that the damaged helicopter could be airlifted to safety.
Delving into the history of the beacons that mark Scotland’s dramatic coastlines, the book touches on the construction of Scotland’s first lighthouse which was built on the Isle of May in 1636, as well as the important role played by those stationed at Scotland’s lighthouses during the Second World War.
This includes the radar team at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse helping to prevent the destruction of the British Home Fleet in Scapa Flow, as well as a keeper rescuing a survivor from a German U-boat which had been blown up by hauling them by rope from the foot of a cliff.
Readers can also find out about some of the country’s most renowned lighthouses and the contribution made by the Stevenson family. This includes Bell Rock Lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson between 1807 and 1810, which is the world’s oldest working sea-washed lighthouse, as well as Kinnaird Head Lighthouse and Museum of Scottish Lighthouses where generations of Stevenson family members made alterations and improvements to the lighthouse between 1824 and 1902.
Growing up under the gleam of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, and now living in Shetland, author Donald S Murray describes lighthouses as being a ‘sacred place’ for him.
Reflecting in the book, Donald says:
“This book is a reminder of those members of the Stevenson family who did so much to ensure the construction of these towers on islands, peninsulas and the coastline’s edge in both Scotland and the Isle of Man – many of which still stand today… but mainly, this book is a love-letter to lighthouses, a paean of praise to their fidelity and continual presence in my life.”
Amongst other publications by Donald S. Murray is ‘As the Women Lay Dreaming’ By Donald S. Murray – about the Iolaire disaster .
Published as part of the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020-21, For the Safety of All beautifully showcases original drawings and descriptions of daring construction methods and the frequent and dramatic setbacks. Many images featured in the book were discovered in the HES archives, having never been published before. Around 150 lighthouses in Scotland are designated as listed buildings, with many listed at category A for their special architectural or historic interest.
For the Safety of All is now available to buy online and in all good bookstores. RRP £25. ISBN 978 1 84917 310 0.