Folklore, personal memory and interviews with former lighthouse keepers and the members of the community they served makes this a highly recommended book, says Yachting Monthly's literary contributor, Julia Jones
For the Safety of All: a story of Scotland’s lighthouses
Donald S Murray
Historic Environment Scotland/Northern Lighthouse Board, £25
I purchased this book in a museum shop, expecting to find a factual compendium of Scotland’s lighthouses with construction details, position, some dramatic anecdotes and any recent updates concerning automation or change of use.
I should have been more alert to the subtitle.
Donald S Murray’s book is ‘A Story of Scotland’s lighthouses’ and is a narrative full of unexpected insight.
At its outset it’s a personal tale, inspired by the author’s childhood on the Isle of Lewis, where he grew up within sight both of the Decca station and the Butt of Lewis lighthouse: ‘Its white flash glittered on the waves, catching in its sweep and circle the lights of any fishing boats anchored a short distance out from the cliffs and sandy beaches of the northernmost part of Ness. Even in daytime it stayed by my side, more sacred to me than the 13th century Teampall Mholuaidh (St Moluag’s Church) which stands only a short distance away from its tower.’
Murray has many friends and relatives within the community of Scottish island dwellers and lighthouse keepers; the book is full of their stories too.
It’s alert to the folklore of the Hebrides – I loved the incidental anecdote of the Vikings attaching a fleet of longships to Sùil an Rubha (the Eye of the Butt) in an attempt to tow the Western Isles (then a single entity) to Norway. First Barra breaks off, then North and South Uist, then Harris…
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As a boy Murray sometimes thought of this story as he watched his lighthouse battered by waves, disappearing behind foam – would it disappear for ever?
He’s exceptionally insightful about the way those on land look at lighthouses, quite differently from those at sea – and then there’s the special gaze of the former lighthouse keepers themselves.
For the Safety of All includes glimpses of island history – the famine and the clearances which were taking place from Tiree, even while Alan Stevenson and his team of lowlanders were constructing the iconic Skerryvore lighthouse; the machine-gunning of lighthouses in WW2 and the individual tragedies of some keepers who could not stand the isolation.
It considers the creative inspiration of lighthouses and ends with the odd, perhaps appropriate, detail that the buildings round David Alan Stevenson’s Holy Isle Outer lighthouse are now occupied by a community of Buddhist nuns.
It’s a satisfying, stimulating book, though not an especially long one.
Readers wanting more detail about the approximately 200 lighthouses and related structures designated by Historic Environment Scotland are provided with an appended list with reference numbers and a website for further information.
The photographs, mostly supplied Historic Environment Scotland, are excellent and include such unusual images as Fraserburgh harbour, Sumburgh Head and Scapa Flow – annotated for the WW2 Luftwaffe. Highly recommended.
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