Battered for generations by high seas and wild weather, Scotland’s lighthouses stand sentinel over some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world.
Both warning and welcoming mariners, their presence was a constant for those who lived their lives at sea.
Yet the daily lives of the ever-watchful keepers who occupied the white towers and presided over the treacherous waters below, remain relatively unknown.
Known as lonely, solitary men, it was a job which called for much resourcefulness and the ability to cope in isolated and often cramped conditions for long periods of time.
But since the last of Scotland’s manned lighthouses became automated on March 31, 1998, it is a profession which has been overtaken by technology.
And it was 20 years ago this month that Bill Gault turned off the lamp at Fair Isle South lighthouse for the last time.
Located in Shetland, it was Scotland’s last manned lighthouse, with its darkness signalling the end of the 200-year-old profession of lighthouse keeping.
“We knew the day was coming but it was still an emotional time,” said Bill, 77.
“I had spent 32 years of my life keeping, and lowering the flag for the last time was a sombre occasion.”
In Bill’s own words, it was a job which changed his life after he spotted an advert looking for lighthouse keepers in the Press and Journal in 1966.
“I’ll always remember my first posting,” he said.
“It was to Buchanness lighthouse outside Peterhead.
“It was a frosty day in November when I headed up there, not realising what I had taken on.
“At the time I was married with a young son and had been living in Crathes.
“But we all moved up to Buchanness to live in the lighthouse.”
The remoteness of the posting was a culture shock for Bill, though he wasn’t alone at the station.
The need for a 24-hour lookout meant that manning a lighthouse was at minimum a two person job, with most stations employing three keepers at any given time.
And although nice to have the option of company, there was no guarantee that you’d get on with your co-workers.
“It wasn’t a job everyone would be suited to,” said Bill.
“And it took quite a bit of getting used to.
“We worked six days a week on four-hour shift patterns, and spent all of our time in each other’s company.
“The Lighthouse Board didn’t care if you didn’t get on with your co-workers – you just had to get on with it,” he laughed.
Daily duties were varied; both demanding and at times tedious.
“We were the Jack of all trades,” said Bill, “and days were always full.
“We did maintenance, repairs, cleaning, oil changes and other things throughout the daytime.
“We also looked after the painting of the stations, including the outside to make sure it was a highly visible signpost at all times.
“During the evening watch, most of your time would be spent in the light room.
“It was important to make sure the mechanism was at the correct speed so the light flashed in the right sequence.
“Every lighthouse had its own character so skippers could recognise exactly where they were and what dangers were around.
“You also had to keep an eye out for the weather changing, and if visibility became less than four miles then we would start up the foghorn.
“This was made up of two diesel engines which pumped air into tanks and eventually when enough pressure had built up a clockwork mechanism would release it.”
After cutting his teeth at Buchanness, Bill went on to spend most of his days as a rock station keeper.
Unlike the shore station he started off at, the key to rock station lighthouses is in the name: built on rocks in the middle of the sea.
Remote and inhospitable, rock stations were no place to raise a family, so Bill’s wife and now two sons were housed on the mainland while Bill worked for weeks at a time on isolated platforms around Scotland.
In particular he spent five years at Skerryvore, Scotland’s tallest lighthouse built on a remote reef that lies 12 miles south west of Tiree on the west coast.
Rising out of the crashing waves, just getting to a rock lighthouse was a challenge.
“You’d arrive by boat then be attached to a pulley,” Bill said.
“Then you’d sort of climb out and be winched on to the island.
“As soon as you were on, it was a mission to bring the provisions in as fast as possible.
“If you didn’t get everything in quick it was a goner.”
Relying on calm waters to access the lighthouse, Bill remembers countless times when conditions were too rough to bring a boat anywhere near the rocks.
“Once I was stuck on the lighthouse for an extra 26 days,” he said.
“And that was in addition to the month I had already spent there working.
“It was purely because of bad weather that they just couldn’t get near us.
“We only carried 10 days’ worth of emergency provisions so things were getting a bit tight.”
And Bill wasn’t alone in facing some nail-biting moments during his years as a keeper.
John Boath, 76, was the principle keeper on the Bell Rock lighthouse off the coast of Arbroath for several years until its automation in 1988.
Built in 1810, it is the world’s oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse, standing on a reef entirely surrounded by water.
It is so inaccessible that the challenges faced in the building of it have led to the station being described as one of the seven wonders of the industrial world.
And according to John, living on the lighthouse wasn’t much easier.
“It is extremely difficult to get on and off,” he said.
“And because of that it was common for keepers to refuse the Bell Rock posting.
“Once you were on it there was no fresh water and no washing facilities.
“I used to bring up a bucket of water from the sea and pour it over my head for a wash.
“The living quarters were tiny – I used to say it was like a vertical submarine.
“The three of us keepers stayed in bunk beds, and I could hardly pull my jumper over my head without having to open to door to get enough space.
“Saying that, I have to say I never woke up and didn’t want to go to work,” he reflected.
Growing up in Dundee, John never expected to spend the best part of 30 years guiding sailors to safety across some of the country’s most hazardous waters.
By his own admission, John was a city boy and was nervous driving up to his first posting at Stoer Head lighthouse in rural north-west Scotland.
“I was only 22 when I took the job and had never been any further north than Arbroath,” he said.
“It took 10 hours to get up to Stoer Head in my Morris Minor, but in the end I was there for nearly five years.
“My second-born son, Scott, was even born at that lighthouse.
“People used to give me a funny look when I told them I was the local lighthouse keeper, but it was the best decision I ever made.
“I worked all over Scotland, and one of my favourite memories is at Stroma Lighthouse off the coast of John o’ Groats.
“I loved lying on my back in the light room gazing at the stars.
“The sky would be black as pitch and you could hear the thrum of the passing ships’ engines.
“There is just nothing like it.”
However, like Bill, John found himself out of work following the systematic automation of lighthouses which took place across the county in the late 1990s.
It is now 20 years since that historic time, and to commemorate the anniversary the pair are taking part in a special event at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse in Fraserburgh next week (March 30-31).
Carrying the privilege of being named Scotland’s first lighthouse, Kinnaird Head started life as a giant lamp perched on the roof of a castle in 1787.
It has since been updated, and next weekend will be brought back into operation and manned by ex-keepers for 24 hours.
With the light shining all night, the museum will be open for the duration of the event, giving visitors the rare chance to see a manned lighthouse in action.
And John is confident he still remembers what to do.
“If there’s one thing I learned from working in a lighthouse it’s time keeping,” he said.
“I still look at my watch on the regular as if I’m still keeping time in the light room. “So I won’t be late.”
l The old light at Kinnaird Head will be switched on at 8pm on Friday, March 30, and extinguished at 8pm on Saturday, March 31. For more information visit www.lighthousemuseum.org.uk/