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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 2. Guiding Lights


I was brought up within sight of one of the fine towers erected by the Stevenson family of engineers, - Covesea light, which overlooks the earlier Halliman Skerries that carried a bell rather than a light. The town’s coat of arms showed a man with a lantern walking along the west beach at Covesea, and carrying the light to warn boats away from the rocks and towards a safe landing on the sandy shore. He was known as St Gerardine, and whether he was a real or fictional character, he was most probably based on early priests or monks who took an interest in the fishermen’s safety. The town’s motto appropriately, was “Per Noctem Lux”, or a light through the night. Robert Louis Stevenson coined the term ‘a star for seamen’, when he wrote his poem, Skerryvore, about the work of his father, uncles, and grandfather.

                                     … for the sake
of those my kinsmen and my countrymen,
who early and late in the windy ocean toiled
to plant a star for seamen, where was then
the surfy haunt of seals and cormorants :
I, on this cot, inscribe
the name of a strong tower.

The strong tower Robert Louis had in mind was Skerryvore, which along with Dubh Artach lighthouse was a huge boon to fishers off the coasts of the islands of Mull and Iona, and continue to be such today. One of them warns boats off the Torran rocks on which RLS had the brig Covenant shipwrecked, in his novel, Kidnapped. I fished on the grounds off both lights in the 1950’s. Our home port boats that based seasonally in Oban, used them regularly.

It is also interesting that the great grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, one Thomas Smith, was responsible to make and maintain all of the street lights in Edinburgh city in the late 18th century. It was from that part of his family background that RLS wrote his children’s poem, The Lamplighter.

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky,
It’s time to take the window and see Leary going by.
For every night at even, and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver, and Maria go to sea,
And Papa he’s a banker and as rich as rich can be,
But I, when I am older, and can choose what I’m to do,
O’Leary, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you.

After his wife died Thomas Smith married a widow lady, Mrs Stevenson from Dundee. Her son, Robert Stevenson, joined Smith’s lantern company, and later married Smith’s daughter. That started the Stevenson dynasty. Smith’s company was contracted to make the first sea light in Scotland, at Burnt Island on the Firth of Forth, and then Robert was given the task of building a lighthouse on the Bell Rock in the North Sea 12 miles off the coast of Angus by the Firth of Tay. The semi-submerged reef, which had been the cause of many tragic shipwrecks was the infamous Inchcape Rock of Robert Southey’s poem.

Historical records indicate that a 14th century Abbot in Arbroath had a bell mounted on a buoy that was anchored beside the fearsome rock. Bells were a common warning installation in the days before suitable lights were developed. The warning bell did not please the wreckers and raiders of that time, and after only one year it was removed by a Dutch pirate. The incident is poetically described by Southey:

The noble Abbot of Aberbrothok
Had placed a bell on the Inchcape rock.
On a buoy in the storm it floated and swung,
And over the waves its warning rung.

When the rock was hid by the surge’s swell,
The mariners heard the warning bell,
And then they knew the perilous rock,
And blessed the Abbot of Aberbrothok.

But the task facing Robert Stevenson and his chief engineer, John Rennie, was far more daunting than the one tackled by the abbot of old. Some have compared it to the modern task of putting a man on the moon, - not so much in cost, as in the difficulties it posed for engineers and seamen of 1799 when Stevenson first floated the idea. The rock was swept with strong tides and heavy seas for several hours each twice-daily tide. It lay in the open sea with no shelter from the prevailing winds. An average of six ships were lost in its vicinity every winter. In one east coast storm, 70 boats were lost off Scotland. In 1804 the warship HMS York was lost with all hands in the area. That caused a furore in Parliament, and so despite the cost and the challenge, a contract was issued and work commenced in 1807.

After many setbacks, and some loss of life, the construction was finished in 1810 and the light put in operation the following year. Altogether, 2,500 granite blocks were used to build the tower. They were cut in Arbroath to an inter-locking design, both horizontally and vertically, to give the lighthouse enormous strength. Stevenson’s men had erected a beacon house on tall wooden stilts where they might rest during the periods when the rock was covered by up to 12 feet of water. They also built a short rail-way and a crane to help move the large granite blocks into place. To finish the project on schedule the crews worked on Sundays (to the severe disapproval of the Presbyterian church), and they often toiled on when up to their knees in water before retiring to the safety of the beacon house. The completed tower, still in operation today, is 35 metres high (115 feet), and can be seen from 35 miles away.

The Stevenson Lights, built all around Scotland for the Northern Lighthouse Board, over the 19th century chiefly, have proved to be invaluable to fishing and merchant fleets alike. Only those who have been at sea and had to make a landfall at night without the aid of radar or an electronic navigational system, can appreciate the immense reassurance the sight of those distinctive lights brings to shipping. Each light has its own particular sequence of flashing or occulting signals. The signals are faithfully and accurately recorded on all nautical charts for their respective areas, together with the longitude and latitude, and the arc over which the light is seen. The information is repeated in nautical almanacs which contain more detailed information on the approaches to harbours and anchorages, like depths, currents, buoys, and leading lights.

The Pharos of Alexandria which is believed to have stood nearly 400 feet high, was the first great lighthouse in recorded history. It was built in 280 BC, before the Roman empire succeeded the Greek civilisation, and around one and a half millenniums before early ocean expeditions made it across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope. A wood fire beacon in the Pharos tower emitted a glow by night and smoke by day. There are references to minaret towers used as lighthouses by the Arab communities of the Persian Gulf in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, and to similar Chinese minarets or pagodas in Canton and Hangzhou that also performed that function in later medieval times. The Romans built light towers around the Mediterranean, and on both sides of the English Channel. The one constructed at Dover is still preserved there.

European states like Denmark, Finland, and England, began to build lighthouses in the late 1600’s, with the early English prototype of Eddystone completed off Plymouth in 1698. It was rebuilt of inter-locking blocks in 1759. America’s first sea tower, Boston light, was built on Little Brewster island in 1716. This was followed by other early lights in New England and the eastern seaboard, at Nantucket, Narragansett, and Cape Hatteras which was completed in 1803, and replaced in 1868 with a 207 feet tower, the tallest lighthouse in America. The oldest lighthouse in the USA that is still in operation is at Sandyhook, New Jersey, and was built in 1764. With its huge coastline bordering the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, America is believed to have largest number of lighthouses of any country in the world. They were managed by the Lighthouse Service, and administered under 19 lighthouse districts. The US Coastguard took over responsibility for American lighthouses in 1939.

Possibly the earliest lighthouse in Britain, was erected on south coast of England by the Romans. But widespread construction and use of lighthouses in Europe, America, and Asia, did not occur until the 19th century. Until then, all fishermen and mariners making a landfall at night had to rely on their own navigational skills and calculations of their boats’ course and distance travelled. Lead lines were helpful in shallower waters, but not much in locations where the sea bed was deep close to shore.

The first lighthouse to be established in Ireland was at Hook Head on the south coast, off the mouth of the river Waterford. Its present tower dates from the 12th century though a beacon may have been erected there in the 5th century by a missionary monk from Wexford, called Dubhan. In 1172 a baron called Raymond LeGros is reputed to have built a fortress and light tower there. This was superseded by the tower constructed by William Marshall in 1245. The tower and its beacon were maintained by local monks from the nearby Priory of St Augustine in Ross. After a period of neglect during the English Civil War, the lighthouse was restored and raised to a height of 24 metres by Richard Reading and commenced operation again in 1667. It has been active in some form ever since. It was repaired and improved again in 1795, 1812 and 1864. The Hook, made of limestone, was a familiar light to us, along with Helvick Head when my father’s vessel fished there in the early 1950’s. The Dunmore East herring grounds were close to the Hook, and we spent two winters at that remarkable fishery.

As a 15 year old boy, and one of two apprentice deckhands on board that year, I helped to navigate the Kincora from Ireland to Wales, via the Hook light across the southern Irish Sea, south-east to the Smalls light, then Skokholm Head, and past St Ann’s light at the entrance of the sound leading up to Milford Haven. This was a dangerous coast, and the lighthouses were a welcome sight at night. The voyages were made in wild winter weather, with a heavily laden vessel.

The Dunmore East herring fishery was as renowned as the historical harvests of that prolific pelagic fish off Yarmouth and Lowestoft, the Hebrides, Shetland, and the Norwegian fjords. My grandfather and great grandfathers had been involved in it in times past. Each December and January, huge schools of herring came to the Waterford coast to spawn. Fleets of large trawlers and drifters fished for them offshore, ring netters and seiners worked on the schools close to land, and Dutch luggers, many with crews of young boys from orphanages, bought the herring which they salted on board in barrels and took back to Holland for additional curing. The herring were so thick on the sea-bed at times, they could be caught with almost any gear. At the height of the fishery the dense schools were fished by trawlers and bottom seiners during daylight, and by drifters and ring netters in the hours of darkness.

We had been getting up to 20 tons of herring a day, which was a lot for us then as we had only cotton bottom seine nets fitted with small mesh bags. They were later replaced with ones made of terylene or nylon, but in 1955 we had access only to cotton. Often the weight of herring split the cotton bags open from end to end, and all the fish were lost. Not properly equipped for herring fishing we boxed the catch, unlike the ring net boats which held the fish in bulk and landed them basket by basket.

Irish and Dutch merchants were paying us around £2 per cran in Dunmore East (about £ 10 per ton), but we heard that we could get double that price in Milford Haven where Birds Eye and other food companies were in need of the fish. Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, SW Wales, had developed as a whaling port in the 18th century and as a trawler port in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its fleet of steam and diesel trawlers usually worked for hake, skate, haddock, and whiting, and some occasionally fished for herring and mackerel. The fleet had peaked at 130 vessels before WW2 but was starting to decline when we landed our fish there in the 1950’s. Today it is a major oil port with large storage tanks, refineries, and pipelines nearby, and fleets of large tankers anchored in its bay.

So we headed across to Wales several times, with 400 boxes of herring stowed below. Our boat was not beamy for a 70 footer, and had fine lines forward. This made her a poor carrier and we were well ‘down by the head’ as we sailed off. Two English trawlers in Waterford Bay had a bet on us never making it to Milford as a strong south-westerly gale was freshening and had built up quite a sea. I will never forget the boat ploughing into these huge ocean swells. The stem and forepart would disappear under the green water leaving the foredeck awash. But each time the fine vessel rose to the challenge and we saw “her nose again pointing handsome out to sea”, (in the words of the RLS poem Christmas Day at Sea). Nevertheless it was with some trepidation we made those trips, and with much relief we passed the Small Islands and both Skokholm and St Anne’s Head lights, and got safe into Milford Sound.

Each of those lights had their own romance and history, and there was a particularly macabre experience in the Smalls Light in 1801. The light was then manned by two men, Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith. Griffith died in a freak accident and his fellow keeper Howell was scared to consign the body to the deep in case he got accused of murder. So he put the corpse in a box, and strapped the makeshift coffin to the outside rails of the upper tower, until relief could come and others could remove the body. The box got partly broken by the foul weather, leaving one of the arms extended and waving occasionally in the strong wind. This naturally disturbed the remaining keeper who was in very bad mental and emotional state by the time help arrived with the relief boat. However, the brave man was able to keep the light in operation night after night during the ordeal.

The Smalls light, like others on a semi-submerged rock foundation, stands on the highest part of the reef which is just eleven feet or 3.5 metres above high water level. The rocky outcrop lies 21 miles west of St David’s Head, the most westerly point of the Welsh mainland. The first light tower, a timber construction, was established in 1776 but had to be rebuilt 2 years later. The present lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1861 to a design by James Walker under the supervision of engineer J. N. Douglas.

There is also a more humorous tale about the construction of the lighthouse on Stokholm Island to the south-east of the Smalls light, in 1916. A jetty and a narrow gauge railway were constructed to take the building material from delivery boats to the building site one mile away. The two small rail trucks were pulled by a donkey or a horse. The animals would come whenever called in order to be fed. But they somehow sensed when the boats had brought stone and construction materials, and would hide under over-hanging rocks or on the other side of the island, to avoid having to pull the rail wagons. Eventually a tractor was employed in place of the uncooperative horse and donkey. Actually, donkeys were often used by lighthouse keepers in remote areas. A friend in our home town who had married a lighthouse keeper, had a catalogue of funny stories about one that was typically stubborn. It was used to carry goods to the remote lighthouse site on Scotland’s west coast. During the annual paint of the lighthouse, the door was left open at night to help dry the walls of the interior. The donkey got in when they were asleep and was found next morning at the top of the spiral stair, covered in green paint!

Skokholm Island is a rare seabird breeding site, and is famed for the variety of birds found there, and for its red sandstone cliffs and the carpet of wild flowers that covers the soil above. The flat top of the island is home to 35,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters, and 6,000 pairs of stormy petrels. Herring gulls, oystercatchers, razorbills, guillemots, puffins, skylarks, and peregrines also share that protected habitat. Grey seals abound on its rocky coast, and one can often view porpoise and dolphin schools offshore.

St Ann’s Head lighthouse, the third and final one of the three that led us into the Milford Sound, has a long history, starting with a beacon light established in the 1600’s followed by an oil-fired light tower built in 1712. Actually there were two lights, 100 paces apart which acted as leading lights to guide ships away from Crow rock off Linney Head. The present lighthouse was built in 1841 on the site of the front light, 9 metres from the edge of the cliff.

It was under that St Ann’s Head light, 53 years ago, that I steered the boat from its south-easterly course round to north-east and then east towards the harbour of Milford Haven. While its white and red light, flashing every five seconds, was a welcome signpost for us, the sight of the white breakers on the rocks 158 feet below, at the foot of the cliffs, is something that remains impressed on my memory, reminding me of the very real dangers that those marvellous beacons of light have protected us from, over the past two centuries.

Most lighthouses are now automated and controlled from distant centres. This has taken some of the romance out of the lighthouse profession. I would like to pay tribute to the men who faithfully manned those stars for seamen, night after night in all weathers, in the lonely promontories, rocks and islands around our coasts. Their wives and children also merit our gratitude for accepting the lonely and unconventional way of life of their husbands and fathers. Most had to live either far from towns and amenities, or to accept their breadwinners absence when he served on islands or remote rocks which were unsuitable for families.


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