By David Gange
There are many more depopulated islands in the British and Irish archipelago than there are cities. Over the last two centuries countless threads of habitation have been broken by the hardships of oceanic living and by misguided political effort to make everywhere conform to the shapes of southern England. Abandoned islands are lined with ruins: but-and-ben homes, runrig, field systems, water mills, jetties, abandoned boats, fish traps, burial mounds, and shell middens from before the age of buildings.
The regions where such islands predominate are exceptionally well served by historical archives. In the hands of trail-blazing community activists such as Annie Macsween in Ness (Lewis) historical research was made into a central feature of the rejuvenation of many islands from a low ebb of cultural self-confidence in the mid-twentieth century. The multitude of archives that resulted from this historical renaissance make it possible to link specific ruins on small abandoned isles to families who used them and the processes that ended their productive periods. Those who left an island such as Havera (Shetland) in the 1920s can be heard discussing the joys and challenges of island life in the uniquely rich oral history collections of these regions. Held in the best staffed and, perhaps, best run archive in Britain – Shetland Museum and Archive – these discussions are more accessible than they’d be in an ordinary urban depository.
Although built remains in coastal landscapes might initially appear similar, the scale of the regional differences along these coastlines is astounding. Even similar ingredients of ocean, earth and weather were shaped into very different coastal communities by divergent processes of historical development. Different building and fishing traditions have sparked stories of fist fights in towns such as Wick where west-coast and east-coast fishermen failed to find the sense in each other’s techniques. There were different stores of language and story, and different relationships with places across the water, often formed by particular habits of sea travel rather than mere proximity: sea ties to Norway, the Netherlands or even Canada could be as formative of small island cultures as links to a capital such as Edinburgh or Dublin.
Travelling these places reveals stories of accidental rewilding. Wheatear eggs sit in an old hearth, fulmars occupy walls that were once a couple’s bedroom, oystercatchers scuttle between subsiding gravestones and great skuas lord it over abandoned kale patches.
That many of these creatures – such as the fulmars and skuas - are species that would never have been seen by the islands’ humans indicates how far island change involves the social histories of animals. As writers such as Tim Robinson have shown, when changing ecologies are combined with exceptional archives, small Atlantic islands become an extraordinary laboratory for exploring long-term processes of geo-, environmental and human history.
In July I began a journey by kayak from Unst in Shetland to the English Channel in order to investigate the histories and natural histories of places that are often absent from general texts on Britain and Ireland. Walking landscapes is a venerable historical technique, often known as ‘the archive of the feet’, and one aim of this project is to show the historical potential of similarly slow sea travel. There’s a historicity to small boats that’s deeper than that of travel by road. As Norman MacCaig put it, coastal routes are so significant to world history that a boat need carry no more than a living human and ‘there’s a meaning, a cargo of centuries’: ‘No boat ever sailed with a crew of one alone’. Whenever possible, my nights on this journey have been spent on once-inhabited islands such as Havera, allowing hours to explore traces of past taskscapes.*
The narratives of island abandonment are diverse but usually predictable in outline. They include clearance and rent increases in the name of agricultural modernisation. They also often involve the lures of technological modernity, which drew ambitious islanders to the mainland, and the collapse of resources in the face of industrial exploitation. Until the information revolution of the last thirty years, modernity’s habit of emptying islands had played out brutally in Atlantic Britain and Ireland.
It was only when I passed south of Skye that I became aware of a small-scale counter-narrative: a tale of the creation of miniature island communities in precisely the period of rampant modernisation and rapid abandonment. As I moved from the Minch along Argyll’s Atlantic coast I passed small, wild rocks such as Hyskeir, Skerryvore, Dubh Artach and Fladda. Modernity bestowed each of these unpromising sites with a community for around a hundred years. These settlements were formed within the most dramatic feats of engineering in industrial Britain: the improbable accomplishments of Stevenson engineers who mounted sturdy lighthouses on skerries.
As I’d kayaked, my most terrifying moments had often been overseen by lighthouses, their structures rising from rocky landforms where seas dwarfed my boat and sent me, late on many evenings, scudding through surf onto inhospitable shorelines:
It’s often in the dangerous seas near lighthouses that I’ve kayaked through the richest oceans of flocks and fins:
Of Scotland’s ninety or so major lights, forty have the words ‘head’, ‘point’, ‘ness’, ‘mull’, ‘butt’ or ‘rubha’ in their names, indicating exposed landforms protruding into ocean. Two thirds of the ninety lighthouses are not on mainland shores but on islands or tiny ocean rocks, many of which had never before been built on by humans. Communities in such places existed from the building of the lighthouse (generally between 1830 and 1910) until the moment of automation when human life became superfluous (between the 1950s and the 1990s).
Some such communities were no more than three men. It’s these that seem to have defined our perception of lighthouse keeping: it feels unsurprising, for instance, that Peter Maxwell Davies’s chamber opera The Lighthouse (recounting the infamous disappearance of the Flannan Isles keepers) has no female cast member. But many lights were more interesting spaces that functioned as island communities. They have roles in many histories, including of trade and navies, but also in the histories of scientific knowledge, providing observations foundational to many branches of ocean science. Lighthouse keepers recorded coastal weather in unprecedented detail, and it‘s no coincidence that a keeper at the Butt of Lewis was the first to note attempts by fulmar – the calaman hirteach (St Kilda pigeon) – to leave their historic home and nest in the main chain of Outer Hebrides (an event which was followed by their spread across the whole western seaboard).
On leaving the Isle of Mull I paddled south into the Sound of Luing. The tides here run like inland rivers in spate and on a cold bright February day, they flushed the kayak into a wonderland of barren Atlantic rocks. The first place the sea-rivers spat me out was the shore of Fladda Island.
This is a skerry dominated by its lighthouse. Although the light is not atop a classic pillar, elegantly tapered in a shape inspired by oak trees, I found this the most atmospheric lighthouse of them all. Commodious buildings and huge walled garden (green even in February) make the world inside the whitewashed walls feel utopian, connected only aurally to the violent ocean world outside.
Despite their massive scale – sometimes thirty feet high by fifteen thick – there are intensely human details to the perimeter walls, including a peephole looking across the water to the village of Belnahua: lighthouse inhabitants could keep up, in the usual highland way, with the comings and goings of their nearest neighbours. But the racing tides, storm-prone waters and sea fogs ensured that through its short era of permanent habitation (1904-59) this was a heterotopia, insulated a little from everyday interaction with the world beyond the seaweed boundary and operating according to unique rules dictated by the ocean.
The nearest inhabited island is Luing, and as soon as I landed there I sought information on Fladda’s community. Jane Maclachlan showed me the documents and pictures collected by the Isle of Luing History Group and told me family stories: her husband had been the Fladda boatman, charged with supply and service of the lighthouse, as had his father and grandfather. The tales, texts and photographs all undermined everything I expected of a lighthouse. This was no cold site of male monkish celibacy but a place of warm family life where two households lived together and children played among the rocks. So many children were present that the two lighthouse families sometimes made up a population of nineteen. After seeing these sources I looked with fresh eyes at the guidance notes keepers received from the Northern Lighthouse Board: prominent on page two is the instruction for informing passing ships or watchers from the shore that the lighthouse required a midwife.
Maclachlan boatmen and Macaulay keepers seem often to have been awarded medals for bravery, but this was as likely to be for recovering children from sweeping tides after falls from Fladda’s rocks, as for saving crews from ships such as the Latvian steamer wrecked here in 1936. With conventional schooling impossible, the children grew up polishing lighthouse brass and helping to whitewash walls. The latter was a huge annual task in which immense pride was clearly taken: here, unlike at many onshore lighthouses such as the Mull of Kintyre, garden walls were kept as bright and perfect as the pillar itself.
The garden was Fladda’s greatest resource. This is a rock without fresh water except supplies brought in small wooden barrels from Luing. It was once a rock with scant soil. But Luing and its neighbouring islands are rich with slate that was quarried for transport to Ireland; Irish ships reached Fladda before Luing itself and unloaded ballast at the lighthouse. Tons of Irish earth richer than anything on Argyll shores filled the lighthouse garden. Soon, Fladda was famed for its produce. Its large, fine carrots drew envious comments from the shore; homegrown strawberries became a highlight of lighthouse summers; eggs from Fladda hens made fine islet breakfasting.
Each spring and autumn the children played amidst a strange menagerie of injured passerines. In an era when naturalists habitually carried shotguns, keepers’ families were unusually peaceable ornithologists: rare migrating birds crashed into lighthouse glass so that dazed survivors spent days hopping between the veg. The first Scottish sightings of species including the bluethroat were lighthouse casualties in this way. And an island light such as Fladda housed a library of some four hundred books in which subjects like history and folklore were swamped by guides for naturalists. Lighthouse children gained unusual coastal skillsets.
Research on lighthouses is no longer a rarity. Books such as Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons and John Love’s The Natural History of Lighthouses have made sure of that. Tony Parker’s 1970s oral history, Lighthouse, still conjures the tedium of lighthouse keepers’ practical tasks. There are many oral history collections, including at the Northern Lighthouse Board Heritage Trust, with relevant material that awaits publication. Much is still missing: the social dynamics of the island lighthouse haven’t really been elucidated. For a short period, places like Fladda were improvised into genuine island communities: they are thus an extraordinary laboratory for constructing a sociology of the coast. They reveal aspects of Britain’s recent past that have little in common with what living in modern Britain is usually assumed to mean.
In this respect, the lighthouse children are the most intriguing actors of all: individuals who might have evaded the dramatic changes in patterns of childhood which occurred while they were schooled on odd rocks in rough seas. Their interiority, and perspectives on the outside world from their heterotopian space, must be recoverable in part; but the measure of what we could learn from that recovery can still only be guessed at.
* The taskscape is an idea developed by the social anthropologist Tim Ingold. It describes the seasonal use of landscape in farming and fishing communities, indicating ways in which the annual cycle of geographically diverse practical tasks is, often through stories and songs, given communal meaning.
David Gange (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Birmingham and author of books about nineteenth-century Britain including Dialogues with the Dead (Oxford University Press, 2013) and The Victorians: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld, 2016). He is also a sea kayaker and nature writer, currently combining these three interests to write The Frayed Atlantic Edge: a Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel (Harper Collins). The journey can be followed at http://mountaincoastriver.blogspot.co.uk/. David would be very interested to hear from anyone with connections to the lighthouses of the Scottish or Irish west coasts.