In December 2011 I received a Guestbook entry from a Scottish ex-lighthouse keeper who said “I was made redundant from the service in 1992 and the last Keeper retired from the service in 1998 . . .” His name is Peter Hill and he has written a few poems about his life and also a book. The poem I like the best is reproduced below.
Peter was a keeper in Scotland and I was a keeper in Canada, and we have never met before, but he wrote in the poem below:
“I dress in darkness yet know my style, my clothes on dresser neatly piled.”
Now only a lighthouse keeper would write about this fact about dressing in the darkness to go on the morning shift. I did the same thing, as it allows our eyes to adjust to the darkness so we can see better before going outside to observe the weather for the upcoming weather report.
I hope you enjoy the poem as much as I did.
The Lighthouse Keeper – A day in the Life
In softest echo and muffled beep, I am awakened from my shallow sleep
Anticipating that very call! It’s a wonder how I sleep at all
Accustomed and by ritual seed refreshed in body by slumbers need
My motions slow and gentle take, while sleeping Mags, am careful not to awake
I dress in darkness yet know my style, my clothes on dresser neatly piled.
Shirt and jumper left till last, washed and ready for my watch.
Just as quietly as before, I open out the double door, closing soft and handle gripped on well oiled hinge in jam it slips
The moon is full on this summer’s morn, yet two hours will pass until the dawn.
In competition to light my way, I look above and the beam cut swathe.
No sound of engines breaks the still, or foghorn blasts the air to fill.
Not satisfied with that omission I look towards the Irish Sea, all dominions are in sight and clear proof of visibility.
I make my way to tower door where watch-room lies beyond in the crescent of a quarterdeck with Keeper waiting on my form.
Ron Ireland is sitting in the chair and with casual comments make,
Nowt of note had happened, so tis now the chair I take.
The light will shine and turn without aid of keeper’s hand,
We are here to tend her needs and when fogs within four miles of land
Till quarter to the approaching hour there is little else to do, so I into my dwelling go, a cuppa for to brew.
I return with it and from the shelf select a favoured book, with half a dozen pages read its time to take a look.
I stroll out with pen and pad in hand toward the lighthouse green
Where close to wall in ground is placed a rain gauge and a Screen
Wet and dry thermometers have measures to be taken, with no rain the gauge is empty and its bottle left forsaken.
In skywards glance and octaves see all cloud its type and cover,
what height the lowest cloud and if precipitation is to follow.
Cotton balls of cumulus drift idly on the breeze that gently blows from west to east across the Irish Sea.
The visibility at maximum in figures do I write, with full moon’s searchlight beam, you would scarcely think it night.
As I cast my eyes in Southward glance toward the Isle of Man, the tail of Tats our lighthouse Cat brushes gently against my hand.
He purrs quite loudly and in cheeky style teases me to pet him for a while
He follows me to the watch-room door and enters at a gait, sitting comfortably on the window ledge for my figures all to calculate.
In groups of five I enter them across a two-page ledger
Awaiting passage by telephone to the MOD collators.
Just as bell begins to ring, Tats in motion stirs, he leaps across as if to answer and loudly starts to purr.
He paces back and forward until it’s hard to read, he knows that when I’m finished I will take him home to feed.
Time for another cuppa, but tis coffee that I’ll make, then back to the watch-room and the book again uptake.
The eastward sky is lightening with every moment passing; soon that golden globe of dawn will be breaking the horizon
By the time the stairs to light-room tread the Sun has risen from her bed
Above the Solway and peaks she’ll rise and be forecast for our lights demise.
As switches to the left I turn, the halogen headlights no longer burn; it is the momentum now that turns the table; now frictions grasp makes it less able
An age has passed since lenses here needed curtains to be drawn,
For solar glare and combustibles in the light-room burn
My work up here is done except to sweep the floor, its other work that’s on the cards, so it will be one less chore.
From now till six I am idle save for watching out for fog
With little prospect of that happenstance, I’ll go and walk the dog.
Tats is sleeping soundly with Mags upon the bed, but Kelly hears my footfalls and raises up her head.
She sometimes has no notion to leave the house at all, but once her lead is in my hands then her thoughts of sleep there’s no recall.
The grounds are vast enough to wander at leisurely a pace, so Kelly is as free to roam with rabbits for to chase.
There is but one thing left to do till the end of my watch at six.
More readings will I have to take with max and min temperatures to add into the mix.
I will have the chair till Ken Clark he doth appear; he is the Principal Keeper yet not a man to fear.
As affable a character as I have ever seen, he’s the oil for the machinery and the rag to keep it clean.
We sometimes chat for half an hour before I drift away, encouraged to get a bit more sleep for the rigours of the day.
Ken has planned some painting and some summer work to fix; Ron is on his day off and returns tomorrow night at six.
It’s Ron’s turn for the School run down the hill to Tarbert’s shore,
where Jackie Shank’s mini bus takes them onward to Drummore.
Margaret gives me gentle stir at twenty five to nine, refreshed by coffee and a bite to eat, I’ll be ready and on time.
She’s prepared for me elevenses for when I have my break, both she and Gavin are Stranraer bound our weekly shopping trip to take.
The girls will be at School by now, so in peace I know I’ll find, to do what ever tasks that Ken has on his mind.
Besides myself and Ken, Jock Binnie’s here to work, relieving Ken Clark early instead of twelve o’clock.
Jock does not keep in the best of health but is fit to stand a watch, allowing other keepers to do the other work.
With brush in hand and pot of paint, I walk the foghorn’s path;
A steep incline down gravelled slope and handrail for to grasp
The horn house door and window are darkest shade of green, but before I dip my brush in paint, the dirt I’ll have to clean.
My companions unseen to do this task yet loudly are they heard kittiwakes and fulmars cry on rocks above the sound of surf.
My toils are interrupted by a visitor’s approach, in questioning,“ Is that penguins sitting pruning?” not our familiar auks.
His accent and his ignorance is plain for all to hear, he hails from south of Durban in the southern hemisphere
But that is common at the Mull and I don’t mean lack of knowledge
But visitors from around the world to see this point of homage.
For Scotland’s southern most tip of land and vistas come to see;
And to stop the keepers from their work as happened then to me.
Margaret’s labours will go untouched till the moment I have finished
then I will down tools for the day, till my watch at six begineth
Half the afternoon has passed till Mags is back at home, while she puts away the shopping, I’ll take Gavin for a roam.
He toddles now quite happily yet prefers to take my hand, especially over bumpy bits; where on padded bum he lands.
We head out to the cattle grid where he has his favoured place, he wants to see old Doris, well I think that’s what he said
We cross the barred obstruction to see what lies before us, a heard of cattle gently graze and one humungus Taurus.
Before excitement takes control and in our direction brings him
I hastily beat a safe retreat the way that we have taken.
Karen and Kirsty home from school are ready for their tea, they tell us what they’d done today with varying degrees of glee.
Karen is the quiet one, Kirsty full of vigour, our cherished daughters proud we are in all that they endeavour.
I’ll not see the news at six tonight on any tele station; Jock is looking for relief and that is my vocation.
While fog abates and weather’s fine I’ll have nowt to do till close to nine; then once more those readings take for the meteorology forecasts make.
I climb the stairs at twenty to ten to turn the switches to on again
Jimmy Fyffe is my relief and he is always early, so we chat a while over local news till the banter makes me weary.
This has been a quiet day and in balmy weather should remain that way.
But the reason for our presence here, means that it is not always so
In winter storm and howling gales, with fog so thick to hide the way to go
But I have done my duty and now am off to bed; to rise at six and begin another day I’ll need to rest my not so tired head.
Peter gave me permission to print his poems, and to show you the rest of them. They are available here in a PDF file titled Prelude to the Coast in Prose which can be downloaded to your computer.
Later, in another post, I will mention his book which describes his life on many Scottish lighthouses. It is titled Star of the Four Kingdoms by Peter Hill. If you are interested you can see reviews and/or purchase it through Amazon.com or Amazon.ca or Amazon.de and Amazon uk.
January 15, 2012 – Peter Hill wrote below about where to purchase his book in a version that “offers the best value for money” – Completely Novel