Sarah Daniels writes: Now that the Islay lighthouses have become automatic and unmanned, anything which illuminates the daily lives of history of those custodians of the light, the lighthouse keepers, should be preserved for posterity. Thanks to the research of my late aunt, Miriam Rothschild, a distinguished entomologist, a rare glimpse of one aspect of their isolated lives has been revealed.
Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse Keepers
The lighthouse keepers at the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse in 1882 were Peter Anderson and James Ducat. Apart from the main duty of looking out for ships, tending the lantern and keeping the lighthouse spick and span they had another job as ornithologists and entomologists. My aunt described as ‘one of the minor tragedies of the last World War’ the loss of nearly all the Scottish Lighthouse Schedules’ from 1880-87. These Schedules were a unique account of the turbulent life and death of birds and insects around lighthouses.
Apparently the schedules were piled on a lorry and sent for salvage. Thanks to my aunt’s intervention, eight bound volumes and letters were saved from the bonfire. The usually dour chairman of the Scottish Lighthouses Committee remarked: ‘They deserved a better fate than oblivion.’In fact the schedules were considered of such scientific importance that there was a plan (which never materialized) to send them to China, because all Chinese lighthouse keepers at the time were Scottish!
Importance of Lighthouse Schedules
The schedules gave invaluable information about the migration of birds and insects. The lighthouse keepers, without any formal training in ornithology or entomology, relied on their natural powers of observation. The schedules also give a unique account of the great storms, the birds caught in the beam of the lantern, their cries in the fog and the darkness, and sudden mysterious departure in the dawn when the winds died down.
They also give an insight into the character of the lighthouse keepers: their courage, independence, and humour.The birds often had unusual common names known to the lighthouse keepers: Peewips, Blue Janets, Moss cheepers, Snowflakes, Petticaps, Limpet pickers, Dirty Allens and Grey hegs. The authorities in Edinburgh insisted that the schedules were meticulously completed and maintained. No writing ‘over the red lines’ or margins, and all relevant information written up in the correct columns. The lighthouse keepers conscientiously completed the schedules in their spidery handwriting and spelling mistakes….
Keepers as Naturalists
One lighthouse keeper at The Rhinns was reprimanded for reading in the lantern room after he had borrowed a book to help identify the rarer visitors. He wrote a furious letter back to his supervisor in Edinburgh. One keeper wrote to his boss: ‘I wish you had been here today. You would have had something to look at. I haven’t seen the like. In taking the entrails out of a hawk I found in the stomach the bones and feathers undigested of a little crested wren he appears to have swallowed whole.’ And later: ‘I could hardly think there were so many birds in all Scotland as we have seen the last few days and nights.
‘On October 13th 1882: ‘From midnight to daybreak there was such an enormous number of birds it would have been impossible to calculate their numbers. It was one living stream circling round the light all the time, as far as the eye could see into the fog. ‘On October 9th 1882: ‘A most extraordinary arrival of small birds last night. The island is literally swarming with Bramblings, Chaffinches, Golden crested wrens without number, yellow Titmice, Robins, Blue Janets, Siskins, Larks, Redwings, Ring Ouzels, Woodcocks, and a little green fellow like a Siskin with a brown velvet cap on his head…
‘The lighthouse keepers were more familiar with birds than insects. On June 27th 1885 Peter Anderson reported from the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse: Several large white moths commonly called butterflies seen for the first time this year.’ And on September 7th 1885: ‘I may here mention that we have had enormous numbers of what is locally called jenny longlegs above this station for three or four weeks. In the mornings there are great numbers of their legs and wings lying on the pavement. I saw about twenty Moss creepers working hard to make their breakfast on them.
Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse Automated
‘Now the lighthouses provide their automatic light and the lighthouse keepers are long gone, but still the birds and insects hurl themselves against the light, but there is no-one to observe or record them. As the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse keeper wrote in 1886: ‘The time they come is not accurately known, or the direction from whence they came or go – they come in one night an go in the same, and are seen no more. The Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse is managed by the NLB
This story, written by Sarah Daniels, was published with kind permission from The Ileach – Community Newspaper of the year.