Everyone loves a lighthouse on a sunny, flat-calm day. They stand on picturesque headlands overlooking the seas as nostalgic reminders of the days before satellite navigation, when they were the only warning for ships to stay clear of treacherous shores.
But there is another, less-romantic kind of lighthouse built on barren, rocky outcrops that rise vertically out of the open sea. These are the shockingly exposed tower lights, fortified strongholds designed to withstand the invasion of wind and waves rather than armies and artillery.
A famous photograph clearly illustrates the dark, dangerous side of these lifesaving beacons. Taken from a helicopter in 1989 by French photographer Jean Guichard, it is of La Jument lighthouse off the island of Ushant at the southern end of the English Channel. Gale force winds and huge waves had smashed the lighthouse windows, broken the door and flooded the tower. The picture shows one of the keepers, Théodore Malgorn, standing by the damaged doorway as a giant wave is smashing into the back of the tower. Luckily, he was able to dart back inside before being washed away.
British author Tony Parker spent time in a tower when researching his 1975 book Lighthouse. This is how he describes the experience of a storm at sea: “First one side of the tower takes a big wave, then a few minutes later the other. It vibrates and quivers. Because everything is closed up, the noise of the hits sounds distant and faraway like the background crump crump crump of artillery in war films. Looking out from the window of the sitting room there is nothing to be seen but a turmoil of green whitecapped water below, and a gull struggling and ineffectively flapping its wings, trying to make headway against the wind.”
Parker was writing at a time when the role of the lighthouse keeper was already being eliminated by automation (America’s only remaining manned lighthouse, Boston Light in Massachusetts Bay, is watched over by U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer Sally Snowman). Parker’s revelatory interviews with the lighthouse community provided some insight into why so many men chose such a lonely, monotonous and sometimes hazardous occupation that took them away from their families to live in a cramped tower with other men not of their own choosing. Some were not cut out for it.
Directors Robert and Max Eggers, in their 2019 movie The Lighthouse, picked up the psychological ramifications of being stuck inside a lighthouse on a small island. Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s unfinished story of the same name, and shot in brooding black and white, the film stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers who descend into madness when a storm strands them on their remote island.
Fact is often stranger than fiction, however. Mystery still surrounds what happened to the three keepers of the Eilean Mòr lighthouse in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides in the winter of 1900. The first sign that something was amiss was when a passing steamer noted in its log that the light did not appear to be operational. By the time a relief vessel reached the island, the three keepers—James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur—had all disappeared without a trace.
The most likely explanation is that a freak wave carried them away as they tried to repair a damaged crane. A more sinister theory is that one of the men went insane, murdered the other two and threw their bodies into the sea before jumping to his own death.
I was still a child enthralled by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island when I learned that the Scottish author came from a long line of lighthouse builders. Four generations of Stevensons designed and built every lighthouse in Scotland—including Eilean Mòr—achieving feats of engineering in almost impossible conditions. It seems to me entirely appropriate that the creator of one of the most popular works of maritime fiction should have an almost genetic connection to the sea.
“Whenever I smell salt water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors,” Stevenson wrote in 1880. “When the lights come out at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”
The Eggers brothers filmed their movie in Nova Scotia, named after its strong ties to Scotland, where they built a 70-foot lighthouse set in a remote fishing village. I’m surprised they were unable to find a real lighthouse suitable for their purposes. Years ago, I photographed and wrote about the lighthouses scattered along the St. Lawrence River in the Canadian province of Quebec. There are more than 40 of them, about half of which have been given a second lease on life as museums or guesthouses. The first lighthouse was erected in 1809 on Green Island after many ships—sometimes loaded with immigrants—survived the Atlantic crossing only to fall victim to the shifting sandbars and treacherous currents. That lighthouse remains to this day.
The Magdalen Islands sit in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, closer to Nova Scotia where The Lighthouse was filmed than to the Quebec mainland. Assaulted by fog and ice in winter, and battered by wind and waves all year round, the archipelago is completely at the mercy of the elements. The diminutive wooden lighthouse at Cap Alright looks vulnerable in its lonely outpost. The lighthouse at Cap-aux-Meules, on the other hand, is popular with tourists for watching the sunset, while the light at Havre-Aubert stands atop red sandy cliffs, ready to topple into the sea with the next wave of erosion.
Another assignment took me to Norway, where I explored the lighthouses along the Naze, the section of coastline between Oslo in the east and Bergen in the west. Sailing ships used to hug the coastline rather than risk the open, shallow Jammerbugt (“Bay of Woe”) on the Danish side. The coast was still fraught with its own dangers, and the lighthouses were vital guides to ships rounding the southern tip of the country, where the current from the Skagerrak strait meets with the swell from the North Sea. Local history is full of tragic tales of shipwrecks in stormy weather and thick fog.
Not surprisingly, lighthouses have always had more than sentimental significance for Norwegians. In 1995, the nation instituted a national lighthouse preservation plan. With increasing automation and little regular maintenance, the structures were rapidly deteriorating, and there was a real possibility that many would simply crumble away. Today, more than 80 lighthouses are on the protected list.
I particularly recall the Hatholmen lighthouse that sits on a tiny island just south of the town of Mandal. Built in 1867, it is only accessible by boat, but the buildings can be rented overnight. I had the place to myself, and although I’m not in any way superstitious, it was an eerie experience as the sea fog rolled in with only old photographs of long-dead keepers and their families for company.
The next day, a boat took me to the nearby Ryvingen lighthouse, the most southerly light in Norway. Visibility was still poor, and once we went beyond the lee of the island, I realized how treacherous these waters could be (three Ryvingen keepers have been lost at sea). With visibility outside down to 60 feet or so, it was easy to imagine how in the days before GPS, mariners would have listened anxiously for the fog signal as they inched their way along the coast.
There is another lighthouse that remains firmly lodged in my memory. In August 1979, the keepers on duty at the lighthouse on Fastnet Rock off the southern coast of Ireland witnessed the havoc that a violent summer storm wreaked as it overtook the Fastnet Race. Of the 303 yachts that set sail from the Isle of Wight, only 86 finished the race and others were were sunk, disabled or abandoned. Nineteen people lost their lives.
The Fastnet tower looms 177 feet above the sea, but waves were breaking near the top as the keepers watched the first yachts battling the huge seas in the darkness. With the help of an Aldis lamp used for sending Morse signals, they jotted down the sail numbers of the boats that rounded the rock.
This record proved invaluable, not only to rescuers struggling to get to grips with the disaster, but also to the families anxiously awaiting news. “We had to do something,” recalled Gerald Butler, one of the three keepers on duty.
Many years later, he published a memoir of his 21 years spent as a lighthouse keeper. “A microchip did away with my job,” he lamented.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue.