Published: 27/10/2015 10:16 - Updated: 27/10/2015 10:27

John loves to shine a light on great landmarks of the coast

Chanonry Point lighthouse on the Black Isle.
Chanonry Point lighthouse on the Black Isle.

THERE is something special about lighthouses, something John Love realised at an early age.

Growing up in Inverness, Love may not have had many lighthouses close at hand, but trips away with Inverness Bird Club introduced him to lighthouses on Scotland’s islands and wilder coasts.

A zoology degree at Aberdeen University and a career with the Nature Conservancy Council, where he managed the sea eagle reintroduction programme on the Isle of Rum, and with successor organisation Scottish Natural Heritage as area manager for the Uists, Barra and St Kilda, also introduced him to lighthouses in some of Scotland’s wildest locations.

"When you start going to islands, you inevitably encounter lighthouses," he pointed out.

"Since I started doing lectures on cruises, that’s opened up lots of chances of photographing lighthouses from the sea, and I’ve done various helicopter and other flights around seabird colonies and such like, so I managed to get a few aerial photographs."

Some of these photographs from land, sea and air feature in Love’s latest book, A Natural History of Lighthouses, combining his interest in lighthouses with his love of the natural world.

The book has its origins in a lecture he was asked to deliver by the Islands Book Trust to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, designed by Robert Stevenson of the lighthouse building Edinburgh dynasty. That led to a smaller book on island lighthouses and, as Love looked into the subject, he discovered how keepers had helped contribute to the study of natural history.

"For example, John Maclean Campbell was a keeper on the Bell Rock and he kept a diary of all the wildlife he encountered around this tiny rock and that was fascinating. Other keepers were doing similar things," Love said.

"As lighthouses were automated the keepers left and there was no one to record these things any more, but fortunately, a lot have become bird observatories or field centres in their own right."

For the most part, keepers seemed content to observe and live in harmony with their wild neighbours.

"Keepers tended not to bother hunting anything, or if they did, it was in a very minor way," Love said.

"They were quite happy, though, if birds hit the glass and broke their necks, to cook them up in a pie as a source of fresh meat.

"Lighthouses tended to be on in quite prominent positions on promontories or cliffs and these tended to be on the routes birds would take during their migration.

"Putting a lighthouse there suddenly attracted them down. We’ll never know what the impact was on the bird population. It was probably relatively insignificant given the many hundreds of thousands of birds that were migrating at the time, but it must have looked quite dramatic and with rock lighthouse like Bell Rock and Skerryvore, nobody knew how many birds were killed and washed away never to be seen again."

Of all the lighthouses that Love has visited over the years, the one that stands out for him is at Barra Head on Berneray at the southern tip of the Western Isles.

"It’s a very dramatic setting," Love said.

"It’s sitting on top of a 700 foot cliff and the keepers would describe stones being thrown up over the wall during storms and landing in the courtyard outside and the lighthouse shuddering. I just love it."

It was a lonely life for the island keepers, but one Love believes he would have coped with himself.

"I have always enjoyed living in remote areas. I spent many years on Rum, which has a population of about 30. I now live on South Uist and enjoy being part of a bigger community, but I think I would have survived quite well as a lighthouse keeper," he said.

"Even today, it has an appeal to many people, that sort of romantic lifestyle."

A Natural History of Lighthouses by John A. Love is published by Whittles Publishing based in Dunbeath, Caithness, priced £30 hardback.

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