Ex-lighthouse keeper recalls life on the edge

Former keepers Ian Duff, Alexander Young, John Boath and William Muir at the celebration of lighthouse keeping' marking 20 years since automation.
Former keepers Ian Duff, Alexander Young, John Boath and William Muir at the celebration of lighthouse keeping' marking 20 years since automation.
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Flung for decades to the country’s most remote outcrops, the life of a lighthouse keeper was not for every man.

But John Boath and his family relished the unique way of life and on the 20th anniversary of the switch from manual to automatic the lighthouse keeper reminisces over a life spent guiding wary sailors and keeping Scotland’s watchtowers ticking over.

After leaving school at 14, John opted for the third ‘J’ of Dundee’s industry options –shunning journalism and jam, he headed for the jute mills.

But one Christmas evening, a segment on Blue Peter changed the course of his life forever.

The programme showed a 
delivery being made to the Bishop Rock lighthouse on the Isle of Scilly.

“I thought, I fancy a job like that, and low and behold early the next year the Lighthouse Board started advertising for lighthouse keepers,” John said.

Bell Rock Keeper John Boath and son Scott, who was born on a lighthouse.

Bell Rock Keeper John Boath and son Scott, who was born on a lighthouse.

Traditionally keepers were from the highlands and islands, familiar with the harsh conditions and isolated way of life but John said recruitment began in the cities to harness the mechanical skills required for the then modern day constant maintenance requirements.

After passing a test and completing his training he bought a £125 Morris Minor convertible on three years’ credit and headed up the A9 with his wife and his two-year-old son to his first post.

“I felt like Kit Carson heading west,” laughed John. “As with most Dundonians we’d never been north of the city and here we were heading for Stoer Head Lighthouse on the tip of 
Sutherland.”

In tow were Hazel and their first son John Paul. “We left with one boy and came back with four!”

John and Hazel spent the first four years of the job getting used to the way of life. It became quickly apparent that self-sufficiency was the key and Hazel picked up lots of skills to keep family life happy and comfortable and John was even prepared to step up as midwife.

He explained: “You became multi-functional – we kept hens ourselves and a couple of sheep up at Stoer Head. You had to learn to adapt. My wife became a proficient knitter, cook and baker – there were no shops at the lighthouse and the nearest village was a 20-mile walk away.”

And one blustery January evening, there was one particular bun in the oven that was ready to make an appearance.

“It was the 13th and the weather was quite bad,” John said. “Hazel should have gone to Inverness but decided on home confinement because of the weather conditions. She went into labour and I had everything ready to go. But one district nurse, Georgina, managed to get through the weather and she took over.”

Four years after they arrived at Stoer Head, the Boaths set off to Orkney, then Stroma off the northern tip of the mainland, before stints in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Man.

John admitted he had concerns that moving from pillar to post would impact negatively on his sons, but instead they learnt adaptability and resilience.

By this stage Stephen and Fraser had been added to the clan.

“I needn’t have worried – when we upped sticks from the Isle of Man to Edinburgh, the boys settled into Craigroyston High no problem.” John said moving back to big city life was an adjustment but the family have settled in Edinburgh and still live very close to their Marine Drive home.

He finished his keeper career in Orkney but prior to his last post, was the final principal keeper at the famous Bell Rock Lighthouse off Arbroath before automation.

On March 31, 1998, Fair Isle South Lighthouse in Shetland became the last Northern 
Lighthouse Board (NLB) lighthouse to be automated, bringing to an end a 200 year tradition of lighthouse keeping.

And although his dream of pootling on a little boat landing lobsters hasn’t materialised, he did go on to work in the mailroom of Standard Life until he retired, again.

But boredom loomed and he took up as the caretaker at the Nicolson Square Methodist Church.

“That was in 1995, I said I’ll just stay here for a few years but I only retired 18 months ago aged 75.”

A natural storyteller, John reflects on his past with laughter and warmth, a unique life with undoubtedly moments of loneliness, hardship and separation from his family, particularly at Christmas. But it’s not one he would change.

With a passion and encyclopedic knowledge of lighthouses he still entertains groups across the country with talks about his time as a keeper.

“It was a good life,” he said. “Both me and my wife 
thoroughly enjoyed it and so did the four boys. Looking back it was the right time to leave, I took early retirement because I knew it was only a matter of year before I would be finished.”

A working life spanning 60 years, John hasn’t slowed down. His 13 grandchildren and a penchant for gardening, cycling and swimming, keep him busy.

And he joined former lighthouse keepers yesterday to mark the 20th anniversary of automation. NLB’s Chief Executive Mike Bullock, said: “The departure of keepers was a poignant milestone and definitely the end of an era. Lighthouse keeping wasn’t just a job, it was a way of life.

“Our event has been an opportunity for us to thank keepers for their dedication. This is a poignant anniversary and we must not forget that for many, automation marked the end of a long career.”