Light Hearted

Light Hearted ep 117 – Jane Outram & Brian Johnson, Sumburgh Head, Scotland

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The lighthouse at Sumburgh Head, established in 1821, is the oldest lighthouse in the Shetland Islands, a part of Scotland. The light station is on a dramatic promontory at the southern tip of Mainland, Shetland, the largest of the islands and the fifth largest island in the British Isles. It was designed by Robert Stevenson, one of the most prolific and celebrated lighthouse engineers in the world. The tower is 56 feet tall, and the light is about 300 feet, or 91 meters, above the sea. Because Sumburgh Head is exposed to severe weather conditions, the walls of the lighthouse were built twice as thick as usual.

Sumburgh Head Light Station. Wikimedia Commons photo by Ronnie Robertson.

The station was automated in 1991 and the former keepers’ houses and the other buildings except for the lighthouse tower are now owned by the Shetland Amenity Trust. The Trust has renovated and restored the buildings to create a world-class visitor attraction.

Brian Johnson’s connection with Sumburgh Head Lighthouse goes back many years, beginning when he took a position as Supernumerary Assistant Keeper in 1969. Most of Brian’s lighthouse career was spent as a mechanical technician. He refurbished the foghorn at Sumburgh Head, and on special occasions visitors can watch as he expertly starts the diesel engine to sound the foghorn.

Jane Outram first visited Shetland for three weeks and is still there 18 years later. She initially worked with the archaeological team of the Shetland Amenity Trust. When a position as a guide at Sumburgh Head became available in 2015, she jumped at the opportunity. Then, in 2019, she made the move to the site supervisor position.

Jane Outram (Museum of Scottish Lighthouses)

Here is the transcript of the interview:

JEREMY D’ENTREMONT

I’m speaking today with Jane Outram and Brian Johnson, who are associated with the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse in Shetland, which is part of Scotland. Thanks so much for joining me today, Jane and Brian. I really appreciate it.

JANE OUTRAM

Thank you, it’s great to be here.

JEREMY

First of all, can you explain where the Shetland islands are and where Sumburgh Head is?

JANE

Yes, of course. So Shetland is an archipelago of around 100  islands, 15 of which are inhabited. And we are located approximately a hundred miles off the northern tip of mainland Scotland and due west of Bergen in Norway. And Sumburgh Head is the rocky headland at the southern tip of mainland Shetland. This is where the North Sea meets the North Atlantic.

JEREMY

So how do people get to Shetland from mainland Scotland?

JANE

So there are two options for getting to Shetland. You can take an overnight ferry from Aberdeen, which takes between 12 and 14 hours, or you can fly. And there are several flights every day from Scottish airports, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness , and Aberdeen.

JEREMY

Okay. I was reading that the weather conditions at Sumburgh Head can be very harsh. So what sort of weather do you get there?

JANE

Well, really, the weather here is no worse than any exposed headland in Northern Scotland. Lighthouses by their very nature and purpose tend to be situated in very exposed locations. And I’m often surprised that even on a windy day, how sheltered it can feel within the grounds of Sumburgh Head. But overall, it doesn’t rain very much in Shetland. And we have mild winters with temperatures between five to ten degrees warmer than other places on the same latitude. And this is down to the influence of the Gulf Stream.

That’s not to say that we don’t get our fair share of wind here. Margaret Anderson, an assistant keeper’s wife, told us that she could remember watching her husband, Leslie, on his hands and knees against the strength of the wind, trying to reach the tower. And Tommy Eunson, who was an occasional keeper at Sumburgh Head from 1968, said that his predecessor had told him he’d want seeing sea spray up within the tower, some 300 feet above sea level. Tommy said he could scarcely believe it until he saw it for himself in what he described as a flying hurricane. So yeah, I suppose the weather can get a little bit fresh at Sumburgh Head.

JEREMY

It sounds like some pretty serious wind there, I’d say. Can you explain how the lighthouse was actually constructed to withstand the elements there?

JANE

The walls at the lighthouse were designed and built to a double thickness, measuring four feet wide with a void in between to keep the damp out. It was the first time Robert Stevenson had tried this technique, a kind of cavity wall technique. And it worked because the inside of the tower is perfectly dry to this day.

JEREMY

As you just mentioned, Sumburgh Head Lighthouse was designed by the very famous engineer, Robert Stevenson. We’ve talked about him before in this podcast, and I know a lot of lighthouse buffs are certainly familiar with his work, but can you explain a little bit about why he’s considered so important for people who might not be familiar with him?

JANE

It’s hard to find something to say about Robert Stevenson that hasn’t been said already, but he was a prolific designer of lighthouses. In fact, the Stevenson name is synonymous with Scottish lighthouses. And so Robert Stevenson with his sons, his grandsons, and his stepfather before him, designed most of Scotland’s major loans of which there are over 90. So as an apprentice, Robert assisted his stepfather, Thomas Smith, with three lighthouses before overseeing construction of his first lighthouse, and all before the age of 20. Robert would go on to oversee the construction of a further 15 lights, including the most famous of all Stevenson lighthouses, the Bell Rock. But Robert’s legacy extends to more than these incredible feats of engineering. Robert gave the service kind of a Naval character to encourage self-discipline and reliability in the men, and a sense of pride in a job well done.

JEREMY

Was there anything in particular about the keepers and families who lived at Sumburgh Head that really stands out for you?

JANE

Well, I think the thing that stands out for me was their resilience. Light keepers and their families were a hardy bunch, able to weather the storm and always make the best of their situation. And there are so many great stories from former keepers. I remember reading about George Cusiter, who took a post as assistant keeper here from 1959. He arrived with his wife and his one-year-old daughter, and they lived in the cottage to the west of the tower. He described the accommodation as primitive as they had no electricity, no running water, and no proper bathroom. In fact, at the time there was an outdoor chemical toilet, the contents of which George had to tick down a way chute, basically a hole in the perimeter wall with the sea below. But George said, on a windy night, what went down the chute . . .  I’ll leave you to guess the rest.

But George also mentioned the kind of foibles and quirks of life at a lighthouse, for example, when the grocer’s van arrived, the principal keeper’s wife had first choice followed by the first assistant keeper’s wife. But as George was the second assistant keeper, his wife was always last to enter the grocer’s van and had to make do with whatever was left. And I think this kind of pecking order spilled over into other domestic chores.

JEREMY

Brian, your association with the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head, I think, goes back to at least 1969. How did you first get involved with lighthouses?

BRIAN

Well, one of my uncles served as keeper at Sumburgh, and I had other uncles who, in fact, served on the lighthouse ships. So it was something I knew but something I quite fancied, I suppose.

JEREMY

So what was life like for keepers at Sumburgh?

BRIAN

Well, Sumburgh Head was always considered to be a very good station, relatively speaking. It was a family station. The wife and children, of course, lived at the station with the keeper. It was also handy –  the schools and the shops, handy – post office, church, all the other general amenities. And people could more or less live a fairly normal family life at Sumburgh, but it was considered to be a good station.

JEREMY

Also, Brian, I understand you spent three years as a keeper at Cape Wrath, the Scottish station that’s at the northern point of Britain. What was it like there?

BRIAN

Just as a wee note – Cape Wrath is, in fact, the most northwesterly point of Scotland. No, the Cape was a very, very remote station. It was only accessible, originally, by a small open ferry. And then there’s 11 miles of road to get to the lighthouse. Shortly after I left to become a technician, the families were moved to live in the town. And just as a wee point of interest, my son, Billy, was the last boy born to a family, while we were still at Cape Wrath.

JEREMY

So you were a lighthouse technician for many years and you still are at some Sumburgh Head, and we’ll talk about that in a few minutes. But what sorts of work have you done as a lighthouse technician?

BRIAN

As mechanical technicians, we repaired. The light room machine, the optic itself. The foghorn, the engines and the compressors for the foghorn, the generators and their engine. If the NLB [Northern Lighthouse Board] owned it, basically, we fixed it.

JEREMY

I know that Sumburgh today has an operational foghorn and I believe you were involved in the restoration of that. Could you tell me more about the horn and its restoration?

BRIAN

It’s not operational as a marine signal anymore. It’s only really operational for demonstration purposes. It had stood dormant for 20 some odd years. And I was asked, do you think this could be made to work again? I said no problem at all. Well, I suppose it was not difficult. It was nothing I had not done before. It was just, after 27 years of idleness, later and they said everything had to be basically started from scratch. But yes, it now works. The engines work, all three sets. We use two sets to blow the horn, and one is to stand by. Yes, it all works and hopefully as things come back to normal I’m hoping that very shortly Jane here will be able to open her visitor center and we’ll be able to blow the horn. We always blow it for opening day and closing day of the season.

JEREMY

So are there are any other special occasions when the horn is sounded?

BRIAN

Yes, we have blown it on request, if a group of some enthusiasts wants to hear it. We’ve blown it for weddings. Yeah. We blow it on request except for sometimes during the height of the nesting season.

JANE

 Well, I was just remembering the wedding that we had at Sumburgh Head, and the groom insisted that he wanted to sound the foghorn as part of the wedding ceremony, because it turns out nothing says “I love you” like a big blast of a foghorn.

JEREMY

Wow, I guess not. It does that very loudly, I’d say. So I was at the Souter Lighthouse in England a few years ago and they blasted the diaphone horn there for us. There they actually had a musical piece that was done where the horn played a role in that. What type of horn is there again at Sumburgh?

BRIAN

It’s a siren diaphragm. It’s slightly different from a diaphone.

JEREMY

And I, I think there’s a YouTube video that shows – I think you’re in it – with the operation of the foghorn. Am I right about that?

BRIAN

There’s been several that have been made. I’m not sure just how many.

JANE

There are quite a few, but yeah, we produced one a few years ago, which follows Brian starting the engines and going over to the foghorn. And it was beautifully choreographed. And I think last time I looked it has over one million views, which is great.

JEREMY

Wow. That’s pretty impressive. So Brian, when I was looking for information on you, I came across something called the Brian Johnson Lighthouse Keeper Dance. What’s the story on that?

BRIAN

Well, I believe you have been in contact with Peter of  “Follow the Lights.”

JEREMY

Yes, Peter Gellatly, yes.

BRIAN

Well, Peter was staying in the accommodation and he shadowed me going about my duties and he was also there, I believe it was the summer opening [of the] season and we did the foghorn blow. And he decided on this dance step to represent what I did. That’s really how it came about. Peter Gellatly, he wrote it.

JEREMY

Peter’s a great guy and, I’m sure he meant it as a tribute to you and to lighthouse keepers. He certainly appreciates everything to do with lighthouses. This is a question for, for either of you. Besides the horn, I understand there was a fog bell at Sumburgh that has an interesting history. Could one of you tell me about that?

JANE

Actually, this is a story that I’ve been following up on recently. It relates back to a ship, the Royal Victoria, that was abandoned at sea during her maiden voyage on the 19th of January 1864. The crew was forced into two wooden lifeboats with the intention of staying together, making a course for Orkney. But the two boats parted company during that first night. Four days later, the first lifeboat reached Melby, on the west side of Shetland. In the intervening days, word of the Royal Victoria’s abandonment had been picked up by the press. And there was real interest in the concern for the fate of her crew. On the sixth day, the second boat reached Scatness here in the South Mainland, although some on board had died of exposure, including the captain and six of the crew.

The local people who were out gathering driftwood at the time helped the stranded sailors, but it was noted that Captain Leslie must have perished the moment they reached the shore, because his body was still warm and his watch was still ticking away inside his pocket. A local doctor, Dr. Cowie, was sent from Lerwick to attend to the survivors. And on his way to Sumburgh, he encountered a company of 250 men carrying the coffins of Captain Leslie and his crew to nearby Dunrossness Kirk, where they were interred together. Dr. Cowie said it was the most impressive sight he’d ever witnessed.

The owners of the Royal Victoria was so grateful to the people of Shetland for the kindness they has shown their crew that they gifted a bell to Sumburgh Head to be sounded during fog. And this became the first fog warning at Sumburgh Head. By all accounts, it was never very successful, the problem being finding someone to ring the bell indefinitely during prolonged periods of foul weather and fog. Sometime before 1890 it had fallen out of use and it was agreed that the bell would be of better use at the Kirk. So it was moved to the belfry of Dunrossness where it resides to this day. The Sumburgh foghorn was operational from 1906, and a big improvement on a bell.

JEREMY

I’m sure. I’m sure it was hard to hear that bell in really thick or heavy weather. This is, again, a question for either of you, but another thing I read about in the history of Sumburgh is that there’s something called a World War Two Chain Home Low Radar Station there. And, I’m sure, probably a lot of our listeners as well as me really have no idea what this is. So could you explain what that is?

JANE

Chain Home Low was the name of the British early warning radar system operated by the Royal Air Force during World War II. But at the start of the war, the RAF had no operational air defense radars in Shetland. Instead, the Royal Navy organized their own radar stations called Admiralty Experimental Stations. And these went from the northern tip of mainland Scotland at Dunnet Head to the island of Unst in the North. There was six stations altogether, four of which were in Shetland, including Admiralty Experimental Station One, located within the grounds of Sumburgh Head. It was operational from December 1939. So this station was tasked with plotting surface u-boats attempting to go from the North Sea into the North Atlantic. And it was also capable of detecting aircraft who were transmitting and receiving radio waves.

The principal keeper at the time, William Groat, was unhappy to find his home and his place of work overtaken by war and William wrote to the Northern lighthouse board on more than one occasion because he was concerned that the military presence made Sumburgh Head an easy target, putting the men, women, and children at risk. Time would show that the keeper was right to be concerned, when in the following few years Fair Isle South suffered two fatal attacks from enemy aircraft, killing the assistant keeper’s wife and the principal keeper’s wife and daughter.

But despite William Groat’s concerns, both the Admiralty and the ministry of shipping would not budge because they knew enemy shipping and submarines used the North Sea as their preferred route into the North Atlantic, making Shetland, and in particular Sumburgh Head, an important base, for both the Navy and the Air Force. And on the 8th of April 1940 — so this was the eve of the German invasion of Denmark and Norway – Admiralty Experimental Station One detected and gave early warning of a large scale attack on the British home fleet. So that’s the Royal Navy, who were at anchor in Scapa Flow in Orkney. We actually have some details of that night. So Sub Lieutenant George Clifford Evans was in charge that night and he detected the planes around a hundred miles southeast of Sumburgh and was able to provide a 25-minute warning of this impending attack on Scapa Flow.

As the planes continued to be tracked, George stepped outside on all he said was a clear starlit night, and he looked towards Orkney and witnessed a tremendous firework display in absolute silence. This was the Scapa barrage repelling the enemy attack. Eight minutes later, the rumble and roar of the anti-aircraft guns could be heard all the way in Lerwick 125 miles away. And it was described at the time as the loudest continuous sound ever heard in the British Isles.

JEREMY

Wow. That’s quite a history. So Sumburgh has played a big role in history and a big role during World War II. Brian, you are now a retained keeper. That’s another term we don’t use here in the U.S.  Can you explain what a retained keeper is, exactly?

BRIAN

I look after several lights around Shetland, including Sumburgh Head. Some I visit monthly, some bi-monthly, and so on. It’s just a case of checking everything, all the equipment, and just see that everything is functioning, see that there’s no broken lamp and panes. It’s just general caretaking duties, keep it sort of tidy and make sure everything is working properly. Another part of retained light keeper or RLK, as they call this job, is checking and monitoring. There are 37 lighthouses in Shetland, all these lighthouses are monitored either by landline telephone, mobile phone, or radio. And they all connect back to the monitor station, the monitoring center, in Edinburgh. Now these monitors, as you well know, can turn faulty. Or, in effect, they can actually be working correctly and say that the light is not functioning correctly. If that be the case, I go do a virtual observation that might see that the light isn’t functioning — the character or whatever else – and then report my findings on to the monitor center.

We also have several lit navigation buoys around Shetland. And a wee note on that is that I do hate having to report an outage in one of the buoys. An outage is when a light is extinguished. We call it an outage. And the reason I hate reporting it on a buoy rather than a lighthouse, where you can approach it mainly by land, is that in the case of a buoy outage, then one of the ships has to come from wherever that may be, even the Isle of Man, all the way up to repair it. Now, if you’ve made a mistake and given them an outage where there isn’t one, it’s a very expensive mistake that you’ve made. So you have to be sure whether you’re seeing them or not.

JEREMY

So, Brian, you mentioned that you look after some Sumburgh and some other lighthouses in the area. How many in all do you look after?

BRIAN

Well, as I say, the monitoring covers 37, but I have four that I visit regularly. I cover, shall we say, the Mainland of Shetland. There’s one in Foula, which covers the Foula Light only, and one in Fair Isle, which there’s both Fair Isle lights, because they’re quite inaccessible or they wouldn’t have that. I think there’s seventeen of us in Scotland, but I might be one or two off on that.

JEREMY

Do you remember when the automation of lighthouses in Scotland was completed?

BRIAN

Yes, I remember that well. I was involved in quite a bit of that as a technician. It was sort of quite sad sometimes to see that the stations being demanned and people walking away and the door shut for the last time. It was quite sad, especially coming at the end of the time when there was fewer and fewer and fewer manned lighthouses being left. Yeah.

JEREMY

That was around what time? Around the year that that happened?

JANE

’98?

BRIAN

’98, I think it was. Yes, ’98. I knew every one of the keepers. In fact, I was very friendly with most of them.

JEREMY

So I think we have a mutual friend on Ian Duff. You know Ian, right?

BRIAN

Oh yes, Ian is a good friend of mine. Ian and me have had a few good times together.

JEREMY

I bet. Ian seems like somebody who knows how to have a good time. I met him when I was in Scotland at St. Abb’s Head, and I took pictures of him there when I was there in 2017. And I interviewed Ian for this podcast a few months ago. By the way, when I was in Scotland in 2017, our group visited the Northern Lighthouse Board headquarters in Edinburgh. And they gave us a nice reception there, gave us a presentation. So that was fun. Back to specifically about Sumburgh Head. I understand there’s been at least a couple of major restorations there, and this is probably a question for Jane. What sorts of things have been done in the restorations?

JANE

Well, we heard earlier how Brian restored the foghorn and the engines and as part of the restoration of Sumburgh Head we also removed the brick built extensions to the rear of the lightkeepers’ cottages, added sometime in the 1950s. And we also replaced the missing octagonal chimney stacks on the reef to reinstate Robert Stevenson’s kind of neoclassical design. We also removed a pair of derelict timber and concrete garages also added in the 1950s and created our museum within the existing buildings, including the engine room and fuel store, the east pavilion, smiddy [smithy or blacksmith workshop], and east radar hut. The layout of the east pavilion was reconfigured to accommodate what is now our marine life center with a customer lift to the first floor. And the inside of the radar hut was kind of reimagined with a little bit of artistic license, I’d say, as photographs were rarely taken in such top secret places.

JEREMY

It really sounds like there’s a lot, a lot to see there. And, also, Sumburgh Head is considered an important site for seabirds. What kind of birds do you get there?

JANE

Well, Sumburgh Head is indeed an important site for seabirds. You see, Shetland is home to more than a million breeding seabirds, and that’s more than 10% of Britain’s total. And Sumburgh Head is one of the most easily accessible seabird colonies. So during the summer months, the cliffs beneath the lighthouse are teeming with puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, and shags. Puffins nest in burrows at the top of the cliffs and will sit on the grassy banks immediately on the other side of the perimeter wall. So for our visitors, they can experience incredible close-up views of these captivating and sometimes comical sea birds. Here at Sumburgh Head we also see more than our fair share of common and rare migrant birds as they make their way south in the autumn and return north the following spring. It’s an exciting time because you never know what might turn up. And I think I’m right in saying that the light from the lighthouse also attracts some of these migrating birds. There are written accounts of former light keepers finding unfamiliar birds around the balcony at the top of the tower.

JEREMY

Do you also have whales and marine mammals there?

JANE

We’re so fortunate to have regular sightings of a variety of mammals, including killer whales. In fact, Sumburgh Head has been described as the best place in the British Isles to see killer whales, or orca, from the land as they hug the coastline looking for seals who breed around the base of our cliffs. Other sightings include minke whales, humpback whales, Risso’s dolphins, and harbor porpoises. It feels like marine mammal sightings are becoming increasingly common in Shetland. I don’t know if this really is the case, reflecting changes in them environment, but certainly with social media there’s much better reporting of any sightings. So you can pretty much follow the alerts on your phone and get to where you need to be to see something incredible. Generally speaking, the roads in Shetland are quiet now. So we always tell visitors to look for the wildlife watchers first to find the wildlife. If you see a cluster of cars at the side of the road in Shetland, it’s likely something’s been sighted.

JEREMY

A lot of lighthouse aficionados are lovers of birds and wildlife as well, so it seems like this would be kind of a paradise for a lot of these people. The lighthouse this year is 200 years old. So what sorts of things are being done this year to celebrate the anniversary?

JANE

Well, first and foremost, we’re giving all the lighthouse buildings a much-needed coat of paint. I think everyone would agree that the one downside of automation was losing a maintenance team who could paint the lighthouse every year. And we want Sumburgh Head to look her best for the special anniversary. We’ve decided to spread out our celebrations throughout the entire year, beginning with a celebratory blast of the foghorn. This will allow us to do more as well as ensuring there’ll be bicentenary events on offer to visitors throughout the season. But it also allows us to have perhaps a more cautious start to the events program in terms of the types of events we offer, because we have to remember we’re still emerging from this pandemic. We kind of want to operate within the guidelines. By spreading the celebrations throughout the year, we can push back events like light tower tours or film nights to later in the season.

There’s so many parts of the Sumburgh Head story. We split this year into four themes. So we’ll be looking at building the lighthouse, working at the lighthouse, living at the lighthouse, and finally picking out some of those big days and events in the 200-year history of Sumburgh Head, including stories from the war and shipwrecks. For each of these themes the curator at the Shetland museum is working with us to host a lighthouse display, and we will have a series of photo exhibitions here at Sumburgh Head. We’ll also be leading guided walks around the headland, and regular tours of our visitor center.

We’ll be hosting a book launch later this summer for Donald Murray’s forthcoming publication, For the Safety of All, the story of Scotland’s lighthouses, which I believe Brian contributed to. And Brian’s volunteered to take part in a Q and A session about the lighthouse service. And through his contacts we’re hoping to reach out to as many of our former keepers as possible. I’m going to be taking a crash course in filmmaking and editing soon. So the dream is to capture conversations with our former keepers to screen was part of a film night. We’ve also been preparing family activities for the summer, and there’ll be lots of natural heritage events too. So fingers crossed. It’s going to be a busy summer for us all here at Sumburgh Head.

JEREMY

I guess so. That all sounds great, a lot of good projects. So we’re actually recording this on March 10th. People will be hearing it a few weeks later, several weeks later. And you’ve kind of answered this to some degree already. And of course you’ve been closed because of the pandemic, but I think —  I have this podcast, this episode, slated for the beginning of May. And by that time, I believe it should be reopened by the time people hear this. So in fairly normal times when someone comes to visit the site, what is there for them to see there?

JANE

OK, so along with all the outdoor attractions — the seabirds, the stunning views, the coastal walks, we also have a museum to celebrate all the different aspects of Sumburgh Head. For first time visitors to Shetland, our museum is like a gateway into the Isles, introducing Shetland’s incredible wildlife, its geology, archeology, history, and more. We have four different display areas within the existing buildings. So the engine room fuel store is now our gift shop and ticket office. And this leads you through into the restored engine room. And in here we look at the changing technology of the lighthouse and also the later installation of the foghorn. Next door is the blacksmith’s workshop or smiddy complete with its original forge and bellows from 1822. And here we look at what it was like to live and work at a lighthouse.

We also introduce some of our former keepers and their families in a large photo album, which visitors are welcome to thumb through. The east pavilion houses our marine life center. So downstairs we introduce Shetland’s rich and productive marine environment and the food web, and upstairs we meet our top predators with displays on orca, on minke whales, and the stars of our cliffs, the puffins. And finally, there’s the radar hut, which recreates that night back in April 1940, when they thwarted a surprise German air raid on the Royal Navy. We also have a new building at Sumburgh Head, the Stevenson Center, and this is home to our café. This circular building features a panoramic view of the south Mainland. And there can’t be too many cafés where you can watch puffins whizzing past or orca cruising by.

JEREMY

I would say not. Boy, it sounds like an amazing place to visit. And are there also overnight accommodations there?

JANE

Yes, there are. We have self-catering accommodation in the west pavilion, which is the keeper’s cottage that assistant keeper George Cusiter described as primitive back in 1959. I’m happy to report that the standard of accommodation has greatly improved since George’s day, with a beautiful kitchen, under floor heating, and bedrooms for up to five people. We’ve also renovated the occasional keeper’s accommodation into kind of more of a bunkhouse. And in recent years, this has been used by wildlife and conservation volunteers monitoring Shetland’s seabirds.

JEREMY

So let me ask you, do you have any problems with erosion there at Sumburgh Head?

BRIAN

Yes. There’s been, in my time — there’s been a few smallish cliff slides, but we had one about some years back. Well, we ended up having to realign the road up to the station because of it. It was quite a substantial slip. The potential was there for more to happen, so the road was realigned – shifter about 20 years away from the cliff. That’s probably more on the approaches to the station than up on the Head, but there are a few there as well. But not quite so much, I think.

JEREMY

So before we wrap up here, Jane, I want to ask you something. When I was looking for information, I found out that you also create clothing, which I found very interesting. And I was wondering if you use the famous Shetland wool. I’m sure a lot of people have heard about that. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

JANE

Well, you’ve really done your homework, Jeremy. Yeah, I suppose I dabble in a few different things and textiles was very much an autumn-winter hobby for me. So I studied printed textiles many years ago. When I moved to Shetland, my interest moved towards more sort of constructed textiles. I learned an ancient weaving technique called tablet weaving while working in archeology. And that fascinated me, so I spent a bit of time understanding how the technique works, designing my own patterns as well as replicating historical examples. And I also taught myself to crochet during one Shetland winter. And I’ve produced a few patterns on the back of that, but I’ve always worked in Shetland yarn because, well, when in Rome . . . .  Shetland wool is famous for lots of reasons, but first and foremost, it’s an excellent product. It can withstand the wear and friction that is unavoidable with techniques such as tablet weaving. And it’s great to know that you’re working with a local product.

JEREMY

Yeah. So is there a way people can learn about that? Is there a website or any, anything to do with your clothing?

JANE

Yeah. There are patterns on Ravelry that people can look at, which is certainly a popular site in the States.

JEREMY

Oh, I don’t know that. How do you spell that?

JANE

R A V E L R Y

JEREMY

Ravelry. OK. Ravelry.com. I probably should know about that, but I don’t. I’ll have to look on there. Interesting. So I hope people might look you up on there. So I have a final question for each of you. This is for bonus points and I’ll ask Jane first. What have you enjoyed most about your work at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse?

JANE

I can honestly say that Sumburgh Head is probably the place where I feel most content in the world. I don’t know if this comes from the lighthouse and all the layers of history or the reassurance of watching the seabirds return every spring. But I often sit on the cliffs and struggle to think of anywhere else I’d rather be. And I do really enjoy meeting our visitors. It’s amazing how many people we meet that are connected to the lighthouse in one way or another. And it’s a real privilege to think that you’re adding to someone’s holiday. We get a lot of repeat visitors too. And so it’s great to welcome people back and over the years many have become good friends.

I always feel like there’s a lot of good will towards Sumburgh Head and lighthouses in general from visitors to the site and our online audience too. And I love the wildlife here, the way life changes on the cliffs throughout the summer. The moment the sea pinks come into bloom and carpet the cliffs in sugary pink, or the moment the young adult puffins return and they’re absolutely everywhere you look. One of the best things was discovering that the seabirds used the same nesting sites each year. I’ve spent enough time watching the clips to know where the different birds nest. So I know that if I’m watching a pair of adult kittiwakes rearing their chick, they’re the same kittiwakes I was watching the previous year. There’s definitely a rhythm to life at Sumburgh Head, and all happening around the steadfast reliability of Sumburgh Head Lighthouse.

JEREMY

Well, I can certainly understand. It’s no problem at all understanding how you can become so attached to a spectacular place like that. So, final question for you, Brian — what have you enjoyed most about your years as a lighthouse technician and a lighthouse keeper?

BRIAN

Well, I suppose I’ve enjoyed most of everything. The Northern Lighthouse Board, or NLB, especially from a light keeper’s view, was really like a great big family. Everybody sort of knew of everybody else or knew of everybody else. And some of that exists in the service today, but it’s not to the same extent as when keepers were [at the stations]. A lot of people made very good friendships that lasted all their lives in the service, and it was very good just having these people as your friends. And as a technician, it could be a very interesting job. Sometimes you had to dream up very innovative methods of repairing things, because when you bear in mind that the light room at [?], for example, most of it was over a hundred years old or about a hundred years old. And any spare or anything you needed had to be made specifically and identically, as absolutely nothing came off the shelf. It could be a sense of a job well done and a good bit of job satisfaction when everything fit perfectly in the machine and then worked correctly. Another thing I suppose I should add is that the NLB were excellent employers and they really looked after their staff extremely well. And that in fact, they still do. I just enjoyed the — I suppose, the freedom of the job in a way, because when you are doing maintenance on a remote lighthouse, it was up to you to decide how to get everything to work perfectly and what was wrong and fix it then. Yeah. But anyway,

JEREMY

So Jane and Brian, you summed things up pretty well there. Thank you. Thank you for that. And I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really do appreciate it, and I’m sure people are going to enjoy listening to this. And I hope I can see you one of these years at Sumburgh Head. It’s definitely near the top of my bucket list. I would love to get there. So thank you. Thank you so much.

BRIAN

Well, thank you very much indeed. Hopefully things will open up and we’ll be able to meet you in person at Sumburgh.  

JANE

Yeah, if you’re ever in Shetland, do look us up.

BRIAN

If you give us advance warning we’ll maybe even put the coffee pot on for you.

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