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Lighthouse Keepers Wife
Margaret Aitken spent three years on Stroma as the wife of one of the lighthouse keepers. She wrote a book about her life as a lighthouse keepers wife including her Stroma experiences "12 Light Years" published in 1988. The book has been out of print for some years and the original publisher has ceased to trade. a new publisher has agreed to re-issue the book. Caithness.org is pleased to publish a short article that has also appeared in the BBC Home and Antiques magazine November 2001 issue.
Margaret Aitken's Stroma Memories
A ricketty lorry with a one-legged driver took us from the pier at the south end of the island to the lighthouse station at the north end. Along one side of the bumpy road, stone, slate-roofed cottages, many in ruins, were spaced out.
Our house was the middle one in a block of three. Its four rooms were furnished with oak tables, a pine dresser, iron beds with brass knobs and brass oil lamps for light. For heating water there was a black, coal-burning stove, and for cooking, a paraffin oil cooker with a ventilated tin box oven. Drinking water had to be carried from a tap at the station’s gate. Water for washing up and for doing the laundry or taking a bath in the washhouse at the end of the house block, and for flushing the lavatories situated at the end of a block of buildings used for storage and coal, was collected from roofs and concreted courtyard in underground tanks and piped into the sinks in the small sculleries off the living rooms, wash-house and cisterns.
A large walk-in store-cupboard opened at the end of the central passageway that led in from the front and only door. This cupboard had to be kept well stocked with foodstuffs, for supplies and mails from the Scottish mainland could be brought to the sole shop and to the Post Office only when the weather permitted a boat to cross.
When we arrived on Stroma in 1955 there were about 80 islanders as well as a Principal Lightkeeper, his wife and schoolgirl daughter and a First Assistant Lightkeeper. A harbour was being built so that boats could be kept afloat in all weathers instead of having to be beached. The islanders had small crofts and boats for lobster fishing and bringing home supplies and mail. There was a teacher, a nurse, and a minister came occasionally from Caithness to hold services in the church. There was a telephone connection between lighthouse and Post Office, and at the church gate there was a radio telephone for making contact with the outside world.
But change was in the air. At the lighthouse, the Principal Keeper retired and the First Assistant was posted. The new Principal’s wife brought a billy goat and two nannies so we had an independent supply of milk. Electricity was installed, principally to operate a radio beacon, but supplying enough energy too for each house to have electric light, a refrigerator and one heater. Each house was also provided with a calor gas cooker. However, those were not the most drastic changes.
Despite the provision of a harbour, the island was in the throes of depopulation. The shop, the church, and the school had to close. By 1958 there remained one island family of four and five people at the lighthouse. It was sad to watch the island die, but wonderful to realise it was really still very much alive. I became aware of, for me, a new, fascinating world, and can now look back on three of the happiest years of my life.
In winter, along the east side of the island, squadrons of oystercatchers flew in black and white formations while turnstones, ringed plovers and purple sandpipers swirled past like clouds of silvery leaves. Mallard, wigeon, teal and shelduck paddled near the shore’s edge. About the middle of March, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills fluttered in their hundreds on the west side’s 100 ft. high cliffs. By the end of April celandines shone in the withered turf and white- flowered scurvy grass cascaded down the cliffs. There were the nests of lapwings, meadow pipits and snipes. In May, ditches brimmed with marsh marigolds and lady’s smocks, and sea-pinks, primroses and violets bloomed. Herring and black-backed gulls nested on the cliff-tops and eider ducks among the heather. Great skuas pursued gannets and fulmar petrels glided above their powder puff chicks As the young birds made their trial flights I sent a wish heavenward - “Please let us live through it all again.”
Then Stroma became a rock station, which meant only keepers no wives at the station. We were posted. Forty years later I still think longingly of my first lighthouse.