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There is a light that never goes out

By Alistair Whitfield

Chris Tuke by Covesea Skerries Lighthouse.
Picture: Becky Saunderson..
Chris Tuke by Covesea Skerries Lighthouse. Picture: Becky Saunderson..

NOBODY paid much attention when 21 fishermen drowned off the coast of Lossiemouth on Christmas Day, 1806.

Locals were obviously devastated – in the course of just one afternoon the community had lost its entire fleet of three fishing boats and all its able bodied men and youths.

But the disaster barely merited more than a couple of paragraphs in the national press.

It was very different tale a few years later though when 16 merchant vessels sank in the Moray Firth.

Ship owners had lost real money and the powers-that-be set about trying to ensure it never happened again.

Three lighthouses were built in quick succession to warn ships of the treacherous reefs.

Tarbat Ness was followed on the Black Isle by Chanonry Point.

Finally, came Covesea Skerries, a little more than a mile to the west of Lossiemouth.

This year marks 175 years since the start of its construction and to mark that anniversary, the team of volunteers who keep Covesea open as a visitor attraction, have begun the search for the funds to give the 118ft structure a new paint job.

Looking out from the top towards Hopeman.
Looking out from the top towards Hopeman.

Chris Tuke, the chairman of Covesea Lighthouse Company Ltd, said: "It's been 12 years since the last time the lighthouse was painted.

"In the meantime, salt water and wind and sand have been doing what they do. It's now time for it to be painted again."

Covesea was kept permanently manned from 1846 onwards.

Two keepers and their families lived in the cottages that still stand at its foot, and are available nowadays as holiday lets.

A horse-drawn cart for their use was kept in a nearby stable, which also still stands.

As there were no roads in the area back then supplies arrived instead every few months by ship.

The keepers grew fresh food in the lighthouse's garden, which the Northern Lighthouse Board expected them to keep in good order.

Ensuring that the light in the tower kept burning meant clambering up spiral 144 steps and two fixed ladders every two hours.

This task has to be completed while carrying a 50lb cannister filled with whale oil or, in more modern times, paraffin.

"They're weren't any fat lighthouse keepers," says Chris. "It was tough work."

Another volunteer, Graham Kilpatrick, a descendent of two of the fishermen who perished in 1806, explains the harsh penalties if the light was ever allowed to stop shining during the hours of darkness.

"It was immediate dismissal, and not just for the man who was on duty at the time. Both keepers and their families were turned out of their homes. It was draconian."

Covesea Lighthouse, near Lossiemouth.
Covesea Lighthouse, near Lossiemouth.

Despite the sterling efforts of many generations of keepers the light did finally go out, however.

Covesea Skerries was controlled from an office in Edinburgh after becoming fully automated in 1984, before being finally closed for good in 2012.

The lighthouse now attracts 3000 visitors from all around the world each year

On the day the Northern Scot was there, Graham was showing around a retired American couple.

The couple, who live near one themselves in Washington State, are self-confessed lighthouse enthusiasts.

As such they were happy to brave the steep climb to the viewing platform.

From here you can see all the way to Wick on a clear day.

Much closer, just 200 metres off the coast, you can also view the lighthouse's modern day replacement.

A buoy sends out a digital signal to the globalised positioning systems (GPS) with which the passing ships are equipped.

The buoy doesn't need refuelling, or cleaning, or winding. It also runs 24/7.

Sadly though, it completely lacks any of the lighthouse's charm.

Technology has brought about many undoubted gains but, sometimes, also the loss of something more indefinable.

  • Since opening the site to the public, the Covesea Lighthouse Company has expanded the facilities on site to include a Royal Navy and Royal Heritage Centre which focuses on the history if the Lossiemouth Airfield.
  • More volunteers are always required to help run the operations. Visit covesealighthouse.co.uk to find out more.
  • The AGM will be held on Friday, October 18 at 7.30pm in Lossiemouth Town Hall.

  • The lighthouse is open for tours every Saturday at 10am and again at 11am until the last weekend in October.

Bookings take priority, so it is better to make an appointment by calling 01343 810664 and leaving your name and phone number.

Arriving by road, turn off the B9040 towards The Silver Sands Holiday Park. Before entering the park take a sharp left, turn up the single track road towards the lighthouse (driving past the caravan park maintenance workshop, on your left).

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