The island of Ailsa Craig, is a plug of solid granite, jutting out of the sea, sitting just off the Ayrshire coast of Scotland. A bleak and inhospitable home to a hundred thousand sea gulls, the odd seal and a solitary lighthouse keeper.
According to measurements, The Craig as it is known to the locals, is a little over three quarters of a mile long, just over half a mile wide and eleven hundred feet at it’s highest point. It covers an area of 220 acres. There is a thirty acre spit of level ground on the east side of the island facing the mainland. Here the lighthouse complex and few derelict buildings stand. The spit is mainly shingle and small boulders. There are numerous little tufts of moss here and there, the only vegetation on the shoreline. Except for the jutting outcrops of solid rock, the rest of the island was covered with a thick layer of course grass and dense purple clumps of heather.
If it were it not for the bank of shingle, which over time, the tides had washed up on the eastern side, The Craig would have been inaccessible. The steep sides of the island facing the north channel of the Irish Sea, and the sloping side with the level ground the land.
The nearest inhabited point on the mainland of Scotland was the town of Girvan, nine and a half miles roughly south east. With Ireland thirty six miles to the west, The Craig was also known as "Paddy's Mile Stone" as it supposedly lay halfway between the cities of Glasgow and Belfast. A well known shipping hazard, the island housed one of the only manned lighthouse’s in the UK.
The island was formed through ancient volcanic activity and was made up mainly of granite, which from the 1880’s to the early 1970’s housed a quarry. The granite was mined and shipped back to the mainland where it was shaped and polished into curling stones. A small wooden jetty, a few abandoned buildings, shacks, rails and rusting bogies all that remained of the mining operation.
The first lighthouse was built on the island in 1886. Using an oil burning light to warn off shipping. Oil was in use until 1911, then replaced with incandescent light, a massive glorified light bulb . A radio telephone link was established in 1935, now there was an underwater telephone line linked to the mainland. In the early years the original light keepers and employees of Ailsa Craig Granites Ltd., used to depend on carrier pigeons for passing messages between the island and mainland.
The lighthouse was modernised in 1990, and in 2001 as part of a major refurbishment programme the Ailsa Craig Lighthouse was converted to solar-electric power and the light automated. The lone lighthouse keeper worked in shifts of 3 months. They were traditionally staffed by single, ex Royal or merchant navy personnel Provisioned every two weeks by boat from Girvan. If the notoriously bad weather permitted.
Steve Nolan a 42 year old geordie from South Shields the present keeper of the lighthouse, had just entered the third week of his three month shift. He had left the dwindling merchant navy three years before and had regretted it ever since. In common with many that had gone before him, he had found it difficult to adapt to a home based life.
The constant arguing and bickering when he was on extended shore leave had eventually lead to the breakdown of his marriage. Sonia had been and still was, the love of his life. He just couldn’t live with the bitch anymore. She without doubt thought the same way. Now recently divorced. The ink barely dry on the degree absolute. They were again the very best of friends. Prior to the divorce, it had taken 19 years, of a sort of happy go rocky marriage to Sonia, his first and only girlfriend, for them to decide that they couldn’t live together anymore. It had been a mutual decision, if they had carried on any longer under the same roof, one or the other would have at some stage, have had to do time for murder.
Luckily he had found a job that was between sea and shore which suited him until something better came along. He had spent the last couple of years working for a road construction company. Which as things went, was about as far as you could get from being a ships engineering officer. But at least it was out in the open, better than being stuck inside a factory.
Killing time one Saturday afternoon, browsing through the shipping magazines in Waterstones. Nolan had seen an advert from The Northern Lighthouse Board. They were looking for ex ships engineering officers to train as lighthouse keepers. Intrigued he had bought the magazine and applied for a position. After two interviews and a month between letters, another landed on the doormat and much to his surprise found he had been accepted. There were only two manned lighthouses left in operation around the British Isles, Ailsa Craig was one of them.
Nolan had adjusted to the solitary lighthouse keepers role like a hand to a sweaty glove. Not being a particularly social person he actually liked his own company. Another source of irritation to his ex wife. He often preferred a long walk in the countryside to a night out wining and dancing. They had simply just grown apart. They still enjoyed each others company when he was home on leave, including passionate no strings sex sessions. All very civilised, unorthodox maybe, but civilised. So all in all the split had been relatively amicable when push came to shove, with no complications, no children, just a shared mortgage and two cats.
Wednesday September 30th
A mug of steaming coffee in his hand, Nolan was looking out of the window of lighthouse living quarters. Scanning the horizon, binoculars in his other hand. The Bonar brothers were due at The Craig to re-supply today. They had had to cry off on Monday and Tuesday because of a heavy storm. The gale force winds had made it impossible to dock at the islands small wooden jetty.
Earlier that morning they had told him over the radio phone, that they would catch the high tide and dock at the island around 8am. It was now seven thirty. Through the high rolling waves, Steve caught sight of the scruffy looking dark blue fishing boat. Ploughing manfully through the swells towards the island.
Finishing his coffee, he dressed himself in his yellow fluorescent waterproofs and long over the knee waders. Finishing off by shoving his collar length thick blond hair into an even thicker woolly hat. He grabbed his gloves and went out the meet the ‘Dolly Peel.’
Making fast the bow and stern ropes that were thrown to him by Matty Bonar, the younger of the two brothers. Nolan jumped on board the boat. He clasped Matty’s offered gloved hand and shook it
‘Hi Matty, still a bit rough out there.’
‘Aye, but nowt the Bonar boys can’t handle, not like you deep water types.’ he smiled broadly as they turned to go into the cramped cabin space.
‘Hey, Steve.’ welcomed Jock Bonar, as they clambered noisily down the short ladder from the wheel house to join him.
‘How are you doing?’ he greeted, offering Nolan a massive paddle of a hand.
‘Fine, fine, just been hanging around waiting for you two lazy bastards to get rid of the weekend hangovers and deliver my stores.’ he said clapping Matty heavily on the back.
‘Aye, we won’t be hanging about. That’s for sure. According to the latest forecast this is just a lull. So we better get unloaded before the weather turns again. Last thing we want, is to get fuckin stranded on here with the likes of you.’ said Matty.
‘Aye, you’re not far wrong there lad. Anyway, we still got about four hours before the tide changes to unload, and catch up on your seal shagging stories.’ said Jock, laughing at his own joke, adding between breaths ‘I hope your’s…has got a pretty friend…for our Matty here.’ he winked at Steve.
‘Give over.’ said Matty blushing bright red.
‘Well, as a matter of fact…………’ Steve said and they all burst out laughing.
It took them just under an hour to ferry the stores the two hundred yards from the boat up to the lighthouse buildings. There were rough wooden planks over the shingle, which made it a lot easier pushing or pulling the old tin wheelbarrow up the slight incline from the jetty.
Finished they were all sitting around the old oak table in the kitchen. Hands wrapped around enormous enamel mugs filled with whiskey laced scalding hot tea. The steam rising from them as well as their cups as they slowly thawed out, recovering from the biting arctic weather.
‘So…you okay here then lad?’ queried Jock, blowing his nose into an old oil stained rag that passed for a handkerchief, ‘you not going stir crazy yet?’
Smiling at him, blowing into his cup before taking a sip of the scalding hot brew Nolan said, ‘No, got plenty to keep me busy, plenty of maintenance to be getting on with around here. Place is falling to bits. You can tell it was built by Scotsmen.’ he carried on, trying to keep a straight face, ‘found a load of paint in the back of the old store room as well. So I think I’ll give the place a once over, in my spare time.’
‘You got all the time in the world here laddie.’ said Jock between sneezes.
‘Don’t know how you stick it out myself,’ added Matty, ‘no one to talk to ’cept fuckin sea gulls…and your seal of course.’ he added with a sly grin, looking at his brother trying to get him to join in baiting Steve.
‘Don’t worry about me son, I’ll call you for a ride out of here when I start talking to myself.’ said Nolan not rising to the bait.
Laughing and sneezing at the same time, Jock spluttered ‘It’s when you get an answer though Steve lad…that’s when you start worrying.’
Nolan nodded smiling, enjoying the company, ‘Aye well it hasn‘t happened yet, anyway don’t you worry about me, worry about yourself. Nasty cold you’ve got there. Thought you big tough Scots fishermen didn’t get them?’
‘That bloody Ralphie.’ said Jock, referring to his brother in law.
Nolan had done a months training course in Girvan before taking up his duties at the lighthouse. The time split between the island and the shore. Learning communication procedures, local shipping patterns and of course how to operate and maintain the light. Ted Brooker the outgoing keeper had shown him the ropes and introduced him to the Bonar brothers.
He got on well with the brothers from the first pint of John Smiths. After that they sort of took him under their wing and introduced him to all of the local drinking spots. During one particularly uproarious night in the Admiral Collingwood on Girvan harbour he had met Ralph Collins, the Bonar’s brother in law. He was married to their sister Jeanie and lived in the nearby town of Ayr.
Ralphie was a truck delivery driver and worked for a distribution company who delivered the morning newspapers to the shops, garages and stores throughout the region.
‘He goes on holiday…to bloody Thailand with our Jeanie, they both come back with colds, and as a present they give the bloody thing to me. I mean, a tee shirt would have done. Wait till I get my hands on him.’ he chuckled and sneezed again.
‘You better get yourself off to the doctors then,’ said Nolan ‘before you give it to us as well.’
‘Hey, come to think of it, there was something in the paper about some bloke in Edinburgh died of that Avian Bird Flu yesterday.’ Matty told them, pointing at his brother ‘maybe you’ve got it Jocky, it’ll be a shame of course. I’ll have to cry at the funeral and wear a suit. But the boat’ll be mine.’
Jock Bonar looked balefully at his brother ‘You couldn’t manage without me, you long streak of piss. You’d sink it on the first trip. Anyway, the lad with the flu was miles away, in Edinburgh. Never get down here, that Edinburgh lot’ll never part with there own shite if they didn’t have to.’ braying at his own joke. Then he stood up and got his coat from the wooden peg on the back of the kitchen door.
‘Come on you,’ he said to his brother, ‘lets get home before the tide turns and the sun disappears, ’cos we’ll not get a decent drink around here.’ indicating the empty enamel mugs ‘Now’t but bloody tea on offer round here. Which is all you’d expect from a bloody heathen Englishman.’
Left to his own devices after the fishing boat had left. Nolan packed away the stores they had brought. Carefully stacking the thirty, five gallon jerry cans of diesel in the generator shed. The larder was fully stacked with canned food accumulated by the previous keepers, but they each had there own peculiar favourites. With Steve it was Branston baked beans and Heinz Tomato soup.
There was a huge chest freezer which was also packed solid up to the lid. So in reality the lighthouse keeper could last for months without re-supply. But the company of the fishermen every couple of weeks with letters, newspapers and magazines was a pleasant diversion to the daily routine.
Electricity came from the solar panels on the roof, and if the sunlight was insufficient to charge up the solar cells, there was a diesel driven generator to maintain supply. This was mainly to keep the light working, but also to provide power to run any appliances needed by the keeper. To keep himself entertained Nolan had brought his own compact Hi Fi system and his trusty iPod, loaded up with his favourite music.
Maintaining the light and associated machinery took up most of his working day. The light was automated to a large extent, but the lighthouse keeper was on hand to keep things in working order. The main shipping in the area were the ferries. Which sailed from Scotland to Northern Ireland and Eire. In years past the shipping lane past Ailsa Craig had been quite busy. Now the lighthouse keeper was lucky to see three or four merchant ships or ferries in a day. The light itself was visible from more than 17 miles away and lit up the Girvan shore as it swept over the Scottish coastline.