'Archie's Lights: The Life and Times of a Scottish Lightkeeper' by Archie and Anne MacEachern (Whittles Publishing)
In these days of strident voices, of sound bites and harsh tones, Archie's Lights
is a balm in its comforting cadences and its reassuring tones, which hark back to a world of unshakeable values and quietly understated wisdom.
In this biographical collection of anecdotes and insights, Anne MacEachern has brought forth a small masterpiece. Her triumph is in pulling off the almost impossible, in writing authentically in the first person in the voice of her late husband Archie. Like our legacy of iconic lighthouses, it is a book that stands therefore as a work of enduring love and of humanity, but it is a book that is also much more than that.
Like the lighthouses themselves, there is an elegance in the straightforward prose, a lightness of touch, a careful craftsmanship where words fit together like dovetailed blocks of stone, so tightly that you cannot see the joints and with no rough edges that jar and jerk you from the narrative. In this, she has woven a spell that transports the reader into another world; a world of harsh and inhospitable places like Dubh Artach and Skerryvore, far out on the periphery of human experience, as remote from the suburbs of Glasgow and Edinburgh as the Moon.
But it was not always so. When the sea was still our superhighway, within human memory, these lonely spots were known to a community of mariners; known, feared and respected. I am fortunate to have known some of these men and women and can speak for the authenticity of at least some of the anecdotes and of the experiences recounted and, as an islander myself, of the practical difficulties of life on small rocks surrounded by the sea. I am less fortunate in carrying with me a terrifying memory of seas breaking around Dubh Artach, where iron grey skies glower over gunmetal seas and menace hangs in the air like static electricity. I think therefore with awe of men like Archie who bore witness to this day and daily and through long stone-shuddering wind-torn nights.
Archie himself emerges from the pages as quietly heroic, as so many of his generation were, steadfastly living a life well lived, despite so many trials unknown to modern generations. And despite a life lived in such lonely places he is neither lonely nor bitter. Instead, he is a man of good-natured humour with a lively and intelligent interest in the wider world. His outlook, forged in the repetitious routines of lighthouse life and work and framed in hours of lonely watches perched at the viewpoints of these high towers, seems generous and wise. Wiser perhaps than many an urban outlook and rooted in that special brand of stoicism for which we Scots were once world famous.
His interests include shooting and fishing but he balances this, as so many Highlanders of that generation did, with a love of and respect for nature. For example he collaborates with a number of ornithologists reporting bird sightings and bird numbers at various lighthouses. He is helped in this apparent contradiction by an absence of the greed which so often characterises post-Thatcher life. He restricts his shooting and fishing to what he and his colleagues can eat. When he stepped up his lobster fishing at Barra Head, to pay off the debt he inherited when taking charge of that lighthouse, he stopped as soon as he had paid the debt. Thereafter his lobster fishing was strictly for the pot.
This book stands also as a metaphor for our age, when men and women are replaced by machines whose ruthless efficiency and cost effectiveness is delivered without care or compassion. Will those tall lighthouses, that stood for so long as beacons of hope because of the dedication and the care and compassion of men and women like Archie and Anne, slowly crumble? Will these monuments to the genius of the Stevenson family engineers survive? Who then will look back at the thronging world and bear witness, as silent sentinels, apart and yet not apart?
The words at least may endure. The words perhaps of that other great Stevenson – Robert Louis – and of Anne and Archie MacEachern.