BLOG: International Women’s Day – The Lightkeeper’s wife

It’s International Women’s Day, so this is a tribute to the women married to lightkeepers here in Scotland.

Margaret Aitken was not exceptional, which is why I chose her voice to celebrate today.  Born in Orkney, married in the mid-1950s, she and her husband lived in Stroma, an island between mainland Scotland and Orkney which has since been abandoned.

The boat trip to Stroma - illustration by Ian MacInnes from Twelve Light Years by Margaret Aitken
The boat trip to Stroma – illustration by Ian MacInnes from “Twelve Light Year”s by Margaret Aitken

Our luggage was stowed away in the hold of the boat, and I was tucked away beside it. A tarpaulin was laid over all… on that first crossing we bucked and heaved and rolled and tumbled our way across the two miles or so of the Sound. It was dark in the hold, which was pervaded with a mixture of smells – oil, tar, ropes, fish among them. Spray spattered on the tarpaulin like showers of hailstones. It seemed a long time, and I was sick, before the tarpaulin was lifted, and we were tied up to a pier.

Once installed in one of the Assistant Lightkeeper’s cottages, Margaret did the housekeeping.

For cooking we had two stoves. One was a heavy, black, iron, coal-burning ‘Victoress’, and the other a ‘Valor’ paraffin stove with two burners, and for an over, a tin cabinet to set on top of one burner. A round, glass tank fixed to one side held the paraffin.

Vintage Valour Paraffin Stove - Picture from Brown's Antiques and Reclamation
Vintage Valour Paraffin Stove – Picture from Brown’s Antiques and Reclamation

I am most in awe of the fact that she used the Valor for baking:

Every baking session I would produce brown scones and white scones, something made with pastry, brown cakes and white cakes and biscuits… Ingredients were no problem, for Jimmy, knowledgeable about lighthouse life, advised keeping at least a month’s stock of non-perishable foodstuffs, just in case the weather prevented the boat crossing.

While they were there, electricity came to the lighthouse, and they were given calor gas cookers.

What a difference it made to have an electric iron! Up until then I had used my set of Mrs Potts’ irons… they were heavy chunks of iron which you set on top of the stove to heat. A composition handle clipped into the indentations in the top, and you used one till it became too cool, and then replaced it with a hot one. How light and how convenient the electric iron seemed after this! I no longer had to hang the floor mats over the washing land and beat and beat with my cane clover-leaf carpet beater.

The Lighthouse Keepers' cottages at Stroma - Illustration by Ian MacInnes from Twelve Light Years by Margaret Aitken
The Lighthouse and cottages at Stroma – Illustration by Ian MacInnes from “Twelve Light Years” by Margaret Aitken

However, they still did not have mains water.

Water for washing was collected off roofs and courtyards in large underground tanks from which it was piped [into the houses]. Our drinking water, which originated as a spring on a hill near the shop, had to be carried in from a tap on the [lighthouse] station gate. The other summer, I saw a replica of my first washing machine being exhibited in a museum. It consisted of a metal tub on a stand. ON top of the tub’s lid was a handle which I pushed to and fro describing a semi-circle each time. Inside a metal rod with a sort of paddle at the end swished the clothes about…

She describes the inexorable decline of the island, as the modern world undermined a sustainable – if basic – way of life.

There were once four shops on the island, and from about 1910 to the Great War, and for a few years after 1918, Stroma was served weekly, through the summer months, by ‘The Floating Shops’, a little fleet of sailing smacks from Orkney… My grandmother amazed me by remarking, ‘I used to pack boxes of boots for the floating shops.’ … At the sight of [the smack’s] white sails approaching from Orkney, the word was passed round… for she came not only to sell but to buy [eggs and fish]…

Nearest the bow of the ship was the grocer at his counter. Along the bulkheads and sides of the shop were shelves on which groceries were displayed. Bars of wood were nailed in front of the goods to prevent their tumbling off the shelves. Midships there was kept the meal and feeding-stuffs. A large weighing machine stood in the centre, and sacks of flour, oatmeal, bere meal, bran and Indian corn were built up along the sides.

The least busy of the departments was nearest the stern – the drapery. The draper had his goods set out on a bench right round his domain, as well as on barred shelves and hinging on criss-cross lines above his head. When a lull came, and no one wanted a pair of boots, a roll of wall-paper, and overall or oilskin… he was expected to jump on deck and deal with the incoming lobsters and fish.

This service ended in the 1920s. While Margaret lived there in the 1950s, the island’s population declined from about 80 people to about 55, and the boat that supplied the island’s shop and post office stopped.

It was agonising to see home after home stripped and left bare. Blank windows gaped at us like the unseeing eyes of stunned creatures. Some of the older people were very distressed about having to leave. Old Andy became withdrawn and wouldn’t speak.

… among the people steadily streaming away form the island, now that the school and shop had closed, was Bessie the nurse, who was also the wife of an Islander. Mr Hislop (the Principal Keeper) had to have regular medical treatment, and with Bessie’s departure this was no longer possible.

Margaret also describes more personal matters:

During the Superintendent’s last visit, I had requested that when we were move, would he please take into consideration that we’d like to have children…. The doctor who looked after us from Caithness had asked if we intended having a family, and made it clear that were I to become pregnant on the island, he’d whisk me away to ‘the other side’.

Their next post was Buchan Ness in Aberdeenshire, where having children was safer, but still dramatic because the bridge to the island was out of commission.

Because of my great age – thirty two – I was put under the care of a specialist gynecologist… he told me not to return to the lighthouse, not even for my suitcase, because if events occurred as hastily as they thought they would, it would not be possible… to send an ambulance to the island for me.

At that time, it seems to have been usual to induce labour by various means.

[Another patient] was ‘started off’. A drip was set up and left in the charge of two youngsters, who immediately started discussing what their instructions really meant. ‘I’d rather you asked and made sure’, protested the victim, ‘Oh we know what we’re doing all right’, came the rejoinder. Time passed and a doctor arrived on the scene to point out that they had entirely misunderstood the instructions and were not administering the treatment correctly.

When it was her turn,

… Labour was induced by breaking the waters. Our son, Richard, was born successfully. I won’t bore you with all the unpleasantness of the post-natal period in ‘that place’ as Mrs Lamont would have called it. Suffice it to say that I vowed I would never ever return thither, and two years later, our daughter arrived delightfully in the small cottage hospital in Peterhead.

Margaret Aitken’s book, Twelve Light Years, is out of print but available online.

Twelve Light

About me

BenMy name is Ben (admittedly an unusual name for a woman) and I live in one of the old lightkeeper’s cottages at Noss Head, a few miles from Stroma. I often think about the women who lived in my house before I did, and the sheer hard work of feeding a family, doing the laundry, and keeping the place spotless.

If you would like to experience being next to a lighthouse with rather more comfort, you can book a stay next door in the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage.

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