Peter Hill: Tripping the light fantastic

Peter Hill's memoir of his time as a hippie lighthouse-keeper in the early Seventies is full of rock'n'roll, surreal characters and dark tales of suicide and singed eyebrows. Adrian Turpin meets him
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The Independent Culture

In the summer of 1973, while much of Britain's youth was busy taking drugs and marching against the Vietnam War, one of its number stood on a godforsaken rock on the west coast of Scotland and wondered what he'd given up. The words of the last person he'd seen on the mainland, the tractor-man who'd driven him to the boat, rang in his ears. "Don't tell me they've sent another hippie. Hop on then, John Lennon. We'll make a man of you yet."

Even at the time, Peter Hill made an unlikely lighthouse-keeper. "My hair hung well below my shoulders. I had a great set of Captain Beefheart records." The 19-year-old Hill resembled, in his own words, "a miniature version of Neil Young". His new colleagues "probably shared a vision of the light first ceasing to turn then gradually fading to darkness as I lay stoned on the upper rim of the light listening to Van Morrison on my battery-powered cassette recorder while the Oban fishing fleet crashed into the rocks below." He was, at first sight, more fisherman's nightmare than fisherman's friend.

It is one of the quirks of industrial history that, in 1973, with the chaos of the three-day week on the horizon, Britain faced a shortage of lighthouse-keepers. The usual candidates - Captain Bird'seye lookalikes and tattooed bruisers - now found better prospects in the black gold of the North Sea oil rigs.

The Commissioners of the Northern Lights placed adverts for student keepers to while away their summer holidays, which is how Hill came to be on the island of Pladda, a place so small that he initially thought it was marked on the map by a dot the size of a biscuit crumb. "Closer inspection showed it was in fact a biscuit crumb. I scratched it off and underneath found an even smaller dot. This was Pladda." It's also, indirectly, how he came to write one of the most enjoyable of the apparently unstoppable tide of Seventies memoirs that has swept through British publishing in recent years. Blame Nick Hornby (almost a sport in some parts), but sometimes it seems as if every child who ever jumped on a space-hopper or pogo stick, pricked themselves with a Blue Peter badge or licked a sherbet dib-dab has been hoarding their memoirs since 1979, like an army of pre-pubescent Alastair Campbells.

Few of these books, however, are as wistfully evocative or as thoughtful as Hill's. Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper is a coming-of-age story. It's also a gentle comedy of manners, which pitches the green-around-the-gills Hill - an adolescent idealist - into the intrinsically no-nonsense, manly world of the lighthouse, populated with a motley crew of old salts, old war heroes, and Lachlan Fairbairn, the UK's - and almost certainly the world's - only naked lighthouse-keeper (of whom more later).

"For me it goes back to early childhood," says the quietly spoken Hill, nursing a glass of white wine in a Glasgow pub. "I had a list as a child of what I wanted to do: detective, fireman, juggler, acrobat. But to me the two that seemed really special were astronaut and lighthouse-keeper.

"Two years before I went on the lights, I'd worked at Butlin's holiday camp in Ayr. The next year I'd applied for a job in Iceland gutting fish, before the Cod Wars brought that notion to an end. But there was always something in me that wanted to get away to a remote island."

When Hill saw an advert in The Scotsman for a keeper, he dropped out of art school in Dundee to answer the call. After the most cursory and patrician of interviews in Edinburgh (had he any strong or peculiar religious beliefs? Could he cook?), he was accepted. It was only on the way to Pladda - the first of three postings - that he realised that he absolutely no idea what actually happened in a lighthouse.

There were - as there used to be in all lighthouses - three keepers on the island: Finlay Watchorn - a dead-ringer for The Adventures of Tintin's Captain Haddock - Ronnie - a television-obsessed bachelor with a cocker spaniel - and the principal lighthouse-keeper, Duncan McLeish, a deeply religious Wee Free.

On his first night, looking up from the psalm he was reading, Duncan offered some advice. "You'll have to remember that you're not in the big city any more. You'll find that we do no running on this island, and when we walk we do so at a very slow pace. And one other thing. No whistling on the Sabbath."

Hill immediately broke the spirit of this final commandment by forgetting that it was Sunday and playing Jimi Hendrix's "The Star-Spangled Banner" at full volume. "Duncan burst into my room," he writes, "just as I was about to pull my well-thumbed copy of Mayfair out of my rucksack, and glowered at my ITT cassette player like Moses weighing up the size of a nearby tablet, and wondering on what rock he would crack it in two."

There were other moments of conflict. Confronted by the hirsute Hill for the first time, the thuggish Aberdonian relief keeper Stretch tells him: "If any of that hair gets in my food I'm going to cut your balls off." But Stargazing is subtle enough not to dwell on the inevitable moments of conflict that arise among a group of strangers stranded together at sea.

"By the end of the summer, I'd worked with 18 or 19 keepers," Hill says. "The thing that united them all was their ability to put differences behind them and make things work. If there was any division between the men it was that the older ones had had really adventurous lives all over the world and had perhaps retired into the service aged 40. They were the ones who had served in the war, who had the memories of the firebombing in Dresden and working on submarines. Of the young men, some had done national service, but some had worked maybe as a window-cleaners. This was their adventure."

The unstated irony woven through Hill's memoir is that he found what so many of his contemporaries were seeking in such an unlikely place. "Many other people of my generation were going to live in communes. A lot of my friends from Dundee either went to Shetland or California. They either lived on a croft or Venice Beach.

"Being in a lighthouse wasn't a sort of hippie communal life, but it was a communal life nevertheless. It had a sort of rhythm and a routine which for the previous two or three years I'd been trying to get out of. I had stopped buying newspapers and watching television because it was just Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam and Northern Ireland, year after year.

"I was reading the Beat writers at the time, Jack Kerouac and so on. Kerouac working as a firewatcher on top of a hill seemed similar to being a lighthouse-keeper. There was a bit of hero worship in it, I suppose."

Reflecting on this in his soft Glasgow lilt, undented by 15 years living in Australia, Hill still sounds like a hippie at heart. "I think there are lots of areas of everyday life that could learn a lot from the way lighthouse-keepers say our lives might depend on each other," he says. "In Thailand, males - and some females - become Buddhist monks for two months of their lives, and then go back into the circle of life, and that sets them up in a positive way. I see the lighthouse experience as a bit like that."

It was traditional for lighthouse-keepers to stay for half an hour beyond the end of their watch and talk, however desperate for their bed they might be. It helped stave off sleep (the elaborate shift pattern meant no one got a full night's sleep) and fostered camaraderie. It was in moments like these that the older men would tell stories of Lachlan Fairbairn.

Hill never worked with Fairbairn, but every keeper had a tale about him. On reporting for a four-week tour of duty, Fairbairn would remove his clothes, not to put them on again until he left.

Warned by the lighthouse authorities that his brass was not up to scratch, Fairbairn promised, "Nae fear, you will not recognise it when you return." Sure enough, when the inspectors next dropped in he had painted every fitting, from the handrail on the stairs to the foghorn itself, bright red.

But no one would ever sack Fairbairn. Some said it was because he had been turned funny by finding a colleague who had hanged himself. The suicide was bad enough, but every time he reached into the deep freeze for some sausages during that tour of duty he had to look at the body. Others claimed Fairbairn was a war hero, an undercover agent who escaped the Gestapo in 1941 but never recovered from the mental scars.

On other nights, The Professor, a rather erudite reserve keeper on Pladda, used to fill Hill in on the history of lighthouses. He was a mine of trivia. Few people know that the Statue of Liberty, like the Colossus of Rhodes before it, was actually a beacon, placed under the care of America's lighthouse authorities in 1886. Nor that Christopher Columbus's great uncle, Antonio, was the keeper of the great light at Genoa. Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious, was a member of the profession, too. The emperor Caligula built a lighthouse at Dover in the first century AD and one across the Channel. During the Dark Ages, by contrast, "hardly a lighthouse burned".

Peter Hill doesn't overplay the folklore of the lighthouse. There's enough in Stargazing, however, to make the point that "keeping" has always been seen as a calling rather than just a job. The history illuminates and ennobles the keepers' mundane routines: the daily lighting of the lamp (a delicate skill on Pladda, which done wrong could lead to the loss of eyebrows); the enforced communion of the meals and care that is put into cooking; the interminable night watches (or Rembrandts, as Hill called them).

The awareness of tradition also makes the shadow of "automation", which sweeps through the book, seem somehow darker. The last lighthouse in Britain to be manned was at Broadstairs, in Kent. Its final keeper stepped ashore in 1998. But in 1973 the keepers already knew they were living on borrowed time. ("Well, may God forgive them for what they are about to do to our jobs," says Duncan, the Wee Free, "for I will find it very difficult in my own heart to forgive them. There have been lighthouses for thousands of years, and you only need to speak to a sailor or seaman to know that the human presence is as welcoming as the light itself.")

"Back in 1973, we knew that automation would happen," Hill says, "maybe in the Eighties or Nineties. The big stumbling block then was they could get machines that could turn the light on automatically, but these couldn't detect fog. We knew the first stage of automation was they'd keep one lighthouse [manned] and all the others within range of that would be automated. The remaining lighthouse man would turn on the fog signals."

In Stargazing, Hill recalls how every principal lighthouse-keeper had a safe with instructions for what to do in the case of a nuclear war. The distaste with which he laments automation feeds on that apocalyptic scenario.

"Lighthouse-keeping has always been a very human thing. It's like Don DeLillo's book, Underworld, where there's a plant with cars being manufactured and no humans present. For me, that's the kind of nightmare scenario, in which the human race was wiped out, but the lights on the lighthouses would still be going on and off, the traffic lights would continue to go red to green and back to red again."

For his part, Hill did not wait to be automated. After stints on Ailsa Craig (the primeval rock that sits off the coast off Troon) and Hyskeir (near Barra) he declined the Northern Lighthouse Board's offer of a full-time job.

Since then he has returned to art, specialising in what he calls "superfictions": elaborate art hoaxes, such as his New York Museum of Contemporary Ideas, a fictitious organisation, sponsored by the equally fictitious petroleum giant Cameron Oil. ("Within the international oil industry, the seven main players, such as Shell, Texaco, Gulf, Esso etc are known as 'The Seven Sisters'. They in turn refer to Cameron Oil as 'Big Brother'.")

For a second, it makes you wonder whether he invented the whole business of being a lighthouse-keeper. And then you remember two words: Lachlan Fairbairn. Nobody could make him up. Could they?

'Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper' is published on 11 September (Canongate; £14.99)