Stargazing By Peter Hill

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The Independent Culture

Most readers reared on stories of Grace Darling and Blue Peter's visits offshore will identify with the childhood ambitions of the young Peter Hill. To him, the two professions which "stood out as being a bit special" were astronaut and lighthouse keeper. At the age of 19, he achieved the second, if only for one summer.

A somewhat uncommitted Dundee art-school student, Hill replied to a 1973 advertisement in The Scotsman, and soon found himself on his first posting to Pladda, an island small enough to secrete itself under a biscuit crumb on the map. Here, he was to spend a fortnight learning the job in the company of a strange crew of fellow castaways from Finlay Watchorn - Captain Haddock lookalike, master chef and amateur boatbuilder - to the Nutty Professor, who is teaching his wife, over on Arran, the highway code in Morse, flashing lights backwards and forwards across the sea to his house. All such eccentricities are dwarfed, however, by tales of the great Lachlan Fairbairn on Chicken Rock, who always works naked, whittling clothes pegs and playing a one-stringed fiddle with a gramophone horn attached to one end.

Hill soon settles into the routine, learning how to subsist on a few hours' sleep, stay alert for the 2am nightwatch (renamed a "Rembrandt") and conduct a conversation in 15-second snatches between the deafening blasts of a fog-horn. In his later postings, to Ailsa Craig and finally Hyskeir, the routine remains reso-lutely unaltered, though the changing cast of keepers provides variety.

Hill's evocation of the period, largely through its music and his reading matter, is not as enjoyable as his ready supply of anecdotes: his TV memories, in particular, are blighted by inaccuracies. But his is an affectionate portrait of a profession since rendered obsolete by the coming of automation. For those of us not lucky enough to have been resident in a landmark characterised by Hill as "a spaceship co-designed by Nasa and the Goons", the author's recreation of lighthouse living is the closest we can ever hope to come.