Over the next few months, the last manned lighthouses in Scotland are to be automated, their keepers replaced by computers. It's a poignant moment in our island story, the end of a life and a tradition stretching back 200 years

If you look upwards, the effect is almost hallucinogenic. Through the metal lacework of the grille, the lenses circle noiselessly on their base of mercury, bending the light into slow repeated patterns of refraction. Dazzle and shadows filter to the floor below, mingling with a watery dawn and the gleam of the brass plates. After a while, you start to feel dizzy, unbalanced by the unceasing turning and returning. Look downwards away from the light, and there's the receding curves of the tower steps, curling like a snail's shell to an invisible centre. Stay too long and you'll lose your grip, spun off your axis with all these optical illusions.

Lighthouses have always possessed powers of distortion. Not merely the distortion you get from projecting and magnifying two surprisingly puny lightbulbs outwards to a distance of 29 miles, but the man-made distortions of mind and heart and memory. From the beginning of the Scottish lighthouse service, two centuries ago, you got the same effect; armchair mariners besotted with the romance of the lonely, sea-struck towers, historical tourists wandering drunkenly through the tales of gales and wrecks. Even the poetry of their names was enough to turn the most adult of men back towards childhood: Sule Skerry, Esha Ness, Ushenish, Skurdy Ness, Muckle Flugga. In Victorian times there was a thriving trade in lighthouse memorabilia: pictures, postcards, bits of brass and perfume bottles. Nothing else, not even boats, had quite the same allure.

Not that there's much to have illusions about any longer. The polish of the past has long gone, most of the brass fittings have been stripped away, and there's nothing much here now apart from banks of stolid monitors and computer fittings. The buildings are still there, admittedly, as plain and weather-beaten as they always were, but not much else. Even the keepers, fine figures of romance and loneliness, are going, the last of them pensioned off with nothing but memories and habits that have outlived their usefulness. So it's only after dark that you fully understand what it's all about.

If you take the road to the northernmost tip of Scotland, and then go a little beyond, you get to Duncansby Head. Back down the way are the gift stores and municipal toilets of John o'Groats, but up here, it's peaceful, apart from the flustering of the wind and the metallic groans of the scaffolding. From the cliff's edge, you can see the broad encircling span of the Pentland Firth from Thurso to Orkney. For a distance of about 20 miles, there are other lights, flashing and replying, answering and silent. All around, from Dunnet Head to Stroma, from Cantick Head to the Pentland Skerries, the lights form a cosy loop over the darkened sea. Above shines the light at Duncansby Head, one of the last manned lighthouses in Britain.

Inside the Principal Keeper's house, Hazel and Bruce Brown are building up a good fug for the night. Hazel has the blowsy warmth of an ideal granny, and Bruce, with his clipped beard and tobacco-dusted roll-up habits, is the perfect version of a Boy's Own mariner. He is also slightly deaf, so much of the conversation is conducted at a dignified bellow. Though the house and the light are both impeccably tidy, both apologise repeatedly for the mess. "These places used to be spotless," says Bruce, sounding disgruntled. "And now you go in one day to clean up and the next day it's as bad as it was. It's infuriating, really it is. It's knocked your life upside down." "It" is the snaking wires and unfilled trenches of the lighthouse automation programme. By 31 March, this place too will be abandoned to the winds, the rain and the technology. And in just over a year, as of April 1998, the profession of lighthouse keeper will no longer exist.

Since the 1960s, the Northern Lighthouse Board and its English counterpart, Trinity House, have been steadily automating all the lighthouses round the coast of Britain; at present, there are only eight in Scotland left to go. Winking banks of computers and tidy impersonal rows of electronic aids will turn the lights on and off, measure the daylight, calculate the wind speed and battle back the storms. The keepers - often the last of several generations of lighthouse men - will shut the doors and return nervously to civilian life. There will be nothing left to keep.

In its 19th-century heyday, the Northern Lighthouse Board employed over 600 keepers in the 80 or so manned lighthouses speckled around the Scottish coast. The job requirements were not onerous; even the Board's earlier insistence that the keepers be competent mariners faded with the use of helicopters and speedboats. More important were the emotional qualifications; as the NLB - not usually driven to flights of poetic licence - considers even now, "A lightkeeper must be a man of parts ... from his study of the sea, he will respect its immense power; he will be a handyman of varying proficiency ... a useful cook and a good companion. A lightkeeper will not make a fortune but the odds are that he will be at peace with himself and with the world."

Computers, however, need none of these attributes. Most of the big ships in Britain's coastal waters now have enough electronic and satellite navigational aids to dispense with the lighthouses, and since the shipowners provide the funding for the services, they - to an extent - dictate its shape. Even the objections of the smaller fishing boats and yachts have been muted, since they don't pay light dues. And anyway, as long as the light still shines, does it matter whether man or machine switches on and off? As one keeper on Islay noted dourly, "Computers don't get drunk, don't go insane, don't fall asleep, they just break down sometimes. Anyway, if a ship went aground, what could we do about it? We're here to prevent shipwrecks, not to pick up the pieces."

Bruce and Hazel understand the cost-effective logic of automation, they just mourn its consequences. Not only the grand things like the loss of the profession, but the smaller, sharper details: the affectionate pedantry the keepers brought to their tasks, the long-earned understanding of water, wind and tide, the dull days and ferocious nights. Bruce points out that it's a city mistake to think lighthouse keeping is a lonely job; all manned lights have three keepers, and the difficulty is more in the frictions of cohabitation than in the weariness of solitude. "There must be something in you," he says. "It's got to be there. Your outlook on life, it's all got to be thought about. Nothing bothers you; you get that used to it that you just let it go, let it flow along. There's the rough, the smooth, the bad, the awful and the worst, and you just take it all.

"I don't think you'll ever see another manned lighthouse. They've proved that they can do it without men. And we're the ones that are sad. It's a way of life that's dying out. When it comes to the end of March, we're all going to be teary. The skills we've got are no use anywhere else." Though the NLB stopped recruiting new keepers in 1981, there remain some in their early 50s who will find it hard to get alternative employment. Stoicism and an encyclopaedic understanding of the moods and tempers of the tides are not much needed in the outside world.

But the job had other advantages. For a start, it had none of the fickle loyalties and executive ambitions of most professions. Once you were a keeper, that was it; you moved steadily upwards from supernumerary to assistant to principal, shifted once every few years and retired contentedly at 60 with a civil-service pension, a self-sufficient soul and the sea forever singing in your ear. The job moulded the person, not the other way around. Bruce's affection for the life is touchingly evident; he refers to the lighthouse throughout as "she". And the keepers universally refer to the gradual de-manning of the lights not as automation, but as closure.

Bruce came into the lighthouse service 38 years ago, after a brief and undistinguished career with the electricity board. His cousin was already a lightkeeper, and Bruce was stuck in Anstruther, Fife, at a loose end. "I was from a mining community, I didn't know anything about the service before I went in, not a thing." His wife Hazel remembers the early days: "When Bruce joined, everyone where we came from gave us six months. They said we'd never stick it. And I can honestly say we've loved nearly every place we've been sent."

Only the rock stations bothered them. There are three categories of lighthouse: rocks, islands and land lights. Wives and families would only be permitted to stay with their husbands on the island and land lights; rock lights were customarily too remote and too cramped to allow for more than the three keepers themselves. When Bruce joined the service, the relief system meant that a keeper spent two months on the light and a month on leave; later this was reduced to a month on, a month off.

For a while, he was posted to Skerryvore, a rock light built on a vicious huddle of granite 15 miles south-west of the Inner Hebridean island of Tiree. He didn't much like the place; during the storms of winter the tower would become claustrophobic with the smell of oil and bodies. (Keepers, it was said, returned ashore with curved spines from the semicircular beds and peg legs from the winding stairs.) While he was there, a force-12 gale once blew. "And you could feel the tower swaying, you could feel it moving you, it was amazing. When we went up on to the balcony the next morning, there was a water tank there and the storm had ripped the lid, burst the bolts, and this tank was just hanging on with one bolt." He reflects for a while. "If you let it, this job could frighten the life out of you. It is, it's fearsome sometimes.

"On the rock stations, a molehill becomes a mountain. There's been supers [trainees] on these places, and they went melancholy. There was one super at Dhubh Artach - they called it the Black Hole at one time - and he got so bad he got down on the grating, he was going to dive off and swim ashore." The rock lights' frequent inaccessibility also caused problems. "There was one place I heard of, where one of the keepers died. We used to have these coffin boards in case someone died and we had to get them ashore. Well, it seemed that the weather was awful bad so they had to hang the coffin from the balcony rail, and it just hung there till the sea went down and the ship could pick it up."

Hazel, likewise, had to abide by the pragmatic standards of the service. "You marry the keeper, you marry the job," she says. "While he was away on the rock, I'd be looking after the kids. There was always something to do, always something going on, but it was still quite lonely. And if he's away all that time and he comes home, if he gets on to the kids, they say he's no business getting on to them." Bruce interjects. "I almost got to the stage when I'd walk in the door and the kids would say, who's that man? They were practically shaking my hand sometimes."

Traditionally, a keeper would be transferred on to another station once every three or four years. Recently, however, with the dwindling number of lights still manned, the remaining keepers stayed longer and longer at their postings. The Browns have now been at Duncansby for 11 years and regard the looming prospect of retirement with some trepidation. As Hazel points out, the NLB provided more than just a job for Bruce, it provided a life for them both. "I'm going to have a strange time adjusting because I've never had to pay rent, I've never had to pay electricity or fuel bills. Even when you got transferred, the Board would send you an itinerary with the train times and everything. It's better than the forces. And we'll miss it."

Not that the job always commanded such ferocious loyalties. For the best part of two centuries the Stevenson family provided the Scottish lighthouse service with engineers - four generations of them. Robert Stevenson, who built lights on rocks and coasts in conditions that would be daunting even now, had little affection for keepers. Even his soft-hearted grandson Robert Louis Stevenson (who dodged his birthright as an engineer for exile and literature) could be provoked to irritation. "They usually pass their time by the pleasant human expedient of quarrelling," he wrote. "And sometime, I am assured, not one of the three is on speaking terms with any other." The stern Stevenson culture also infected the NLB; a keeper who once complained that the foghorn's honking disturbed his sleep earned the brusque retort that the NLB definitely preferred a noisy foghorn to a quiet shipwreck.

As James Taylor, the board's chief executive, acknowledges, "I think if Stevenson could have built these things automatic in the first place, he would have done. He was building this wonderful piece of engineering apparatus and he saw the keepers as something of an interference factor." From the board's headquarters in Edinburgh, Taylor struggles with the conflicting images of the lighthouses; one part beacons of light and romance to two parts navigational aid and logistical hindrance. "It gets to you, this job," he admits. "You can't help it. All that history ..." He tails off.

But he takes a practical view of the keepers' loss. "I will miss them very much. It's a way of life that's gone, and I think in many ways that's regrettable. But it's one of those things like a steam-engine driver - it is looked at with some nostalgia, but the requirement has gone. It is sad - in my heart of hearts I would love to have a system whereby there was some form of lightkeeper, but that just isn't possible." The NLB does still build lights: three have gone up in recent years, all to the west of the Outer Hebrides, where the big oil tankers round the coast on their lumbering passage to the Sullom Voe terminal in Shetland. But none, needless to say, was ever manned.

Out on the Mull of Kintyre, Hector Lamont is just getting used to the change in lifestyle. The light here was automated a year ago, but Hector returns frequently, to check and mend and clean. He stares disconsolately at the little garden behind the tower which was once used for growing vegetables and crops. Already, the neat squares of cultivation are returning to wilderness and there are signs of invasion by the resident sheep. For a keeper, reared on fastidious standards of cleanliness, it's a disgrace.

He, like Bruce, had been in the job almost 40 years, and feels the loss of its habits. He remembers his light duties when he first started. "In those days, it was mostly all paraffin. And of course you had to wind it, just the same as a grandfather clock, so the light would rotate. You could spend half an hour winding it sometimes. And then you'd have to sit in the tower watching it all night, keeping the pressure up, taking it in turns, every three or four hours. You'd to keep a note of all the other lighthouses, every three hours, marking on your log that you could see them. In the morning, you'd be cleaning the lens, cleaning the brass, painting, whatever."

His wife Esther, garrulous and friendly, interrupts. "There's always plenty to do on a light, plenty to see. There's always plenty of visitors. Folk think it must be an awful lonely life, but it's not. There's something magical, something peaceful about this place. You could be more lonely in a city than you could here." The only pall on this otherwise contented existence was the recent Chinook helicopter crash on the hilltop a few hundred yards from the light. Neither of them much likes discussing it or their role in the salvage; Hector says only that it was "a sad thing, a very sad thing. It made you think badly of the place, and I didn't want to do that." A small cairn marks the spot; otherwise there is no sign.

We climb the few narrow steps to the light, and gaze out across the bay. From the lantern, Islay, the Paps of Jura, and Ulster appear blurred across the horizon. On a clear night, Hector says, you can even see the livid sodium glow of Derry. Underneath, on the floor below, the old brass motor fittings are still in place, useless now but still polished spotless. And, as we creep slowly up the precipitous road back to Campbeltown and beyond, the lights come on all over the coast, turning and returning, answering and replying. !

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