Since 1847, when by royal decree the construction of 127 lighthouses along the Spanish coastline began, the biggest of all was the 75 ft-high Vilán, still only accessible by a narrow track that winds its way for miles across one of the Costa da Morte’s most rugged and emptiest headlands.
Given the exceptionally lonely and sometimes dangerous working conditions, perched on the lip of a 200 ft, windblasted cliff edge, it is not surprising that the eight lighthouse keepers once needed for the Vilán’s maintenance were allowed extra pay and holiday time as compensation.
Their former living quarters at the foot of the Vilán now contain a small museum, which contains the lighthouse’s old radio, its Morse transmission system so powerful its signal could almost be picked up in New York (and which provoked international protest as a result) and its first light, used from 1896 to 1964 and visible up to 40 miles distant.
But the museum’s most moving section consists of four simple maps showing the sites of dozens of shipwrecks which have littered the coastline over the years.
However, one of the biggest losses of life through sinking was not due to the Costa da Morte’s notoriously treacherous coastline, but to poor design. In 1870 the HMS Captain, a new type of Royal Navy cruiser, set sail before trials revealing she was exceptionally prone to capsizing could be completed. When Captain duly went down — by chance, off the Costa’s Cape Finisterre — 471 sailors perished, and just 18 survived.