Digest>Archives> October 2004

Women of the Light

Isobel Sutherland: A New Kind of Scottish Lightkeeper

By Jeremy D'Entremont

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Isobel Sutherland during an equipment check at ...

The Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), created by an Act of Parliament in 1786, is today responsible for more than 200 lighthouses along with other aids to navigation covering more than 6,000 miles of coastline in Scotland and the Isle of Man. All the lighthouses under the NLB are now automated, but the buildings and equipment are still well cared for. For some years, the NLB has retained attendants to conduct caretaking functions at the lights. A recent study concluded that attendants should not be retained for some of the minor solarized lights, but that a need for attendants still exists at many of the major lights.

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Isobel Sutherland next to the lens at Strathy ...

A new, cost-effective program called "zoning" has just been launched, which involves the grouping of a number of light stations to be looked after by a single keeper called a Retained Lighthouse Keeper or RLK. The first "zone" to be established was the Caithness area and the first of this new breed of keeper is Isobel Sutherland, a part-time staff nurse at a busy local hospital and mother of a sixteen-year-old girl. She was appointed to the position on December 1, 2003.

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One of the lighthouses that Isobel Sutherland ...

"Before this I’d no connection with lighthouses other than taking my dog walks near them," Isobel recently told the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Journal. She’s now responsible for six lighthouses: Clythness, Noss Head, Duncansby, Stroma, Dunnet Head and Strathy Point.

Isobel pays a monthly visit to each of her lights. She tries to spot potential problems before they have a chance to actually become problems. Watching for signs of water leaking into the structures is of prime importance. "I do lots of checks," she explains. "For example, I check the water levels in the batteries and that the battery chargers are operating, the operation of the fire and intruder systems, any cracked panes anywhere but especially up at the main optic." She also checks the cables, switches and other electronics and takes meter readings. These readings and reports on every visit are submitted to a maintenance engineer at NLB headquarters in Edinburgh.

When asked how she has found the job so far, Isobel responded, "I really like it. I love the locations, the remoteness and ruggedness. I’m enjoying getting to know the lights. They have similarities and also lots of differences." She’s looking forward to getting a helicopter ride during an annual restocking of Stroma Lighthouse. "It’ll be good to see the bigger picture!" she says.

Isobel finds plenty to fill her time when she’s not busy being a lightkeeper, mother and nurse. "I love walking in remote areas," she says. "I also have a Kawasaki 550 motorbike that I love to go off riding to different places on. I love camping via bike or car. If by car, it means the dogs can enjoy it, too, and I take the big tent!"

Isobel is studying for a nursing degree, and her visits to the lights also provide a constant learning experience. She says she looks forward to getting to know each of the lights well, adding, "I’m getting there with each visit, but it’s still new and I notice things on a visit that I feel I should have noticed before. But with it all being so new and the visits spaced, it’s just going to take a little longer to get there." But for the enthusiastic and adventurous Ms. Sutherland, it appears that the journey is its own reward.

This story appeared in the October 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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