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Lighthouse Story Two


Carol Tweedie


December’s tragedy at South Light was made worse for many islanders, because 18 year old John Irvine of Quoy, became suddenly ill and died of “meningitis” on the day of the bombing.  As they mourned with his mother Isabella and Mr Sutherland, that December must have been as emotionally trying as the weather. A radar station was situated on the island, defended by members of the Royal Artillery and Royal Marines, so a Lewis Gun post was now set up at South Light.


On 21st January 1942, as Principal Keeper Smith returned from an errand, he witnessed two bombs fall on the South Light’s accommodation block, destroying the west gable and starting a fire.  His wife Margaret and daughter Greta were killed and one of the gunners gravely wounded.  Keeper Craigie, who had been severely shocked in the 1941 attack, was found wandering dazed and shocked.  The weather was (of course) dreadful, with snow and high winds.


The dead and wounded were removed and Mr Smith, with the help of local men and members of the naval contingent, tried to to save some things from the fire and prevent it spreading to the oil cellars and engine room.  There was much destruction and many panes of glass were broken, including lantern panes. The steel balcony doors of the light room were buckled. 


Mr Macaulay from North Light fought his way down in a blizzard to help his colleague. They managed to get the light back into working condition, but with a south easterly gale and no available water, there was little anyone could do to stop the fire spreading.  Mr Macaulay, Mr Smith, local contractors, islanders and Royal Marines kept watch for the next few days and nights, although the fire burned in the coal cellars until 13th February.  Mr Macaulay returned to North Light to undertake his shift that night and returned the next day, bringing one of his keepers to work with Smith.  Keeper Craigie was too ill to work and was nursed by Mrs Cassels, the schoolmaster’s wife. He was eventually taken to Lerwick for medical treatment.


The drifting mine that had been in the harbour since the previous year, exploded on 25th January. This broke a further 24 panes of glass that had been in the lighthouse store, and which could have been used to make repairs when the weather improved. 



Mr Smith continued to undertake his duties, staying with Mrs Stout of Upper Stoneybreck, until Mr Sutherland (the keeper who'd lost his wife in December) returned on 5th February.  Mr Smith had sent a telegraph to the lighthouse board on 23rd January, which read: “I would like if possible to take remains to Orkney". This permission was speedily given, but it seems that he changed his mind.  He eventually buried his wife and daughter in the Fair Isle graveyard on January 29th, supported by everyone who could attend.


Although the light remained available for the Admiralty, the fog signal was deactivated because of the damage and the lack of qualified personnel to repair it.  On the 27th January, Assistant Superintendent Cadger arrived from Edinburgh to take stock, along with two keepers from Sumburghhead and Bressay. At the light, cleaning and emergency repairs were undertaken and windows and doors were boarded up, but it was impossible to replace the lantern glass in the light room, due to the continuing awful weather.  Severe frosts threatened to freeze pipes in the engine room, so two light keepers were permanently on duty.  Mr Cadger had ordered 160 panes of glass, but given the weather, this would not arrive quickly.  The keepers were boarded all over the island, so that when a light was required, they had to journey some distance through dreadful weather, to work in a freezing lighthouse. Eventually, they were installed in a newly constructed nissen hut close to the light, where they lived until the end of the war. 


Mr Macaulay was awarded the BEM for outstanding efforts and Mr Smith, who had according to Mr Cadger, “shown wonderful courage,” later married Isabella Irvine (who in 1941 had lost her son). In 1946 they had a daughter, Ruby.

Principal Lighthouse Keeper William Smith, wife Isabella, and daughter, Ruby

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