The Lighthouse Georgesons

Chapter Six: The Lighthouse Georgeson brothers

In the summer of 2005 little Andrew read a story – that story was The Lighthouse Boy by Craig Mair. A wonderful and evocative book about a boy who helped build the Bell Rock Lighthouse and his friendship under the tutelage of Robert Stevenson.

Andrew has a bond to the Stevensons. His Great Granny ‘G.G’ was a Stevenson daughter (on her mother’s side), though probably not of the same great family. Furthermore Andrew played in the very cave where Robert Louis Stevenson once hid, the one on the banks of the Allan water below Drumdruills. It is probable that the young Robert Louis Stevenson first visited the cave in 1859 when he was nine years old – the age Andrew is now. The cave was an old adit or horizontal tunnel for the copper mine. Stevenson was to write “I went for my favourite walk by the riverside among the pines and ash trees. There is a little cavern here, which has been a part of me anytime these last 12 years or more.” It was almost certainly this cave that Stevenson transformed in Treasure Island to become Ben Gunn’s cave. That was another book Andrew and his whole family enjoyed. Yes a really great book.

Wally Mint was a visitor to Stevenson’s cave. If you have not read Wally Mint and the Wobblisks go out and grab a copy. It is a family tale of family appeal. It was written by Andrew and Rachel.

Robert Louis Stevenson was also a frequent visitor to Gilbert Farie’s the Chemist, still in business today as ‘Strathallan Pharmacy’. A visit to the chemist proved to be a traumatic experience for young Robert Louis, writing in 1880 that he was “a terror to me by day and haunted my dreams by night….” It is probable that Edward Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde was based on Farie.

When connections abound they overflow. Gilbert Farie that feared man was trained as an apothecary by none other than Charles Neil of the Rutherfoord family. Yes how one village – Bridge of Allan – can truly span the generations!

I have strayed – this chapter is not about Bridge of Allan – far from it. This is the story of two brothers who became Lighthouse Keepers. Andrew & Rachel’s Grandma, Eileen Georgeson recalls her own grandfather talking of the Lighthouse Keepers, and although much of the story is lost to the flimsy fabric of time, the bones survive to tell a tale.

The Georgeson family comes from Watten in Caithness. It is a land where Viking blood pervades with a hardy stock characterised by deep dark luxuriant hair that never seems to grey with time. That is the Georgeson hallmark. Eileen Georgeson, Andrew & Rachel’s ‘Grandma,’ has just turned seventy and her hair is still dark.

The two lighthouse brothers, Alexander and Donald, were the eldest and youngest sons respectively. Their father Alexander Georgeson was a son of a farm with a long tradition of Georgesons. That farm was Knapperfield lying in the open surrounds of Watten parish. It was the Georgeson equivalent to ‘The Camlet.’

It is interesting to note that two Georgesons from Watten, William and Donald Georgeson, served in the Napoleonic Campaign for the Black Watch. No doubt these were uncles of the Lighthouse brothers. The Black Watch Museum ended up in Perth, and how appropriate it was that Andrew’s Grandma took him there!

Knapperfield, WattenFigure 1: Knapperfield in Watten

Alexander Georgeson the older ‘Lighthouse brother’ was born in Wick in 1831, and aged 27 years married Elizabeth Murray in this his home town. It is recorded on his marriage certificate that by that tender age he was already a Lighthouse keeper based at Southend, Argyllshire.

Sanda Lighthouse on Southend was designed by Alan Stevenson and was completed in 1850. It was thus just eight years new when Alexander Georgeson became its Keeper and custodian.

Alexander’s first Light- Sanda, Southend of ArgyllshireFigure 2: Alexander’s first Light: Sanda, Southend of Argyllshire

The Sanda Lighthouse (also known as ‘The Ship Rock’) was situated off the south end of Kintyre. It was commissioned after the vessel Christina, sailing from Glasgow in 1825, was lost with all hands, after grounding on the nearby Pattersons Rocks. Indeed there had long been a demand for a light on this island which formed the turning into the Clyde after passing through the north Channel between Scotland and Ireland.

Sanda lighthouse was to be given a unique design by engineer Alan Stevenson with three sandstone towers climbing against the shoreside face of Ship Rock. Alexander Georgeson, newly married, must have been kept aerobically fit as the ascent up the three towers involved 210 steps up to the paraffin light! The keepers’ quarters were sited on the island at the foot of the towers nestling in a grassy hollow, but open nevertheless to the sea. So it was that the keepers could take their family with them to Sanda, and it was here that Alexander Georgeson took his new bride Elizabeth. They stayed on Sanda, with over 100 others most of whom survived simply on subsistence farming and fishing. The Northern Lighthouse Board later recorded that despite the building of the ‘Ship Rock’ Lighthouse in 1850 that wrecks still occurred even with the best efforts of the keepers. It was surely then a difficult and important job for Alexander to start out upon.

‘The Ship Rock’ Lighthouse on Sanda islandFigure 3: ‘The Ship Rock’ Lighthouse on Sanda island

It is quite exciting to follow Alexander’s route around the country, and a fantastic record that he managed to have six children, each born on a different island of Scotland! That is surely a matter of record that has never and will never, be repeated. From the birth of his children we get to the following Lights:

Alexander Georgeson (1831-1908) was Lighthouse keeper at:

  1. Southend, Sanda Island, Argyllshire, the ‘Ship Rock’ Lighthouse (1858)
  2. Davaar Lighthouse, Campbeltown (1865)
  3. Kilmory, Bute (1867)
  4. Jura (1869)
  5. Point of Ayre Lighthouse, Kirkbride, Isle of Man (1871)
  6. Whalsay, Shetland (1874)
  7. Start Point, Sanday, Orkney (1881)

Following more than five years at the ‘Ship Rock’ Lighthouse, Alexander and wife Elizabeth relocated around the coast, not ten miles away to Campbeltown. Conditions were arguably better than on Sanda and amenities withoutdoubt less basic. In 1865 their first child was born at Campbeltown light, a daughter who they named Ann Sutherland Georgeson in honour of Alexander’s mother who lived on in Wick. The picture below demonstrates the neat conical whitewashed tower of Campbeltown and the Keepers cottage behind. Through one of those windows little Ann was delivered into this world.

Campbeltown Light – a Victorian print by Firth.

Figure 4: Campbeltown Light – a Victorian print by Firth.

Davaar Lighthouse, near CampbeltownFigure 5: Another view of Davaar Lighthouse, near Campbeltown

David Georgeson was the next child to be born, this time at Kilmory in Bute. The year was 1867 and David was to flit with his family several times more in his scholastic years.

Elizabeth Georgeson was spaced an even two years on from David, but she was not born in Bute, rather on the island of Jura. It seems likely that her father Alexander was already on to his fourth light. There was much more movement of Keepers than one might ever have imagined. Principal Lightkeepers were not a commodity but had invaluable experience, particularly in the training of their Assistants. Disciplinary procedures also accounted for moves, but it does not appear that this was the case for Alexander: there is so much that is indicative that he was very much an upwardly mobile Keeper.

So it was that Alexander Georgeson was promoted and sometime circa 1870 took up post as Principal Keeper at Point of Ayre Lighthouse on the northern tip of the Isle of Man. Alexander was now part of a Crown dependency which had its very own parliament (called Tynwald), laws, traditions and culture.

It was on the Isle of Man in 1871 that Alexander’s fourth child was born, a daughter, named Margaret Georgeson

Point of Ayre Lighthouse, Kirkbride, was established in 1818 by Engineer Robert Stevenson and formed a 90 foot circular white tower wrapped in two red bands. The light revolved on roller bearings driven by a clock-work mechanism operated by a weight lowered to the base of the tower. This has to be rewound manually, the diuturnity governed by the revolution of the optic and the height of the tower. This was 90 minutes at the Point of Ayre which had an eight minute revolution, alternately flashing a white then a red light. It was a revolving catoptric light, consisting of fourteen (2 ft. diameter) parabolic reflectors with Argand lamps.

Point of Ayre Lighthouse, Kirkbride parish, Isle of ManFigure 8: Point of Ayre Lighthouse, Kirkbride parish, Isle of Man

To the top of the light there were 124 steps and the uncompromising routine must have truly tested the alertness and professionalism of Alexander. He was after all protecting the west Coast Channel, vital in the prosperity of many a trading body. In one of the tied Keepers cottages pictured above, little Margaret was born: another Island for another child. One wonders if Margaret carried forward the self governing authority of the island of her birth – it was after all far removed from Caithness the home of her mother & father!

The fifth child of Alexander Georgeson was born on Whalsay island, Shetland in 1874: and so quite remarkably another child on another island! As yet it has been difficult to establish which of the Shetland Lights, Alexander kept, for the Whalsay Lighthouse was not apparently established until 1904.

By the time of the 1881 census, Alexander and family had moved yet again, this time southwards from the Shetland to the Orkney Isles. Alexander was appointed as Principal Lightkeeper for the newly built ‘Start Point Lighthouse’ which was designed by Robert Stevenson and Thomas Smith and erected in 1870. It consisted of a 75 foot tower and was decorated with unusual vertical black and white stripes.

To what a colourful array of Lights that Alexander had served, and in each, the light of a new birth, shone bright. Sanday in the Orkneys was no different, for it was here that Alexander’s last child was born – Alexander junior.

Start Point, Sanday, Orkney

Figure 9: Start Point, Sanday, Orkney

1881 census – Start Point, Lady, Orkney
Alexander GEORGESON, Head, married, age 49yrs, Principal Light Keeper, 20 Acres (8 Arable), born Wick
Elizabeth GEORGESON, wife, age 47yrs, born Wick
Ann S. GEORGESON, Lightkeepers Daughter, age 16yrs, born Campbeltown, Argyll
David GEORGESON, son, scholar, age 14yrs, born Kilmory, Bute
Elizabeth H. GEORGESON, daughter, scholar, age 12yrs, born Jura, Argyll
Margaret GEORGESON, daughter, scholar, age 10yrs, born Kirkbride, Isle of Man, England
Matthew H. GEORGESON, son, scholar, age 7yrs, born Whalsay, Shetland

Below is a simplified map identifying the Lights that Alexander served as Keeper. How many stories he must have had to tell – what a crying shame they are lost.

Alexander Georgeson, Principal Lighthouse Keeper and first of the ‘Lighthouse Brothers.’Figure 10: Alexander Georgeson, Principal Lighthouse Keeper and first of the ‘Lighthouse Brothers.’

Eileen Georgeson descends from Donald Georgeson, Alexander’s little brother. Her grandfather William Watt Georgeson was born on North Rhonaldsay Lighthouse in October 1867. He was to be the first of Donald’s bairns.

William Watt Georgeson

Donald Georgeson had a voyage akin to his brother – and here was a man who also knew the seas. He was born in Wick in 1842. In 1867 Donald married Isabella Watt the daughter of a Sea Captain. Her father was Chief Officer of the ‘Pharos’ and was the Master Mariner who served the Scottish Lights. William Watt’s story has been lost to the family and that is a shame – for in captaining the Pharos he must have had many adventures.

Isabella Watt, Donald’s new wife was born on Tiree, like her father her story has been lost, though we know her father, the Captain, had for some years a base in Leith, Edinburgh. That makes perfect sense as he must have had to return to the port repeatedly to replenish his cargo & seek provisions for the Lights.

Donald Georgeson (1842-1908) was Lighthouse keeper at:

  1. North Ronaldsay – Assistant Light Keeper (1866–1870)
  2. Chanonry Lighthouse, Black Isle (1870–1880)
  3. North Unst Lighthouse ‘Muckle Flugga’ (1880–1884)
  4. Monach Lighthouse – Principal Keeper (1884–1886)
  5. Tobermory Lighthouse, Island of Mull (1886–1895)
  6. Rona Light (July 1895 – December 1895)
  7. Little Ross Light (December 1895 – June 1900)

I cannot help my fascination with the parallel careers of brothers Alexander and Donald. They both served on seven different Lights and they both raised their large families on bedrocks of remoteness. In fear of no understatement that could not have been easy.

North Ronaldsay Old and ‘New’ LighthousesFigure 11: North Ronaldsay: Old and ‘New’ Lighthouses

Donald Georgeson received his first Assistant Keeper’s commission due to a misdemeanour of the then Assistant to North Ronaldsay, James Hawthorn. James Hawthorn was moved to another station following ‘displays of ungoverned temper’ towards the Principal Keeper and had previously been moved for assaulting his wife and threatening other NorthernLighthouse Board staff. It could be that Alexander Georgeson aware of this unexpected vacancy in the Rhonaldsay Light, put forward his youngest brother Donald for the position. That is purely speculation but makes intuitive sense.

North Ronaldsay lighthouse, at Kirk Taing on Dennis Head, was the first in Orkney, and it was established in 1789. North Ronaldsay was the third lighthouse the Commissioners built, being preceded by Kinnaird Head and Mull of Kintyre. Thomas Smith, an Edinburgh lampmaker was the engineer with Ezekiel Walker, an English lighthouse designer, to advise in the initial stages. Smith was assisted by his step-son Robert Stevenson, founder of a famous family of lighthouse engineers, and grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Smith chose to build the first North Ronaldsay tower at Kirk Jaing, the most easterly point of Dennis Head. The transport of workmen and materials from Leith slowed down the work, but by the autumn of 1789 the masons, John White and James Sinclair, had constructed 70 ft tower of local undressed stone, along with the lightkeeper’s dwellings. The bill of the mason’s work came to £199-12-6d. This ‘old’ lighthouse had a short working life, though as a ruin it was to stand steadfast as a great unlit beacon – its sturdy walls a tribute to good masonwork.

As the years passed, it became obvious that this island, with its dangerous shoals, still required its own lighthouse. By this time, the sea around North Ronaldsay had been carefully surveyed, and the site for the new tower at Dennis Head chosen to give maximum warning of the Reef Duke and Seal Skerry.

“The necessity for giving an extensive range to the light at North Ronaldsay, which is to warn the mariner of his approach to the North Foreland of Orkney, combines with the lower level of land, to render a high tower unavoidable”.

On Alan Stevenson’s recommendation, the Commissioners accepted the lowest offer of £6,181-8s-7d for a brick tower from William Kinghorn, a “respectable builder” of Leith.

The ‘New’ lighthouse was first lit in 1853, and it was the last one in Orkney to be made automatic in 1999. Soaring to a height of 139ft, the gleaming red brick tower must have been a source of wonder to the inhabitants of the island. It dominated the low lying crofts, its revolving beam sweeping over the lighting up and the land as well as the sea, to the benefit of night visitors and decorated with two characteristic white bands. It was decorated externally with two characteristic white bands and internally to the top of the tower there were 176 steps.

This was an impressive Light on which Donald to embark on a lifetime’s career. North Ronaldsay was one of the tallest Lighthouses in Britain and it was just a decade old when he became its assistant chatelaine.

The Chanonry on Black IsleFigure 12: The Chanonry on Black Isle

Chanonry Lighthouse, originally a ‘one-man station’, was situated on the Black Isle, south of Rosemarkie, as the Moray Firth narrows between Chanonry Point and Fort George. The light was first exhibited on the night of the 15th May 1846. The lightkeeper, in addition to his normal lightkeeping duties, was the “observer” of Munlochy Shoal, Middle Bank East, Craigmee, Riff Bank East and Navitty Bank Lighted buoys.

Donald Georgeson was Assistant Keeper on the Chanonry Lighthouse for a full decade between 1870 and 1880 and it was here that four of his seven children were born. Recently I was with my family at Fort George from which a good view of the Black Isle and the Chanonry could be had. The day of the visit was sunny yet the wind penetrated cold to the bone. What conditions to raise a family: Donald, Isabella and bairns must then have been truly hardy.

The Chanonry LighthouseFigure 13: The Chanonry Lighthouse

Within the whitewashed walls, sealed top and bottom in red (Figure 13), four of Donald’s children were born:

  • Annie Sutherland Georgeson born the Chanonry 1869
  • Hugh Fitzimons Georgeson born the Chanonry 1871
  • Elizabeth Watt Georgeson born the Chanonry 1876
  • Isabella Watt Georgeson born the Chanonry 1880

From 1880 over a four year period, Donald was stationed at Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, North Unst, Shetland before being promoted to a Principal Lighthouse Keeper on the Monach. The rather quaint ‘Muckle Flugga’ is a rather recent folk introduction, in Donald’s day the Lighthouse was known rather plainly as ‘North Unst.’

The establishment of a lighthouse at Muckle Flugga, which is the most northerly rock in the British Isles, Latitude 60° 51.3’N Longitude 00° 53.0’W was considered by the Commissioners as far back as 1851, but due to difficulties in determining the exact site for the Lighthouse, no work had been undertaken by 1854. During the Crimean War the Commissioners were urged by the Government to erect a light at Muckle Flugga with a view to the protection of Her Majesty’s ships.

1881 census – North Unst Lighthouse, Shetland
Donald GEORGESON, married, head, age 39yrs Principal, Lightkeeper, born Wick, Caithness
James BROWN, married, boarder, age 29, Assistant Lightkeeper, born Inchkeith Lighthouse, Fife
Hugh BROWN, married, boarder, age 29, Assistant Lightkeeper, born Leith, Edinburgh.

Lighthouse Station, Shetland
Isabella GEORGESON, head, married, age 32yrs, Light Keepers Wife, born Tyree, Argyll
William W. GEORGESON, son, age 12yrs, born North Ronaldshay, Orkney
Annie S. GEORGESON, daughter, age 10yrs, born Chanonry, Ross and Cromarty
Hugh F. GEORGESON, son, age 7yrs, born Chanonry, Ross and Cromarty
Elisabeth W. GEORGESON, daughter, age 5yrs, born Chanonry, Ross and Cromarty
Isabella W. GEORGESON, daughter, age 1yr, born Chanonry, Ross and Cromarty

The light was sited on a jagged outcrop of Skerries a mile north of Unst and right in the path of the Atlantic storms. A 64 foot high brick tower was built, with foundations sunk ten feet into the rock, and a permanent light appeared at last on the 1st January 1858.

The Commissioners declined to reduce the thickness of the tower walls below 3½ft, or risk weakening the foundations by using local stone for rubble or reducing the depth of the foundations; but they agreed to have an iron pedestal in place of stone, and to reduce the size of the cornice. In spite of all possible economies, Muckle Flugga cost £32,000. That they built well, was proved over the succeeding years, when the seas broke over the rocks for 21 hours continuously, sweeping away one gate pillar and dislodging another, & blocks of stone 2ft square were rushed over the court as if they had been wood.

North Unst Lighthouse ‘Muckle Flugga’Figure 14: North Unst Lighthouse ‘Muckle Flugga’

There were three Lightkeepers on the rock at any one time; each of the six Lightkeepers manning the station spending one month on and one month ashore. Fresh water and any heavy stores were landed by the Attendant Boat.

It may be interesting to note that Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in 1850, visited Muckle Flugga on 18 June 1869 with his father, Thomas Stevenson, Engineer to the Board and there is a school of thought that the Island of Unst influenced him in his writing of “Treasure Island”.

Muckle Flugga as it is todayFigure 15: Muckle Flugga as it is today

After reaching out to the most northern extremity of Scotland, Donald next cast his hand to span out west, this time taking the post of Principal Keeper of the Monach on the remote island of Shillay, west of the Outer Hebrides. This was the only ever Lighthouse on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides. Its role was vital and Donald its pivot for the two short years between 1884 and 1886.

The Monach light was first exhibited from 133ft high tower on the 1st of February 1864. The Lighthouse was built, at a cost of £14,673, by Messrs David and Thomas Stevenson.

Half a century on from Donald, a terrible tragedy occurred at the Monach. On the 15th November 1936 two lightkeepers were drowned. They had taken a rowing boat across the half mile stretch of water, as usual, to collect the mail from the post box, a journey which involved a walk of approximately two and three quarter miles and the crossing of two fords.

Monach door

Figure 16: Monach door

The weather deteriorated badly – sleet and gale force winds blew up – by the time they came to make the return journey and their rowing boat was driven off course. They disappeared from view and it was not until 7th and 8th December that their bodies were washed on Heisker Isle across the Sound.

The light, the only one on the west coast of the Hebrides, was closed down in 1942 during the war. At the end of hostilities in 1945 the light was not relit and in 1948, after extensive enquiries had been made from shipping, it was found that the light had ceased to be a value of general navigation. On the 22nd November 1948 the Monach Light was therefore discontinued permanently. Donald would surely have thought that a sad day indeed.

It should be noted before leaving the Monach, that Donald Georgeson’s last child was born there in 1886. He was given the name Alexander, surely in honour of Donald’s older brother Alexander. The fraternal Lighthouse loop was thus complete.

Monach Lighthouse on the Outer HebridesFigure 17: Monach Lighthouse on the Outer Hebrides

Between 1886 to 1895 Donald and his growing family were stationed on Mull; thus the bedrocks (literally) to Donald’s young family were to be the Black Isle (Chanonry Light) and Mull (Tobermory Light), with a decade spent on both respectively.

In the early autumn of 1891 Donald Georgeson was issued with a General Order by the Northern Lighthouse Board. General Orders were issued by the Secretary of the Northern Lighthouse Board on behalf of the Commissioners and were sent to each of the lighthouse stations in the Northern Lighthouse Service. They covered administrative matters general to the whole service such as changes in senior personnel, changes to operational routines, salary increases etc. General Orders were also used to commend

keepers for gallantry (for example in the event of shipwrecks), and to reprimand them for breaches of discipline or of the Lightkeepers Instructions (i.e. operational rules and regulations).

Northern Lighthouse BoardFigure 18: Northern Lighthouse Board

REGARDING NEGLECT OF DUTY BY DONALD GEORGESON, PRINCIPAL LIGHTKEEPER, SOUND OF MULL, LIGHTHOUSE.

The Superintendent having reported that, when on a visit to the Sound of Mull Lighthouse on 12th September last, while the Station was under the charge of Mr Donald Georgeson, Principal Keeper, and the Occasional (the assistant being absent on leave), he found the Tower door open at 7 o’clock

in the morning, but no one in the Lightroom, when, in terms of Light-keepers Instructions, Chapter 3, Section 19,- both Lightkeepers ought to have been there cleaning the Lightroom and apparatus.

After waiting 25 minutes, the Superintendent blew the’ whistles’ when the Principal and Occasional both appeared as if just out of their beds, and could give no satisfactory explanation of their absence.

For this neglect of duty, the Commissioners have directed that Mr.Georgeson, the Principal Keeper, be fined £2.

The Sound of Mull Light

Figure 19: The Sound of Mull Light

In intimating this to the Lightkeepers, the Commissioners have to impress upon all of the importance of Strict attention to, and regularity in, the discharge of their various duties, and that these be performed in all respects in terms of their instructions.

By Order of the BOARD.

J.M.DUNGAN.

On the 12th September, at the Sound of Mull, the light would have been extinguished at 5.55am. Whichever keeper was on duty would have gone to bed not knowing that the Superintendent was on his way to the station. Poor Donald for he was simply unfortunate to be caught out on this occasion. Being caught still in bed at 7am was not a major offence although it contravened the directions given in an earlier General Order of 1853. However, if there had been a repeated offence or any other ‘neglect of duty’ it is likely that Donald Georgeson would have been demoted or even dismissed.

The General Orders, once received at the station, would be read out by the Principal Keeper to the Assistants and then filed into the General Order Book kept on each station. In this way keepers who were dismissed from the service or who were fined and/or demoted for other offences were made an example of.

It is ironic that Donald Georgeson should be disciplined for this particular offence as he was appointed to the Principal Keeper’s position at the Sound of Mull due to the demotion of William Mill for the same offence in October 1886. However, William Mill compounded his misdemeanour by telling his Assistant not to bother cleaning the lightroom and lens before 9am. In the Commissioners’ opinion not only did he disobey the Rules and Directions of the Board but he ‘improperly instructed a subordinate official to do so’.

The next flit for Donald was to South Rona (he was good at garnering remote beauties) but curiously he spent only six short months there (July to December 1895). This also raised the antennae of the Lighthouse Archivist Fiona Swallow:

“I was curious as to why Donald Georgeson was shifted to Rona in July 1895 and then to Little Ross in December the same year but could find no records to help explain this. It may be interesting to follow this up at the Scottish Record Office which holds the letter books and minutes of the Northern Lighthouse Board.”

The Rona Light had been established 38 years earlier under the supervision of the Engineer brothers David & Thomas Stevenson. Prior to that date, on Rona, north of Raasay, a widow named Janet Mackenzie had for many years shown a light in one of her windows which enabled fishing boats to clear the rocks at the harbour entrance, and for her selfless efforts she had been given a grant of £20 by the Commissioners

Rona Island stamps

Figure 20: Rona Island stamps

Sadly, there is no need to examine the Minute Books (as suggested by Fiona Swallow) for a recent finding disclosed a tragic reason behind Donald’s short stay on South Rona. On the evening of the 21st of October 1895, Rona Lighthouse saw a terrible accident. No storm, no shipwreck, but the plunge of a ten year old boy down the Lighthouse stairs. That boy was Alexander the youngest son of Donald the Lightkeeper. Brokenhearted Donald could face the Rona Light no more, and two months later was granted relocation by the Lighthouse Board to Little Ross.

Fell doon stairs

Like his brother Alexander, Donald did not stick fast to his northerly roots. In December 1895, for what we now know as the saddest of reasons, he relocated to his last Light. That Light was Little Ross facing out beyond Kirkcudbright. In 2003 on a visit to Kirkcudbright Museum, Sian came across the preserved Light Mechanism taken from the Lighthouse – her hands reached out to touch a mechanism wound over and over again by her great great grandfather. You could almost hear its crank turn and the cogs click.

Had he lived on, Donald might just have been compelled by a twentieth century murder – a murder that involved his Light of Little Ross. Herewith follows a newspaper account of the vile act:

MURDER AT ROSS ISLAND

Today Little Ross Lighthouse stands sentinel guarding the estuary of the river Dee. The light is unmanned except for the visits by the boatman/attendant, to change the gas bottles, which now fuel the light. It was not always so.

Back in August 1960, two lighthouse relief keepers were stationed on the island, Mr Hugh Clark, a former postman from Main Street, Dalry, a relief keeper who was on duty during the principal keeper’s holiday, and Robert Dickson, assistant keeper, a 24 year-old ex-sailor. Here is the story, reconstructed from contemporary newspaper accounts. (Willie McKenzie was the first journalist to report the story.)

Mr T.R. Collin, a local bank manager and secretary of the local branch of the RNLI, was out sailing in a dinghy with his 19 year-old son David, and went ashore at Little Ross to have lunch, and go for a walk. As he approached the lighthouse buildings he heard the telephone ringing. Since the lighthouse keeper did not seem to be answering the call Mr Collin knocked on the cottage door, thinking Mr Clark was asleep. When he got no reply he entered the house and found Mr Clark lying in a blood-stained bed, with injuries to his head.

Mr Collin rang the Kirkcudbright police and after several hours Inspector William Garroch and Constable George Thomson, accompanied by Dr RN Rutherfurd, arrived at the island in a launch piloted by George Poland, a local fisherman.

Chief Constable Berry stated that Mr Clark’s body was found in circumstances which might suggest homicide. (Expert medical examinations later revealed that death was due to rifle wounds.)

The police said: “A main line of enquiry is being followed up and we are anxious to trace a motor car, GV 4534, believed to be a fairly old 10 h.p. grey Wolseley, and to interview the driver.” The car, which belonged to Mr Clark, was discovered by the police to be missing from where he always parked it, at Ross Farm, on the nearest convenient mainland point to the lighthouse. The Wolseley was later found abandoned in Dumfries with no trace of the driver.

A nation-wide hunt began centred on Selby in Yorkshire, where police took up positions on the northern side of the town at the toll bridge and watched all vehicles heading south. When at 8.25 am a car answering to the description stopped to pay the 9d toll, the policemen moved out of their positions. After speaking to the police, the man in the Wolseley was arrested and later detained.

Robert McKenna Cribbes Dickson was charged in Dumfries High Court with the murder of Hugh Clark. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang – four days before Christmas. He heard the demanding, accusing voice of a prosecution counsel: This was a black-hearted crime… this man plotted a mystery of the sea.

Little is known of the fate of the children of Donald Georgeson & his wife Isabella Watt. William Watt Georgeson became an Apothecary and later Vintner before settling in Perth. Hugh Fitzimons Georgeson who was born at the Chanonry was found drowned in Princes Dock, Glasgow on the last Monday of March 1940. Of the other children nothing is recorded.

Sometime dates just fall into patterns and meanings can be drawn from such, but at other times one is left to contemplate coincidence. It is exactly this matter that one ponders with the ‘Georgeson Lighthouse brothers’ for Alexander Georgeson died on the 21st September 1908, and just ten days later in Saltcoats his younger brother Donald passed onto his maker. Somehow that seems fitting.

It is my true wish that Alexander & Donald had left their own story to tell, for truly, and arguably like no other, it would have fascinated.

Shine on Lighthouse boys. Shine on.

Donald Georgeson, Lighthose keeper Georgeson tree lighthouses

Lighthouse

Gorgon in greed, but not effect, it glares
a thing to life and back again.
A hill jumps forward, then it isn’t there.
A tree explodes in tree shape. Flashes devour
this house’s natural death – it has more than twenty
punctual resurrections every hour.
Bad Christians think that one is more than plenty.

Bad disbelievers, too, are troubled by
their disbelief – how weak it is;
And in the dark look for that whirling eye
whose magical rigidity might swing
them into high relief. . . The sea, too busy
inventing its own forms, bucks by, leaving
the mind to spin, the dark brain to grow dizzy.

Norman MacCaig