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Tommy goes back to the light

Climbing the steep steps with ease ... - Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

RETURNING to the tower of the Stevenson lighthouse at Sumburgh Head means the world to Tommy Eunson.

It’s 45 years since the retired keeper last visited his old haunt at the southern tip of Shetland’s mainland.

This week he returned at the invitation of Shetland Amenity Trust, which is spending £5.4 million refurbishing the historic building to mark the 192nd anniversary of the light being first lit.

The 80 year old was still agile enough to climb the steep stairs to the top with ease from where he enjoyed the once familiar unhindered view over the sea on a crisp winter’s day.

“Coming up to the tower here has made my day,” he saighed.

“It feels as though I have never been away; standing here, looking out, it’s just like 45 years being swept away.

“There is a lot of work going on here, right enough, but in a way it looks the same as it was when I left.”

Eunson joined the Northern Lighthouse Board on 27 October 1961 as an occasional lightkeeper at Sumburgh Head.

He replaced keepers when they were away on annual leave or due to illness until in in 1966 he was appointed regular keeper and, working his way up the ranks at other locations, was promoted to principal keeper two years later.

During the ensuing 29 years he was posted to lighthouses from Muckle Flugga in the north to the Mull of Galloway in the south.

He recalled that keeping the light to guide shipping around Scotland’s coast was a round the clock job requiring men prepared to brave the harshest conditions in the most remote locations.

It was a job Eunson was made for, but one whose days are now gone.

“Oh, I enjoyed my time at the lighthouse board, I never looked back.

“But there are no lightkeepers now at all, it’s all automated. A lightkeeper nowadays is something like a dinosaur, he belongs to the past.”

The octogenarian is now helping amenity trust interpretation manager Matt Arnold piece together the story of the Sumburgh lighthouse keepers.

The trust is converting the historic site into a “first class visitor attraction” with accommodation facilities above some of Britain’s most famous bird cliffs.

Three quarters of the funding for the building project being carried out by Irish firm Corramore Construction has come from outside the isles.

“There are two parts to this project,” Arnold said.

“The first is to restore the site back to how it would have been planned way back in 1821.

“The second is to create a visitor centre which tells the lighthouse story, the marine life around Sumburgh Head, and also focusses on the themes of war, geology and archaeology.

“As part of my research I have been trying to contact keepers who worked at Sumburgh Head to tell me their story, give me anecdotes about the lighthouse, their work and what happened when they were here.”

The refurbishment is due to be completed in 2014.

General Election - 12 December 2019