Caught by the River

A Shetland Lighthouse Diary

Jennifer Lucy Allan | 17th February 2018

The first of four dispatches from Jennifer Lucy Allan‘s temporary lighthouse home.

Sheets of rain come down with no warning, clattering against the big windows of Sumburgh Lighthouse on their way over the headland, as cumulus race across the sky. The light shifts, blues and greys turn to violets and toxic yellows. The sun breaks through in shards of thin pale light and low-lying squalls make the horizon a blurred band of charcoal.

I am at the southern tip of the mainland of Shetland to start a month-long writing residency in the lighthouse’s converted smithy. Because it is off-season, I can use the cafe as a workspace. Its curved panoramic window looks northwest towards the white sand of West Voe beach, Jarlshof and Sumburgh airport. I can make out Fair Isle to the southwest on a clear day, and see its blinking lighthouse at night. To the other side I can see the Bressay light east of Lerwick, but for the most part this view is sky, sea and headland, light and texture. The view changes constantly.

Stood alone at the curved glass I want to record it all, but the changes are too many and the camera only captures a static view. It is the movement in this panorama that I want to record, but the light is too subtle, and changes too fast.

I have lived alone in Essex for two years, and I know that in secluded houses you become the architect of your own reality. Alone, I remember less of what I have done, experiences become less real. I send messages on group chats to family and friends, tweet photos of my office view, this sharing a way to solidify my experience. If only you are the witness to your days, the imagination can embellish in the telling, can correct bad behaviour, and can censor sadness and frustration.

My seclusion here becomes acute as gloom falls over the landscape on the first day. At home I can hear the neighbours above me, hear cars going past, but here I cannot see a soul. The wind is up and it taunts – whistling and rattling forcefully through every crack in every door and window frame like a trick-or-treater, jeering and whooping at the door. It scrapes along the curved sides of the cafe and the sea spray it brings with it has literally torn the paint away. Two ravens fly past the window in the eerie late afternoon, wings tucked and fighting across to the radar station on the next hill.

As the sun goes down in an ombre of blue and peach, the first night stretches ahead of me as a great lonely desert. I heat up my coffee for the third time and bring two of the soft striped pillows from my bunkbed into the room. Night is drawn like a curtain over the landscape, the first time I understand that cliché, the darkness creeping over from East to West. In the West the last dim glow feebly backlights the low clouds on the horizon, becoming scenery for a play in which a black cumulus bull drags a matador by its tail, speeding across the foreground in a tragi-comic scene.

The darkness is already deep and blue and depthless in the east, the sea horribly black against the sky. The huge expanse of window means I can be seen but cannot see out, and my mind conjures images of zombies crowded at the window; men with wild eyes crushed against the glass and rattling the door handles. I have watched too many films about the end of civilisation.

I do not remember being scared of the dark, but I find it in me now. Time spent in cities and towns under the yellow glow of streetlight and traffic has made this depth of nighttime foreign. My heart is in my throat and I can barely move for fear of being noticed by whatever my imagination has brought to life and is lurking on the cliffs. When all light is gone, the lighthouse beam sweeps across the silent hills and stewing seas, and the clouds faintly glow against a starless sky. I do not go outside.


I get up in the morning to find my aloneness was an illusion. There are people staying at the holiday let in the old keeper’s accommodation across the way, someone walks a border collie, and a few hours later a whole coach unloads at the car park at the bottom of the hill, a crowd in bright waterproofs traipsing up the hill to look at the view and wave to me through the window. I mock myself for being such a scaredy cat.

By day three the wind has disappeared, checking out like a guest leaving a hotel. There is a stillness in its place and the building is quiet. The surface of the sea is softly crinkled and with no wind I can hear the roaring of the water, boisterous and rushing around the black rocks below.

In the mornings my days stretch out in 15 shapeless hours until I pull myself together and impose some self-discipline, formulating a plan out loud while making breakfast. I construct false markers, imagine tasks, but by the end of a day I have gone off plan, muddled by half finished texts and the welcome but unproductive distractions of a Wi-Fi connection. I worry that I am not making the best of this place. A large stack of pages is waiting to be edited, but I am busy staring at the sea and sky.