Caught by the River

Lighthouses of the UK #8: Sule Skerry

Ben Langworthy | 6th October 2018

Illustrator Ben Langworthy continues his mission to draw each of the 300+ lighthouses which pepper the UK coastline

Measuring just half a mile in length, the tiny island of Sule Skerry sits some 40 miles of the coast off Orkney and is barely visible from the mainland, even on a clear day.

Largely undisturbed by humanity, it is a haven for wildlife and has a huge population of puffins, seals, and a wide variety of other flourishing flora and fauna.

The silhouette of this bleak and largely featureless place is punctuated abruptly on its southern edge by the 88 foot tall tower of Sule Skerry: the remotest and most isolated lighthouse in the British Isles.

As strange as it may seem, at one time the bright-beaked birds once shared this place with an intrepid group of lighthouse keepers. While we may all occasionally fantasise about getting away from it all, living in such a lonely and windswept place is not without its difficulties. Prior to the invention of radio, communicating with the keepers proved a mammoth challenge. Carrier pigeons were blown off course, and the efforts of one assistant keeper to use a heliograph fared no better!

Such distant places are also often the stuff of legend and Sule Skerry is no exception. It is home to the protagonist of a traditional Orkney folk song : ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’. Silkies are mythical creatures who were said to be able to tell the future. They resemble seals at sea but can shed their skin in order to take human form on land.

The tale tells of one such creature who came to the mainland to reclaim his child from a human woman who had been nursing it. The silkie gives the woman a purse of gold in exchange for his son, but before he leaves the woman asks the silkie to tell her future. With a sorrowful look in his eyes he tells her that she will one day marry a whaler, who will unknowingly slay both him and his son in their watery form.

Perhaps if you travel to this far-flung isle you may be able to catch a glimpse of a silkie shedding its tail to walk on two legs, far from the prying eyes of the world.


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