Caught by the River

The Foghorn’s Lament

Jennifer Lucy Allan | 12th May 2021

An extract from Jennifer Lucy Allans ‘The Foghorn’s Lament’ — an exploration into the history, unique sound, and future of the foghorn, which is our Book of the Month for May.

On a still and golden day in late summer the breath of autumn is in the air. I am aboard the restored nine­teenth-century steamer the Waverley, steaming down the Clyde from the centre of Glasgow, through Greenock and along the firth. When I booked this trip, I had expected the ship to sound like a clamorous machine, to be deafened by a rough engine and the flatulent slapping of paddles, but on deck, the sound of the engines is barely noticeable. The ship makes almost no sound as it slices through the glossy black waters of the Clyde like freshly sharpened shears through black satin. All I can hear is a low turning over of the engine, a rhythm that modulates gently as the speed of the ship increases or decreases. The engineer below deck assures me this was what the ship would have sounded like when it was originally in service. 

As we hit a sharp bend in the Clyde near Dunoon where the firth narrows, I see what I am here for – the Cloch lighthouse. The squat black and white lighthouse sits low on the bank, close to the waterline. It is unremarkable, as lighthouses go, but 125 years ago mail packets would steam around the bend here trying to make good time, and in fog they often collided. 

In early 1897, to make this bend safer, a new foghorn was installed in front of the lighthouse, which replaced a much less powerful boiler-powered whistle. 

The new horn was a diaphone that sounded four blasts – high-low, high-low – of two seconds each in quick succession, every half a minute. Compare this character to other horns – it’s a lot. Sumburgh for example, sounds seven seconds in every ninety, a single long, low blast. In comparison to the Om-like monotone of that horn, the Cloch was practically cackling. 

I had traced a lead to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, which has a classical exterior and faded 1970s glamour inside, mid-century modern glass and warm wood, and bold carpets that are different for each reading room – orange spiralling designs, blooming red roses, yellow and brown cuboids like ties from working men’s clubs. In this space are the city archives, mostly used for genealogy and local history projects, but which also include the largely neglected archives of the Clyde Lighthouses Trust, who looked after a small portion of the Clyde and managed to use it as a testing site for various new technologies before being absorbed into the Clyde Port Authority. When I tell the archivist I’m researching foghorns, she lifts an eyebrow and says sarcastically, ‘Aye, well I suppose somebody’s got to’ before going off to collect my files. 

She brings a once-blue archive box that contains a bundle of greying papers tied with white cotton tape and scrawled with looping handwriting that reads ‘Cloch Fog Horn, 1897’. I untie this greying bundle, lay out its contents and they turn my fingertips black with dust. I peel the pages apart and wonder if anyone has looked at them since 1897. They are alive with civic fury. 

Complaints about the new Cloch foghorn started soon after its installation, and by November the council peti­tioned the Clyde Lighthouses Trust on behalf of all those whose complaints it was fielding. The sound of the horn, they said, travelled in such a way that it seemed like it was right outside people’s windows. 

From its place low on the water, on this bend on the Clyde, the sound of the foghorn was sweeping across the water into Dunoon, marauding around the streets and rattling people’s windows like a poltergeist. Some people said, as Thomas Hart did at the Lizard, that the sound had depreciated the value of their houses – because who would want to live in a place haunted by a beast that howled like the Cloch foghorn? Others are reported to have upped and left their homes, just to escape its sound. 

As the Waverley rounded the bend alone on the water, I imagined the mail ships steaming through, all pomp and clatter and puffing their pipes. I spot what I am here for – the Cloch lighthouse, and its foghorn. Looking at these structures from the water, it’s clear why the sound would travel so freely over to Dunoon. The foghorn is shorter than the squat lighthouse, and it is much lower on the riverbank; like a penguin and its chick, it cowers in front of the tower as if shielded from the land. Its call, this regular ‘high-low – high-low’ would have coursed straight over the water, its passage perhaps greased by a narrow layer of air over the water. I imagine it like a malevolent spirit searching for a host, wailing like a ghost in the ears of sleeping townspeople across the Clyde. 

In the letters about the Cloch is one typewritten on thin leaves of paper, from the doctors at a convalescent home who complain desperately that their patients cannot recover, because the horn resembles the sound of someone ‘in sore distress’. They are begging for respite, conjuring an image of nervous and hysterical Victorians trussed up in dark suits, deep layers of crinoline and societal repression, relaxing on cane chairs in cottage gardens, only for the Cloch horn to gatecrash the calm with its rough tones. Another person writes a letter with a trace of wry humour, saying that the horn has ‘at least as much melody in it as a Wagnerian opera’. The opus of this bundle is a sixteen-verse poem from the Dunoon Herald, which includes the verses:

The Doctors in Dunoon declare
Their patients nightly mourn;
They cannot get a wink of sleep,
And blame the Cloch fog-horn.
And cows upon the Cowal hills
Are fast becoming yeld,
Because they hear the dreadful wail
Of dying monster bull. 

The further I went back, the more dissenting voices there were. This perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise – new sounds so often generate contempt, not just in our sur­roundings, but in music too. When John Coltrane started playing his free spiritual jazz, on albums like Om and Ascension, the sound was derided by critics as ‘just noise’. Scott Walker’s shift from pop idol to avant-garde composer got him dropped by his label, but set him on a trajectory to make albums frequently listed as the greatest he ever made.  

When Bob Dylan went electric half the audience tried to boo him off stage. Could the foghorn be thought of like this? A new sound – a new music – of the coast? 

I had started out looking for complaints to step outside of my own perceptions, which too often cast this sound in a blessed golden light. The dissenting voices told me about how people reacted to drastic changes in the sounds of their environment, and became a way to trace the way people’s feelings on a sound had changed over time. The noise com­plaints were more than just a collection of anecdotes, they also posed the question of how we become accustomed to a sound. In all of them, particular comparisons kept coming up which offered some clues. It lingered in the periphery of my thinking as I ploughed through books, records and newspaper cuttings, and found metaphors about bovine monsters, cows or bulls from Aberdeen to Cornwall, some­times almost a century apart. The foghorn was compared to a bull because it sounded like a bull, that much was easy, but there was something else here, and the more I picked at this seemingly obvious fact, the more examples I found. 

Comparisons like this are not isolated, but are imbued with the effervescent associations of language and meanings. Bulls and beasts are symbols of enormous power and mean­ing stretching back to the beginnings of human history, through classical mythology, antiquity and the beginning of writing. Some of the complaints resembled moments from one of the earliest surviving epic poems from the beginning of human civilisation. The foghorn is a beast with its head in the nineteenth century and its tail in the present, and a bull is a creature that brings a history of its own.


‘The Foghorn’s Lament’ is published tomorrow by White Rabbit Books. Buy a copy here (£16.99). Read Andy Childs’ review of the book here.

Jennifer Lucy Allan is hosting two small-scale launch events for the book (a matinee and an evening show) at Cafe OTO on Sunday 23 May. More info and tickets here.