Digest>Archives> September 2005

Memories of Little Cumbrae

By Robina McLaren


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Sadie Hill with Kate (Robina’s sister), Robina ...

Little Cumbrae (also known as Lesser Cumbrae or Wee Cumbrae) Lighthouse is on a small island at the east side of the entrance to the Firth of Clyde, on the west coast of Scotland. The original 1757 lighthouse is still standing with its lantern removed. The 1793 stone tower remained in use until 1997, until it was replaced by a modern automated light nearby. Robina McLaren lived at Little Cumbrae Lighthouse from 1960 to 1963. Previously, her family had lived at Toward Point Lighthouse, an offshore station.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Here you can see both the 1793 lighthouse at ...

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Little Cumbrae Lighthouse in 2002. Word is that ...

As a nine-year-old, moving from a mainland lighthouse to an island light was the start of a great adventure. Lesser Cumbrae was to become my favorite childhood home.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Keeper Willie Hill at Little Cumbrae in the early ...

I couldn’t wait to get there. The stories of rough crossings and being stranded at the light held no fear for me. My dad, Tom Main, was a former North Sea trawler man, and with Dad at the wheel, what was there to fear?

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Three keepers at Little Cumbrae in the early ...

Seeing the light for the first time captivated me. Looking up from the boat ramp and seeing the lighthouse compound nestled on top of the cliff face brought images of fortresses to my mind. The walk up the stone steps, carved into the cliff’s side, added to the image.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
A view of Little Cumbrae Lighthouse from the ...
Photo by: Gordon Stewart

My creative mind was soon brought to a halt. Living on Cumbrae was more dangerous than on the mainland and there were rules to follow. Certain areas were off limits to the children and we were not to leave the compound without adult supervision. Bad weather made the steps and slopes slippery and we wouldn’t have stood a chance in the water due to the rocky outcrops.

Three families were stationed at Cumbrae: the principal keeper, Archie Sinclair, and his wife, Mary; Willie and Sadie Hill and their sons, John and William; and some of our

family – my dad and mum, Tom and Ruby Main, my older brother Bill, sister Hannelore, me (Rubianne) and my younger brother, Tom. My eldest brother, George, and sister, Kate, had left for the navy and nursing.

Our house was a solid two-story home and a great refuge from the storms that constantly hit the island. My sister Hannah and I shared a bedroom that overlooks “The Tan.” We spent many hours there watching the Clyde in all her moods. Of all the weather disturbances, storms were my favorite.

Dad would often stand with us, watching the storms from a good vantage point behind the compound wall. I loved the storms. Spray from the waves would shower us as the wind blew up the rock face. Watching seabirds coming in for protection held me enthralled. Their cries of fury as the wind blew them about still echo in my ears. The beautiful shells and sea bounty washed up on the island after a storm added to my pleasure.

I also loved the sound of the foghorn. Listening to its mournful tone while lying in bed at night was comforting to me. I would drift off to sleep, knowing that we were safe and that any ships were warned of possible danger.

How we used to delight at not being able to go to school because of the weather! The downside was that it worked both ways. We stayed at Dunvegan, the Lighthouse Trust boarding house at Millport, during the school week, and if “The Tan” got rough, we could not return to the island. Not seeing Mum, Dad and our little brother was hard to accept, but we had to come to terms with those separations at times.

Some great memories include:

Inspection time: Everyone worked hard to ensure everything passed inspection. We (children) polished the banisters, glass and brass fittings while the keepers applied whitewash,

did the regular maintenance, and checked that all property was up to standard. The wives kept the houses spic and span and baked for the occasion. When the inspection was completed and approved, we would all celebrate with the special treats made for the day.

Shopping day: The main shopping was done once a month as the keepers were paid monthly and we (children) loved it. Mum allowed us to choose something special in the shopping. Being on the island, our diet was supplemented with fish and homegrown vegetables. For many years, I have struggled to eat fish and we had fish so often that I used to wonder why they never ran out.

School holidays: This was a great time for learning about nature. We have many bird species nesting on the island and wonderful to watch birds preparing nests, looking after their young and at times, chasing us for

being too close.

I still think of the time Dad punished my brother Bill and me for going down at Cormorant Perch. It was our own fault for breaking the rules, but worth the penalty. Cormorants used to nest there and we wanted to see the chicks. Little did we realize how slippery the rocks were due to the messy nature of the birds. We snuck down there and forgot time, the smell of rotting fish and cormorant waste as we counted the eggs and waved off angry cormorants.

The smell of our clothing, when we got home, gave the show away and our bottoms stung for quite a while. The perch was on a steep cliff and if we had fallen into the water, there would have been no return.

Family life: Living on an island meant we all had to get on together and everyone cared for and about each other. If one family had a birthday or other special occasions, we all joined in. When Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair got their television, we were all invited to watch a movie. I still remember the name – The Glass Mountain. It was my first look at TV and I

was intrigued.

The keepers used to work in rosters (three hours on, six hours off) so there was always a kettle on the stove and lots of storytelling going on. Many seafarers were helped by the keepers and one rescue still comes to mind.

A young French couple and their two children were on a canoeing holiday when they were forced onto the island in bad weather. I still remember Dad and the others being astounded by the man for putting his family in such danger. The canoe was broken like sticks and they lost most of their belongings. Fortunately, no one was injured, but they were in shock. Mum was able to give the children some of our clothes to wear. It was a good feeling, being able to help someone in times of trouble.

Dad loved us helping him in his garden patch and would also take us for long walks over the island. We learned how to read the weather by studying the sky and sea. In the evenings, jigsaw puzzles and other games were our greatest source of amusement. Reading became my favorite indoor pastime.

Living on the island was an experience that helped shape my character for the future. I learned how to be comfortable with myself and enjoy the moments of solitude I have. My love of nature never diminished, and going for a walk on a beach in wintertime brought memories of my years at Wee Cumbrae flooding back.

This story appeared in the September 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History