Lighthouse keeping in many nations was frequently a family affair, with successive generations answering the call to keep a good light for the safety of mariners. But few of these family lightkeeping dynasties can compare to the Clyne/Whyte/Ross clan of Scottish keepers. Thanks to materials furnished by Jane Bain and Ken Ross, who are both great grandchildren of Keeper Robert S. Clyne, we can pass along some of this amazing story.
The Ross family’s light keeping years began in 1856 when Hardie Ross received an appointment from the Northern Lighthouse Board as assistant keeper at Covesea Skerries Lighthouse. This was the start of a 22-year career that included stints at seven stations. There were many other keepers in the Ross family, including the ones mentioned in the paragraphs that follow.
Hardie’s brother, David, was a keeper from 1857 to 1891, and David’s son, James Sutherland Ross, had a 31-year career as a keeper (1885-1916), during which his technical abilities led him to conduct experiments with electricity at the Isle of May Lighthouse. At that time, the authorities decided the continued use of paraffin oil to be superior to electrically powered lights.
James Sutherland Ross’ younger brother David, who spent 31 years (1889-1920) as a keeper, including time at the Flannan Isles station as mentioned later in this article, had a son named James Alexander (“Jack”) Ross, who joined the lighthouse service in 1937 and served until 1975. The family plot thickened as Jack Ross married Betty McKenzie, daughter of Duncan McKenzie, who was an assistant keeper to Robert Clyne at Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. Jack and Betty’s son, Duncan, later served on the crew of a lighthouse supply ship.
James Sutherland Ross’ other son, Jim, (also named James Sutherland Ross) served aboard lighthouse supply vessels and married Elizabeth (Betty) Clyne Whyte, the daughter of Keeper Andrew Young Whyte and granddaughter of Keeper Robert S. Clyne.
We know a great deal about Clyne’s career because of a series of articles he wrote for The People’s Journal under the title, “My Forty Years as a Lighthouse-Keeper.” The 1922-23 series revealed Clyne to be a salty storyteller of the highest order. His story began in a town called Montrose on Scotland’s east coast.
Robert S. Clyne: Lightkeeper, Ornithologist and Raconteur. As a young man, Robert S. Clyne (1858-1937) worked in the post office at Montrose. The Scurdie Ness (or Scurdyness) Lighthouse had been built in 1870 not far from his home, and the first keeper was a friend of Robert’s father. “On such slender threads hangs the course of a lifetime,” Clyne later wrote.
A conversation with the keeper soon led 17-year-old Robert to apply to the Northern Lighthouse Service. He was accepted into the service at the age of 20 and was first assigned as an assistant at Isle of May Lighthouse at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. During his six years at this island station, Clyne saw several ships wrecked in the vicinity. He also saw wreckage float past the island during a violent storm in late December 1879, but didn’t know until a few days later that what he had seen was the aftermath of the Tay Bridge Disaster. The storm had destroyed a railroad bridge built only two years earlier. Seventy passengers aboard a train had plunged into the River Tay, with no survivors.
The keepers at the Isle of May kept cattle, chickens and a large flock of sheep. In one of his articles, Clyne wrote about an incident involving a bull at the Isle of May and some visiting harbor pilots:
“They were seated in groups on the rocks chatting merrily while cleaning their telescopes, one of them exhibiting the contents of his pocketbook [wallet] to the others, when the bull charged. There was a frenzied dash for safety, the party scattered in all directions, some for the higher rocks, some for the white wall — anywhere out of the way.
“In the scramble, the pocketbook was left behind. The bull, having nothing left to charge, stopped and snorted. Espying the abandoned property, he calmly proceeded to chew it up, and by the time he had been driven off, all that remained was leather scrap and paper rags. In that pocketbook was the pilot’s certificate… It was afterwards declared that the bull was unique in its species, as it was the only one of the bovine family that has ever carried a pilot’s certificate.”
Clyne also described speaking to three pilots, all brothers named Johnston, who came by the light station shortly before a major storm rolled in. This was the last time he saw the men, as all three died the next day when their boat capsized. Well over 100 local fishermen were lost in the tremendous storm that became known as the Eyemouth Gale.
The keepers at the Isle of May served as official observers of the local bird population, leading Clyne to develop an interest in ornithology that would last the rest of his life. With a keen eye for observation and a large, helpful library at the light station, Clyne soon learned the names of all the native and migratory species. He once wrote, “The marine and bird life of a lighthouse is of ever so much more interest and variety than the poor humans who dwell in the round tower with the winking eye.” He also became a skilled photographer.
Robert Clyne’s next assignment was Langness Lighthouse on the southeast coast of the Isle of Man, and he would spend 11 years there. It was while he was stationed at Langness that Clyne married Isabella Davidson in 1883. They would have seven children together.
Desperate for entertainment at the Langness station, Clyne and the other keepers turned some of the grounds into a makeshift golf course. Lacking clubs, they fashioned their own out of driftwood and pieces of iron. After much practice, the men were able to produce surprisingly functional golf clubs. They even had occasional matches with visiting professors from nearby King William’s College.
In 1895, Robert Clyne received his first assignment as principal keeper, at the newly established Rattray Head Lighthouse, about a half mile off the northeast coast near Peterhead. Although this was an offshore station with no land around it, Clyne wrote that it was sometimes possible to walk ashore during ebb tides in the spring. Five years there were followed by eight years as principal keeper at one of Scotland’s most famous lighthouses, Bell Rock, also known as Inchcape Rock. This 118-foot granite tower in the North Sea is one of the world’s oldest (1811) wave-swept lighthouses.
Clyne wrote that one of the most interesting items at Bell Rock was the visitors’ register. In 1814, Sir Walter Scott visited the Rock and entered a few lines of verse in the book. Lighthouse officials and engineers recorded their visits, as did many fishermen and whalers.
Clyne himself penned some poetry during his stay at Bell Rock, and he included a couple of verses in one of his articles:
I had a walk this afternoon
When Sol was beaming bright,
A walk unique and curious
In which you would delight -
‘Twas far remote from prying folk
Out on the lonely Inchcape Rock.
In every crack and little pool
Teems microscopic life:
And gastropods are rife.
An interesting sandstone block
Is certainly the Inchcape Rock.
Who says no flowers bedeck the scene? -
Why, ocean flowers abound.
And graceful spread in varied tints
Their feathery fronds around;
While dulse and tangle, badderlock,
Luxuriate on the Inchcape Rock.
A violin that Clyne created in 1905 during his stay at Bell Rock was handed down to a great granddaughter in England named Ruth Harper. Ruth is an accomplished musician herself and has had the violin restored. “It has a characteristic sound and is ideal for informal sessions,” says Ruth.
Robert Clyne next spent eight years (1908-1916) as keeper of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. His daughter, Mona, later wrote about the family’s first journey to the station:
“I was 10 years old then. This was in the month of February and the weather was very bad then. Once the boat was out into the Minch, it began to toll and toss. By early evening, we were all pretty seedy. My mother was a very bad sailor and had to lie down but I liked to stand on deck and watch the waves lashing over the bow of the boat. Once I was nearly washed overboard — an extra big wave washed over the deck and had not one of the crew been near me, I would have been into the sea.
“…After five days in Stornoway, we managed to get a small horse-drawn cab and set out on our last stage of the journey (30 miles).
“We passed numerous villages in the way and could see the lighthouse in the distance, standing white against the sea, though we were miles from it. We called in at the last village called Eoropie and after another three miles drive, we arrived at what was to be our home for the next six years. I can tell you, we were glad to get out and stretch our legs and for the warm cups of tea our neighbours had ready for us, but we thought we had really come to the ends of the earth.
“I may say I shall never forget our stay at the Butt as my sister and I had many a happy evening with the boys and girls of the village of Eoropie. They are all more modernised now with motorcars and stone houses to live in.”
Here at the Butt of Lewis, he later wrote, “Clyne stepped into an atmosphere of superstition and sagas.” Legends of gnomes and supernatural creatures surround the Butt of Lewis and nearby Pygmies Isle. Clyne never saw such beings, but during one winter week, he and the other keepers heard eerie “long wailings and howlings that raised a superstitious quiver.” Investigation revealed the sounds to be coming from the caves beneath the light station, where an abandoned dog had been trapped. Sadly, the keepers were not able to reach it to offer any assistance, and the dog soon died.
On another occasion, Clyne and other residents of the station repeatedly saw a mysterious, dark and silent figure scuttling around the shadowy grounds at night. A sentry at the nearby coast guard station finally challenged the seeming apparition, who was revealed to be a fisherman from a nearby town, “generally regarded as a half-wit and addicted to night prowling.”
The rugged and windy Butt of Lewis was hardly the ideal place for golf, but Clyne brought his clubs and golf habit with him from the Langness station. The first and last holes at the Butt of Lewis were just outside the door of the principal keeper’s house. There was a large opening, filled with water, in the middle of the golf course. This dangerous location, known as the Quarry Hole, claimed the life of a local boy who fell into it during Clyne’s stay. He wrote that the keepers never again passed the Quarry Hole without a shudder.
Clyne’s next and final light station was Cromarty on the Moray Firth on Scotland’s northeast coast. He served as the lone keeper and the light was only lit on special occasions at the request of local naval authorities. Here, Clyne’s reputation as a fine photographer grew, partly because of his role — taking photos of military personnel for passports during the First World War.
Some of the young men he photographed went off to war never to return. Clyne wrote, “Many of my photos are the only mementoes that parents and relatives have of the smiling youths who pranked about in the square of my old lighthouse buildings, proud of their regimentals.” Clyne’s own eldest son, David, was killed in France in September 1917 after serving ten months with the Royal Garrison Artillery.
Robert S. Clyne retired after nearly 44 years as a lighthouse keeper in 1922, but he hardly sat still. For the following dozen years, he served as curator and librarian at the Montrose Museum. He retired from this job in 1934 and died three years later at the age of 79. Isabella, his wife, had died just two months earlier.
Robert Clyne’s brother, John, also had a long lighthouse keeping career that began in 1885. John Clyne retired from the Chanonry Lighthouse in 1919. Their sister, Mary, served as a housekeeper at the Isle of May with Robert and later married Robert Agnew, a son of a keeper and at the time of their marriage, an assistant keeper at Bell Rock Lighthouse himself. Their daughter, naturally, also married a lighthouse keeper.
Andrew Young Whyte (1883-1939)
In January 1905, Robert Clyne’s daughter, Charlotte, known as Lottie, married Andrew Young Whyte, a native of St. Vigeans, Scotland. Their fifth and last child, Betty, was born in 1918 while Andrew was supervising the installation of lights on the Caledonian Canal. They lived at Kenneth Street in Inverness during that time, and Betty’s son, Ken Ross, has been told he got his name from that street.
Andrew Whyte had a 36-year career with the Northern Lighthouse Service, and he also followed in his father-in-law’s footsteps as an expert photographer. In 1929, Whyte was the superintendent at a lighthouse depot in Oban when the schooner Neptune from St Johns, Newfoundland, was blown all the way across the Atlantic in a terrific storm. A tender from the depot towed the schooner to safety, and the Whyte family took in some of the passengers until they could be returned to Canada.
Captain Job Barbour of the Neptune later wrote a book called 48 Days Adrift about this incredible experience. When Captain Barbour again visited Oban in the 1950s, he met Andrew Whyte’s grandson, Ken Ross, and gave him a Canadian silver dollar that Ken still treasures.
The Flannan Isles Mystery
One of the most famous and perplexing events in the history of Scottish lighthouses took place in 1900 at the Flannan Isles Station, off the west coast. A day after Christmas that year, the crew of a lighthouse tender arrived to find that all three keepers had vanished without a trace. A fourth keeper was ashore on sick leave.
Robert Clyne wrote compellingly of the Flannan Isles mystery in his column. He subscribed to the best available theory, concluding that the three men had been washed away by a giant wave. “Across the forbidding waters to Breascliet [Breasclete],” he wrote, “on the shores of Loch Roag, where the homes and the wives and children of the men who man the Flannan Islands lighthouse are, it was a sorrowful Christmas.”
Ken Ross’ grandfather, David Ross, was sent to the Flannans to be the next principal keeper after this great tragedy. The two assistant keepers assigned with him were two brothers named Anderson, and they brought along their sister, Mary Ann, to serve as housekeeper. David Ross and Mary Ann Anderson went on to marry a few years later, and their third child was Ken’s father, Jim.
There are two other Ross family connections to the Flannan’s disaster. The assistant keeper who was on shore at the time of the incident was William Ross, David’s cousin. Ken’s father, Jim, later served as a marine engineer on the tender Hesperus, the very same vessel that reported the missing keepers.
The Legacy Continues
The maritime legacy of this extended clan continues. Ken’s father’s cousin, Lawrence “Lollie” Anderson, served as a keeper at Out Skerries Light during World War II. Ken’s older brother, Jim Ross, sailed the seas for almost four decades and now has a night watchman job with a ferry company with several ships based
Ken’s stepbrother, Stuart Ross, has a mathematics degree from Glasgow University, but according to Ken, “The lure of the sea was too much and he took to the high seas. He eventually became a master. Eventually, he retired and took a mate’s position with the Northern Lighthouse Board.”
In the summer of 2001, while he was captain of a vessel called the Canterbury Star, Stuart Ross was praised as a hero along with his crew after the dramatic rescue of seven people from a capsized catamaran in a squall. Stuart Ross is now sailing on the tender Pharos.
Ken Ross has had a long landlocked career with the post office, but he’s traveled widely and is an avid diver and photographer. He’s also enjoyed researching the rich nautical past of both sides of his family. “The lighthouse characters and history of our family has helped mold us into what we are today,” says Ken. “We have much to thank our predecessors for, as they ensured that their lives did not go unrecorded. Their stories continue to amaze us all.”
You can see and read more about Keeper Robert Clyne and the Whyte family on Jane Bain’s website at www.gargunnock.com/personal/bainfamily/. Ms. Bain is the granddaughter of Robert Clyne’s daughter, Mona.
This story appeared in the
May 2006 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.