The lighthouse has stood there for a hundred and fifty years, and will probably stand for a hundred and fifty more. One Swedish yachtsman of my acquaintance describes it in his log-book as like a white monastery, in the account of his first trip to Shetland many years ago. It will probably never provide a cloistered existence, but the buildings have been used as self-catering accommodation (for monks and any other visitors who choose to stay there) since the Stevenson-designed lighthouse went automatic around 1990. Before then, the living quarters were for the keepers and their families.
But, for a century and a half, the light has flashed out its double signal in the darkness, visible (assuming clear enough conditions) for 23 miles. It could be seen from ships passing south of Sumburgh Head, in "da Roost" (the tide-race which reminds sea-travellers that our archipelago is set between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean). It was always there, a regular blink of reassuring white against the surrounding pitch-blackness of everything else. That is, until a week past Wednesday, when the beam was turned off - for good.
It has been replaced (through the good offices of Lerwick Port Authority, not the Lighthouse Board) by a lower-situated LED device which is visible for ten miles. This is quite adequate for vessels approaching or leaving the harbour, and most boats have sophisticated electronic navigation equipment, which renders extraneous visual landmarks unnecessary (until the technology breaks down, that is!).
What's my problem with the old light being turned off, then? Well, for a start, I liked it there, as did most other people living within the scope of its beam, and there are too many things being arbitrarily shut down, turned off or otherwise terminated nowadays. And, even with the bank of electronic navigation equipment in front of him, the watchman in the wheelhouse of the fishing boat passing through "da Roost" still liked to cast his eye out the starboard window (if the boat was steaming east) to catch sight of the distant white blink and have his bearings (psychologically as well as electronically and navigationally) confirmed.
Seafarers (and others) like visual points of reference like lighthouse beams in their lives. In Basil R J Anderson's Shetland dialect poem "Maunsie's Crö", the poet tells how the crö (a circular stone enclosure for growing plants) on the hilltop, although never having been intended for this purpose, became a "meead" bearing for fishermen out at sea, and there have been many examples of real-life "crös". One such was the red light on top of the main TV transmitter mast on the Wart of Bressay. It was removed in 1990, but, because of its intensity and height (about 900ft) above sea level, it could be seen by boats up to forty miles out to sea to the east of the islands, and it became a well-known night landmark for fishermen from a' the airts working the fishing grounds in that area.
And the reason for the Bressay light being switched off? I'm afraid that it comes down to that old chestnut again - money, or the recently-perceived lack of it! It's just another example of how the government is trying to save a few quid by squeezing the budgets of the various agencies, departments, quangoes and local authorities, and this includes the Northern Lighthouse Board. Our historical beacon has become another casualty of a corporate strategy which defines price without admitting any consideration of value in its cost-cutting exercises.
We can only speculate as to what beacon might be next on the chop list. The road up to Sumburgh Head is close to collapse under the weight of Amenity Trust plans for the lighthouse buildings there. I don't suppose these include any safeguards for the future of the triple-flash beam sequence which was a background feature of my formative years at Sandwick schoolhouse. It would be a fortunate result of this little personal piece of prose, if the bodies which are addressing themselves so zealously to the "slockin" of lighthouse beams and other elements of our lives' facilities, that it may be much more than a flash in the dark they are extinguishing.