Scotsman Obituaries: Jimmy Oliver, the last lighthouse keeper at Kinnaird Head

James Barnes Oliver, lighthouse keeper. Born: 8 June 1936 in Oban. Died: 19 April 2023 in Fraserburgh, aged 86
Jimmy Oliver described himself as a 'paraffin oiler'Jimmy Oliver described himself as a 'paraffin oiler'
Jimmy Oliver described himself as a 'paraffin oiler'

Jimmy Oliver was a “paraffin oiler” and the last principal keeper of the beacon where Scotland’s modern lighthouse keeping began in 1787.

A man of many skills – everything from knowledge of the sea, engines, electronics and radio telephones to cookery and home maintenance – when automation ended his career he worked assiduously to take the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses from concept to reality.

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Oliver, whose determination to see the project succeed sometimes saw him plough a lone furrow, then became assistant manager of the attraction at Fraserburgh’s Kinnaird Head, sharing his experience and expertise with visitors from all over the world.

Born in Oban, his father was a lighthouse keeper which, as he explained in the BBC programme The Lighthouse Stevensons, made him a “paraffin oiler” – a term used in the service to describe the sons of light keepers: “They reckoned that if you had been in the lighthouse service for a while that paraffin oil was running through your veins rather than blood.” Keepers also had a tendency, he said, to use paraffin oil, which powered the lamps, as a cure for anything and everything.

As a result of his father’s job the family had various moves. During the Second World War, when lighthouses were targeted by the Luftwaffe, they lived at Dunnet Head, Caithness where his father was armed with a machine gun and the young Oliver witnessed German planes flying overhead en route to bomb Scapa Flow.

He attended the local Crossroads School near Dunnet, before a move to Shetland. There he continued his education at Virkie School and Sandwick Junior High, finishing off at Crimond School in Aberdeenshire.

Although he was born into the light keeping tradition – his father reportedly sent him up top with a cloth to clean the lens when he was five – he didn’t immediately join the service on leaving school. After a spell as an apprentice joiner he signed up for the Royal Navy before going back to a joinery firm in Banchory.

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that he entered the light keeping service. By that time he had married his wife Isabella. They went on to have twins Robert and Brenda.

He served as an assistant keeper at Eilean Glas on Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides, at Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, at Maughold Head on the Isle of Man and was at Cape Wrath, on the most north-westerly tip of mainland Britain, for seven years.

Then in 1985 he was appointed principal keeper at Pentland Skerries on Muckle Skerry, the largest of four uninhabited islands in the Pentland Firth. He later went to Kinnaird Head at Fraserburgh, where the original light was installed in 1787, the first lighthouse built in Scotland by the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouse Board.

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During his career he spent a total of 12 years working on rock and island stations – an isolating existence where men not only had to contend with the elements but with each other.

Living together in a cramped space for weeks at a time could be testing for the three keepers assigned to the lighthouse. “Two to fight and one to separate,” Oliver once quipped. He also revealed the keepers weren’t immune to pranks and practical jokes – a favourite was exchanging talcum powder for flour, resulting in a sticky mess after a bath.

Retirement came in 1991 as a consequence of automation and left him feeling lost. But he then became the driving force behind the creation of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses at Kinnaird Head and was appointed its assistant manager in 1995, a post he held until 2011.

Paying tribute, the museum team said: “It should never be forgotten the role that Jim Oliver played in ensuring that Fraserburgh got its lighthouse museum. From automation in 1991 to opening in 1995, Jim Oliver worked behind the scenes to prove that a museum at Kinnaird Head would be a viable visitor attraction. It would also be his skills which would see the main attractions, those lighthouse lenses, being built in our galleries by his own hands.

“It was often noted that in times of apparent apathy for the project Mr Oliver was almost single-handedly driving the work on the ground. To him goes the credit for the successful foundation of our museum: he worked tirelessly to ensure it happened for Fraserburgh.”

In addition to his work at the museum, Oliver was a member of the Royal British Legion and the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, and enjoyed hobbies including dancing, hillwalking, gardening.

He is survived by his wife, son and daughter and extended family.


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