By Tim Porteus

I’M SURE many of us share early memories of North Berwick; of exploring the rocks and crab-hunting, building sandcastles and splashing and swimming in the sea, eating ice cream and fish suppers.

It is an iconic place of childhood memory for many, not just residents of the county.

The first time I remember reaching the town was by train. We were then living in Pilton in Edinburgh and it must have been a summer holiday excursion. I cannot remember the exact year or all the details but I do remember our father was absent on this trip. I don’t recall why. He was a minister and often had clerical duties which took precedence. The expedition included myself and my two younger brothers and, of course, our mother. My youngest brother, to my recollection, was possibly around two years old, so that made me six at the time; so it was perhaps the summer before we moved to Prestonpans.

An abiding image from that trip was our arrival at North Berwick Station. As we disembarked, my brothers and I were impatient to get to the beach. We had little thought for the practicalities involved and I remember seeing my mother laden with our belongings emerging from the train like an over-packed donkey, carrying our belongings and packed lunch, while we rushed ahead with our buckets and spades desperate for action.

Another memory seared in my mind is my first sighting of the Bass Rock, or rather the first time I truly noticed it. I must have seen it as we approached the beach but my excitement at arriving there and claiming a patch of sand will no doubt have overwhelmed my other senses. But I do remember, quite vividly, later on that day standing ankle-deep in sea water, staring at what first looked like a great whale arching its back out of the water. It seemed so far away and I quickly realised it wasn’t a whale but an island.

I did not know then, of course, that I was treading in the childhood footsteps of countless thousands of people. That beach, and the experience it provides, is a staple memory for so many folk, which is why they bring their own children to the same place, and then their grandchildren (which I have yet to have!). Visitor facilities may have developed yet the natural wonders of its coastline remain the main draw.

It was only later in life that I realised that the way to the beach included the footprints of Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, the train journey itself was part of his childhood memory as well, although I’m jealous to think he would have arrived by steam engine, a much more exciting way to travel! I didn’t know about him in my early youth or any of his writing. But when I later came across his tales of wreckers and pirates, I was not surprised that his time exploring North Berwick and its environment was the inspiration for these stories.

As I recall that first remembered trip to North Berwick, I can say I was infected with the same sense of awe. I also remember arriving back in Pilton, getting off the 14 bus covered in sand and leaving a pile of sea shells and rotting dead crabs in the garden for later use.

We had later trips, of course, during which I developed my own relationship with this wonderful part of East Lothian. My father did come on some of these. Once he was accompanied by a grumpy Anglican nun, whose severity in enforcing what she called manners made me later convinced the creators of Nanny McPhee must have known her.

But even now, after all these years and all the attractions that North Berwick, with its beach and rocky coastline, has to offer, it is the looming presence of the Bass Rock which stirs my soul. And on that day as a wee boy, when I stood ankle deep in sandy seawater, screwing my eyes to study the island, I saw something which I am yet to truly discover. I could just make out what I understood, even at that young age, was a lighthouse. I remember in that the moment I whispered to myself: “Wow, it’s a lighthouse.” From that day I have wanted to visit it, and yet it remains an unrealised ambition.

The Bass Rock lighthouse was built in 1903 by the company founded by the Stevenson family, right amidst the old fortified buildings which have such a rich history. The lighthouse was made using stones which were already on the island, for the governor’s house was demolished to make way for it and provide the building materials. For years, the keepers would climb the steps to light the beacon, until it was automated in 1988.

What tales and stories of their experiences must there be. A working life amongst ancient ruins, which hold memories of St Baldred and Covenanter and Jacobite prisoners, not to mention the noise and smell of the swirling gannets and other seabirds which make the Bass Rock their summer home. What was life really like on that noisy, historic rock, within sight of the comforts of town, yet still remote from their reach? Perhaps they have written of them and I have yet to discover it.

There is a story briefly mentioned by writer Hilary Cameron that a keeper returned regularly to the Bass even after his death. It is a tale I once heard mentioned long ago, but the details remain to be filled in. It was said that the keeper lived many years ago and passed away in a cottage in Granton. Yet he returned to the Bass soon afterwards in the form of a seal. The seal would climb onto the rocks to a vantage point close to the lighthouse and peer at the light, waiting for it to be lit. Once it shone, the seal would seem satisfied and return to the sea.

The seal continued to do this every evening for some time, as if checking on the competence of the keeper. Eventually it was happy the lighthouse was being run efficiently without him and so he felt able to cease his vigil. Such devotion to duty and a sense of responsibility for the lives of others must have been common amongst the community of keepers.

And so this summer I plan to finally fulfil my childhood dream and visit the lighthouse and island, or at the very least view it from close quarters on one of the boat trips that run from the town.

“Or we could try and turn into seals, like a selkie,” suggested my four-year-old when I told her the story last night, and my plan to get a boat trip to see the lighthouse.

“Yes, let’s try,” I replied, “but if we don’t find a way can we go on a boat instead?”

“Yeah, OK, but I know a way to become a seal,” she assured me.

So if you take a boat trip to see the Bass Rock this summer, you might just see us too. I’ll be the overweight seal, but I probably won’t be wearing my hat.