A world of your own on a lighthouse island

HUB 5/2011

A small, isolated community can be a paradise of
likeminded people - provided everything goes like in
the manual for cybernetic leadership.

In the picture the island looks like an idyll. The sun is gleaming on the water as the red and white lighthouse greets the ships sailing by. Living on the island, detached from the rest of world may, however, be far from idyllic.

For his research, ethnologist Harri Nyman has interviewed people who have experience of living in the now deserted lighthouse and pilot communities. Lighthouse islands are like laboratories where communities can be observed in isolation. "The conditions where my interviewees had been stationed were by and large similar, but what varied greatly was the way people on these islands acted and built their communities," Nyman says.

Lighthouses and the job of a lighthouse keeper are basically the same all over the world. "The ways the islanders built their communities follow the basic models of human social behaviour, competition and co-operation," says Marja Ahokas, a researcher of social psychology. The island communities Nyman has studied typically comprised the families of the chief lighthouse keeper and three lighthouse keepers.

Prisoners of ice

The peak period in lighthouse construction in Finland occurred during the latter half of the 19th century, when the coastline was of major significance to Russia, which ruled Finland at that time. But soon after the turn of the century, the lighthouses were being mechanised and people started leaving lighthouse islands. The last manned lighthouse was deserted in 1987.

As commercial shipping started to rely on more modern technology in navigation, lighthouses became less important. Earlier, lighthouses were crucial particularly on the outer skerries where the ships were at the risk of hitting underwater rocks and the entry routes to harbours begin. The lighthouse keepers lived, therefore, near the open sea, far from the mainland.

The isolation was particularly difficult in late autumn and early spring, when the ice was still preventing boat traffic but would no longer support any weight on it. "Some years, the sea is inaccessible only for a week or two, but people had to prepare for a lot worse every autumn. At worst, the complete
isolation could last four months," Nyman says.

The life on the island was neither the bliss nor the nightmare of being completely alone. On the contrary. Particularly if the island had a pilot station in addition to the lighthouse, the small islet might have been quite densely populated compared, for example, to the fishing communities in the archipelago. "According to the romantic image, lighthouse keepers were lone heroes of the sea, but particularly up until the 1950s, the reality was very different. There was hardly any privacy on these islands."

The families lived in shared buildings where the sounds of daily living would carry through the walls. Treeless outer skerries offered no hiding places outdoors either, so the inhabitants of the islands could not avoid the eyes or the company of their fellow islanders.

Living in such close contact with others caused tension and there was a risk of things getting out of hand. It was simply not possible to remain indifferent to each other. According to Nyman, islanders were forced to shut out negative issues and emphasise the positive. "To simplify, there were two ways to
maintain the peace and harmony on the islands I researched: either people really worked to create a community spirit or they kept out of each other's way."

Heaven or hell

Some of the reminiscences that form part of Nyman's research material tell about a paradiselike existence. On the islands of positively minded communities, the atmosphere was pleasant and neighbours were there to help each other. "People discussed reaching a consensus of what would be good for the community. Projects that benefitted everyone were carried out together: hiring a mid-wife or building a school, a church or a co-op."

The leadership culture on the paradisiacal islands seems to have been exemplary, Nyman says. "Nowadays we talk about cybernetic leadership, which means that operations are adjusted based on the feedback received from the employees. Lighthouse islands had this type of leaders, who could lead the community to work towards a common good."

Then there were islands where the inhabitants had divided into conflicting camps. In the worst cases, families did not even greet each other. "For example, an accident or relationship dramas, like a love triangle, could drive the community into a bitter feud that could go on for generations." Some islanders held that it was best not to make close friends with the others at all. Sooner or later, friendships would turn sour. They were wary of, for example, gossip, because very little happened on these islands, so there was not much to talk about.

According to Marja Ahokas, the division into ‘us' and ‘them' is almost inevitable when an island is inhabited by two families or other distinct groups in isolation from the rest of the world. "Polarisation takes place, and both sides compare themselves to the other, usually in their own favour: at least we are better than them in this and that and the other."

By the same token, Ahokas thinks that the paradise communities also thrive on a similar contrast. "Positive communities act on the
so-called principle of the super ordinate goal. The members of the community were aware of the advantage of joining forces
against the elements of nature. At the same time, they would compare their own lifestyle to that of the rest of the world who had chosen an easier path: United we stand!"

A free but demanding childhood

A stalemate situation could sometimes be resolved by the arrival of a new family, because children would not always care about the divisions among adults and would create groups across boundaries. Nyman also heard of a case in which the adults of two houses were at complete loggerheads, but the only child on the island would frequently visit the ‘enemy camp' where she was well received and given treats.

"Usually a lot of demands are made on children who grow up in isolated and poor, rural conditions. Children have to learn early to be independent and help adults in their chores and work," says Airi Hautamäki, Professor of Social Psychology and Psychology.
"According to current standards, parents bringing up large broods of children do not have enough time or the opportunity to treat each child as an individual. They are not able to respond to the child's negative affects, at least not to every little need for comfort or expression of anger, if they think that the child was nonetheless safe." Hautamäki also emphasises the need to actively nurture positive emotions and hope; negative feelings must be kept in check, otherwise they may endanger the survival of the group by creating affect contagion and stand in the way of success.

The children of lighthouse keepers and pilots did their share of work, for example, by collecting driftwood as firewood from the beaches. Family income was, in the end, secure because of the job held by the father. "If the family and the community were functional, the lighthouse keepers really lived a relatively carefree life in a world of their own. Fishing communities were always dependent on luck, on how much fish they could catch, but these state officials had a regular salary, a pension and the accommodation paid for by their employer," Nyman says.

Community dissolving

In 1921, Finland introduced compulsory education, which changed the lives of those living on the outer archipelago for good. "Once the children reached school age, they had to be sent to family members, friends or complete strangers to the town on the mainland. The difficult decision for the mother was whether to stay with the husband on the island or move into town with the children."

The two-home model was expensive and mentally taxing for the entire family. As late as the 1960s, some lighthouse keepers and pilots worked for seven weeks without a break followed by one week off. If the sea was inaccessible because of the ice or the wind, they could not join their families during their time off. "Lighthouses sent weather reports to the mainland on the radio, and receivers were acquired for mainland homes. It happened that, for example, a father who was reading the weather report at Christmas would finish by wishing his family happy holidays."

Men who remained on the faraway islands without their families found their work lonely and mentally dulling. "The Maritime Administration attempted to address the situation by setting up workshops and libraries on the islands, but many resorted to alcohol to alleviate their loneliness." The turnover of workers was, subsequently, quite high. For many, one winter on the island was enough, especially if they were not originally from the archipelago. For those who were used to island conditions, the strong sea ice brought liberation and a chance to do different things. Ice boats could whisk them around in no time, and people visited each other on nearby islands.

Nyman finds that some of the life stories he recorded reflected the change in society in general. "The magnitude of change is almost unbearable to take place during only one lifetime: the shift from natural economy to monetary economy, getting used to working in shifts, moving to the mainland and eventually, losing your job to a machine.

"Islands had boundaries, they were rugged and isolated, but how people experienced them could vary greatly. One of my
interviewees made me swear to tell everyone that only happy people lived on lighthouse islands."

Text: Tytti Steel

Photo: Niklas Sjöblom / taivasalla.net

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