Keeper of Light

The old lighthouse and a 94-year-old retired lighthouse keeper

Iceland is a country of unique characters as well as unique features, both natural and manmade. These features are often shaped by conditions in country and its sometimes harsh climate. The unpredictable weather, the need to be flexible, adaptable and self-sufficient—it all cultivates a special kind of resilience and approach to life.

We recently met one such person shaped by life in Iceland: Guðni, a 94-year-old retired lighthouse keeper. He lives on the southern peninsula of Reykjanes in a small village called Garður. The village is famous for being home to the oldest lighthouse in Iceland, built in 1897. It is a square structure made of concrete, situated right on the shore. For 47 years it shone its light for local fishermen and sailors, allowing them to safely navigate this difficult part of the Icelandic coastline. As the ocean continued to erode into the coast a new lighthouse was built in 1944—a tall, cylindrical affair that is to this day the tallest lighthouse in Iceland. This is the lighthouse that Guðni would tend for a period of 25 years. Born in December 1923, Guðni started as the keeper of the “new” lighthouse in 1979. The job consisted of keeping everything clean and ensuring that the light was functioning properly—local fishermen and other sailors couldn’t navigate their vessels safely without it. It was a job Guðni sincerely enjoyed, and it meant that he needed to go to the lighthouse every other day to clean the glass and make sure everything was in working order.

Traditionally, the keeper would live in a house adjacent to the lighthouse, as was the case with the old lighthouse at Garður. One of the reasons for this was that the old lighthouse needed constant supervision and the light had to be reset and rewound every four hours—all year long. However, since the new lighthouse required much less care, Guðni was able to live in a house he had built farther away in the village. In fact, he was so far away that he couldn’t actually see the lighthouse directly from his garden, so he decided to set up a tall mirror that allowed him to see his lighthouse—a testament to his resourcefulness and creative spirit, as well as the dedication he had for his work.

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We visited the two lighthouses together with Guðni to take a his portrait there. He insisted on having his picture taken by the old lighthouse, even though it wasn’t  the lighthouse he actually tended for 25 years. “The old lighthouse has been around as long as I can remember and it has a very special place in my heart,” says Guðni. “It’s incredibly beautiful.” At 94, Guðni can’t see or hear very well—but even with these difficulties he knows his way around the lighthouse. 

As is often the case with colorful characters, there is more to Guðni’s story than his role as a lighthouse keeper. In the area he is also known as “Guðni with the truck” because of his famous ride, which he used to drive all over the peninsula. When asked about the truck, Guðni started to glow like a lighthouse himself. In 1954 he purchased what everyone simply knew as “the truck”, an old, sky blue GMC military truck built in 1942 with a winch and crane on the front. It served Guðni faithfully for a period of 50 years. During this time he used the truck all over the peninsula to perform all kinds of construction and maintenance jobs, like helping raise telephone poles, digging holes and lifting and carrying all manner of heavy things. Guðni even helped haul a loose ship up from the shore, which was undergoing some maintenance and had come unmoored from the shipyard. “I remember it as if it had happened yesterday,” Guðni told us, and explained that due to some terrible weather, the ship had broken loose and needed to be recovered. During the rescue mission Guðni’s truck almost got washed out at sea by the waves, and that another, much newer truck had already started taking on seawater. Guðni’s old truck, however, didn’t give up the ghost and in the end he managed to haul the ship up and tow it back to the shipyard—an accomplishment few thought possible. Guðni’s fascination with machines did not end with the truck. In the workshop next to his house he rebuilt and restored a number of incredible machines. Even with his hearing and sight severely impaired at age 94, he invited us to see the machines in his workshop, which he knew like the back of his hand. ”Do you want me to switch it on?” Guðni asked with sincere excitement.

Today the truck and many of his machines have been enshrined at the local museum, known as “Bæjarsafnið”, after Guðni donated them to the exhibition. Since then he has been named an esteemed citizen of Garður, but everyone in the area still knows him as “Guðni with the truck”. When asked about his longevity, Guðni says that he has always been healthy and eaten a lot of fish—normally around five times a week—but also mentions that he comes from a family where many of his forefathers and siblings were especially long-lived.

In his 94 years of life, Guðni hasn’t traveled far. He has never left Iceland and has rarely ventured beyond the peninsula. But when it comes to his local stomping grounds and his machines, you can be sure he knows every single inch.

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