Online Exhibitions & Stories

Gillian Burns

Rewriting Women into Maritime History
Navigation Officer, Northern Lighthouse Board

Gillian Burns

Location: Ardnamurchan, Scotland

 A Guiding Light


Gillian Burns, a woman with a passion for engineering and the sea, has carved out a remarkable career in the marine industry. Although her journey may not have been conventional, her determination and love for what she does have propelled her to great heights. 

Gillian's journey began with an unassuming introduction when she heard an advert on the radio for a Technician Engineering Scholarship Scheme for women. She saw this as an intriguing opportunity. The prospect of receiving training, sponsorship, and the ability to stay close to home ticked all the right boxes for her. But on joining the scheme, her tentative first steps into the engineering industry would soon be thwarted by a training program that was more theoretical than hands-on, which didn't suit her learning style.

On completing the scheme, Gillian secured a position as a Technician Engineer at the prestigious Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a government organisation. Spurred on by the practical learning, she returned to college before joining GCHQ and achieved a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Marine Electronics and Communication Engineering. At college she discovered a symphony of knowledge — bridge simulators, radio rooms, radars, and video equipment — and her marine voyage truly began. It was in these moments of exploration and discovery that Gillian unearthed her innate talent for fault finding, a skill that would anchor her future marine endeavours.

Then, Gillian's childhood dream of exploring Scotland drove her to make a New Year's resolution in 1994: to find a job that would return her to her homeland. This resolution became a reality when she chanced upon a local newspaper advertisement that spoke directly to her soul — a radio technician position at the revered Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB). She approached the role with determination and enthusiasm, relishing the opportunity to fulfil her childhood aspirations while being paid to do so.

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Gillian found herself in awe of the historical and iconic lighthouses she encountered, standing resolute against crashing waves for centuries.

Her work primarily involved responding to calls regarding issues with radio equipment at various lighthouses, troubleshooting, and fixing the problems. Sometimes, she would spend up to 14 nights stationed at a particular location, immersing herself in all aspects of the job, from maintenance to cleaning. Today, the NLB has been Gillian’s maritime home for nearly three decades.

As Gillian has progressed in her career, she has come to appreciate the profound significance of the lighthouses that grace Scotland's rugged coastline and their preservation. In her current role as a Navigation Officer, she stands as the sentinel of responsibility, not only for the NLB’s own Aids to Navigation but also for countless others scattered across Scottish waters. With a staggering array of thousands of diverse Aids to Navigation under her watchful eye, Gillian carries the weight of Scotland's maritime legacy upon her capable shoulders.

Her guiding light extends beyond the shores of her homeland. Gillian has taken young apprentices under her wing, imparting upon them the wisdom of her journey. She endeavours to illuminate the path ahead for them and foster a deep understanding of the "why" that underpins their craft. Moreover, Gillian's involvement with the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) has propelled her into the realm of global stewardship. As a member of IALA’s ENG Committee, she lends her expertise to the fine-tuning of international standards, guiding the industry toward a future where every mariner finds solace in the embrace of reliable Aids to Navigation.

Gillian Burns' story serves as an inspiring reminder that sometimes the most fulfilling and successful journeys are born from unexpected beginnings. As she continues to shape the future of navigation, her unique experiences and expertise will leave a lasting legacy in the field she loves.


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Written by Carly Fields

© Emilie Sandy Photography, 2023