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Issue 101 - Guiding lights

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018

 

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Guiding lights

A visit to a unique Scottish museum throws some light on the history of Scotland’s lighthouses

Scotland’s jagged coastline has always been a hazard to maritime navigation, as the Norse invaders who crossed the seas from Scandinavia found out. Even when Scotland first became a trading nation, its dark coast and offshore reefs were the cause of many shipwrecks. Lighting the coast to guide ships safely around it or back to harbour started when a coal fire was lit on a tower on the Isle of May, at the entrance to the Firth of Forth. That was in about 1636 - the practice has continued ever since.

However, the first land-based Scottish lighthouse didn’t appear until over a century later, on a 16th-century castle built by Sir Alexander Fraser in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire. On 1 December 1787, James Park, the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses’ first keeper, lit a bank of whale-oil lamps in front of mirrored reflectors in a lantern on the roof of Kinnaird Head Castle. The process of lighting Scotland’s coastline had begun.

About 30 years later, structural problems within the tower prompted the Commissioners to instruct one of their finest engineers, Robert Stevenson, to design and build a new foundation, a circular tower and a spiral staircase through the heart of the exiting castle, while preserving the original structure. It was a seemingly impossible task, but he did it. The new lighthouse, with its new lantern, became operational in 1824 and grateful mariners could now pick out its single white flash every 15 seconds from 25 miles away.

All was well for the next century and a half until automation of the British lighthouse service was in full swing. The existing tower was decommissioned in 1991 and replaced by a much smaller, completely automatic tower a few yards away on the same headland. Fortunately, the Northern Lighthouse Board (the body responsible for managing Scotland’s lighthouses) took a wise decision to leave all the original equipment inside the castle lighthouse in situ; the generators, the foghorn and the magnificent glass lens are all still there in working order and can be brought back to life on special occasions.

Also, adjacent to the lighthouse was a more recent building which could be converted to provide enough space to house a huge range of lighthouse-related artefacts on several levels; together with a shop, a café and storage area. In June 1995, the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses opened its doors for the first time (followed by an official opening by HRH Princess Margaret in November) thus perpetuating its unique 450-year story of reinvention and survival from castle, to lighthouse, to museum.

Kinnaird Head was not only Scotland’s first shore-based lighthouse and the world’s only lighthouse that was built through a castle, but it’s also the UK’s only dedicated lighthouse museum. It is now attracting visitors from throughout Britain and abroad to view its stunning artefacts. A visit includes a guided tour of the original lighthouse, which involves climbing the spiral staircase to see the huge glass Fresnel lens in the lantern, together with the clockwork mechanism that turns it. This meant using a handle to wind a huge weight on chains up the centre of the tower every 30 minutes. Having tried it, I can confirm that it’s no easy task!

The museum is dedicated to telling the story of the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), the engineers who built the lights, and the keepers who manned them. It is a story of skill, courage, technical genius and dedication. Today, improvements in navigation technology means that lighthouses or beacons can be monitored more efficiently. Automation has allowed the proper functioning of every NLB station to be monitored remotely from their headquarters in Edinburgh. They maintain 206 lighthouses, 165 buoys and 26 beacons around Scotland and the Isle of Man.

The quantity and quality of the exhibits in the main museum building is stunning - it’s the largest collection in Europe. You can’t fail to be impressed with the array of different-sized lenses and the rings of glass prisms that bend the light into a parallel beam to give a greater range. Some of them are massive and the light source in their centre makes them shine in a way they would when installed in their towers. No wonder they were once described as ‘crowns of glittering glass’.

An impressive display of how quickly technology advances is to be to found in the downstairs display of lighthouse lamps. Here we see an early electric lamp about the size of a football, while at the other end of the line is a modern lighthouse lamp, which is about the size of your thumb. The mezzanine floor contains some smaller exhibits; early reflectors, mirrors and burners that were used to produce the light before electricity was available. Don’t miss the perfect scale models of some of Scotland’s more famous lights: Bell Rock and Skerryvore, and a timeline showing the dynasty of their greatest lighthouse engineers - the Stevenson family.

The fact that the lighthouse is still operational means it can demonstrate how it used to function. The most recent occasion was on 30 March 2018, when a collection of former NLB keepers were invited to man Kinnaird Head lighthouse in shifts for 24 hours. This marked the 20th anniversary of the switch-over of the last Scottish manned lighthouse (Fair Isle South) to automatic operation in 1998. On that night, Kinnaird Head was the only ‘watched’ lighthouse in the British Isles.

The oldest keeper to volunteer was 89 and, for just one day and night, he and his former colleagues manned the lighthouse, wound the clockwork mechanism and relived the days when there was such an occupation as lighthouse keeper.

If you can’t make it to Fraserburgh but would like to visit another Scottish lighthouse, the Northern Lighthouse Board's website gives details of their lights that are open to the public at certain times. If you’re lucky, you may get to talk to a real lighthouse keeper who will show you around. It’s a wonderful experience and the view from the top will be unforgettable - if you have the legs for it!

 

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