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Issue 11 - Taking a shine to lighthouses

Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


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Taking a shine to lighthouses

John Cormack looks at why lighthouses are so popular as places to live

Keith and Nicola Stewart love Scotland. But they are particularly attached to their home standing alone and exposed down in the south west corner of the country. Keith is so taken with it that he returns home each weekend from the City of London where he works.

So what sort of home can exert such a pull? Three years ago Keith and Nicola bought a clutch of run-down lighthouse cottages attached to the now automated Killantringan Lighthouse on the west coast near Stranraer in Dumfries and Galloway.

Nicola talks animatedly about their home:

“We just knew we wanted to be near water – a loch, a river, the sea whatever”.

It was an aerial photo on an estate agent’s brochure that brought them to view the properties which, at that time, were being used as some rather poor quality holiday homes.

The Stewarts uprooted themselves from family and friends in Kent, travelled North and set about transforming the cottages into their dream home surrounded by more water than their wildest dreams could conjure.

“We love it here”, says Nicola, “especially in autumn and winter. It’s great being close to the sea and it can be very dramatic.

“We get some storms but nothing too bad – although some nights it sounds as if a freight train is being driven through our bedroom. It’s a Grade B listed building so we can’t have double glazing”.

The light still flashes at Killantringan – a silent sentinel warning mariners away from some of the country’s most treacherous shores.

Although the chance of buying your own piece of nautical history today is now remote, there may be still be some opportunities for the eagle-eyed. In fact as we go to press two former lighthouse cottages are up for grabs in Tayport, Fife.

With views across to Dundee and the Tay Bridges and potential to create a unique waterside property, the selling estate agents, FPD Savills are expecting strong interest at something over the asking price of £140,000. Traditionally all lighthouse property including ancillary buildings and lighthouse keepers’ cottages were owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB).

Its principal concern is with safety – of the mariner at sea; the safety of its own staff who must work beside some of the most dangerous coastlines in the world and the safety and maintenance of the natural environment that tends to go with the territory.

To discharge its duties the NLB, with some 220 permanent staff, is responsible for the operation and maintenance of some 201 lighthouses around the Scottish coast, numerous beacons and buoys, and a DGPS (Differential Global Positioning Service).

Headquartered in Edinburgh’s George Street since 1832, the NLB is able to monitor all its lights 24 hours a day with the assistance of two equipped ships, a contract helicopter and a shore station in Oban on the west coast.

The NLB is funded by ‘light dues’ paid by ship owners each time one of their vessels enters a British or Irish Port. The cash gathered goes into a central pot from which the NLB gets its allocation.

The introduction of new technology to the service, from the early 1960s, was to have the most profound effect on the way the NLB operated. In reality, new technology meant the introduction of automation to each and every light.

With modernisation the romantic image of the lighthouse keeper in his remote tower was to be consigned to history, though this proud tradition lives on in museums, open days and in the minds of the many lighthouse enthusiasts worldwide.

And of course the lights still shine bright around Scottish coasts.

Automation was completed in 1998 with two or three lights automated each year up until then. Today many of the major lights now have part time attendants who tend to live close by to keep an eye on the light.

It was during this period of automation stretching back over almost 40 years, that opportunities to acquire NLB property were at their best. In fact the NLB was initially required to identify redundant property and sell it off.

Typically you would get a lighthouse tower, some cottages and ancillary buildings.

The lighthouse tower and any buildings required for its operation or for use as welfare facilities for visiting engineers would be retained, while the cottages and other redundant buildings would be sold off.

At the time the light was automated, a decision would be made about the future of the surrounding buildings and land.

Buyers of lighthouse property did not have it all their own way. Major alterations could not be made without the NLB’s permission and no impediment to the access and the operation of a lighthouse would be tolerated. Even today the NLB keep an eye on the cottages they have sold off. In fact the board retains the right to enforce the maintenance of the properties it sells.

Today with the automation programme complete opportunities to acquire lighthouse cottages are limited though the NLB carries out regular reviews of its estate.

According to Douglas Gorman of the NLB, there may well be some more selloffs – but as to when and where, he is tight-lipped.

More often than not, any lighthouse property that does come to market these days is sold on by a first or second generation buyer rather than by the NLB.

American author Sharma Krauskopf has lived for four years beside Esha Ness Lighthouse in the Shetlands. With some 12 lighthouse books to her name, she fully supports the NLB in their mission to preserve NLB property and to find new uses for their buildings.

The current Esha Ness Light was built in 1929. The 37 foot tower sits on top of a 200 foot cliff warning mariners away from the Shetland Ve Skerries.

The question everyone seems to ask is: “What is it like to live in a Scottish Lighthouse cottage?”

Her first response is: “Well it feels safe with three foot thick walls and shutters both on the inside and outside windows to protect us from the violent storms that plague the area.”

Yes there are storms although she says the last few winters have not been bad. She comments:

“The big advantage to living on a Scottish lighthouse station today is that the tower is maintained and kept operational. Like all Northern Lighthouse Board automated facilities, we have an attendant who makes sure the light sweeps by our window every night.”

Since 1997 the NLB has had more freedom to think creatively about other uses for their lighthouse properties. This had led to tie-ups with Local Trusts whose officers are trained to show visitors around redundant buildings and lighthouse towers.

Two of the board’s most notable successes have been at the Mull of Galloway lighthouse and the North Ronaldsay lighthouse on the northernmost coast of the Orkney Islands.

For those wishing to taste the thrill of living near a lighthouse, the NLB in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland have a number of cottages to let.

Northern Lighthouse Board
Tel: +44 (0)131 473 3100
Corsewall Lighthouse Hotel
Tel: +44 (0)1776 853220
Scottish Lighhouses by Sharma Krauskopf
Appletree Press
Holiday lettings