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Issue 35 - To the lighthouse

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


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To the lighthouse

Dave McFadzean looks at the long history of lighthouses in Scotland

Scotland has always had stormy seas and unpredictable weather. Coping with these quickly changing conditions has never been easy. Fantastic storms or pea-soup haar, interspersed with hurricane force winds, torrential rain and even blinding blizzards have all been part and parcel of seagoing life in Scottish waters for several centuries.

Some would say that global positioning satellites and modern technological advances have swept away the need for more traditional sailing methods, but still the reassuring beams of light flood out nightly to warn mariners of navigational hazards and let them know exactly where they are by the unique character of the different lights.

In the days before the Northern Lighthouse Board, there were a few efforts to make the sea safer by lighting the way.

Perhaps the most famous early light, and probably the first, was a simple square tower built out on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth in the 1630s. James Maxwell of Innerwick and Alexander and John Cunningham of Barns (a father and son combination) gained a contract from King Charles I to erect and maintain a light on the island from their own finances. These early entrepreneurs recouped their money many times over by levying a charge on all local shipping. The tower was 25 feet square and 40 feet high and was topped by an unsophisticated beacon consisting of a simple brazier that was fed by coal.

All the fuel had to be transported to the island, then painstakingly hauled up to the tower and winched up to the tower top with a crude box and pulley arrangement. It must have been laborious work for the men employed full time to service the light as they sweated with several hundred tons of coal a year in all weather conditions.

The 1680s saw other guiding coal beacons being built on the Tay estuary, but it was just after the last Jacobite Uprising that one of the first modern-type Scottish lighthouses was built at Southerness Point on the northern shores of the Solway. That beacon was funded by Dumfries Town Council as this bustling county town was the burgeoning port at the heart of a booming importing and exporting trade.

This Georgian light was originally built in 1748-49 to warn ships off dangerous sandbars in the Solway Firth. The tower was raised twice in its time, and now stands at just under 60 feet (18 metres) high. In the mid 1860s, the light was extinguished for economic reasons. It came back into service in 1894, and flashed out over the Solway sands until it finally beamed out no more a few years before World War II. Today, it is one of the attractions of the popular holiday village of Southerness. Sadly the tower is no longer open to the public as it commands some fantastic panoramic views.

Another Georgian light followed on the Inner Clyde island of Little Cumbrae. This tower was placed on Lighthouse Hill, an island high point, in 1757 by James Ewing.

Like the Isle of May, this was a coal fired light. It is said to have burned so fiercely that the brazier had to be renewed annually.

Often obscured by bad weather, this hilltop beacon was far from ideal and a campaign saw a new light being constructed on a raised beach in 1793 by Thomas Smith.

Smith was to become the first engineer for the Northern Lighthouse Trust (later to become the Northern Lighthouse Board).

Smith’s father was drowned in Dundee harbour and, as a result, his mother encouraged him away from working at sea, and, for a while, he became an ironmonger and innovative lamp maker in Edinburgh.

Eventually though, the sea did become a big part of his life through his lighthouse works. Smith was given the task of overseeing the building of four lights at Fraserburgh, Mull of Kintyre, Eilan Glas off Harris, and at North Ronaldsay in Orkney.

While working on this project he married a widow Stevenson who had a son called Robert. Robert was the first of the famous lighthouse Stevenson dynasty. The Stevenson family played a leading part in Scottish lighthouse construction until just before World War II and, for a while, the author Robert Louis even dabbled in building lighthouses. His time in the Hebrides inspired part of his novel Kidnapped. Between them, the lighthouse Stevenson’s built nearly 100 magnificent light towers around our shores Fittingly, The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is sited where the first Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) light was built. The site at Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, holds many artefacts and memorabilia from the heydays of the lights and their keepers. There is also an old and new lighthouse and, most importantly, a retired light keeper is there to guide you round. Jim Oliver spent his final days as a keeper here, and he is a fountain of lighthouse lore. Listening to Jim really brings back the old days of the men of the flashing towers so we will let him take up the story.

“Kinnaird Head was first lit in 1787,” says Jim
“The lantern was originally built on the top of an old 16th century Fraser fortress, and it was illuminated by 17 whale oil lamps. Later, in 1824, a proper tower was built into the corner of the fort to take the heavier equipment for a more modern light. The lights were not built to warn people off the rocks as most people surmise, but were actually built as a navigation system. Each light had to be easily identified from seaward, and that’s why we have them all flashing differently, and all those fancy lenses. Navigation charts tell us the character of the lights. That’s the timing of the flashes and so on. If you then take a bearing on the light, you can check your position and steer by it. If we identify two lights, the triangulation shows where you are. It is simple navigation.

Lighthouses are painted white to allow easy navigation by daylight. Today, it is of secondary importance and most navigation is done by satellite.”

Kinnaird was a training station, as Jim explains: “Once they could keep a watch and look after themselves, keepers would be moved on. They would go through the service from light to light before being appointed to a station. They had to be able to take care of themselves and sort out their temperament, for they could be put in situations that caused problems both for them and other keepers. There were three different types of light station, the onshore lights, rock stations and rock towers like Skerryvore. The inaccessible rock towers were where bad boys of the service were sent to cool their heels.”

The lights were automated in the 1990s, and sadly light keeping became a way of life no more. But thankfully one or two lights around Scotland remain open to give a unique glimpse into the life of a lighthouse keeper.

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