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Issue 61 - 10 Best Lighthouses

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012


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10 Best Lighthouses

Keith Fergus takes a look at 10 of Scotland's best lighthouses

Mull of Galloway Lighthouse
Standing at the southern tip of Scotland it is the sense of space that initially strikes you when gazing across the Irish Sea from the wonderful vantage point of The Mull of Galloway Lighthouse. It was built by Robert Stevenson (of the famous Lighthouse Stevenson family) with work commencing in 1828 and completed in 1830.

Rising to a height of 26m at the edge of dramatic cliffs means the light itself is 99m (325 feet) above sea level and on a clear night can be seen from 28 miles away. For the first 160 years of its existence lighthouse keepers would have tended the light (it was automated in 1988) and such was the engineering involved in the lens that all five tonnes of it could be moved by hand while the prisms around the light magnified it to the power of 29,000 candles.

Southerness Lighthouse
The small village of Southerness, sitting about 16 miles south of Dumfries, is dominated by its lighthouse and some stunning views of the Lake District mountains. During the early 18th century the road system around Galloway was inadequate at best with much of the local trade having to utilise the coastline. Southerness Lighthouse, with its distinctive square shape, was built in 1749 as a marker to provide safe passage for ships entering the Nith estuary.

The lighthouse was increased by eighteen metres in 1795 (and again, by 5.5 metres to its present height, in 1844) but a light was not added until around 1800 and served the coastline for over 100 years, the light being extinguished in 1930.

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse
You would be hard pushed to find a more distinctive lighthouse than Tarbat Ness, its conspicuous red and white bands drawing the eye to the light, which stands 53 metres above beautiful arable land beside the small village of Portmahomack at the edge of the Dornoch and Cromarty Firths. The construction of Tarbat Ness Lighthouse was a direct result of the loss of 16 vessels after a massive storm out on the Moray Firth in November 1826. It took another four years before the Robert Stevenson designed lighthouse was finally switched on in 1830, having been built by the contractor James Smith of Inverness at a cost of £9,361. There are 203 steps climbing to the top, making Tarbat Ness Lighthouse the third tallest in Scotland.

Bass Rock Lighthouse
East Lothian
During the late 19th century commissioners of the Northern Lighthouse Board was concerned about the lack of lighting along part of the East Lothian coastline. Bass Rock, sitting around 2km out in the Firth of Forth from North Berwick, and with its steep sided cliffs, seemed the obvious choice. Therefore work began on Bass Rock Lighthouse in 1900 with its light being switched on in 1902. It was designed by David Stevenson, who also designed Fidra Lighthouse, sitting only a few miles along the coast. Near to the lighthouse stand the remains of St Baldred’s Castle. St Baldred was a monk who arrived here from Northumberland in the 8th century and established a monastery soon after his arrival. He also built a small chapel on Bass Rock.

Bell Rock Lighthouse
It has been called one of the greatest feats of engineering of all time and, having withstood being battered by the elements for more than 200 years, Bell Rock Lighthouse has, indeed, stood the test of time. Built to designs by Robert Stevenson, groundbreaking construction techniques had to be deployed by the engineer John Smeaton as Bell Rock lighthouse wouldn’t stand, because of the seas surrounding it, by gravity alone. Another of the challenges faced when building it was the fact that Bell Rock Lighthouse was submerged twice daily to a depth of sometimes 16 feet and it was only possible to work on the rock for an average of 2 hours every low tide. Built on Bell Rock off the Angus coast near Arbroath and standing 115 feet tall, Bell Rock Lighthouse has endured everything the raging North Sea can throw at it and, although automated in 1988, it is still the oldest surviving sea washed lighthouse in the world.

Turnberry Lighthouse
Occupying a spectacular position above Turnberry Point, the whitewashed walls of Turnberry Lighthouse can be seen for many miles.

Like much of Scotland’s coastline, a lighthouse was needed, due to its ruggedness and certainly Bristo Rock, sitting just off the coastline of Turnberry Point, had seen its fair share of shipwrecks over the centuries. Building the lighthouse on Bristo Rock was deemed unsafe and so Turnberry Lighthouse was built on Turnberry Point to the plans of the pioneering lighthouse designer Thomas Stevenson (father of the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson) in 1873 and was erected on the site of the former Turnberry Castle, the remains of which can still be seen. Robert the Bruce’s father owned the castle and it is known that he spent his childhood here. Some sources contend that Turnberry Castle was also the birthplace of the future Scottish king in 1274.

Lismore Lighthouse
Argyll & Bute
Lismore Lighthouse doesn’t actually stand on the island of Lismore but on Eilean Musdile, a tiny island separated by a ¼ mile from Lismore by the Sound of Mull. Its brilliant white facade makes for an arresting sight, particularly if you are sailing on the Oban to Mull Ferry, which passes only a short distance from Lismore Lighthouse. It was built between 1830 and 1833, again by James Smith of Inverness, and its light provided a safer passage for the many boats utlising the busy stretch of water at the crossroads of the Sound of Mull, the Firth of Lorne and Loch Linnhe. Being a lighthouse keeper may have seemed a romantic life by many but the Lismore Lighthouse keepers shift pattern meant six weeks were spent on Eilean Musdile tending the lighthouse and only two weeks ashore with their families.

Skerryvore Lighthouse
Argyll & Bute
The name Skerryvore derives from the Gaelic sgier (meaning rock) and mhor (translating as big) and Skerryvore marks an incredibly treacherous reef of rocks lying some 10 miles southwest of Tiree. At 156 feet it is the tallest lighthouse in Britain and, like Bell Rock Lighthouse, is a monumental feat of engineering. Robert Stevenson’s son Alan (who was only 30 at the time) was given the unenviable task of designing and building a lighthouse on the reef, which measured only 280 square feet at low tide, and work began in 1839 with only the summer months being feasible for construction. When possible Alan Stevenson and his hardy band of workmen would land on the rock at 4am and work until 8pm and this would continue between April and September. Disaster struck during the first winter when the previous summer’s work was completely destroyed during a severe gale. However, not one to be outdone, Alan Stevenson persevered and, after a monumental effort, Skerryvore Lighthouse was finally switched on in February 1844.

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse
Marking the westernmost point of mainland Britain, Ardnamurchan Lighthouse stands at the tip of the spectacular and dramatic Ardnamurchan Peninsula where it is almost as easy (or difficult depending on your point of view) to reach the rugged coastline by boat as it is by car. A long, winding single-track road travels along the Ardgour and Ardnamurchan Peninsula’s through some of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery. The journey to reach Ardnamurchan Lighthouse is very much worth the effort as the views to Rum, Eigg Mull and Skye are breathtaking and the clean air invigorating. The lighthouse itself was built from designs by Alan Stevenson in 1849, using distinctive pink granite quarried from Mull, and was not automated until 1988.

Neist Point Lighthouse
Isle of Skye
Neist Point Lighthouse commands one of the finest vantage points in Scotland. Sitting a few miles north west of Dunvegan on Skye, Neist Point is the most westerly point of the island and is renowned for its rock formations, which closely resemble the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. A good path from the cliffs above the point drop down to the lighthouse and provides one of the finest short walks (around one mile) in Scotland – whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks can regularly be spotted swimming the wild waters of the Little Minches, the fantastic birdlife includes gannets, black guillemots, razorbills and shags whilst the views North and South Uist are spectacular. Neist (pronounced Neest) Point Lighthouse wasn’t built until 1909 by David Alan Stevenson and was automated in 1990.