The Northern Lighthouse Board was established in 1786 to light the coasts of Scotland and warn shipping of the dangerous reefs and skerries that had caused the demise of many ships over the years. Over the next 200 years, the Northern Lighthouse Board built nearly 40 manned and automated major lights and a great number of minor lights, especially after the discovery of North Sea Oil, around the coast of Orkney and Shetland.
The seas around the northern isles of Scotland have been known to be treacherous for hundreds of years causing a huge number of shipwrecks. Folklore and stories have alluded to the danger of the seas in this area. The Swelchie, a large whirlpool in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and Caithness, being a well-known folk tale about why the sea is salty. Dynröst or The Roost, a strait between Sumburgh and Fair Isle in Shetland is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga when Earl Erlend and Sveinn Ásleifarson sail from Shetland to Orkney and run into bad weather with Earl Erlend thought to be lost. But it is only in the last 200 years that lighthouses began to be built around the Northern Isles of Scotland and even after their construction, the dangerous seas have still lead to the demise of shipping from many nationalities.
The Establishment of the Northern Lighthouse Board
As trade by sea and fishing grew into bigger industries, the want of safe navigation for Britain’s fleets around the coast grew. The first mention of a navigational light in Scotland was in 1635. King Charles I, who reigned over England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625-1649 when he was executed, granted a patent to James Maxwell of Innerwick and John Cunninghame of Barnes to erect a lighthouse on the Isle of May. Only two other lights were privately funded over the next 150 years around the Scottish coast which were the Buddon Ness Light (built in 1688) on the Firth of Tay and Little Cumbrae Light (built in 1757) on the Firth of Clyde.
In 1782 there were terrible storms which led to a great many shipwrecks around Scotland. There was a call for something to be done to aid navigation which led to the Convention of Royal Burghs and a House of Commons committee to recommend legislation to set up a body to fund, build and supervise lighthouses in Scotland. In 1786, The Erection of Lighthouses Act 1786 was passed by parliament and the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses was founded. The Commission operating as the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), had the power to borrow money, buy land, place duties on ship owners and construct lighthouses. The act stated that “it would conduce greatly to the security of navigation and the fisheries, if four Lighthouses were erected in the Northern parts of Great Britain”. The locations chosen for the four lights were Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh (now the Lighthouse Museum of Scotland); Point of Scalpay, Harris; Mull of Kintyre, Ayrshire and North Ronaldsay, Orkney.
The Isle of Man and Calf of Man Lighthouses Act 1815 extended the NLB jurisdiction to the Isle of Man and the Lighthouses Act 1836, meant that NLB took over lighthouses that had been erected by local authorities and burghs. It also stated that all new lighthouse commissions had to be approved by Trinity House who were responsible for lighthouses in England, Wales and the Channel Islands. The Merchant Shipping Law Amendment Act 1853, saw all funding for lighthouses coming together in the Mercantile Marine Fund which strengthened Trinity Houses’ position before the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses were established as the authoritative board for Scotland and the Isle of Man 40 years later under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. The Merchant Shipping Act 1979, disposed of Trinity Houses’ supervision over the NLB. From the initial four lighthouses built between 1787 and 1789 the NLB now run over 200 major and minor lights from their headquarters in Edinburgh.
The Stevenson Dynasty
Thomas Smith who was a lamp maker and engineer from Edinburgh became the first engineer for the NLB designing Kinnaird Head Lighthouse in Fraserburgh. After the deaths of his first two wives, Thomas Smith married Jane Lillie Stevenson who had lost her first husband to epidemic fever in St Christopher Island (now known as St Kitts) while out working for his family business in the sugar trade. Jane had a son by her first husband named Robert Stevenson who became very interested in the work his step father was doing and it was not long before he was working alongside Thomas Smith. So began the Stevenson’s long association with NLB.
Robert married Thomas Smith’s daughter Jean and they had 12 children but only five survived into adulthood. Three of his sons also joined the NLB as engineers and they were Alan, David and Thomas. In the next generation, two of David’s sons also became lighthouse engineers David and Charles. However, Thomas’ son knew that lighthouse engineering was not the career for him and became a famous writer, Robert Louis Stevenson. Finally in the fourth generation, Charles son David was the last Stevenson engineer involved with the NLB and he passed away in 1971. Below is a simplified family tree.
The Manned Lights of Orkney and Shetland
North Ronaldsay is the most northerly island in the Orkney archipelago. As previously stated a light was built in North Ronaldsay during the first phase of building, lit on the 10th of October 1789. The “old light” as it is now known was designed by Thomas Smith, Robert Stevenson’s stepfather and was constructed by John White and James Sinclair on Kirk Taing. North Ronaldsay is a low lying island which meant the tower had to be 70ft high. However, the old light was plagued with trouble with the first Principle Light Keeper being dismissed from the service for stealing supplies from the stores and a continued number of ship wrecks in the area led the NLB to extinguish the light in 1809 once the lighthouse at Start Point in Sanday was operational.
Pentland Skerries was the next lighthouse constructed in the Northern Isles which sits between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland. It was Robert Stevenson’s first lighthouse for the NLB along with his stepfather Thomas Smith. To save time for vessels, two lights were erected in 1794 on the Pentland Skerries to make the Pentland Firth safer for shipping. In the 1820s the lighthouses were rebuilt and the towers were made higher. Even after the lights were erected, the Pentland Skerries still saw numerous ship wrecks.
The Start Point lighthouse on Sanday was first lit on the 2nd of October 1806, the lighthouse replaced an unlit masonry tower from 1802 and the old light on North Ronaldsay. Start Point was the first light to have a revolving system and is one of the NLBs most interesting day marks as it was painted with vertical white and black stripes in 1915. During the Lighthouse tour of the Scottish coast in 1814, Sir Walter Scott, an invited guest, noted in his diary that when Robert Stevenson spoke to a Sanday farmer about the poor state of his sails, the farmer replied that he would have gotten better sails if it were not for the construction of the lighthouse warning ships of the hazards of the coast. Although the lighting of the coast was a welcome by the mariners, it was maybe not as welcomed by the coastal communities who relied on the wrecks.
For many years seafarers had chosen to go through the Sumburgh Roost rather than chance the Pentland Firth, even though the Roost posed its own risks, and it was thought that a light was needed to guide ships safely. In 1821, the first lighthouse in Shetland was constructed at Sumburgh Head by John Reid a builder from Peterhead and Robert Stevenson was the engineer.
Hoy High and Hoy Low are located on the low lying island of Graemsay at the western entrance to Scapa Flow and Stromness. The lights were built in 1851 with Alan Stevenson as the lead engineer. The lighthouses work as lead lights which when lined up during day or night allow safe passage through the narrow channel of water.
As the Crimean War broke out in October 1853, the government wanted to make a northern blockade against Russia but the unlit coast created a problem for the British Fleet and so the Admiralty tasked the Stevenson’s to erect a number of new lights around the coast of Shetland. David Stevenson headed to Shetland in March 1854 to assess the chosen sites. After two failed attempts at landing on Muckle Flugga, David reported that it was not possible to build a light on the rocks and suggested temporary lights on Whalsay and Lamba Ness. The Admiralty were not happy with this and after a trip by the Elder Brethren from Trinity House on a particularly fine day, they reported that it would be quite practical for a light to be erected on Muckle Flugga. David designed a temporary light but after a terrible storm in December 1853, it was decided to make the light permanent and it was lit on the 11th of October 1854. A temporary light was also erected on Grunay in Out Skerries early in 1854. This was replaced by a permanent light on Bound Skerry to the east of Grunay and first lit on the 11th of September 1854. A new light was also erected on North Ronaldsay to the west of the old light, on Dennis Head in 1854. It is the UK’s tallest land based light at 42 metres.
Bressay and Cantick Head were built in 1858 followed by Auskerry off the coast of Stronsay in 1866. Auskerry was built as a family station which was odd for such a remote island. A unique communication method was created between the lighthouse and the boatman based on Stronsay using black discs on yardarms Number 10 one black disc on a yardarm and two discs on another meant “send midwife immediately”.
In 1881, Thomas Stevenson built the first automatic light in the Northern Isles on Ruff Reef off the coast of Hoy in Orkney. The last decade of the 19th century saw five more lights being constructed around Orkney and Shetland, Skroo (Fair Isle North) and Skadden (Fair Isle South) in 1892 both in Fair Isle, Helliar Holm on a small island south of Shapinsay in 1893, Sule Skerry around 40 miles to the west of Orkney in 1895 and Noup Head on Westray in 1898.
The last manned lights built in Orkney and Shetland were built in the first 30 years of the 20th century. Copinsay was built in 1915 with the increased Royal Navy traffic before the start of the First World War. However, it wasn’t lit officially until 1919. Finally Eshaness was built in 1929 to try and warn shipping about the Ve Skerries on the west of Shetland. It was not as successful as hoped and with the terrible loss of the Ben Doran from Aberdeen in 1930, an automatic light was eventually built on the dangerous skerry. Eshaness was peculiar as it was built as a one man station. It was also the last major project by the Stevenson family for NLB as David Alan retired in 1938. Click here for a table of all the major lights in Orkney and Shetland in chronological order of establishment.
Life in the lighthouse service
All the NLB lighthouses were run in a similar fashion with a Principal Lightkeeper (PLK) and at least two Assistant Lightkeepers (ALK). This set up began at the recommendation of Robert Stevenson during the building of Bell Rock lighthouse after the sudden death of a keeper at the Eddystone lighthouse. For fear of being accused of murder, the other keeper waited until the attending boat could get to the lighthouse, having to live with a dead body for four weeks.
Expectant keepers or supernumeraries as they were to become, were also present at lighthouses to learn the ropes before being assigned their first post. Training usually lasted for around a year. As your career progressed, you could move up the “rankings” to become PLK. During the automation period two more positions became available. The Local Assistant Lightkeeper who had the same duties as the ALK but was not transferred to other stations and the Occasional Lightkeepers were local men who lived close to shore stations and would give occasional relief to the keepers for holidays or illness.
Every keeper had to have a trade and although fishing or maritime backgrounds were preferred, other trades were also considered. Fair Isle for example, had a roofer who helped the islanders with modernisation of crofts in the 60s, a baker and an ex-soldier.
Although being a keeper wasn’t a highly paid job it did have its advantages. The Lighthouse Commissioners wrote in 1857; “From the day that a Lightkeeper enters the service he possesses a certain income, a free furnished house of a description greatly superior to that occupied by the same class in ordinary life, all repairs and taxes paid, coal, candle, clothing, land for a couple of cows or an equivalent in money. He is provided for in case of age or infirmity; and, lastly, a provision, is made for his widow or family in case of death. The only thing that can deprive a Lightkeeper of these secure benefits is his own misconduct.” There was also opportunity to earn extra income through maintenance work and weather reports. Reports were done daily and phoned into the Met Office. Although the records were rarely used for weather forecasts they did help in the study of the climate and climate change.
Every keeper was issued with a uniform that consisted of a navy blue double breasted suit with brass buttons and the lighthouse crest, a white shirt and NLB tie. A white peaked cap with the lighthouse crest was also provided. The military appearance of the uniform was devised by Robert Stevenson so that the men in service had pride in their career and were instantly recognisable. The keepers were also provided with welly boots, waterproofs, shoes, overalls and gloves. Every keeper was expected to wear their uniform while on duty and a white shirt and tie when off. Uniform replacements were done through a point system where each keeper got 100 points a year to use.
The duties and rules to be followed by the keepers was very detailed. Of course the number one duty for the keepers was to keep the light on and to the correct character. Falling asleep while on duty was a cardinal sin and would lead to instant dismissal. If the keeper did not report himself to the NLB he could be sure that his colleague would. But at the Sumburgh lighthouse in 1871, an ALK did fall asleep and the PLK did not report it to the Commissioners as the keepers had decided to not report on one another. However, a report was made to the Commissioners that the light had gone out and when the investigation found out the truth the ALK lost his job and the PLK was permanently demoted to ALK until his retirement.
Lighthouses during the War
The lighthouses were meant to remain neutral during WWII and were blacked out apart from when requests came across the radio from British convoys. However, a number, especially in Orkney and Shetland were targeted by enemy planes over the war. Both lights on Fair Isle were hit with Fair Isle South being attacked twice. In September 1941, one of the ALK’s wives was killed and in January 1942 the wife of the PLK and their daughter were killed when the accommodation block had a direct hit. Bound Skerry Lighthouse station in Out Skerries was also targeted. The boat house was hit with the boatman’s mother dying from her injuries a few days later in hospital. Pentland Skerries and Auskerry also saw enemy fire but with minimal damage and no loss of life.
Invasion was also a worry for the government after Norway was occupied. The Lightkeepers at Sumburgh were given secret instructions to put the lighting equipment out of action. They were instructed to bury or dispose of important lamp parts, get rid of oil that could be used by the enemy and if they had time, to remove parts of the clockwork machinery so that the lens could no longer rotate. The post office in Out Skerries was sent a letter with instructions to only open it if there was a German invasion. Out Skerries is the first British land coming west from Norway. The letter was returned unopened.
Huge technological advances such as radar, automatic monitoring and solar panels in the early 20th century revolutionised the lightkeeping industry. A huge automation programme began in the sixties with the first light to be automated in Orkney and Shetland being Auskerry in 1961. As the NLB were in the process of automating the manned stations, the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s (check out Tom Kidd’s fantastic photos of a time of great social change for Shetland here) led to a new phase of building of lights, although these were all built as automated lights.
The final light to be automated was Fair Isle South. A small ceremony was held on the 31st of March 1998 with HRH Princess Anne in attendance. Angus Hutchison was the final keeper to leave the light, a fourth generation keeper and the last of the Paraffin Oilers. Paraffin-Oilers was a nickname given to the men who worked in the lighthouses, especially if they were following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers. Some say it was a derogatory term. To see Angus speaking about the automation, you can watch this clip from the BBC documentary The Lighthouse Stevensons
The history of the NLB is a varied and interesting one with the Stevenson family playing an important part not only with the engineering of the lights but also the day to day running and the conduct expected of the keepers. Keepers were proud of their profession and were respected, especially by the islanders, forming an integral part of the community.
The presence of the 19 previously manned stations as well as many other automated lights around the coasts of Orkney and Shetland are an ever present reminder of the dangers these coasts pose. Even though there are no longer Lightkeepers, there are many families who still have fond memories of the service and the friends they made.
This post only scratches the surface of the history of the lighthouse service in Orkney and Shetland and hopefully gives a good introduction to the topic. For further information, check out the Northern Lighthouse Board website or the Association of Lighthouse Keepers website. There also a number of fantastic books on the subject, check out the list below!
No More Paraffin-Oilers by Ian Cassells
Northern Lights: The Age of Scottish Lighthouses by A.D. Morrison-Low
From Myths to Meids: Maritime Heritage of Fair Isle, Papa Stour and Skerries by Charlotte Slater
Scottish Lighthouses: An Illustrated History by Michael Strachan
On the Rocks: A Lightkeeper’s Tale by Lawrence Tulloch
Lighthouses you can visit in Orkney and Shetland
Sumburgh Lighthouse is a visitor centre, and nature reserve with information about the lighthouse. There is also a cafe and gift shop on site.
Fair Isle South Lighthouse is open for appointment only tours by the Fair Isle Lighthouse Society
North Ronaldsay Lighthouse tours are available of the North Ronaldsay lighthouse and there is also a visitor centre, gift shop and cafe on site.
Staying in a lighthouse in Orkney and Shetland
Sumburgh Lighthouse- for more information click here
Eshaness Lighthouse- for more information click here
Bressay Lighthouse- for more information click here
Fair Isle South- for more information click here
Cantick Head Lighthouse- for more information click here
North Ronaldsay Lighthouse- for more information click here