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Lighthouses In Caithness

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Helen Mowat

The motto of the Commission of Northern Lighthouses

In early times mariners were aided by no more than a compass, the stars and a sounding line resulting in heavy loss of life and cargo. The necessity for 'signposting' the oceans was pinpointed as early as 2000 years ago, when a vast stone tower, 450 feet high, was built by Egyptian slaves on Pharos Island in Alexandria. This tower which held a brazier with a continually burning fire itself became known as the pharos, a term in common use in Britain for lighted towers until the term lighthouse took its place comparatively recently.

The sinister trade of deliberate wrecking was worldwide from an early date, and become highly organised, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Shipwrecks on British shores between 1793-1829 averaged 550 annually further highlighting the need for more efficient signposting.

From 1780 onwards, lighthouses and lightships were built. In the days of sail the tidal streams flowing through the Pentland Firth earned the title "Hell's Mouth", and following an uninterrupted succession of storms in 1782 reports on the need for lighthouses in the Pentland Firth area were considered by a Parliamentary committee appointed to into the state of British Fisheries. This led to the establishment, in 1786, of the Commission on Northern Lights.

The first engineer of the Commissioners was Thomas Smith, who was assisted by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the novelist. Robert became sole engineer in 1808 and thus founded the Stevenson dynasty who acted as Civil Engineers for the Board for 130 years, and provided examples of the finest engineering feats in lighthouse construction in the world.

The earliest lighthouses cost a little more than 10,000 to build, and had the catoptic or 'reflecting' system which gradually gave way to the dioptic, i. e. the 'refracting' or lens system. In the early days there was no attempt at producing beams or light characteristics but, with the increasing numbers, the necessity for distinctive characteristics became urgent. Revolving lights were first introduced in Scotland at Start Point in Orkney in1806. Flashing lights were first introduced in 1827 at Buchan Ness.

In 1843 the previously dark stonework was whitened. Around 1889-1900, distinctive bands were introduced - first black, then red.


Pentland Skerries From Duncansby Head

Engineers - T Smith and R. Stevenson

Characters of light - Flashing 3 white every 30 seconds

Nominal Range - 25 miles

In 1794, the Commissioners provided a double light on the Skerries at the eastern entrance with two towers, 80 feet and 60 feet high, and 60 feet apart.

Built by Orkney masons, superintended by R. Stevenson as his first work for the Board, it was rebuilt between 1821 and 1830 in a more permanent form.

In 1848 it changed to the dioptic system - the old double lights were replaced by powerful group flashing lights in 1895, and it was converted to electric power produced by diesel generators in 1939.

In 1929, when the Principal Keeper became ill, two young assistants never let the lights or foghorn fail for 12 days before a landing was possible; although blizzards and high seas ensured that neither got to bed, they took turns to doze on the engine room mats.

In 1941, an enemy plane machine-gunned the buildings but no one was injured, and very little damage was done to the structure.

In 1965, the M.V. "KATHE NEIDER KIRCHNER", of 10,300 tons went aground on the west side of Muckle Skerry and two lightkeepers saved the crew and passengers by climbing down the cliff to the ship's lifeboat, and guiding it to safety at the east landing.

This lighthouse is listed as a building of architectural/historic interest.

2. DUNNET HEAD - Est. 1831

 Dunnet Head Lighthouse

Engineer - R. Stevenson

Characters of light - Flashing 4 white every 30 seconds

Nominal Range - 26 Miles

This lighthouse marks the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland, being 2.35 miles north of John o' Groats.

James Smith of Inverness was the contractor responsible for the building.

Erosion of the rock on which the original fog signal (built 1899) stood, made it necessary to abandon it and establish a fog signal nearer the lighthouse.

A third fog signal, still operating, was established in 1952.

The Queen Mother has visited on several occasions - the last tour being on 8th October 1979.

3. NOSS HEAD- Est. 1849

  Noss Head Lighthouse

Engineer - Alan Stevenson

Characters of light - Flashing white/red every 20 seconds

Nominal Range - White - 25 miles, Red - 21 miles

Alan, son of Robert Stevenson, went to France when Fresnel, the famed French engineer was developing lens. By 1834 Alan had detailed report for the Lens Committee, which was passed to the Lighthouse Commissioners, pioneers of the lens system. A new style of lantern with diagonal instead of vertical framing was first used by Stevenson at Noss Head. Stronger and less liable to intercept light in any particular direction, it was adopted as the standard pattern for the Service. The original is now in the Wick Heritage Centre.

Situated near Wick, the names comes from the old Norse "Snos" - a nose or nose-shaped headland.

Robert Arnot, lnverness, was the contractor. The unemployed poor of the Wick area were employed to build the road from Noss Head to Wick for 3/6d. per day.

3. HOLBURN HEAD - Est. 1862

    Holborn Head Lighthouse

Engineer - David Stevenson

Characters of light - Flashing white/red every 10 seconds

Nominal Range - White - 25 miles, Red - 21 miles

David Stevenson succeeded Alan, who was forced to resign in 1853 through ill-health. David was the last of the Stevensons to serve as engineer to the Northern lighthouses.

Mr. Stewart, Peterhead, was the building contractor. Although the Board of Trade gave permission to go ahead in 1859, the building was not started until 1861.

The delay was caused by the Board's emphasis on economy. All estimates for the work were too high, and the Board opposed the cost of nearly everything.

The finally agreed estimates were as follows

Dwelling Houses, including raised building to support lantern
Iron parapet, lantern lighting apparatus
Garden fences, water, etc.
Road including retaining walls
Furnishing, advertising
Add for Accidents

The first part of the names is from Norse "Holl" - a hill, while the last syllable is probably from "borg" - a hill fort.

Holburn lighthouse is situated on Little Holburn Head, Scrabster.

5. STROMA - Est. 1896



Stroma Lighthouse

Engineer - David Stevenson

Characters of light - Flashing 2 white every 20 seconds

Nominal Range - 26 miles

Deep among the Swilkie rocks off the northernmost point of Stroma Island, is the most dangerous whirlpool in the Pentland Firth. According to Icelandic legend, the Swilkie is the place where the salt, which maintains the saltiness of the oceans, is ground in a giant quern.

In 1890, Stroma was established as a minor light but was soon found to be an unsuitable locality for a minor light, and was replaced by a manned lighthouse and fog signal.

On 22nd February 1941 the buildings were machine-gunned by an enemy plane. No-one was injured and the minor damage was re repaired by the lightkeepers.

In 1972 Stroma was converted to electric, and in the same year a helicopter landing pad was built nearby, enabling relief to be done by helicopter.

6. CLYTHNESS - Est. 1916

 Clythness Lighthouse

Engineer - David Stevenson

Characters of light - Flashing 2 white every 30 seconds

Nominal Range - 16 miles

In 1846, Alan Stevenson thought that Sarclet Head would be the most suitable place for the next lighthouse, as it was half-way between Tarbat Ness and the Pentland Skerrles. Trinity House favoured Noss Head, but the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners were not convinced and a petition was referred to the Admiralty.  But, on Board of Trade advice, Noss Head was chosen at that time.

The building of Clythness about 6 miles south of Sarclett thus filled the gap around much-used waters in wartime.

It become automated in 1964.

7. DUNCANSBY - Est. 1924

     Duncansby Lighthouse

Engineer - David Stevenson

Characters of light - Flashing white every 12 seconds

Nominal Range - 24 miles

As the waters of the Atlantic flow into the North Sea and ebb in the opposite direction they set in motion a welter of eddies, tidal races and overfalls. The effects are so dramatic that each has been given a name - e.g. - the already mentioned Swilkie, the Bore of Huna, the Wells of Tuftalie, the Merry Men of Mey, and the Bore of Duncansby.

In 1914 a temporary fog signal was provided at Duncansby Head, to be replaced by a permanent lighthouse after the War.

The traditional round tower had been abandoned and even the lantern tower is square .

On the eve of the invasion of Norway in World War 11, this lighthouse was machine-gunned by a German bomber. Again, no-one was insured and no damage caused.

In 1968 a high power racon (radar beacon) was installed. This was replaced by a low-power self -operating type, which can be particularly useful as a warning where the coastline is not conspicuous on a radar display.

Finally, although not in Caithness, it is worth mentioning the lighthouse at Strathy Point as it was the first Scottish lighthouse actually built as an all-electric station. It was completed in 1958 and filled the last important dark blank on the Scottish coast - between Dunnet Head and-Cape Wrath.

Pharos Loquitor
Far in the bosom of the deep
O'er these wild shelves my watch I keep
A ruddy gem on Changeful light
Bound on the dusky brow of night
The seaman bids my lustre hail
And scorns to strike his tim'rous sail

......... Sir Walter Scott, who was, at one time, one of the Commissioners of Northern lighthouses.


R. Lanni, Northern Lighthouse Board, Edinburgh.

Principal Keeper, Holburn Head.


CHADWICK, L. Lighthouses and Lightships

MUNRO, R.W. Scottish Lighthouses