Neist Point

Lighthouses of the Inner Hebrides

In Salutem Omnium
For the Safety of All
Neist Point - Isle of Skye
Flag of Scotland
© Composted by:
Bob Schrage
updated: 06-01-2019

Dubh Artach

Place of the lighthouse

The Dubh Artach lighthouse is placed on the skerry known as Dhu Heartach. The remote skerry of basalt rock off the west coast of Scotland lying 29 km west of Colonsay and 24 km south-west of the Ross of Mull (see the map in the right-hand column). Various interpretations have been provided for the original meaning of the Gaelic name, of which "The Black Rock" is the most likely. The translation of Dubh Artach as "The Black Rock", artach being a now obsolete Gaelic word for a rock or rocky ground both in Scottish Gaelic and in Irish. The variation between the anglicised forms Dubh Artach and Dhu Heartach is a simple case of false splitting where the final [h] of [t̪uh arˠʃt̪əx] in pronunciation seemingly is part of the following word, suggesting *hartach or heartach to the untrained ear.

The spelling was changed in 1964 from Dhuheartach to the present form Dubh Artach. There is however, a certain amount of controversy about the derivation of the name: Adamnan in his "Life of St Columba" calls it "A'Dubh-Iar-stac", the black stack of the west. Modern etymologists maintain the word is "an uibh-hirteach", the black one of death. "Irt" as in Hirta (St Kilda) is identical with old Irish gaelic for A"death".

The Lighthouse

Between 1800 and 1854 thirty vessels were wrecked on the reef; however, the requirement for a lighthouse was not only to warn seafarers away from Dhu Heartach itself, but also to guide them past the fearsome Torran Rocks, which lie between the Ross of Mull and Colonsay. Originally it was considered to be an impossible site for a light, but the loss of the steamer Bussorah with all thirty-three hands on her maiden voyage in 1863 encouraged positive action under pressure from insurers Lloyd's of London and a Captain Bedford of the Admiralty.

In June 1865 Thomas Stevenson and joint Engineer to the Commissioners with David Lillie Stevenson, landed on the rock and in October of that year recommended that a lighthouse was to be established. Thomas noted that "it would be a work of no ordinary magnitude". In December 1865 and January 1866 storms raged in the North Channel and were of such unprecedented ferocity that on 30 and 31 December 1865, 24 vessels were wrecked or driven ashore in the area bounded by Tiree, Iona, Colonsay and Islay.

There were renewed petitions for the erection of a lighthouse and after the Commissioners (NLB) had examined the records of wrecks produced by Captain Fraham of the PHAROS they were resolved in its favour. The statutory sanction of the Board of Trade was obtained on 20 October 1866. In preference to Tinkershole on the East side of Iona, the island of Erraid in the sound of Iona was chosen as the site of the Shore Station.

Temporarily barrack
Temporarily barrack (click to enlarge)

On 7 June 1867 the steam tug POWERFUL of Leith picked up workmen at Aberdeen and sailed west. Preliminary arrangements included the dressing and fitting of the whole of the materials on a platform at the shore Station; of the materials to be put on the decks for four barges capable of carrying 20 tons of stone at a time and towed to the rock by a paddle steamer which was fitted out as a tug (the "Dhuh-eartach") and for a vessel of 60 tons to be moored at a convenient distance from the rock to accommodate the men working on the rock until such times as the temporary barrack was erected for the use of the workmen in the summer.

Initial construction on the rock began on 25 June 1867. Under the supervisor of Alan Berber a temporarily barrack of iron was made for the workmen, made of iron. Summer gales brought high seas, which resulted in breaking water falling on the roof 24 meters above sea level. The barrack held firm, although fourteen men including Brebner were trapped there for five days, and at one-point seawater poured in through the trapdoor, swirled around them and exited with their remaining food supplies. The barrack was built on similar way on those used at the Bell Rock - ie it was constructed of a malleable iron framing fixed into the rock, rising 11 meters feet above the rock's surface and 18 meters above high water mark and on which was to be placed the habitable part of the barrack, formed of a malleable iron cylinder of riveted plates, 6 meters in height and 4.8 meters in diameter and divided into two storeys.(seen on the painting in the righthand column). The barrack was completed on 28 September 1868 at which date three quarters of the 1.5 meter foundation for the tower had been excavated from the rock. From May to September landings on the rock was impossible for 38 days.

Despite these hardvessels a 11 meters diameter foundation pit was excavated and by 1869 a solid portion of tower rising 9.8 meters above foundation level had been completed. This was no mean feat. On one occasion eleven two-ton stones were dislodged from the third course of stonework and carried off the rock, never to be seen again. Robert Stevenson noted that this destruction occurred at the same height "above the sea as the glass panes in the lantern of Smeaton's at Eddystone"

In 1869 working without season extended from 25 March - 29 October with 59 landings. Workmen had occupied the barrack from 26 April to 3 September. The foundation had been completed and 5 courses of the tower erected. Mr Stevenson reported "our anticipation as to the difficulties of marking landings at Dhuheartach have been most fully realised ..."

At the beginning of operations one of the workmen had to make the return journey of 40 miles across Mull and by open boat to Oban to collect the pay, hiring a conveyance on the return because of the weight of silver carried, which took one week in each month. So, an arrangement, which for the sake of secrecy was referred to as THE BOX, was made with the Royal Bank of Scotland, Glasgow, whereby the £600 to £1,000 required each month was put in a box and taken to the clerk on the "Dunvegan Castle" who fastened it to part of the vessel by a chain and padlock. The cashier at Erraid and the bank held the two keys. This arrangement continued until November 1871 and £26,500:5:9d was conveyed without loss of a single penny.

Foundation of the Lighthouse (click to enlarge)

Construction of the tower on site in 1870

The solid base weighing 1,840 tons rises more than 20 meters above the pounding seas, more than twice as high as its nearest British rival of Skerryvore. The blocks, having been shaped and fitted on Erraid, were towed out to the rock in barges by the steamer ‘Dhuheartach’ each barge carrying 16 tons. Masonry work was completed in 1871 and the lantern, optical apparatus and fog bell installed the following year, Dubh Artach becoming the first isolated rock light in Britain to use paraffin. The finished tower rises 31 meters above the foundation in seventy-seven courses of stonework all told.

In 1870 there were 62 landing from April to October, but bad weather restricted the real working season to June, July and August. The 31st course had been completed and the tower was 15 meter high. On 29 November 1871 the masonry had been completed. The upper course was 31 meter above the foundation. The tower originally designed to be solid to the 13th course, had been built solid to the 21st course, and the door of the tower had been raised to 9.5 meter above the surface of the rock instead of 6 meters as originally planned. The maximum diameter at the base of the tower was 11 meter and the maximum at the top was 4.8 meter. The interior was divided into 7 compartments or rooms affording accommodation amounting to 7,280 cubic feet. The whole of the outer or face course of the tower and parapet was of granite and the internal work was of freestone.

Season 1872 was spent placing the lantern and apparatus and completing the inside fittings of the tower. The Commissioners visited the rock on 29 July 1872, landed "without difficulty" and reported that they "were extremely well pleased" with what they saw. The light was exhibited for the first time on the evening of 1 November 1872 and on the following day the Principal Lightkeeper, James Ewing, wrote to the secretary "I beg leave to inform you that the light exhibited on the 1st conforms to your orders. I am also glad to state that we can carry a magnificent flame, which eventually must eclipse all the lights on the west coast." The light in fact was so bright that one month later the Principal Lightkeeper reported that the lightkeepers' eyes were being adversely affected and requested protection.

The total cost of the works undertaken by the Northern Lighthouse Board was £83,710:2:10d, including the £10,300 cost of establishing the shore station on Erraid. However, the extraordinary nature of the work should not be reduced to mere numbers.

Stevenson was moved to note that: "It would be ungenerous if a great and dangerous work like this were brought unsuccessfully to an end and no praise should be given to such men as Mr Brebner the resident Superintendent, Mr MacGregor the captain of the steamer, Mr Goodwillie the master-builder on the rock and Mr Irvine the landing master. If full justice were to be done, the list should be much longer, but I can only add that out of all the workmen who took their lives in their hand to finish the Dhu Heartach Lighthouse, there were very few who turned poltroon. And this is the common history of all such undertakings."

Completion of the construction work did not result in an end to the hazards. At low tide the landing stage is 12 meter above a boat, yet not completely out of the reach of the swell. Landings other than via the precarious use of dangling ropes from a derrick were most unusual even on calm days. The storm seas could rise to extraordinary heights. In the first year of operation, the copper lightning conductor was wrenched out of its sockets by a storm at a height of 28 meter above high water.

Keepers houses
Former Keeper's houses on Erraid (click to enlarge)

The first principal keeper

was James Ewing who looked after the light for the next eleven years. Despite the exceptionally adverse conditions faced by the keepers, which resulted in them receiving additional payments in kind, Ewing was not the only one who served the light for a decade or more. However, some found the lonely rock and its cramped quarters less to their taste. One had to be prevented from diving into the sea and attempting to swim ashore.

The pay of the Lightkeepers at this new Rock were Principal: £73:10:0d per annum, 1st assistant: £65, 2nd and 3rd Assistants £60, each lightkeeper also received £10 per annum for land and 7/6d per annum for getting provisions.

In 1874 the principal keeper reported an incident which suggested that the rock had experienced an earth tremor but the tower stood fast. In 1890 a distinctive red band was painted round the middle section of the tower to distinguish it from Skerryvore, 32 km to the northwest, which was served from the same shore station.

A dispute concerning the financing of lighthouses led to an 1898 visit to Dubh Artach of some prominent persons, including the President of the Board of Trade and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Michael Hicks Beach.

Until 1952 lighthouse keepers and their families lived prosperously on the island. A school was even built to educate the lighthouse keepers children as well as those from the croft and surrounding areas

The lighthouse was fully automated in 1971 and the following year a helipad was constructed to enable maintenance work to be undertaken without the need for perilous sea landings and is now remotely monitored from the Board’s Headquarters in George Street, Edinburgh.


Character: Fl(2) W 30s 44m 20M
(fl. 0.2s - ec. 3.8s)

EngineerDavid Lillie Stevenson (1815-1886)
EngineerThomas Stevenson (1818-1887)

Lat, Lon56°07.946' N, 06°38.079' W

Established1 November 1872
CharacterFlashing(2) White every 30 secs.
Range37 km / 20 nM
Tower38 meters
Elevation44 meters above sea level
Fog horn????
AISMMSI No 992351088

AuthorityNorthern Lighthouse Board
Remarks29 km west of Colonsay, Argyll
Solar power
Cat.A listed - nr: 12320 - 20/07/1971

Dubh Artach lighthouse
Dubh Artach lighthouse
Dubh Artach map
Dubh Artach map
Dubh Artach map

xxxxx- xxxxx