Monach Isles
Monarch Isles lighthouse
photo: © Northern Lighthouse Board

Outer Hebrides

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Update: 29-03-2024

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Place of the lighthouse

The Monach Isles, also known as Heisker (Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Heisgeir / Heisgeir, pronounced [elanˈheʃkʲəɾʲ, ˈheʃkʲəɾʲ], is a group of six islands to the west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Three of the islands (Ceann Iar, Shivinish and Ceann Ear) are connected by beaches at low tide. The islands are not to be confused with Hyskeir in the Inner Hebrides, or Haskeir which is also off North Uist and visible from the Monach Isles. One of the isles is the isle of Shillay (Siolaigh), the location of the two Monach Lighthouses.

Remarkable and special place of the lighthouses

The Monarch Islands have a special history when it comes to lighthouses. The Monach Lighthouse is one of the few lighthouses in Scotland, if not the only one, to have been taken out of service and later returned to service. This history is briefly presented here in chronological order. Subsequently, the different phases are described separately.

Development of the Monach Lighthouses

YearDescription

1864Original 41m high lighthouse built under supervision of David Lillie and Thomas Stevenson.
1942During World War II, the lighthouse was extinguished due to hostilities.
1945At the end of hostilities, it was decided that the lighthouse was no longer needed and was not re-ignited.
1948After it was decided by the NLB that this lighthouse had become obsolete, the light was formally discontinued.
1993Oil tanker MV Braer is shipwrecked with serious environmental consequences near the Shetland Islands.
1996Permission to build three lighthouses to mark the 'Deep Water Route', West of the Outer Hebrides.
1997Construction of a modern lighthouse, 9 meters high, with a limited range of 10 NM.
2005Research showing the need for a lighthouse with longer range.
2008The low modern lighthouse was taken out of service because it is too low to achieve the desired range.
2008The high (old) lighthouse with new equipment put back into service with a range of 18 NM.

Building the High Lighthouse (old)

In January 1859, Captain Otter, Admiralty Surveyor of the Board of Trade, wrote to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses (NLB) about the desirability of building a lighthouse on the Monach Archipelago in the Outer Hebrides. After a joint inspection, it was that a lighthouse could be useful in keeping ships away from the dangerous rock sandbars.

David Lillie and Thomas Stevenson, engineers of the NLB, endorsed this view and stated: "We have no hesitation in assuming that the list of shipwrecks submitted to this council is correct and that a light on the west coast of the Hebrides would be helpful for shipping".

In 1859 the Board of Trade and Trinity House approved the erection of a lighthouse. The Isle of Shillay (Siolaigh), on which stands the Monach Lighthouses, was purchased by the Commissioners in 1862 from Sir John Orde and his son. Together, with a 0.0282 acre site on the adjoining Isle of Ceann Iar on which a warehouse was built, the cost of purchasing the island was £ 400. The Lighthouse was built under supervision of David Lillie and Thomas Stevenson, at a cost of £14,673.

The lighthouse complex on Shillay Island consists of an 8-story round tower. Attached to a two storey, three bay Keeper's house with a flat roof. The whole is built with brick (unpainted) with hard stone lintels and sills. The lighthouse has seven vertically aligned narrow windows. A bricked-up opening can be seen on the third floor. This gap was originally used to show a fixed red light. On top of the tower is a staggered balustrade with a walkway. The lantern is placed above it. This light house has diagonal astragals and a rounded domed hood. The entire complex is surrounded by a masonry wall with hard stone slabs and an entrance gate.

The lighthouses at Monach Isles, Ardnamurchan and Butt of Lewis are the only brick built lighthouses in Scotland.

In addition to this complex, a new aluminum tower was built in 1997, with solar panels. This tower was used as lighthouse between 1997 and 2008 and is now out of service. The surplus 1ste Order optics were removed and stored at the NLB depot at Granton, Edinburgh. It is later moved to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh.

Next to Shillay (Siolaigh), the island on which the lighthouses are located, is the island of Ceann Iar. On this island is a large, two-storey ruin made of the same red-bricks as the lighthouse. the building is usually described as a warehouse. The building looked to be more than just a warehouse. Although the interior had collapsed, you could see that large fireplaces once warmed rooms on both the ground and first floor. So in addition to being a storehouse, perhaps this once-grand building was an alternate accommodation for the keepers if they were stranded on Ceann Iar due to the weather. Or maybe it was a holiday-home of sorts if the keepers got tired of their quarters on tiny Shillay.

Monach house on Ceann Iar
Remains of workshop/store on Ceann Iar
Monach house on Ceann Iar
Remains of workshop/store on Ceann Iar

Warning systems (Light, Fog horn, Radar Beacon)

The light was first exhibited on 1 February 1864. There was also a fixed red subsidiary light was also exhibited at an elevation of 10 meter, this had a range of 12 Nautical miles. The red light shone over an arc of 90° to the north. This subsidiary light was discontinued in 1882. The bricked-up window that exhibited the red light is still clearly visible. See the third photo at thr right.

Just ten months after starting the lighthouse, on December 6, 1864, the top shaft of the optics jammed and the revolving light mechanism stopped. The three Keepers had to move the mechanism by hand for seventeen consecutive nights to keep the light on. Finally, on December 22, the lighthouse tender Pharos arrived with a new axle. The captain of the Pharos reported that he 'observed the revolutions of the light and found that they kept an excellent time'.

Bi-form lantern 35watt CDMT Metal Halide lamp

Operational status

To prevent the only lighthouse on the west coast of the Hebrides from becoming a beacon for enemy aircraft during World War II, the light was extinguished in 1942.

However, at the end of hostilities in 1945, the light was no longer lit. In 1948, after extensive investigation by shipping authorities, it was found that the lighthouse was no longer needed as part of the navigation along the Outer Hebrides. On November 22, 1948, the Monach Light was therefore permanently discontinued.

In July 1996 the Northern Lighthouse Board received approval and financial backing from the Department of Transport for the construction of three new lighthouses to mark the Deep Water Route, West of the Hebrides. This route had been recommended to laden tankers in the Report by Lord Donaldson “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”, which followed the Braer disaster in the Shetlands in 1993.

The three new lights were established in 1997 and are located at Haskeir, off North Uist, Gasker, off North Harris and this one at Shillay, Monach Isles. All three lights operate automatically and are monitored using a combination wireless communication direct to the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Headquarters in Edinburgh and had arange of 10 NM. The new lighthouse on the Monach island stood in front of the disused tower from 1864 and was first illuminated on September 22, 1997, powered by solar and wind energy.

Decision to reinstate the original Monachs light

In 2005 following a review of marine aids to navigation carried out by the General Lighthouse Authorities it was decided to increase the range of the Monach Isles light from 10 Nautical miles to 18 Nautical miles. To achieve an 18 mile range it would be necessary to raise the focal plane of the existing light and increase its output.

The modular design of the existing (low) aluminium and GRP lighthouse, did not lend itself to the increase the focal plane height required. Additionally, it would be necessary to utilise a rotating light, with a larger array of solar panels and increased battery capacity. The best engineering solution for increasing the range of the aid to navigation was to house a new optic in the original 1864 lighthouse high tower.

In July 2008 the Northern Lighthouse Board issued a Notice to Mariners stating:

Monach house Dome
Lighthouse dome of Monach Island

The existing light will be discontinued and a new light will be established in the
FORMER LIGHTHOUSE TOWER with the undernoted characteristics:

Character: Group Flashing (2) White every 15 seconds (as before)
Elevation: 47 metres,
Nominal Range: 18 Miles
Description of Structure: Red Brick Tower (height 41 metres)

The old, high Monachs light was exhibited again on the evening of 25 July 2008 and the low tower light is discontinued

At that time the Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Board, Roger Lockwood said “We are delighted to have moved back into the original tower at the Monachs, which was built by David lillie and Thomas Stevenson in 1864. The tower has essentially been left for the last 60 years, since the light was extinguished during the Second World War, and the limited amount of remedial work we have had to carry out pays tribute to the great work of the Stevensons".

The decision to reinstate the light in the original tower came as a direct result of our Aids to Marine Navigation Review carried out in 2005, where our users, the mariner, requested an increased visual range of light. The re-establishment of Monachs light will provide a vital marker for shipping passing through the Deep Water Route, west of the Hebrides.

Additional information

The island, Ceann Ear is home to the Mission Hall Exhibition, which is located in the building and was formerly used as a place of worship. The exhibition contains interesting details about life on the Monachs and the people who lived there, including the first and last inhabitants of each of the croft houses.

In the past, more than 100 people lived on the islands, mainly working in agriculture. However, the effects of weather and erosion with the constant shifting sand made it a very difficult place to live and the population decreased accordingly. In 1931, the 33 remaining residents moved to North Uist. The only people left were the lighthouse keepers and their families, who remained there until 1942 when the lighthouse was extinguished. From 1945-49, the Morrison family tried to resettle on Ceann Ear, but had to leave when no other families joined.

A tragedy occurred there on 15 November 1936 when two lightkeepers were drowned. They had taken a rowing boat across the 800 meter stretch of water, as usual, to collect the mail from the post box, a journey which involved a walk of approximately four kilometers and the crossing of two fords. The weather deteriorated badly – sleet and gale force winds blew up – by the time they came to make the return journey and their rowing boat was driven off course. They disappeared from view and it was not until 7 and 8 December that their bodies were washed on Heisker Isle across the Sound.

On March 28, 1966, an agreement was made between the Northern Lighhouse Board and the Natural Environment Research Council. This agreement granted the Research Council the right to establish a nature reserve on Shillay Island for the study and conservation of various species of flora and fauna.

Monarch Isles


A4020.5

Character: Fl(2) W 15s 47m 18M
(fl.0.5s-ec.2.0s, fl.0.5s-ec.12s.)

Monach Isles lighthouse
Lightcharacter on Monorch Island (click to enlarge)
Engineer Old: David Lillie Stevenson (1815-1886)
: Thomas Stevenson (1818-1887)

Latitude: 57°31.555' N, 007°41.702' W

Established: High tower, first time 01/02/1864
: High tower, (Discontinued 1948)
: Low tower: 22/09/1997, (Discont. 2008)
: High tower, second time 25/07/2008
Character: Flashing(2) White every 15 secs.
Range: 18 NM ~ 33.3 km
Elevation: 47 meters above sea level
Tower: 41 meters
Init. Costs: £ 14,673.
Econ. Costs*: £ 36,160,000.00 (2022)
*) According to: MeasuringWorth.com

Automated: 25/07/2008
Last Keepers: ? - PLK
: ? - ALK
: ? - ALK
Fog horn: ?

Status: Operational
Owner: Northern Lighthouse Board
Remarks: Cat.B listed - LB17578 - 05/10/1971

Monach Isles lighthouse
The original lighthouse - old and new

Monach Isles Lighthouse
The new/old lighthouse with solar panels

Monach Isles lighthouse
Point of the red light on the tower. Now sealed shut.

Monach Isles lighthouse
The original lighthouse - old and new

Monach Isles lighthouse
The original lighthouse - in bad shape

References:
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