North Rona
North Rona lighthouse
photo: © John Doh

Outer Hebrides

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Update: 30-03-2024

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Arnish Point
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Place of the lighthouse

The North Rona Lighthouse lies on the island Rona. Rona (Scottish Gaelic: Rònaigh) is an uninhabited Scottish island in the North Atlantic. It is often referred to as North Rona to distinguish it from the island of South Rona, which lies north of Raasay, near Skye in the Inner Hebrides. The island has an area of 109 hectares (270 acres) and a maximum elevation of 108 metres.

The island lies 74 kilometres (40 NM) to the north from the Butt of Lewis and Cape Wrath on the north coast, and 18 km (9,5 NM) east of Sula Sgeir. More isolated than St Kilda, it is the most remote island in the British Isles ever to have been inhabited on a long-term basis. It is also the closest neighbour to the Faroe Islands.

The general topography of the island comprises bracken and heather-covered ground, with high steep sloping sides and cliffs in places. The lighthouse is at the south end of the island in an area that is generally flat but slopes away rapidly to the north. The station is situated at an elevation of approximately 114 metres above sea level.

History of the Lighthouse

In 1981 it was likely that a recommended deepwater route (possibly incorporating channel separation) would be established immediately to the west of the Hebrides. The recommended route was relatively near the coast which was low lying and featureless and led to the provision of navigation lights some of which were not established until 1997.

Butt of Lewis, Flannan Isles and Barra Head already existed. Possible additional sites were Gallan Head, Haskeir Island (1997), Griminish Point, Ard and Runair and Monach Isles (re-established 1997 and upgraded 2008). With the eventual introduction of the new west coast tanker route in the early 1980s from Sullom Voe oil terminal in Shetland, it was necessary to provide a major new light on North Rona with the complimentary light on Sula Sgeir.

North Rona was designated as a 24 NM (now 22 NM) light to cover full area including Sula Sgeir which has a range of 12 NM (now 11 NM). Consideration was also given to using two 18 mile gas powered lights, one on North Rona and one on Sula Sgeir. However due to the difficult nature of Sula Sgeir, the simpler solution was chosen with an air de-polarised battery being used to power the light with an annual battery change out.

Warning systems

The light used a redundant six panel third order glass lens of which three panels were used (the remaining three are at Brough of Birsay) on a rotating pedestal and was powered from cycle charged Nickel Cadmium batteries. Using a 250W metal halide lamp gave a measured effective intensity of 604,089 candelas with a flash length of 0.16 seconds at a height of 114 meters for an advertised range of 24 NM. Final commissioning took place during March 1984 with the light being exhibited on 27 March 1984.

Equipment was shipped to site in stages between November 1983 and February 1984. All fastenings, support frames, cable trays etc were constructed from aluminium or stainless steel to ensure that maintenance was minimised. Reeded glass was incorporated as a means of extending the flash length with a penalty in range. Viewing trials took place at a distance of between 15 and 21 NM. This confirmed that the glass was unnecessary as the flash was clearly visible at a range of 21 NM on a night of indifferent visibility.

The lighthouse operated under its own automatic control but was monitored using UHF radio to Butt of Lewis and PSTN to Edinburgh. The main structures at this station consisted of: the Lighthouse Tower (concrete blockhouse plus lantern), GRP clad steel frame Accommodation Block (single storey), GRP clad steel frame Engine/Control Block (single storey), Concrete Heli-pad and a water tank house. The fuel oil tanks were located to the North of the Engine/Control room block, within the station boundary. The tower is approximately 10 metres high.

The overall lighthouse reflected the most up to date technology of its era and it has operated successfully in this form for 24 years, although there is now a solar array (2004) and a modern lamp rated at 70W (2007) installed as part of a upgrade.

North Rona Battery room
North Rona batteryroom
North Rona engine room
North Rona engine room

North Rona optic
North Rona biform optic (one upper and one lower optic)
North Rona, One of the two emergency optics

Name and history of the island

The name "Rona" may come from hraun-øy, Old Norse for "rough island," a combination of ròn and øy, Gaelic and Old Norse for "seal" and "island" respectively. Alternatively, it may have been named after Saint Ronan. In Gaelic, it is also known as Rònaigh an Daimh, which is literally 'Rona of the stag,' but may be derived from Rònaigh an Taibh, containing the Norse word tabh, meaning "ocean," and conveying the meaning "Rona of the Atlantic."

The island continued to be inhabited until the entire population of thirty died shortly after 1685 due to an infestation by rats, probably the black rat (Rattus rattus), which reached the island after a shipwreck. The rats raided the food stocks of barley meal, and it is possible that the inhabitants starved to death, although plague may have been a contributory factor. This occurred in a year in which it is reported that no further ships reached the isolated island to supply or trade. The rats themselves eventually starved to death, as the huge swells the island experiences prevented their hunting along the rocky shores.

It was resettled, but again depopulated by around 1695 due to a boating tragedy, after which it remained home to a succession of shepherds and their families. It had a population of nine in 1764. The last family which lived upon Rona was that of a shepherd named Donald M'Leod, otherwise the 'King of Rona', until 1844 when the island was finally abandoned for good.

Sir James Matheson, who bought Lewis in 1844, once offered the island to the Government for use as a penal settlement. The offer was refused. The island still boasts the Celtic ruins of St Ronan’s Chapel. It is owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, and managed as a nature reserve, for its important grey seal and seabird colonies.

Remains of the Ronan Church
Remains of St. Ronan's Church on North Rona

A tiny early Christian community, which may date as early as the eight century and is built of unmortared stone, survives virtually complete on the island – the best-preserved structure of this type in Scotland. A number of simple cross-slabs of early medieval date are preserved within the structure, probably the grave markers of Dark Age monks or hermits from Scotland or Ireland.

Although farmers from Lewis have continued to graze sheep on Rona ever since, the island has remained uninhabited, apart from a short period in 1884–85. In June 1884, two men from Lewis, Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo Mackay, having reportedly had a dispute with the minister of their local church, went to stay on Rona to look after the sheep. In August, boatmen who had called at the island reported that the men were well and in good spirits, and had refused offers to take them back to Lewis. In April 1885, the next people to visit Rona found the two men had died during the winter.

During World War I, the commander of German U-boat U-90, Walter Remy, stopped his submarine at North Rona during each of his wartime patrols, weather permitting, and sent crewmen onto the island to shoot sheep to obtain mutton for on-board consumption.

The island is the site of the Celtic ruins of St Ronan's Chapel. Together with Sula Sgeir, the island was formerly managed by Scottish Natural Heritage as a nature reserve, for its important grey seal and seabird colonies. These include the European storm-petrel and the larger Leach's storm-petrel, for which North Rona is an important breeding locality. It remains a protected area for nature and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area.

Monach Isles Lighthouse
North Rona lighthouse with solar panels

North Rona


A3869

Character: Fl(3) W 20s 47m 22M
(2x fl.0.2s-ec.3.1s, fl.0.2s-ec.13.2s.)

North Rona lighthouse
Lightcharacter of North Rona (click to enlarge)
Engineer: ?
Latitude: 59°7.349' N, 005°48.793' W

Established: First lit March 27, 1984
Character: Flashing(3) White every 20 secs.
Range: 22 NM ~ 40.7 km
Elevation: 114 meters above sea level
Tower: 10 meters
Init. Costs: £ ?.
Econ. Costs*: £ ?
*) According to: MeasuringWorth.com

Automated: 1984
Last Keepers: None
AIS: MMSI No 992351081

Status: Operational
Owner: Northern Lighthouse Board
Remarks:

North Rona lighthouse
North Rona Island with left on top the Lighthouse

North Rona lighthouse
North Rona lighthouse

North Rona lighthouse
North Rona lighthouse

North Rona lighthouse
50W CDM-T Elite (two of them, one in the upper and one in the lower optic)

North Rona Island in 1889
Map of North Rona Island in 1889

References:
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