Girdle Ness
Girdle Ness lighthouse
photos: © Northern Lighthouse Board
Girdle Ness
photos: ©

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Lighthouse shield

Place of the lighthouse

The lighthouse is located near Torry Battery on the Girdle Ness Peninsula, a spit of land at the mouth of the River Dee on the south side of Aberdeen Harbour. The site calls for a lighthouse to be located there after the whaler Oscar was wrecked off Greyhope Bay in April 1813. There were only 2 survivors out of a crew of 43. The skippers of Aberdeen requested that a lighthouse be built at Girdle Ness. However, it was not until 1831 that construction of the lighthouse was started.

Building the Lighthouse

The lighthouse was designed by Robert Stevenson, engineer with the Northern Lighthouse Board assisted by his son Alan Stevenson as local engineer. From 1830 Alan was an apprentice with the Northern Lighthouse Board. The inspector supervising the work on a daily basis was Alexander Slight. The lighthouse was built in 1833 by John Gibb, a contractor from Aberdeen. The lighthouse at Girdle Ness is built from Gneiss (a type of stone) from a nearby quarry.

The lighthouse is built in neoclassical (late Georgian) style. The complex includes the tower, two adjoining flat-roofed lighthouse keeper's houses on the west side, an enclosed courtyard and the boundary around a garden for growing vegetables for own use and rearing livestock. Everything is painted white. In the year 1880, a rectangular workshop with a flat roof was added within the walls of the complex, intended to house the machinery for making compressed air for the fog horn (see later).

The lighthouse has an unusual design, with an additional gallery built about a third of the tower's height. This extra gallery was intended to show a second light at the same time; so one in the lower gallery along with the upper light in the top of the tower.

The entire complex was surrounded by a high stone wall. It was later discovered at other lighthouses that high walls created "strong wind vortices" in the courtyard. For this reason, in 1907 the walls at Girdle Ness were made lower. The entire complex is painted in Northern Lighthouse Board specific colours.

As previously stated, this lighthouse is the only lighthouse in Scotland originally built to show two lights at once. The conical tower, 37 meters high, has an additional gallery at 15 meters 189 steps to the upper lantern room.

The Light system

Lower light - Cast iron work and details
The lower light, about 15 meters above the ground floor and about 35 meters above sea level, is housed in a surrounding cast-iron gallery that gives the tower its characteristic shape. This gallery has a 28-sided iron frame construction. Towards the sea, it was provided with windows and covered with cast iron plates on the landward side. After the fanlight was improved in 1890 (see later), the light on this gallery was stopped and the windows were also replaced by cast iron plates.

The light at the top is located in the iron dome at the top of the tower about 37 meters above the ground and 56 meters above sea level. The iron dome is supported by a projecting gallery, as was also applied to the lower light. and provides a wide platform surrounded by a parapet.

The tower's cast-iron work is notable for its unusual detailing - some of the external ladders feature parades of crocodiles, lions, dolphin-shaped handles encircling the lanterns, and panels on the landward side of the lanterns are decorated with classical, religious and nautical motifs.

The light was ignited by pressure vaporized paraffin and burned 1.35 liters of paraffin per hour. A clockwork motor, placed in a mercury bath to keep it level, moved the reflectors and light along the horizon of the coast.

Argand lamp

The lighthouse's lighting consisted of Argand oil burners placed at the focus of 533 mm diameter silver-plated copper parabolic reflectors. The top light had 18 reflector lamps and the bottom light had 13. The basement below the semi-circular chamber around the base of the east side of the tower was used as an oil storage.

Cast iron work (detail)

In 1847 a dioptric light was installed. The original lantern housing was too small for this new light and was transferred to the Inchkeith Lighthouse in the Firth of Forth. The new lantern housing is a 10-foot structure surmounted by an iron dome and glass in triangular astragals (mouldings sealing the gap between the panes) decorated with cast iron lion masks at the crossroads (The original lantern housing was acquired by the National Museum of Scotland in 1996).

In 1870 a special multi-wick kerosene burner was successfully trialled for a month at Girdle Ness. The double lights at Girdle Ness were discontinued in 1890, with the removal of the lower light system and an upgrade of the upper light.

In 1991 the lighthouse was automated and the outbuildings came into private ownership. Light operation is controlled from the Northern Lighthouse Board's headquarters in Edinburgh. The light is now composed by an array of lamps. It operates on a gearless pedestal drive system powered by mains power. In the event of a power failure, the lamp has a DC backup, a 250 mm emergency lantern with a range of 10 NM (18.5 km).

The Foghorn

Girdle Ness Foghorn - "The Torry Coo"
At the time this lighthouse was built, no acoustic warning systems for shipping existed in Scotland, except for the fog bells at Skerryvore and Bell Rock lighthouses. St Abb's received Scotland's first foghorn in 1876.

The Girdle Ness Foghorn would follow soon after in 1880. A separate technical room was built for this purpose at the lighthouse premises and a foghorn building to the southeast and outside the walls of the lighthouse complex. These buildings were built by James Dove & Co, of Greenside Edinburgh.

In the technical room were three diesel generators of 25 hp each that made the compressed air. This compressed air was piped to two cast iron tanks at the foghorn building outside the complex. The semi-circular building has the two vertical cast-iron tanks at the rear that provide the foghorn itself with the necessary compressed air. The horn was partially rotatable by means of a gear ring.

Until 1987, the associated foghorn was used when visibility was less than 5 NM (9.3 km). Compressed air escapes from the tanks through a mechanism that produces 4 explosions of 2 high and 2 low tones every 2 minutes.

The foghorn was nicknamed "Torry Coo" (owing to its low sonorous mournful tones) because it sounded like a cow that could be heard twenty miles away.

In 1902 a new foghorn replaced an earlier one which was located to the East of the current Structure. The Foghorn, like the Lighthouse, was once an invaluable aid to Navigation. The Siren itself is a Cylindrical type.

In 2003, the Lighthouse Board announced its intention to remove the foghorn, which was discontinued in 1987. Aberdeen City Council intervened and the foghorn, known locally as the Torry Coo, has survived. Located on Greyhope Road, on a headland south east of the entrance to the River Dee in Aberdeen. Although it has been disused for many years, it has retained a special place in the hearts of the people of Torry and is a striking addition to the rugged coastal landscape of this area.

Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS)

Girdle Ness dome with DGPS and RACON
Since 1998, Girdle Ness Lighthouse has been a transmitting station for the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) for marine navigation satellite. Girdle Ness is one of Scotland's three reference stations. The other two are Butt of Lewis Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides and Sumburgh Head Lighthouse in Shetland. The DGPS transmitters and receivers are mounted on the dome of the lantern. On photos taken after 1998, these can be clearly seen as silver-coloured balls above the lantern house.

The General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland – Trinity House, the Northern Lighthouse Board and Irish Lights – have discontinued their DGPS service after March 31, 2022.

A radar beacon (RACON) is also installed on the Girdle Ness lighthouse, with a Morse code G(--o) with a range of 25 NM.

Additional information

On November 18, 1944, during World War II, a mine drifted ashore, exploded, causing damage to the doors and windows in the house and tower, but no one was injured. After the war, parabolic mirrors of 1.8 meters in diameter were placed behind the burners. Probably intended as an emergency solution due to the shortage of prismatic cut and polished glass.

Aberdeen Harbour is one of the major ports around the North Sea rim, historically a fishing port. Over the last fifty years, it has been expanded to cater for the North Sea oil and gas industry, yet despite all the activity, the harbour entrance is also a feeding ground for bottlenose dolphins.

Girdle Ness


Character: Fl(2) W 20s 56m 22M
(fl.0.5s - ec 2.0s, fl.0.5 - ec 17.0s)

Girdle Ness lighthouse
Lightcharacter of Girdle Ness (click to enlarge)

Engineer: Robert Stevenson (1772-1850)

Lat, Lon: 57°08.339' N, 002°02.916' W

Established: October 15, 1833
Character: Flashing(2) White every 20 secs.
Range: 22 NM ~ 40.7km
Elevation: 56 meters above sealevel
Tower: 37 meters, 182 steps to the top
Init. Costs: £ 12,940, 5s. 1d.
Econ. Costs*: £ 65,990,000
*) According to:

Automated: March 31, 1991
Last Keepers: A. Rosie - PLK
: C. Reid - ALK
: E. Bruce - ALK
Fog horn: Type Siren, 1 blast every 60s)
: Discontinued in 1987
DGPS station: Ref. 686, Transm. 446
: Discontinued March 31, 2022
RACON: G(--o) 25 NM

Status: Operationel
Authority: Northern Lighthouse Board
Remarks: Candle power 200.000 cd
: Cat.A listed - LB20078 - 12/01/1967

Girdle Ness Foghorn - "The Torry Coo"

Girdle Ness lighthouse
Girdle Ness Foghorn - "The Torry Coo"

Girdle Ness lighthouse
Girdle Ness Foghorn - "The Torry Coo"

Girdle Ness lighthouse
Girdle Ness in early times

Girdle Foghorn
Girdle Ness Foghorn - "The Torry Coo"

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