Place of the lighthouse
The LighthouseDescription High Light Robert Stevenson, 1815-16. Square, 3-stage castellated tower forms centrepiece of substantial, symmetrical 2-storey and basement residential block; picturesque, castle-style with Tudor Gothic detail. West front and tower ashlar, remaining elevations whin rubble with ashlar dressings, long and short to side elevations, flat roofs. All elevations, 3-bay, outer advanced bays of side elevations wrap round front and rear elevations to form narrow mock turret details with tall, blind hood-moulded openings. Every bay with paired Tudor arched windows setin square architraves, some hood-moulded, some blind. Descent down central well of circular stair. Cast iron staging, tongue and grooved panelling. Interior: Circular stair in tower with teardrop cast iron balusters and walls plastered and lined as ashlar. First floor Commissioner s Board Room has a large black marble chimneypiece with iron grate flanked by caryatid figures, back plate depicting the Birth of Aphrodite, and a fireguard with lyre motif. Pointed-headed entrance at base of tower with panelled door,set-offs to each stage and each stage with pointed windows with Y tracery to each face. Corbelled parapets throughout, those to the residential block incorporate the flues. Substantial storage block extends from centre of rear elevation with castellated turrets and square battered pylon blocks set into slope of land. Lantern, 1924 by David A Stevenson. Lattice frame to lantern; light suspended on mercury tank with French louvred crystals and lenses; rotation by clockwork mechanism, weights. Description Low Light 1844. 3 stage tower with corbelled parapet and cast-iron hand rail. Painted render, small round-headed windows. Cast-iron panels to fixed lantern light, domed cap. Statement of Special Interest Used to display a fixed light to the north. The first lighthouse in Scotland was established on the Isle of May in 1636, and the present lighthouse was built almost two centuries later by Robert Stevenson, founder of the celebrated dynasty of lighthouse engineers. Later modifications Stevenson's lighthouse were undertaken by his sons and grandsons. It is now operated automatically. The Isle of May is located at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, and is 1.6km long and about 500m wide, covering 57ha. Historically, many vessels sailing to and from the Forth ports were vesselwrecked on its shores. In 1635, King Charles I granted a patent for constructing a beacon here to East Lothian citizens James Maxwell of Innerwick and John and Alexander Cunningham of Barns. They erected a masonry building 7.3m square and 12m high. The top of the building was vaulted to support a flat flagstone roof, upon which was set a stone platform topped by a tapering circular iron fire box, 530mm deep and up to 850mm wide. Coal for the fire was hoisted from the ground to the roof using a box and pulley. The grate burned up to 406 tonnes of coal a year, tended by three keepers, but its light was "never well seen when most required". This beacon was the first permanent light station in Scotland and the last one to be in private ownervessel. In 1814, the Northern Lighthouse Board bought the island from the Duke and Duchess of Portland for £60,000. Construction of the new lighthouse, designed by Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), began the following year. The lighthouse’s square unpainted masonry tower is 24.1m high, and with its adjoining keepers' accommodation, resembles a Gothic castle. It was completed in February 1816 and the light — an Argand oil lamp with parabolic silvered reflectors — was first exhibited on 1st September 1816. Once the Stevenson lighthouse was operational, the beacon was decommissioned. Planned demolition had been cancelled following the intervention of writer Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). The 1636 building was "ruined ´ la picturesque" by reducing its height to about 6m and constructing a castellated parapet around the top to match the style of the new station. Fishermen and vessels’ pilots used it as a refuge. In September 1836, Alan Stevenson (1807-65), Robert's eldest son, directed the fitting of a new light. The original catoptric (reflected light using mirrors) apparatus was replaced by dioptric (refracted light using lenses) apparatus, resulting in a three-fold increase in brightness. It was the first British dioptric fixed light, and led to adoption of the dioptric system in UK lighthouses. During 1843-4, a small low-level lighthouse (NT661988) was built to the south east of the 1816 lighthouse. Visually ligning the two lights enabled mariners to avoid the treacherous North Carr Rocks 12km north of the Isle of May. The low light first shone in April 1844, but was discontinued in 1887 after the North Carr Lightvessel was stationed near the rocks. The 1816 lighthouse had accommodation for three keepers and their families — not enough manpower to maintain the electric arc lamp that was to be installed 70 years later. In June 1885, work began on accommodation for three more keepers and on the infrastructure for generating electricity. New buildings (NT657991) were constructed 247m south east of the lighthouse, in the valley of a freshwater loch. Electricity for the arc lamp came from two steam-powered generators fuelled by coal. They were the largest then made, weighing about 4.5 tonnes each and having a combined output of 8.8kW. Electric current arced between carbon rod electrodes, which glowed white hot. Some 135m of 38mm diameter carbon rods and 160 tonnes of coal were burned per year. If the electric current failed, a three-wick paraffin lamp was used and could be operational in about three minutes. The light had dioptric apparatus fitted with a dipping plane designed by Thomas Stevenson (1818-87), Robert’s youngest son, and emitted four flashes in quick succession every 30 seconds. It was first shown on 1st December 1886. The light had been improved to 2.9 million candela by 1901, achieved by using long focal distance apparatus and equiangular prisms to condense the light into a more powerful beam. The new equipment was designed by David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938) and Charles Alexander Stevenson (1855-1950), Robert's grandsons. Though the electric light was far brighter than the original oil lamp, it could not penetrate dense fog. New oil lamps with incandescent mantles had been developed and proved to have greater power. David Alan Stevenson installed one of them in May 1924, and the lighthouse's electric light was discontinued. The Isle of May was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1956. On 9th August 1972, it became a rock station — the keepers and their families lived on the mainland not at the lighthouse. The remnant of the 1636 lighthouse is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (No.887). Both the 1636 and the 1816 lighthouses became Category B listed buildings in March 1984. The station was automated on 31st March 1989 and the lighthouse is operated by Radar link to Fife Ness Lighthouse and by telephone link to the Northern Lighthouse Board's headquarters in Edinburgh. The light emits two white flashes every 15 seconds and has a range of 40.7km. The Isle of May is now owned and managed by Scottish National Heritage, and the keepers' cottages are privately owned. Contractor: James Maxwell of Innerwick Contractor: John & Alexander Cunningham of Barns Lamp refractors (1836): Cookson of Newcastle A coal-burning beacon was established on the Isle of May, Firth of Forth, in 1636. This was the first permanent light station in Scotland and the last one to be in private ownervessel. The Northern Lighthouse Board bought the island in 1814 and Stevenson's lighthouse was completed in 1816. Its 24.1m high square-plan unpainted masonry tower and adjoining dwelling resemble a castle. His grandson David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938) would install a new lantern there in 1924. The Isle of May is located in the north of the outer Firth of Forth, approximately 8 km off the coast of mainland Scotland. It is 1.8 kilometers long and less than half a kilometre wide. The island is owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage as a National Nature Reserve.
The island's coastline is rocky; its surface covers 140 acres and slopes gradually from vertical 50 meters cliffs on the west side to sea level on the east. Its history dates back to the early custom of founding Monastic settlements on small islands and it was manifest in the choice of St Adrian, when, in the ninth century, he and his brother monks established their retreat on the Isle of May. Later, in the twelfth century, King David I founded a monastery on the island which he granted to the Benedictine Abbey of Reading in Berkshire. This was on the condition that nine priests be placed there to celebrate divine service for the souls of the founder, his predecessors, and successors, the Kings of Scotland.
The island is perhaps best known among naturalists for its bird observatory which was launched in 1934 under the auspices of the then newly formed British Trust for Ornithology. It was on similar lines to the famous German Observatory at Heligoland and was the first in Scotland and only the second in the British Isles, the other being on Skokholm Island off South Wales. The studies of bird migration, varied seabird breeding populations, the island's own breed of mice and the island plant communities are all added attractions for visitors, in addition to the geology, the history and the lighthouses. The island was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1956.
A lighthouse has been operating on the Isle of May since 1635 in which year King Charles 1st granted a patent to James Maxwell of Innerwick and John and Alexander Cunningham of Barnes to erect a beacon on that island and to collect dues from vesselping for its maintenance. This was originally 2 Scottish shillings per ton for Scottish vessels (equivalent to two pence sterling) and twice this amount for non-local vesselping per voyage, but was reduced to 1 shilling and sixpence, and three shillings respectively in 1639 with some vesselping entirely exempt during the summer.
This light, however, was a crude affair and consisted of a stone structure, surmounted by an iron chauffeur in which there burned a coal fire to serve as the illuminant. The beacon, the first permanently manned one in Scotland and considered at the time to be one of the best in existence, used around 400 tons of coal per year, requiring three men to look after it. In 1790 a lightkeepers' entire family was suffocated by fumes, except for an infant daughter, who was found alive 3 days later.
One of the three lightkeepers, his wife and five of his six children were suffocated by fumes in January 1791, the exception being a three-year-old girl who was discovered alive three days later. Ash and clinker had piled up beside the 12-metre-high (39 ft) beacon tower over the previous ten years and had reached the window of keepers' room, and was set smouldering by coals falling from the beacon.
Despite the fact that the light was regarded in its time as one of the finest in existence, its value as an aid to navigation, judged by today's standards, must have been decidedly limited. The character of the light would naturally vary considerably with almost every change in weather conditions; One minute it might be belching forth great volumes of smoke and the next blazing up in clear high flames, while changes in wind directions would tend to alter its appearance. An easterly wind for instance would have the effect of blowing the flames away from the sea so that the light could scarcely be seen where it was most wanted.
An instance of this occurred on the night of 19 December 1810 when two of HM vessels NYMPHE and PALLAS were wrecked near Dunbar because the light of a lime kiln on the coast had been mistaken for the navigation light on the Isle of May. In 1814 the Commissioners purchased from the Duke and Duchess of Partland the Isle of May, together with the old coal lighthouse which was built in 1816. It was converted to a Rock Station on 9 August 1972 and looks a bit like a small castle with its protective battlements.
About a quarter of a mile from the lighthouse and on the east side of the island stands the tower and domestic buildings of the "Low Light" (2d picture on the right). A light was first exhibited from this small lighthouse in April 1844 to act, in conjunction with the main lighthouse, as a lights in line so that the mariner could avoid the treacherous North Carr Rock some seven miles north of the Island. However, when the NORTH CARR LIGHTvessel was established in position in 1887, there was no longer a need for the Low Light and it was, therefore, permanently discontinued. The buildings are now occupied by members of the Ornithological fraternity.
The Northern Lighthouse Board purchased the island in 1814 from the Duke and Duchess of Portland for 60,000 pounds, by which time the beacon was the last remaining private lighthouse in Scotland. A proper lighthouse was built on the island in 1816 by Robert Stevenson. and is an ornate gothic tower on a castellated stone building designed to resemble a castle, 24 meters (79 ft) high and with accommodation for three light keepers and their families, along with additional space for visiting officials. The new lighthouse started operating on 1 September 1816, and is now a listed building.
It was upgraded in September 1836, when a new light and refractor lens was fitted, and further extensive work took place in 1885–1886. Additional dwellings, boiler and engine houses, a workshop and a coal store were built 250 meters (270 yd) from the lighthouse in a small valley containing a fresh water loch. The engine house was fitted with two steam-powered generators, at 4.5 tons each the largest ever constructed at that time, and with a total output of 8.8 kilowatts. These powered an arc lamp in the lighthouse, with a three-wick paraffin lamp kept lit but turned down in case the electric lamp failed. The new light was first used on 1 December 1886 and produced four flashes every 30 seconds.
The single automatically-fed arc lamp, with two spares in reserve used carbons 1½ inches in diameter. A core of soft pure graphite made these burn with great steadiness, and an average of 440 feet per annum was used. The tremendous current bridging the arc startled a stranger entering the lightroom by a sound like a circular was passing through exceedingly knotty timber, according to one visiting lightkeeper. A three-wick paraffin oil lamp, kept trimmed and ready for use in case the electric current failed, could be lighted and put in focus in about three minutes.
The new light, which was shown from December 1st 1886, gave four flashes in quick succession every half minute, It had an elaborate dioptric apparatus which enabled Thomas Stevenson's dipping plan to be adopted so that the strongest beam of light could be directed much nearer the shore in hazy or foggy weather. The light as about three million candlepower when on machine was in use, and double that with two, or about 300 and 600 times more powerful than the old fixed oil light. he geographical range was 22 miles, but the light was picked up and recognised by sailors at 40 and 50 miles off by the flashes lighting up the clouds overhead.
To ensure efficient working, the whole establishment required the services of a Principal Lightkeeper with technical experience as Engineer-in-Charge, four Assistant with no special training - two for lightroom duty and two to attend the engines and boilers - and an auxiliary whose main responsibility was looking after the station horse and the carting of supplies, which was no light task, with a special supply of 150 tons of steam coke for the engines 1888 - 1889.
The total cost of the installation was about £22,000 including the lighthouse buildings already in use. Maintenance at not more than £1,050 per annum was about three time that for an oil light, but it was reckoned that the cost per candlepower produced was relatively small. Electrical power indeed proved to be the most penetrating form of light, although its superiority was much reduced in hazy weather. In really dense fog even the powerful light on the Isle of May could not be seen from the foot of the tower owing to the heavy cost of maintaining the generating plant and the greatly increased power of oil lights made possible by the incandescent mantle. The electric light was therefore discontinued at the Isle of May in 1924. The station then cost about £2,884 per annum to maintain compared with £1,031 for an oil light the original equipment had become unsafe, and then the question of renewal was raised by D A Stevenson who proposed reverting to an oil light, for which the Commissioners obtained Board of Trade sanction.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution rewarded the lightkeepers on the Isle of May for saving lives when the MATAGORDA was wrecked in 1872 and the German Government sent a binocular field glass each to Robert Grierson and Laurence Anderson who helped the crew of the PAUL lost on Inchkeith in 1888.
In 1930 two keepers rescued four crew members of the wrecked commercial trawler George Aunger by swimming out to it. The lighthouse became a "rock" station on 9 August 1972, meaning that the keeper's families were no longer accommodated at the lighthouse but on the mainland at the shore station in Granton, and a fully automatic one on 31 March 1989 shortly before ownervessel of the island passed to the Nature Conservancy Council.
The Isle of May was demanned on the 31 March 1989. The operation of the light is controlled by a photo electric cell which determines when darkness has fallen, and the light, which has a range of 22 miles, is automatically turned on. Monitoring of the light is by UHF Radar monitor to Fife Ness Lighthouse then by PSTN to NLB Headquarters in George Street Edinburgh.
The island is closed to visitors from 1 October until Easter to prevent disturbance to the large number of seal pups. The Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick has two live cameras on the island, which can be remotely controlled by visitors, to allow close viewing of the seabird cities, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags, cormorants and terns and the fluffy grey seal pups in winter, without disturbance. The Scottish Seabird Centre also runs boat trips to the Isle of May.
Most visitors to the island are daytrippers taking the ferry from Anstruther in Fife, although up to six visitors can stay at the bird observatory, usually for a week at a time. The only way to get there is by ferry; the journey takes 45 minutes from the small ports of Anstruther and Crail, and also from North Berwick.
The fog signal, from two designated buildings at each end of the island, were powered by compressed air, generated from the island's power plant in the centre of the island, and delivered by 150-millimetre (5.9 in) cast-iron pipes laid on the ground to top up a series of air tanks located adjacent to both North and South buildings.
The North (left) horn provided a single blast of 7 seconds duration every 2¼ minutes and the South horn provided four 2½ second blasts of the same pitch every 2¼ minutes. The North and South horns did not blast together, being approximately 67½ seconds apart. This facility was discontinued in 1989. The May lighthouse was mentioned in John Buchan's 1934 novel The Free Fishers - “Far out the brazier on the May was burning with a steady glow, like some low-swung planet shaming with its ardour the cold stars.
A3090 - High Light
Character: Fl(2) W 15s 73m 22M
(fl. 0.3s - ec. 1.6s)
|Engineer||: Robert Stevenson (1773-1850)|
|Lat, Lon||: 56°11.139' N, 02°33.457' W|
|Established||: 1635(first) - 1816(current)|
|Character||: Flashing(2) White every 15 secs.|
|Range||: 40.7 km / 22 nM|
|Elevation||: 73 meters above sealevel|
|Tower||: 24 meters|
|Init. Costs||: £ ?.|
|Econ. Costs*||: £ ?.|
|*) According to: MeasuringWorth.com|
|Automated||: 31 March 1989|
|Last Keepers||: ? - PLK|
|: ? - ALK|
|: ? - ALK|
|Fog horn||: Discontinued in 1989|
|: North: 1 bl. of 7 s. every 150 s.|
|: South: 4 bl. of 2.5 s. every 150 s.|
|Authority||: Northern Lighthouse Board|
|Remarks||: Cat.B listed - LB2712 - 01/03/1984|
AXXXX - Low Light
|Engineer||: Robert Stevenson (1773-1850)|
|Lat, Lon||: 56°11.270' N, 02°33.438' W|
|Init. Costs||: £ ?.|
|Econ. Costs*||: £ ?.|
|*) According to: MeasuringWorth.com|
|Last Keepers||: ? - PLK|
|: ? - ALK|
|: ? - ALK|
|Fog horn||: ...|
|Status||: Discontinued 1887|
|Remarks||Cat.C listed - LB2687 - 01/03/1984|