Isle of May
Isle of May lighthouse
photos: © Northern Lighthouse Board

East Coast

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Isle of May
Kinnaird Head
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St Abbs Head
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Tod Head

St. Adrian Chapel
Remains of St. Adrians Chapel

Place of the lighthouses

The Isle of May is situated in the northern and outward part of the Firth of Forth about 9 kilometers from mainland Scotland. The island is 1.8 kilometers long and about 500 meters wide. The coastline of the island is rocky on the west side, with cliffs 50 meters high. On the eastern side, the island slopes gently towards the sea. The island covers approximately 140 hectares.

The history of the island goes back to the foundation of a monastic settlement in the nineth century, when St. Adrian and his brother, both monks, sought refuge on the island.

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. Today the only remaining evidence of the island’s religious past is the fragmented remains of the chapel built and dedicated to St Adrian (see right photo).

The first Light Beacon in Scotland

view to Isle of May
View to Isle of May from the North
Isle of May first Lighthouse
The first Light Beacon of Scotland
Historically, many ships sailing to and from the Forth ports have been wrecked on the shores of the Firth of Forth. In 1635, King Charles I granted a patent to build a beacon on the island, to East Lothian residents James Maxwell of Innerwick and John and Alexander Cunningham of Barns.

They built a masonry building measuring 7.3 square meters and 12 meters high. The top of the building was vaulted to support a flat flagstone roof. On this roof, a tapered round iron fire pit was placed with a diameter of 85 cm and 53 cm high, in which a fire was lit with coal. Using a box and pulley, these coals were hoisted from the ground to the roof. This beacon was the first permanently manned beacon in Scotland and was considered one of the best in existence at the time. It took three men to keep the fire going. About 400 tons of coal was used per year.

The fire beacon, however, was a rough affair. One of the three lighthouse keepers, his wife and five of his six children were stricken with carbon monoxide poisoning in January 1791. The sixth child, a three-year-old girl, was found alive three days later. In previous years, coal dust and burnt ash had built up next to the tower. These ashes caught fire through glowing coals from the brazier, creating the necessary toxic fumes that entered the family's residence.

King Charles I gave also the right to collect tax from the passing ships for the maintenance of this beacon. Originally this tax was 2 Scottish shillings per tonne for Scottish ships and twice this amount for non-local ships per passage. In 1639 this tax was reduced to 1 shilling and six pence respectively, and three shillings, with some ships being exempted entirely during the summer.

Against the background of its time, the beacon was regarded as one of the best around. But by today's standards it was a limited light. The character of this light fired with coal was highly dependent on the weather conditions. One moment the fire could be seen with bright high flames. At other times, a lot of smoke was emitted and no longer resembled a fire. The fire was also very dependent on the strength and direction of the wind. An easterly wind blew the flames away from the sea, so that the light was barely visible where it was needed most.

An example of this occurred on the night of 19 December 1810 when two of the HM ships NYMPHE and PALLAS were wrecked at Dunbar because the light from a lime kiln on the coast was mistaken for the navigation light on the Isle of May.

In 1814 the Northern Lighthouse Board bought the Isle of May for £60,000 from the Duke and Duchess of Portland, together with the old coal lighthouse. Construction of the new lighthouse, designed by Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), began the following year. The island is now owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage as a National Nature Reserve.

Once the Stevenson High lighthouse was operational (see next), the beacon was decommissioned. Planned demolition has been cancelled following the intervention of writer Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Scott went out to the Isle of May with the NLB Commissioners and insisted that rather than knocking down the Beacon, it get a function. However, the height of the building was reduced from 12 to about 6 meter and a castellated parapet around the topwas constructed, so that it would fit the style of the new lighthouse. Fishermen and vessels’ pilots used it as a refuge.

The Lighthouse - High Light

Isle of May first Lighthouse
The High Lighthouse in early times
In 1814-16 a new lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in conjunction with the contractor James Maxwell of Innerwick.

The lighthouse has, at its base, a square symmetrical two-storey residential block. A crenelated tower with three floors and 24 meters high, forms the centerpiece. It is built in a picturesque castle style with details from the Tudor Gothic. The west facade and tower are made of freestone, the other elevations are made of brick with stone connections along the long and short side walls and have flat roofs.

The entrance at the base of the tower has a panelled door, its gothic shape sets-off to each stage and side of the tower with pointed windows and Y tracery. The building and the tower have corbelled parapets. They incorporate the flues of the residential block. A substantial warehouse extends from the centre on the rear side of the building and has castellated turrets and square pylon blocks set into the slope of the land. Finally, atop the tower is the lighthouse with a spherical dome with a lattice frame, the actual lighthouse.

The interior of the building is richly decorated. In addition to the accommodation for three lighthouse keepers and their families, there is a circular staircase in the tower leading to the lightroom at the top of the tower, with teardrop-shaped cast iron balusters and the walls are plastered and clad in freestone. On the first floor, in the Boardroom of the Commissioners, is a large black marble mantelpiece with iron grille flanked by sculpted female figures and a back plate depicting the birth of Aphrodite and a fire screen with lyre motif.

The Lightsystem

The new lighthouse started operating on 1 September 1816 with an Argand oil lamp with parabolic silvered reflectors (Lighting using mirrors).

In September 1836 a new light was placed by Alan Stevenson (1807-65). The original light (using mirrors) was replaced with dioptric (lighting using lenses), resulting in a threefold increase in brightness. It was the first British dioptric fixed light, which also led to the use of this dioptric system in more lighthouses. The improved form of this refractor was made by the company Cookson from Newcastle.

Since 1816 the lighthouse had accommodation for three keepers and their families. This was 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 their families and on the infrastructure for generating electricity. New buildings were constructed 250 meters south east of the lighthouse, in a small valley containing a fresh water loch.

The engine house was fitted with two steam-powered generators fuelled by coal, the largest then made, weighing about 4.5 tonnes each and having a combined output of 8.8 kW. These machines powered an arc lamp in the lighthouse. The current created an electric arc between carbon rod electrodes, which glowed white-hot (the light). The arc lamp used carbon rods 38 millimetres in diameter. A core of soft pure graphite made these burn with great steadiness. The large current that bridges the arc brings with it the necessary sound. A visitor to the light room put it this way: The sound is like a circular saw that has to cut through sturdy gnarled wood.

About 135 meters of carbon rods and 160 tons of coal were burned per year to keep this process going. A three-wick paraffin oil lamp, kept trimmed and ready for use in case the electric current failed. This paraffin lamp 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. In 1901, the light has been improved to three million candelas, achieved by using long focal distance apparatus and equiangular prisms to condense the light into a more powerful beam. The light was about 300 and 600 times more powerful than the old fixed oil light. The geographical range was 22 nautical miles, but the light was seen and recognised by sailors at 40 and 50 miles off by the flashes lighting up the clouds overhead. The new equipment was designed by David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938) and Charles Alexander Stevenson (1855-1950).

Though the electric light was far brighter than the original oil lamp, it could not penetrate dense fog. There were new oil lamps developed and they proved to have greater power. David Alan Stevenson installed one of them in May 1924, and the lighthouse's electric light was discontinued.

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. The maisonette cottages in Salveson Crescent are very distinctive in design, typical of Northern Lighthouse Board buildings. This row of cottages was the former shore station accommodation for families of Bass Rock, Bell Rock, Inchkeith, Fidra and later the Isle of May in 1972, after Fidra was automated in 1970.

The lighthouse is fully automated on 31 March 1989 shortly before ownership of the island passed to the Nature Conservancy Council. The operation of the light is controlled from the NLB Headquarters in George Street, Edinburgh.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution rewarded the lightkeepers on the Isle of May for saving lives when the MATAGORDA was wrecked in 1872. The German Government sent a binocular field glass each to Robert Grierson and Laurence Anderson who helped the crew of the vessel 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.

Isle of May first Lighthouse
The Low Lighthouse in early times

The Lighthouse - Lower Light

About a 400 meter from the High lighthouse on the east side of the island stands the tower and domestic buildings of the “Low Light”. In 1843-44 a small lighthouse was built, 3 storeys with corbelled parapet and cast-iron hand rail. The tower is white painted render with small round-headed windows. Cast iron panels and a domed cap. A fixed light was first exhibited from this lighthouse in April 1844.

In conjunction with the 'High' lighthouse, both lighthouses are so positioned, that if the two lights are seen exactly above each other the mariner could be avoid the treacherous North Carr Reef, some 12 kilometers north of the Island and have a safe sailing route towards the Isle of May.

However, when the North Carr Lightship was established in position in 1887, there was no longer a need for the Lower Light and is it permanently discontinued. The buildings are now occupied by members of the Ornithological fraternity.

Foghorns of the Isle of May

Isle of May first Lighthouse
Isle of May from the South
Foghorn of Isle of May
The South Foghorn of the Isle of May
The first fog horn (South) was built in 1886 but could not always be heard clearly, as it was too low. The old fog horn is replaced in 1918 for the current one. The fog horn on the north side of the island was built in 1938. Both fog horns (North and South) are about 1.5 kilometers apart. The fog signals work on the basis of compressed air. This compressed air was made in the engine room of the island by means of Diesel generators. This compressed air was fed to supply tanks at both fog horns, by means of 15 centimeters of cast iron pipes laid on the ground. These tubes are still present and visible on the island.

The North horn provided a single blast of 7 seconds duration every 135 seconds and the South horn provided four 2,5 seconds blasts of the same pitch every 135 seconds. The North and South horns did not blast together, being approximately 67,5 seconds apart. The siren fog signals were finally discontinued in March 1989.

The South Fog Horn, a massive tower with a huge trumpet on top, is accessible. Visitors can go inside this building, where there are some interpretation boards.

Renovation of the First Light Beacon

(Source: The NLB Journal - Summer 2021) In the summer of 2021 the NLB has completed renovation work on the Isle of May Beacon. The team of the NLB had a lot of challenges to this renovation. Accessing the Isle of May for maintenance work isn’t straightforward. As an important seabird nesting area, including ground nesting puffins, they can’t carry out any work from mid-April to September and must get agreement from NatureScot.

The island is also an important breeding ground for the largest Atlantic seal colony on the east coast of the UK, which means boat landings aren’t allowed from mid-October to mid-February. The combination of breeding seals and nesting seabirds limits the window of opportunity for carrying out any maintenance work and so logistically it’s always a challenge.

The work on the Beacon involved repair to the wall render, using traditional lime render and lime wash, along with window and door repairs. As the Beacon is listed as a historic monument needed to use traditional materials and methods and obtain Historic Monument consent from Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Scottish Natural Heritage - National Nature Reserve

Scottish Natural Heritage 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 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.

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.

Most visitors to the island are day-trippers 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.

Isle of May

Isle of May lighthouse
The first Light Beacon in bad condition

Isle of May lighthouse
The renovated first Light Beacon (2021)

A3090 - High Light

Character: Fl(2) W 15s 73m 18M
(fl. 0.3s - ec. 1.6s, fl. 0.3s - ec. 12.8s)

Isle of May lighthouse
Lightcharacter of Isle of May (click to enlarge)

Engineer: Robert Stevenson (1773-1850)

Lat, Lon: 56°11.139' N, 002°33.457' W

Established: September 1, 1816
Character: Flashing(2) White every 15 secs.
Range: 18 NM ~ 33.3 km
Elevation: 73 meters above sealevel
Tower: 24 meters
Init. Costs: £ ?.
Econ. Costs*: £ ?.
*) According to:

Automated: March 31, 1989
Last Keepers: PLK - N.J.B. Muir / J.L.G. Tytler
: ALK - K. Burghes
: ALK - G. Hunter / R. Allan
Fog horn: Siren - Discontinued in 1989
: North: 1 bl. of 7 s. every 150 s.
: South: 4 bl. of 2.5 s. every 150 s.

Status: Operationel
Authority: Northern Lighthouse Board
Remarks: Cat.B listed - LB2712 - 01/03/1984

Isle of May lighthouse
Isle of May - Lighthouse High

AXXXX - Low Light

Character: (discont.)

Engineer: Robert Stevenson (1773-1850)

Lat, Lon: 56°11.270' N, 02°33.438' W

Established: April 1844
Character: F (Fixed)
Range: ...
Elevation: ...
Tower: ...
Init. Costs: £ ?.
Econ. Costs*: £ ?.
*) According to:

Automated: ...
Last Keepers: ? - PLK
: ? - ALK
: ? - ALK
Fog horn: ...

Status: Discontinued 1887
Authority: ...
Remarks: Cat.C listed - LB2687 - 01/03/1984

Isle of May lighthouse
Isle of May - Lighthouse Low (discontinued 1887)

Isle of May lighthouse
Isle of May - Aerial view

Isle of May lighthouse
Isle of May - Chart of the isle

Shore Station, Granton
Salveson Crescent, Granton Shore station - NLB

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