Durness Beach

Lighthouses on the North Coast of Scotland

In Salutem Omnium
For the Safety of All
Durness - North Coast
Flag of Scotland
© Compiled by:
Bob Schrage
page updated: 24-02-2021
Cape Wrath
Duncansby Head
Dunnet Head
Holborn Head
Pentland Skerries
Strathy Point
Swilkie Point (Stroma)

Place of the lighthouse

The lighthouse is located at the most North-Westerly point on the British mainland, in the traditional county of Sutherland within the Highland Region. Durness is the closest village on 16 km to the east. Inverness on 190 km in the south-east. The name of the headland derives, not from the stormy waters of the area but from the Norse word for a "turning point", for here the Norsemen turned their vessels to head home. The cape is separated from the rest of the mainland by the Kyle of Durness and consists of 280 km2 of moorland wilderness known as the Parph. The first road was built in 1828 by the lighthouse commission across the Parph/Durness. This road connects a passenger ferry that crosses the Kyle of Durness with the buildings on the peninsula. Much of the cape is owned by the Ministry of Defence and is used as a military training area, including a live firing range. Areas of it are also designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area, a Special Area of Conservation and a Special Landscape Area.

Building of the Lighthouse

The lighthouse is one of 18 Scottish lights constructed by Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) between 1812 and 1833. The Cape Wrath Lighthouse was built in 1828 near the spot of the ruins of the Lloyd's signal station, which was used to monitor vesselping and was built in the 19th century. The conical tower of the lighthouse is 20.1 meter high with 81 steps to the top, and an elevation of 122 meters above sea level, dressed granite with a corbelled parapet balcony with cast-iron balustratde around. Other parts of the station are constructed in large blocks of granite. The stone was quarried from the rocky bay of Clais Charnach. A small quay and store is located at a tidal inlet 1.5 km east of the lighthouse, connected to it by road. It was here that the building materials for the lighthouse were vesselped in, and it was used afterwards for landing the equipment for servicing the station.

Single storey semi-circular building at base. The lighthouse fronted by Egyptian style single storey range of 2-3 keepers' cottages with advanced porches, all whitewashed tooled granite; tall stacks; flat roof. Cottages linked to the lighthouse by low retaining walls have forming a small court, the whole further enclosed by outer perimeter coped rubble wall containing an outer range of single storey cottages and service building and was built at the cost of £14,000. The Contractor for the lighthouse station and access road is John & Alexander Gibb.

Being so high, the light was often obscured by fog or low cloud and construction of an additional lower light began in 1913. It was designed by Robert’s grandson, David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938). His diary notes that the work "involved some new features in lighthouse construction, the sinking of a vertical shaft down to the level of the reef, the construction of 2 bridges, and the erection of a tower and fog horn house on the extreme end of the reef. The work was begun, but the contractor deserted the work, and on account of the Great War [1914-18] coming on it was found impossible to get a contractor to finish the work nor to carry it on ... ".
By June 1914, the shaft for a lift was sunk 15.2 meter deep by blasting and quarrying. Work then stopped and never resumed.

Store buildings were constructed at the same time, one of which is still in use by the Ministry of Defence. The slipway was extended and rebuilt in around 1863 and remains in use as a landing site for the lighthouse.

Warning systems (Light, Fog horn, Radar Beacon)

The optics are a first order Fresnel lens and the light has a power rating of 200,000 candela. The current light characteristic is four white flashes every 30 seconds (Fl(4)W30s) and is visible for 22 nautical miles (40.7 km; 22 nM). Its beam shone for the first time on Christmas Day 1828. In 1978, mercury vapour lamps replaced the paraffin-vapour burner in the light. In January 1980, an electrical temporary power beam was installed, followed by a new gearless pedestal and lamp array system in December 1980. The station is surrounded by a perimeter wall by Thomas Stevenson (1818-87). A compressed air foghorn, discontinued in 2001, gave six blasts every 90 seconds.

Operational status

The lighthouse was manned until 31 March 1998, when it was converted to automatic operation and is now monitored remotely by the Northern Lighthouse Board’s offices in Edinburgh. The lighthouse is also an station for Automatic Identification System (AIS)

Cape Wrath slipway
Cape Wrath Slipway

Cape Wrath and the lighthouse from the sea

A slipway was built in 1827, prior to construction of the lighthouse, at Clais Charnach, a steep sided gully around 2.7 km south-east of the lighthouse. This was used during the building of the lighthouse to supply materials along a rough road and was the main landing point for supplies and stores during the manned operation of the lighthouse, although from 1977 onwards helicopters were also used for resupply.

Access routes

Access to the lighthouse has always been difficult, particularly in winter. In the early days, relief keepers and visitors had to cross the Kyle of Durness by ferry and then travel 19 km along a 2.74 meter wide access road, also built in 1828. The road has numerous stone bridges, constructed under Stevenson’s direction. The largest is the 9.75 meter span Kearvaig Bridge south east of the lighthouse.

Visitors to the lighthouse can cross the Kyle of Durness by ferry boat and then travel twelve miles by minibus along a track, which in winter can be difficult to negotiate.

On 17 January 1977 the helicopter carried out the Cape Wrath Relief - a history making moment as this was the first helicopter relief carried out at a shore-based Scottish lighthouse. As the lighthouse is not easily accessible by road, all stores including household goods and spare parts as well as the diesel and paraffin oil required to power the machinery are landed once a year by the Lighthouse Tender MV Pharos, whose duty it is to convey stores to the isolated lighthouses along the Scottish and Manx coasts.

Special interest

A complex of buildings was built close to the lighthouse by Lloyd's of London as a signal station between 1894 and 1903. These buildings, which are Category B listed buildings, form one of the few remaining sites of Lloyds signal stations in the UK. The signal station was built to track vesselping around Cape Wrath and was closed in 1932, although the site was reused in 1939 as an observation post at the outbreak of World War II. A new coastguard station was built next to the signalling station in the 1940s for wartime use. The signal station and coastguard station buildings are largely derelict.


Character: Fl(4) W 30s 122m 22M
(fl. 0.2s - ec. 3.6s)

Engineer: Robert Stevenson (1772-1850)

Lat, Lon: 58°37.538' N, 04°59.952' W

Established: 25 December 1828
Character: Flashing(4) White every 30 secs.
Range: 40.7 km / 22 nM
Elevation: 122 meters above sea level
Tower: 20 meters, 81 steps to the top
Init. Costs: £ ?.
Econ. Costs*: £ ?.
*) According to: MeasuringWorth.com

Automated: 31 March 1998
Last Keepers: ? - PLK
: ? - ALK
: ? - ALK
Fog horn: Discont. 2001 (6 blasts in 90 secs.)
AIS: MMSI No 992351087

Status: Operationel
Authority: Northern Lighthouse Board
Remarks: Candle power 204.000 cd
: Cat.A - LB488 - 18/03/1971

Cape Wrath lighthouse
Cape Wrath lighthouse
Cape Wrath lighthouse
Cape Wrath lighthouse

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