Pentland Skerries
Pentland Skerries lighthouse
photos: © Marinas.com

North Coast

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East Coast North Coast Cape Wrath Duncansby Head Dunnet Head Holborn Head Pentland Skerries Strathy Point Swilkie Point
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Update: 16-03-2024

Compiled by:
@ Bob Schrage

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Cape Wrath
Duncansby Head
Dunnet Head
Holborn Head
Pentland Skerries
Strathy Point
Swilkie Point

Place of the lighthouse

The Pentland Skerries (Old Norse: Pettlandssker) are a group of four uninhabited islands lying in the Pentland Firth. The strait between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. They lie northeast of Duncansby Head and south of South Ronaldsay (Orkney Island) in Scotland. By far the largest of the islands is Muckle Skerry on which two lighthouses are situated. The other islands lie to the south of Muckle Skerry. From west to east, they are Little Skerry, Louther Skerry and Clettack Skerry.

Building of the Lighthouse

In 1794, the Commissioners of the Northern Lights (predecessor of the Northern Lighthouse Board), openend the Pentland Firth to vesselping, as an alternative to the longer route round Orkney. The lighthouses were placed on the Pentland Skerries at the eastern entrance of de Pentland Firth, on which a tower of 24 meter high and an other tower of 18 meter high 20 meter apart. The lighthouses were built by Orkney masons, superintended by Robert Stevenson as his first work for the Northern Lighthouse Board. They were rebuilt between 1821 and 1830 to a more permanent system.

Warning systems (Light, Fog horn, Radar Beacon)

Experiments were carried out in 1870 with paraffin. In 1895, fixed lights were no longer regarded as suitable for the coastal lighthouses. The old double fixed lights were discontinued. The high tower was equipped with a powerful group of flashing lights. The low tower was decommissioned.

In 1939, the light was converted into electric operation, the power for the light was produced by 3 diesel generators. The diesel generators are so powerful that in an emergency, each generator is independently able to supply the entire lighthouse with enough power. The lighthouse keepers used to be relieved by vessel, which sometimes involved a long sea trip. But in 1972, the helicopter came into service. The vessel "FINGAL" was used to deliver stores, diesel oil and fresh water.

When the Principal Lightkeeper was taken ill during stormy weather in 1929 two young assistants lighthouse keepers kept the light and foghorn in operation for twelve days, before a landing with help was possible on the island. They took turns to sleep on the engine room mats, while the fog horn was sounding. The winds and tides of the Pentland Firth often delayed a landing.

Additional information

A Royal Humane Society bronze medal for saving life at sea went in 1871 to Assistant Donald Montgomery off Pentland Skerries, for rescuing a boy in the "boiling tideway" off the east side of the island. When the "Vicksburg" of Leith went aground on the Pentland Skerries in 1884 and 9 men died, the 4 keepers saved 12 lives at much personal risk and danger.

The life of the light keepers had become less monotonous than before with the advancement of technology, not only because of such facilities as radar and television, but also because of the variety of advanced navigation aids that had to be maintained and operated.

Life was not yet devoid of excitement and opportunities to show courage and initiative. For example, on August 23, 1965, the 10,300-ton motor vessel KATHE NEIDERKIRCHNER ran into problems in thick fog on the west side of the Muckle Skerry. The swift action of two light guards on Pentland Skerries allowed fifty crew and passengers to be rescued by descending the cliff and boarding the lifeboat, assisting an evacuation.

History of the Longhope lifeboat disaster in 1969

In the cemetery at Kirk Hope on South Walls in Orkney is the memorial to the eight-man crew of the Longhope lifeboat. The entire crew lost their lives in 1969 in the Pentland Firth leaving seven widows and ten orphans behind. Of these eight crews, the coxswain and the motor mechanic had their sons aboard. South Walls has never recovered from this blow and no one wants to speak about it. In fact, there is very little to be said; because no one knows exactly what happened. See also the website of the RLNI and Longhope Lifeboat Museum.
Longhope lifeboat
The Longhope lifeboat - TGB
Longhope lifeboat -TGB
Painting of the Longhope lifeboat - TGB

The Longhope lifeboat was a 48ft Solent type, built of steel and just under 28 tons. She had a maximum speed of 9.2 knots and an endurance at cruising speed of 46 hours. She was named TGB, after an anonymous donor.

The lifeboat was launched at 8pm on 17 March 1969, after a Mayday (SOS) call by the captain of the 2,300-ton Liberian steamer, "Irene" which was drifting out of control through a South-east gale, force 9. This storm had been blowing for three days and it just kept blowing. Visibility was poor due to, among other things, snow storms.

Although the Captain of the "Irene" gave her position as 18 miles off South Ronaldsay she was actually only three miles off the east Coast of mainland Scotland. The Coastguard Rescue Headquarters, which covers the Orkney archipelago, had already alerted to carry out a rescue mission from the cliffs of the shore, as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

At the same time as the TGB was launched, the Kirkwall lifeboat, the "Grace Paterson Ritchie" was put to sea. A 70ft Clyde class boat weighing nearly 87 tons with a maximum speed of 11 knots.

At 8.40pm the TGB gave her position by VHF-radio as 3 miles South East of Cantick Head Lighthouse on South Walls, which placed her five miles from her launching place. With high water at Pentland Skerries just after mid-night the flood was now near its full strength, and it was a spring tide. It was the way into death's dark vale, if ever there was one. "It was a terrible, terrible night. You could see nothing but a white haze, no sea," George Manson said, postman at Duncansby and also auxiliary coastguard. As mentioned, in right column, see also the website of the RLNI about this disaster.

Forty minutes later, at 9.30 pm, the TGB was sighted by the Principal Lightkeepers of the Pentland Skerries in line with Lother Rock, about four miles south-east of her previously reported position.

The TGB was now in almost deadly situation, with the flood running like a millrace to the south-east out of the Firth the east side of South Ronaldsay, both of them opposed by a south-east gale.

The last reporting signal for the TGB was now picked up by Coastguard headquarters, Wick, and a few minutes later she was seen for the last time, again from Pentland Skerries, in Brough Sound, between the Lighthouse and Brough Ness, identifying her stern light and apparently on a north-easterly course.

It proved impossible even for the 70ft "Grace Paterson Ritchie" to approach the "Irene" at 11.05pm. Kirkwall Coastguard Headquarters asked her coxswain to search the coast of South Ronaldsay south-wards for the TGB. At 11.15pm the Kirkwall boat fired a parachute flare; but there was no answering signal.

Nothing more was seen of the Longhope boat until the following afternoon when the Thurso lifeboat found the TGB floating upside down, four miles south-west of Torness some fifteen sea miles away at the Western entrance to the Firth.

When the TGB was investigated in Scrabster Harbour she was found to have suffered serious hull damage. Seven bodies were found on board, six in the cabin, the seventh, that of the coxswain, at the wheel with a broken neck. The eighth member of the crew, the motor mechanic, was never found.

The findings of the inquiry held by the RNLI were that the TGB had been overwhelmed by very high seas and maelstrom conditions while proceeding eastwards between South Ronaldsay and Pentland Skerries.

The 17 crew of the "Irene" were rescued from the shore, where she had driven in near Grim Ness at the north-eastern end of South Ronaldsay, by the two coastguard emergency companies in the biggest breeches buoy operation ever effected in Orkney.

Pentland Whisky
Whisky and Lighthouse

Lighthouses and Whisky

The town of Wick is located in the southwest of the Pentland Skerries. In Wick there is a distillery called 'Old Pulteney'. In recent years they have released a number of whiskies with a reference to the various lighthouses in the area. Besides a whisky that refer to Pentland Skerries, there are also whisky's that refer to the lighthouses Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Dunnet Head.

Pentland Skerries


A3562

Character: Fl(3) W 30s 52m 23M
(2x fl.0.4s - ec. 5.6s, fl.0.4s - 17.6s)

Pentland Skerries lighthouse
Lightcharacter of Pentland Skerries (click to enlarge)
Engineers: Thomas Smith (1752-1815)
assisted by:: Robert Stevenson (1772-1850)

Lat, Lon: 58°41.412' N, 002°55.479' W

Established: 1794
Character: Flashing(3) White every 30 secs.
Range: 23 NM ~ 42.6 km
Elevation: 52 meters above sealevel
Tower: 36 meters 196 steps to the top
Init. Costs: £ ?.
Econ. Costs*: £ ?.
*) According to: MeasuringWorth.com

Electrified: 1939
Automated: March 31, 1994
Last Keepers: D. Shuterland / C.J. Auly - PLK
: ? - ALK
: ? - ALK
Fog horn: Siren / Horn, 1 blast every 45 sec.
: Siren Discontinued 10-06-2006
AIS: MMSI No 992351086

Status: Operationel
Authority: Northern Lighthouse Board
Remarks: Candle power 710.000
: Cat.A - LB18728 - 08/12/1971

Overview lighthouses of Pentland Firth

Penland Skerries lighthouse
Pentland Skerries from above

Pentland lighthouse
Lighthouse on early times

Pentland lighthouse
Pentland Skerries with lighthouse
References:
Disaster in Longhope- RNLI website