"Inchgarvie, Mickery, Colm, Inchkeith,
Cramond, Fidra, Lamb, Craigleith;
Then round the Bass to the Isle of May,
And past the Carr to St Andrew's Bay"
The islands of the Forth are romantically known as "Emeralds Chased in Gold". There are ten all told, of which Peter Mackay takes into account four in his timeline of Forth lighthouses below.
The illustrations used below have been chosen outwith those that appeared in the original article; consequently due acknowledgement is made to: Patricia and Angus Macdonald/Aerografic; Ian Cowe/Photographer; and the Northern Lighthouse Board.
REPRINTED by permission of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses
Lighthouses of the Forth
By Peter Mackay
(Past Chairman of the Commissioners of Northern Lights)
"When the Bell was lit in 1811, the only other lights on the Forth approaches were Inchkeith built by Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson in 1804, and the privately owned coal fired beacon on the Isle of May˜...
The Bass Rock is conspicuous by the guano of nesting birds. The island farther out is the Isle of May, again hardly visible were it not for the birds. Photo: Aerografica
The Firth of Forth and its approaches are now so well lit by lighthouses that it is hard to believe that arguments raged throughout the 19th century as to what to build where; at different times the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses were in dispute with Trinity House (of London), the Board of Trade, and shipping interests, and even at times with their Stevenson engineers. At one stage a reluctant NLB was even directed by Trinity House and the Board of Trade to design and build a lighthouse, only for it to be cancelled by the Board of Trade at the last minute, never to re-emerge.
When the Bell was lit in 1811, the only other lights on the Forth approaches were Inchkeith (left) built by Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson in 1804, and the privately owned coal fired beacon on the
Isle of May (seen below left).
When the reflectors were replaced in 1836 they were acquired by Cape Spear Lighthouse, Newfoundland.
Photo: Ian Cowe
The Commissioners soon acquired the latter and a new light was commissioned there in 1816. While the May light was being built work was also under way on the North Carr beacon, a mile or two off Fife Ness, marking the reef which lay in wait for ships approaching the Firth from the north.
This was the site of one of the few Robert Stevenson failures. The rocks were too fragmented to build a manned light so he planned a 40ft high stone tower surmounted by a five foot diameter bell, operated by an ingenious (in theory) tidal pump. But in 1815, 1816 and 1817 the partially built tower was damaged by storms, so in 1821 the
Completed in 1816 the Isle of May is built more like a castle than a lighthouse.
Photo: Ian Cowe
beacon was finished off with a cast iron structure supporting an unlit (and silent) ball some 10 ft lower than originally intended, at a total cost of £5000 over the years (60 years later the light on Fidra was to be built for less than that). An expensive lesson had been learned — that for an exposed wave swept site more weight was needed and towers had to have a bigger volume with a broader base and greater height. The resulting Carr beacon was barely adequate even in daylight, and, arguments about how best to mark the north entrance to the Firth of Forth rumbled on for 65 years - with rival camp arguing for a light or a light vessel on the North Carr or a light on Fife Ness.
The next twenty years or so saw no lighthouse construction around the Forth, and attention focused on improving the power of existing lights. Life was complicated for the Commissioners when
Such grace; such elegence! Fit for a stately home far less a lighthouse.
These Georgian engineers knew how to built their lighthouses . . . !
Photo: Ian Cowe
legislation in 1836 required the Commissioners to have the approval of Trinity House before any new lights were built or any changes made to existing lights. This set the scene for many arguments over the years, and Trinity House`s power of veto and, from 1854, direction was not removed until 1979. So from 1836 onwards, the future lighting of the Forth was decided not by the Commissioners alone but by the outcome of negotiation and horse trading with Trinity House and, from 1854, the Board of Trade.
During this time shipping trade to and from the Forth ports was growing and the pressure to improve the aids to navigation did not diminish. The existing lights on Inchkeith and Isle of May were converted to use lenses of the Fresnel type (to replace the reflectors) by Alan Stevenson in 1835 and 1836 respectively (and for the May again in 1843 when a revolving light was installed), with a threefold increase in brightness. Alan succeeded his father Robert as the Board’s Engineer in 1843 and in the following year the south entrance to the Firth was marked by an unlit beacon constructed at the South Carr off the coast at Seacliffe near the Bass Rock. In the same year to the north, where the North Carr was still inadequately marked, a new small light (the Low Light) was built on the north end of the May as a leading light.
Left: The old disused coal-fired light on the Isle of May dates from 1636 and was one of the
oldest in Scotland. It was superseded by Robert Stevenson's light of 1816.
Right: The Low Light also on the May. It now acts as a centre for bird watchers.
When it and the main Isle of May light were in line a ship coming south into the Forth would pass clear of the North Carr rocks before swinging to starboard to go up the Firth towards the Inchkeith light. So the existing lights were improved but by the middle of the century there was still much to be done to make the approaches to the Firth safer, especially from the south. But decision making was complicated by the arrival of the Board of Trade on the scene. Under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, Trinity House was given powers to direct the NLB to do anything (or stop doing anything) and all expendi-ture had to be approved in advance by the Board of Trade.
An old engraving of the original lighthouse.
This proved so unsatisfactory that the Commissioners threatened to resign and a Royal Commission to look at UK lighthouse administration was established which reported in 1861. Despite the Commissioners being pilloried by the Board of Trade adviser (a Royal Navy Captain) as “ignorant landsmen” the NLB emerged with credit as being “in the best state of general efficiency” and as being well ahead of the English and Irish on scientific matters.
St Abbs Head clearly showing the foghorn. Although on the North Sea almost 30 miles to the south, it is still considered an important part in the configuration of Forth lights. Photo: Aerografica
It is doubtful if this verdict did much to improve relations between the NLB and Trinity House and the Board of Trade. During the Royal Commission hearings the NLB pressed the case for improved lighting of the southern approaches to the Forth and were admonished by the Board of Trade for not having sought prior Trinity House approval for their suggestions. Despite these irritations the NLB did at last manage to get the go ahead for the first major light on the southern approaches; St Abbs was lit in 1862, and the NLB`s first fog horn was installed there in 1876.
By then, the Board were in animated and protracted correspondence with Trinity House and the Board of Trade about the next steps in lighting the approaches to the Firth and had formed a special sub committee to examine the options. Trinity House pressed the case for a light on Craigleith island (opposite North Berwick) or, possibly, two lights– one on Fidra (an island a little west of Craigleith) and the other at the South Carr beacon. The Board demurred and opted for one at Fidra and another near Dunbar, to be picked up by ships rounding St Abbs Head. The Board of Trade agreed and gave authority for both in October 1875 - but nothing happened for some years as various shipping interests and Trinity House pushed for their preferences which tended to be for a light at the South Carr, or the Bass Rock, in preference to Dunbar.
The Fidra lighthouse, off North Berwick, at the mouth of the River Forth . . . one of the "Lesser Emeralds" Photo: Aerografica
In 1882 the Board of Trade and Trinity House approved the acquisition of Fidra and directed the Board to build a light at the South Carr - while Dunbar was left in limbo. Fidra was completed in 1885 – the Board winning a case in the Court of Session from the owners of the nearby Archerfield estate who wanted compensation in advance for the disturbance which might be caused in the future by a foghorn - though the Commissioners asserted that they had no intention of erecting one there. St Abbs must have made itself heard!
At the same time the Board pressed on with the design of the proposed light at the South Carr. In 1885 detailed plans were approved for an offshore tower 40 feet in diameter and 100 feet (very similar to the Bell tower) above the high water mark at Seacliffe, with a shore station at North Berwick, to cost £40,000. But before the project could go to tender the Board of Trade, despite the previous direction, cancelled it because of “the unsatisfactory state of the Mercantile Marine fund”, and it was never built and the stone beacon remains as a reminder of what might have been. Unfortunately the plans of this “light that never was” have not yet been found in the archives. The NLB had never been in favour, so one assumes that they were not unduly upset - but not until 1901 was the long approved light at Barns Ness finally built - followed in 1902 by the light on the Bass Rock, which effectively superseded the abandoned South Carr light.
While arguments raged about the southern approaches there was more heat than light to the north. The issue was primarily what to do about the North Carr and Fife Ness. Thomas Stevenson, Trinity House and the Board of Trade favoured a lightship at the North Carr.
The Commissioners, in one of the few instances where they disagreed on a technical matter with their Engineer wanted to persevere with a fixed light either on the Carr, despite the failure of the beacon plan, or at Fife Ness.
The crew of the North Carr lightship off the Fife coast at Fifeness. Undoubedly one of the most unpopular postings in the service.
Photo: Northern Lighthouse Board
In the end, in 1885 the Commissioners were directed by Trinity House to put a lightship at the North Carr, the Isle of May light was converted to electricity (and therefore to a much brighter light) in 1886 and so the Low Light on the May became redundant (and is now a bird observatory).
The lightship, surely one of the least enviable postings in the NLB, remained until 1975 when it was replaced by the automatic light at Fife Ness. The jigsaw was completed by the Oxcar light near Inchcolm in the inner Firth first lt in 1886
(and automated in 1894 - the first such instance of
de-manning an offshore light in the UK, if not the world) and the Elie Ness light in 1908 - more than 100 years after work on the Bell began.
Oxcar lighthouse with the
wonderful backdrop of Leith, Edinburgh, Arthur's Seat and
the Salisbury Crags.
Photo: Ian Cowe
Note - The Isle of May reflectors of 1816 eventually went to Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, Canada, in 1837; finally going to Cape Bonavista in 1897 to replace the old Bell Rock chandelier of 1811. It served there between 1895 and 1962, capping a remarkable 146 years' of operation. See this website: "A Tale of Two Serpents" - Ed.